Gauntlet of Golden Knights’ Games Will Set Playoff Sights

Is there anybody left still wondering if the Vegas Golden Knights are for real? I don’t think there is, but if that rare breed still exists, catch up. The discussion has changed.

Water-cooler talk should now be circling around whether or not head coach Gerard Gallant’s squad is a legitimate Cup contender. This conversation certainly warrants healthy skepticism. The Golden Knights capturing the Western Conference crown would instantly be one of the greatest stories the game has ever known.

Starting in less than two weeks, we’re going to get our best look at whether this Vegas team is capable of engineering a deep postseason run. After a home date with the Edmonton Oilers on Jan. 13, the Golden Knights will be tackling the most daunting stretch of their 2017-18 schedule. In 24 days Vegas will play 12 games, 10 of which are on the road, against the best both conferences have to offer. Here’s what to watch for.

Jan. 16-19: Predators, Lightning & Panthers

Recently we talked about the “revenge game” that adds so much intrigue to the Golden Knights’ regular-season matchups. Well, the team has performed so well against opponents that now Vegas is on the other end of that equation. Nashville has come up short twice against the Knights, but through 40 games the Predators are still 11 points ahead of their pace from a season ago.

Tampa Bay is the best team in the league by virtually any metric you look at that’s not head-to-head meetings with the Golden Knights. The Lightning play a complete game. They score the most goals in the NHL, by a significant margin, and Andrei Vasilevskiy is arguably the game’s top netminder. Tampa Bay will be well represented at the All-Star Game later this month. They look like the class of the Eastern Conference, and it’s not particularly close.

Andrei Vasilevskiy (Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)

A month ago the Florida game would not have been one circled on the Vegas schedule, but today this looks like a different Panthers team. The former employers of Jon Marchessault, Reilly Smith, and Gallant won their final five to close out 2017, including a pair of shutouts. Scary? No. Better? Yes. This isn’t the same squad Vegas dusted 5-2 on Dec. 17 to give Florida its seventh loss in nine games.

Jan 23-25: Blue Jackets & Islanders

This is the pair of home dates Vegas gets in the 12-game stretch, and they’re vitally important if the Golden Knights are going to sustain success early in the second half of the season. Expect points to be at a premium.

Columbus Blue Jackets Jack Johnson
Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman Jack Johnson (Russell LaBounty-USA TODAY Sports)

Columbus at different times has looked better and worse than their third-place position in the Metropolitan Division would indicate. They’ve had a six-game winning streak this season. They’ve also lost four of five, a skid they’re presently trying to shake. The Blue Jackets have dealt Winnipeg a pair of losses this season and bested the Maple Leafs 4-2 on Dec. 20. They’re not to be taken lightly.

It’s more forgivable to take the Islanders lightly. New York’s 6-4 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers on Jan. 4 was the club’s 12th defeat in its last 17 games. The team that was 15-7-2 on Nov. 28 seems to be no more. No team in the NHL yields more goals than the Islanders. Vegas scores more than any team not named the Lightning. This is two points Vegas shouldn’t miss out on.

Feb. 2-4: Wild & Capitals

The first weekend in February will be a big one for the Golden Knights. Minnesota may very well end up being a first-round playoff opponent for Vegas. But this isn’t the same Wild team that dazzled in the regular season yet fizzled in the first round a year ago. Maybe that change is good for a Bruce Boudreau-led squad.

Marcus Foligno and Ryan Suter, Minnesota Wild (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Minnesota is dangerous all the same. The Wild have an elite penalty kill while Vegas is middling, though getting better, on the power play. Winning on the road against a team like Minnesota should instill confidence in Vegas fans that the Golden Knights may not make a hasty exit once postseason play kicks off.

Presently the Capitals sit atop the Metro. That’s the division that Washington won the year before. And the year before that. Granted, that’s not translated to postseason success, but a win in Capital One Arena would be a feather in the Golden Knights’ helmet nonetheless.

No team has played better on their home ice the last two seasons than Washington. This season is delivering much of the same, only Vegas has won more games at home than the Capitals. On Dec. 23 the Golden Knights beat the Caps 3-0 in a game at T-Mobile that wasn’t nearly as close as the score indicates. A win in Washington on Feb. 4 and the message is clear: Vegas can beat anyone.