At least you can’t say the Golden Knights are strangers to big games.
In a season that has swiftly passed in a blink, no game might be bigger than Wednesday against the Colorado Avalanche at T-Mobile Arena.
“100 percent,” said forward Jonathan Marchessault. “We’ve worked all year to put ourselves in a position that we can be the best team in the league. Tomorrow, by winning that game, we could be the best team in the NHL in the standings. We definitely have to show up.”
Opportunity awaits for the Golden Knights, one of the rare times it’ll be allowed this season. Vegas can increase its lead in the West Division and create a semi-stranglehold should they crawl through the Avalanche at T-Mobile Arena.
And if there was ever a time for the Golden Knights to take control of this top-heavy division, and create ground in the League standings, it’s now.
It’s a skeleton’s version of the Avalanche coming to Vegas on Wednesday. Top goalie Philipp Grubauer (COVID), top winger Mikko Rantanen (COVID), rookie defenseman Bowen Byram (COVID and upper body), and top-six winger Brandon Saad (lower-body) will not be options.
While Grubauer and Rantanen have cleared protocol, they are nowhere near game shape. The latter two are week-to-week and could be out for the start of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Nathan MacKinnon and Cale Makar, however, are still healthy. And despite the Avalanche losing two of three to St. Louis and falling apart at the right time, the gamebreaking ability they possess is unparallel.
“When you play a team with that has so many all-stars, you’ve got to be aware when you’re on the ice with them, and also can’t make their life easy out there,” Marchessault said.
Consider the strength of schedule the rest of the way. The Avalanche have four against San Jose, four against Los Angeles, and the two at Vegas. The Golden Knights have two at Arizona (fighting for a playoff spot), two at Minnesota (difficult to play against), one at San Jose, and the two against Colorado.
The room for error seems slim for a team that’s looking to win its 10th straight.
“We’ve just got to go play,” said coach Pete DeBoer. “We’ve been playing some really solid hockey. You don’t win nine in a row in this league, regardless of the opponent, unless you’re playing solid.”
There’s a fine line between gaining momentum for the playoffs and trying to stay healthy. With nine games in 15 days to end this sprint of a regular season, the Golden Knights are in the driver’s seat for home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs, and even the Presidents’ Trophy.
Depending on what side of the Presidents’ Trophy curse you stand on is another discussion. Playing four of seven in Las Vegas is a lot different than four of seven in Denver.
The Golden Knights will not have Tomas Nosek available Wednesday, nor likely center Nicolas Roy, both sustaining injuries in Saturday’s win at Anaheim. Reilly Smith and Keegan Kolesar, however, are game-time decisions.
“The fact that we’re in this far with nine games to go is a credit to our group,” DeBoer said. “It wasn’t that long ago we were quite a ways on the outside looking in, with not a lot of hope of catching Colorado. The fact we’ve done what we’ve done over the last month to put ourselves in this spot is a testament to our group, and we’ve got to make sure our game is in a good place over the last nine.”