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Graney: Knights still capable of playoff run despite different path

The route will be different this time.

Perhaps not as smooth. Perhaps filled with a few more potholes than last year’s run to the Stanley Cup title.

But not all championship journeys are configured the same. Should the Golden Knights defend theirs, they’ll discover how dissimilar things can be.

They were the Western Conference champions a year ago and had home-ice advantage throughout their half of the bracket.

Best of the best out west.

Things are different this time. The Knights finished fourth in the Pacific Division and are the second wild card in the Western Conference.

It will take an upset along the way for them to grab home ice in any series. Their opponent in the Stanley Cup Final last season also tells them that’s not an excuse.

Florida was the No. 8 seed out of the Eastern Conference. It’s playoff time in hockey. Wacky things happen.

Getting to playoffs

“Our goal at the start of the year was to make the playoffs, and we did that,” defenseman Brayden McNabb said. “Maybe not the exact way we wanted. There have been ups and downs. It took us awhile to find our game.

“Of course, you’d always like to have home ice. That’s always going to be an advantage. But getting into the playoffs is the most important thing. We need to understand that.”

Funny. It’s always interesting what players and coaches say about flipping the proverbial switch. About reaching a point such as a first-round playoff series and wiping the slate clean.

The Knights at their healthiest and best needn’t worry about such things. They’re good enough to repeat, on paper and on the ice. But there have been enough hiccups (and injuries) throughout the season that just showing up won’t be enough. They might have found their game along the way, but they need to be more consistent with it.

In other words, it’s go-time.

“This is what we wanted, what we battled all year for, and now we just have to prepare for it,” center Nicolas Roy said. “When you get into the playoffs, it’s a new season. Obviously, we didn’t have as good a season as last year, but we want to prove we have the same team or even a better one. I think we can go all the way.

“Flipping the switch is a tough question. I just think you want your game to be in a good spot. It’s tough to flip a switch, but I do think our game is in a good spot right now.”

The Knights never faced a Game 7 en route to winning the Cup last season. They lost their first game on home ice to Winnipeg to start that playoff run, and it didn’t matter in the least. The Knights marched through the Jets and Edmonton and Dallas and Florida.

T-Mobile Arena was recently voted the most difficult venue for a visitor in the NHL Players Association’s annual poll. It tells you how much of an advantage the Knights have at home.

But it appears they might have to do more of their damage as road warriors this time. It appears things will be tougher. Always is when you’re chasing a repeat.

Once puck drops

“I think we’d rather have home ice, but it doesn’t matter when the puck drops,” coach Bruce Cassidy said. “It’s more about where your game is at and what the health of your team is. Can you win on the road? We’ve proven we can. Will that be a factor? I don’t know. I don’t have an answer to that.

“But I think we’ll be fine in terms of our mentality.”

It’s a different route this time. A different way to reach the mountaintop. A different journey.

The road is perhaps not as smooth for the Knights. They’re capable of traveling it all the same.

Ed Graney, a Sigma Delta Chi Award winner for sports column writing, can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com. He can be heard on “The Press Box,” ESPN Radio 100.9 FM and 1100 AM, from 7 to 10 a.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @edgraney on X.

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