LAS VEGAS — It’s a tough life being a defending champion. You can all but expect a playoff atmosphere game in and game out, with each opponent treating it like the marquee game on the schedule that it is.
Doubly so when you play under the bright lights of the Las Vegas Strip, in an arena where the atmosphere consistently ranks among the best in the league.
And yet, the Knights have done a superb job of weathering the storm. Sure, there’s been slip-ups like Friday’s bungling against Buffalo aided by former VGK fan favorite Alex Tuch. There was also that god awful stretch in November where the team couldn’t buy a goal, but that’s well in the past now.
The Knights loss to the Sabres was the third game in a four game home stand for the team. They started the stand with a shootout win against the Sharks and an overtime win against the Flames before Friday’s loss. With the middling Senators coming to town Sunday afternoon, they have a great chance to finish the home stand with three wins in four games.
Of all the teams that looked like viable contenders in the West entering the season, they’ve been the most viable. That’s not to say they’ve necessarily improved over last season. It’s just that Dallas and Colorado haven’t taken advantage of their chances to grab the reigns this season, and Edmonton has completely disappeared. Surprisingly, it’s the Kings and Canucks who look like potential issues on the Knights’ side of the bracket come playoff time.
The East is its own animal. With as many as five viable title contenders, I’m already envisioning a scenario where the conference descends into pure chaos in battle for the Prince of Wales. The Rangers and Devils are in rivaling form that matches the peaks of their battles in the mid 90’s and early 2010’s. The Bruins are once again firmly in the President’s Trophy race and the Leafs are still the regular season wagon we’ve grown accustomed to them being in their core era.
As it stands, the Knights maintain a 2 point lead over Boston in the President’s Trophy race with the halfway point fast approaching. For a team that likely has already played their worst hockey this season, that’s an eye-opening reality.
It also means very little right now. The playoffs are entirely unforgiving. We saw what happened to the Bruins last year. After all, the President’s Trophy winner hasn’t doubled up and won Lord Stanley since 2013. Are the Knights qualified to break the budding curse? Sure they are, but sometimes being qualified doesn’t get you the prize.
If they’re going to, Jack Eichel is going to be the driving force. He’s reached a level that frankly we didn’t know was possible again after his neck surgery. He isn’t an original misfit, but his career path seems to fit perfectly with the mantra of those guys and in turn the franchise as a whole. He was battered, torn down and criticized as much as any star in the league. And here he is, leading the top team in the league in scoring. With a ring in his cabinet already.
They’ll look to end the home stand on Sunday night with the Ottawa Senators coming to town. Puck drop is set for 5 p.m. at T-Mobile Arena.