Pete DeBoer said rubber hits the road this time of year.
More like meets it, and he wasn’t talking about Connor McDavid being a Bugatti on skates.
DeBoer’s point: Now is when an NHL season becomes truly important.
It means 17 regular-season games remain for the Golden Knights following a 3-0 victory against Edmonton on Wednesday night before 18,421 at T-Mobile Arena.
It means a bunch of that rubber will feature the logos of Pacific Division teams, which is better news for Vegas than a certain roof being close to completion on a certain NFL stadium.
From their inception in 2017, the Knights have treated division opponents as their hockey version of the Washington Generals.
They are 51-19-8 in such matchups.
Read that part again.
Even when finishing third last season, Vegas posted a better Pacific record than Calgary and San Jose ahead of them.
It might be a tiny sample of a bigger picture in the history of most NHL sides, unless you haven’t yet existed for three full seasons.
Then it’s a entire rink’s worth of evidence.
“For us, it’s a chance to put (teams) a little in the rearview mirror in the standings,” said DeBoer, who knows the division well having arrived as coach following four-plus seasons in San Jose. “On the flip side, if we don’t get the job done, you’re back right in the middle of the mud with everybody again.
“It’s an opportunity, especially the division games, to really separate yourself.”
Nobody has done much of that. The top four Pacific teams are separated by just six points and the top five by eight. The Knights have won seven straight. Yet the Oilers and Vancouver remain close enough to touch.
But things have been this way all season, which doesn’t necessarily translate to a cluster of great teams. The Pacific is rightly viewed as the NHL’s weakest division, with the Knights owning the least number of flaws over eight rosters.
The bottom of the Pacific (Kings, Sharks and Ducks) is really bad.
Consider: When the Knights beat Tampa Bay on Feb. 20 to assume first place alone in the Pacific, their 72 points would have bested just one team (Florida) in a playoff position from the Eastern Conference.
But a lack of greatness doesn’t mean less drama.
It often means a whole lot more of it.
Of their 17 remaining games, the Knights will face Pacific teams nine times, most of whom at least tried to improve themselves at the trade deadline.
Vegas is the division’s best team with 78 points, but that didn’t stop others from making moves to try to catch the Knights during a stretch run.
Makes sense. No side, but for this current run by Vegas, has shown itself to be elite.
Making a run
Edmonton added forward Andreas Athanasiou to join McDavid, which in the speed department means its top line will now be like trying to keep up with Usain Bolt over the last 50 meters.
The Knights certainly answered that challenge Wednesday, with goalie Marc-Andre Fleury turning away all 29 shots.
“The way things are this season, one game can make all the difference, right?” Fleury said.
The Canucks, tied for second with 74 points, added goalie Louis Domingue and forward Tyler Toffoli.
Calgary traded for defenseman Erik Gustafsson, who can help the Flames offensively but mostly forgets the part about defense. Arizona, now somewhat fading in fifth with 70 points, made its big move in December by trading for Taylor Hall.
“Everything is tight,” Knights center William Karlsson said. “We have been on a good roll lately and have showed our true colors and what we’re made of. But we also know teams like Edmonton and others are good teams and we have to stay focused. Things like (contending for the division) is always a year-to-year thing.”
Try more game-to-game as the season takes a final few laps up and down 200 feet of ice before playoff matchups are officially set.
What is more important … confidence or competence?
Given the Knights are about to face so many Pacific teams, the latter has a terrific chance of creating more and more of the former.
No matter if the rubber is hitting or meeting the road.
Contact columnist Ed Graney at firstname.lastname@example.org 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.