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Golden Knights can get well against Pacific Division

It has not yet reached any drastic levels of craziness. There isn’t a smoking chair in the locker room. Nobody has reported a chicken strutting around the practice rink. There isn’t a tiger in sight … or anyone relieving themselves next to one.

I suppose someone could be missing a tooth.

Hockey players and all.

The idea of a Stanley Cup Finals hangover having hit the Golden Knights the size of a popular Hollywood movie (or three) seems to be a leading reason for how a second season has begun for Vegas.

(Well, that and the team hasn’t been any good).

But that could all change quickly, of course, because here comes the oh-so-average Pacific Division.

Which is known around Las Vegas as the gift that keeps on giving.

The Knights returned home Wednesday night to a place they more than owned last season for a game in a division they more than dominated, staying true to form by beating Anaheim 5-0 before an announced crowd of 18,111 at T-Mobile Arena.

Talk about a torch in the darkness for a Knights side in need of a path to follow back to contention. Vegas was 20-6-3 against the Pacific last season and is 2-0-1 thus far in 2018.

I’m pretty sure Anaheim — which is now 1-5 against the Knights over the past two seasons and has been outscored 8-1 in two meetings this year — knows how most West Coast Conference basketball teams feel when meeting Gonzaga.

The Knights were good on Wednesday. The Ducks were awful.

It’s usually some combination of both.

None of it means things are vastly different for Vegas from when the puck dropped, that the ills of the season’s first 19 games have suddenly been cured. This is still the team that went 1-3 on a most recent road trip, still missing significant pieces and waiting for key names from that Stanley Cup run to re-discover an expected level of production, still beset with injuries and lack depth to cover all that is lost because of them.

Vegas is still 8-10-1 and tied for sixth with Arizona for a reason.

“It’s a long year in a tough league,” said defenseman Shea Theodore. “Have to keep battling, keep grinding, keep working. I don’t see any panic in the room. Guys are showing up and working hard every day. People are panicking on social media, but we feel we’re a good team. We’re confident in what we have.

“There are going to be ups and downs. We just need to stop the downs and get going in the right direction.”

Eakin a surprise

It was certainly a step toward that Wednesday, when a Knights team that entered averaging just 2.3 goals — ahead of only, you guessed it, Pacific teams Anaheim and Los Angeles — had four after two periods.

Nate Schmidt will certainly help things when he returns from his 20-game suspension on Sunday in Edmonton, the team’s best defenseman sure to improve what has been a below average transition game. The Knights will go from defense to offense a lot better with Schmidt on the ice.

It also taken, as the Knights have tried to at least keep their sticks within a .500 record to this point, those not really expected to contribute in certain ways doing so. Ryan Reaves is one such player. So is Cody Eakin.

You never knew what to make of the Vegas third line last year, even with all the winning, never knew what purpose is was supposed to add each night, and then you saw Washington’s third line dominate in the Finals and were really dumbfounded about that of the Knights.

But whether centering the third line earlier this season or now the second as Paul Stastny and Erik Haula recover from major injuries, Eakin has been more than a pleasant surprise. He scored twice Wednesday and now has seven goals, second on the team.

You need that when leading guys are hurt and others like second-liner and new face Max Pacioretty (two assists Wednesday) have struggled to get on track. You need that when things have been, as Theodore says, so up and down.

“Let’s not kid ourselves, we’re not where we want to be in the standings,” Knights coach Gerard Gallant said. “But we have a lot of games left. We are far from out of the race.”

More importantly, they have 26 remaining against Pacific teams.

Or, in other words, the sort of torch in the darkness from which a struggling team can find a path back to contention.

Contact columnist Ed Graney at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard on “The Press Box,” ESPN Radio 100.9 FM and 1100 AM, from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @edgraney on Twitter.

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