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With Nate Schmidt finding his groove, Knights set up for second half

The answers to turning around 8-11-1 don’t come easily and almost never begin and end with one name.

Things aren’t that simple in professional sports.

Unless they are.

The Knights on Wednesday night reached the All-Star break with a 2-1 loss to Nashville before an announced gathering of 18,477 at T-Mobile Arena, meaning the third largest regular-season home crowd in franchise history watched its side lose for the fourth time in six games.

Meaning this break couldn’t come at a better time.

Meaning rest might be good now that guys might be biting others.

(More on the chomping later).

Vegas still sits third in the Pacific Division at 62 points, just six fewer than it had at this time last year, again headed for a playoff berth unless something totally unexpected occurs.

Or, specifically, it loses Nate Schmidt for any significant amount of time.

You get different reasons from players and coaches when inquiring about what happened between the season’s opening 20 games and now, how things went from bad to good, from owning the second worst record in the Western Conference to its fifth best, from a Stanley Cup Final hangover to among the betting favorites for again reaching a championship round.

It always starts with Schmidt.

Usually, it finishes with him.

He was suspended for violating the NHL’s performance-enhancing drug policy and yet no sooner did he return at Edmonton on Nov. 18 that the Knights suddenly looked a lot like, well, the Knights.

They beat the Oilers 6-3 that chilly evening and have since gone 20-8-3, their best defenseman and a guy gifted at keeping the locker room loose during a season’s more trying times back averaging the most ice time and on track for his best season statistically over what is now 308 NHL games over parts of five years.

“I think, mostly, it was about getting our identity back as a defensive core,” said Schmidt. “It’s so important when we skate the puck and transport it and dictate the tempo of a game. That’s what I wanted to bring back the most.”

He brought back a ton: Despite missing those 20 games, Schmidt leads the team in plus-minus at 14, and his 17 points (four goals, 13 assists) puts him on a 62-game pace to challenge his career high of 36.

The Knights are just better with him, better creating plays, better advancing the puck, better transitioning from one end to the next.

He’s a more complete player than last season, unquestionably in the offensive zone, and was pretty darn good then. But he’s also a harsh critic of those things he can improve upon as the Knights prepare to make a run at a second division title.

His top defensive pairing with Brayden McNabb has produced far more positive than negative results, but Schmidt will tell you he can be better.

Knights show bite

Maybe he shouldn’t have pinched as much recently when Winnipeg scored its first goal of a 4-1 victory short-handed. Maybe he could have done more when on the ice for two of Pittsburgh’s three goals Saturday, although he and McNabb handled the Penguins top line over the final 30 or so minutes of a 7-3 win.

Maybe it’s true Schmidt would just as soon forget that ridiculously good move Jason Zucker of the Wild put on him in Monday’s 4-2 loss, when the former spun Schmidt around before having his shot hit the post.

“I take stuff like that really personally,” said Schmidt. “It was an amazing play, but thank goodness he (didn’t score). That way, I only made half of the highlight reels instead of all of them.”

It’s all nitpicking for a player again spending more time on the ice than any Knight, and it was Schmidt who kept it a 2-1 game Wednesday when he swiped the puck off the goal line at 17:52 of the third.

His team just couldn’t rally, because if you think the Wild has Vegas’ number, they’re nothing compared to Nashville backup goalie Juuse Saros, now 3-0 against the Knights after stopping all but one of 48 shots.

Such brilliance was momentarily interrupted late in the second when forward Pierre-Edouard Bellemare got tangled up with Nashville star P.K. Subban and, somehow, some way, Subban’s finger ended up in Bellemare’s mouth.

Yeah, the Knights need this break, is right.

But unlike when it began the first half, Vegas will start the second with its most significant skater.

Nate Schmidt is that big a deal around here.

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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