Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020 | 2 a.m.
The Golden Knights are reaching a defining point in the season.
They’re good enough to be in contention in the Pacific Division, but not good enough to break from the pack. The advanced stats say they should be an elite team, but they only have a plus-3 goal differential. They’ve lost two more games than they’ve won.
Which brings us to the five-game homestand starting at 7 p.m. today against the defending Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues. All five teams the Golden Knights will face are above them in the standings, including two of the NHL’s best in the Washington Capitals and Tampa Bay Lightning.
In short, it’s time to see what the Golden Knights are made of.
“It’s crunch time for us,” defenseman Brayden McNabb said. “It’s going to be a good test for our group and we’re at home, we love being at home, having the fans behind us and we’re looking forward to it.”
The Blues have had Vegas’ number historically, as the Golden Knights have won just three of the eight all-time meetings against St. Louis — none in regulation. But the last time they met, the Golden Knights overcame a 3-0 deficit to win 5-4 in overtime, a win that looked like it could catapult them to greater heights this season. Instead they lost the next four and fired their coach.
The second game on the homestand is 7:30 p.m. Saturday against the New York Islanders, another team against which Vegas has more all-time losses than wins, including dropping a 3-2 overtime decision in December on the road.
The Blues and Islanders are a warm-up for the Capitals and Lightning. If you don’t believe one is the best team in hockey this year, you probably believe the other is. The Lightning lead the league with 37 wins with a plus-51 goal differential, while the Capitals have 36 wins and lead the Metropolitan Division — the undisputed best in the NHL — by three points. Vegas has lost its road games against both this season.
Vegas finishes the stretch against the Florida Panthers, who are much less of a pushover than the Golden Knights’ 7-2 last week would suggest. The Panthers have two more wins than Vegas in two fewer games, and play in a much more competitive Atlantic Division.
“We’re not getting any freebies, that’s for sure,” Golden Knights coach Peter DeBoer said. “You want to be playing these types of teams this time of year. It tells you a lot about your team.”
It’s the toughest homestand of the year, and under normal circumstances, winning three out of five games would be considered a success.
But at this point in the season keeping their head above water might not be good enough in the race for the playoffs.
Vegas’ five opponents combine for a 168-81-31 record, good for a points percentage of .655 that blows Vegas’ .552 out of the water. In the same span Vegas is facing that, the four teams around the Golden Knights in the Pacific face a lighter schedule. Struggling this homestand might not be an option if they want to remain in spitting distance of the division lead.
“It’s big,” defenseman Shea Theodore said. “We have a lot of good teams coming in and I think down the stretch, these are important games.”
But where there is adversity there is also opportunity. This is Vegas’ toughest five-game stretch remaining in the season, and after that it has nine games left against Pacific foes Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary and Arizona. If the Golden Knights can prove their mettle against the best in the league, it could springboard them to pole position against the best of the Pacific.
The Golden Knights have 24 games left, and only five are against teams out of playoff contention. If the Golden Knights can rise to the top, we’ll see the team still considered to be one of the Stanley Cup favorites by some prognostications.
And if not? In a tight Pacific and equally tight Wild Card race, missing the playoffs altogether isn’t out of the question.