It's around 7:29 a.m. PT and your humble agent is hurtling toward the Carolinas aboard Air VGK. We're about 30,000 feet above the Continental U.S. bathed in the light of a cracked laptop and the truth is evident.
The fluorescent reality is with 30 games to go on the NHL schedule, the Vegas Golden Knights are decidedly middle of the pack. They sit 17th in the overall NHL standings and as of this writing hold down a wild card playoff spot in the Western Conference. A berth in the playoffs is anything but guaranteed.
The cutoff for a Pacific Division berth remains unknown but projections at this point have it around 92 points. The Golden Knights have 57 points with 30 games to go. So they need 35 points to get to 92 and that's 17.5 wins. Vegas must play at a points percentage rate of .583 over its final 30 games to reach 92 points. They have played at a points percentage rate of .548 to this point in the season. They just have to be better.
They need to score more goals, allow fewer goals and win more games than they have to this point in the season. The sample sizes are no longer small. The numbers which the Golden Knights have accumulated tell the story of who they are right now.
Particularly troubling for Vegas is goals allowed. The team has allowed 158 on the season which is 12th highest in the NHL. In the last 10 games, Vegas has allowed three or more goals eight times. Not good enough. There are lots of numbers which need to be improved but this is the most important. If this improves, Vegas could do some major damage between now and the end of the regular season. This is the number which will most likely determine if the Golden Knights qualify for the postseason and where they will be seeded if so.
The NHL trade deadline is February 24 and where the Golden Knights sit in the standings as that day approaches will guide GM Kelly McCrimmon and President of Hockey Operations George McPhee. They'll be less likely to spend assets to improve a bubble team. If they're clearly in the playoff picture and management determines there are needs which can be addressed at reasonable prices, they'll get busy. The team and its results will determine management's course.
The next 30 games are playoff games dressed up as regular season matches. Vegas has been flitting around the playoff line for some time and are in a position to surge if they can string together wins.
"It's time to start winning two of every three," said veteran center Paul Stastny prior to the all-star break. "I know that's hard to do but we have the players to do it."
Here are some storylines to watch down the stretch.
The DeBoer effect: New coach Pete DeBoer has had three games behind the bench, two practices and a week to work with his assistant coaches. He's also added assistant coach Steve Spott. DeBoer faces the challenge of installing his process while attaining positive results. Teach and win all at the same time.
Strength of schedule - According to NHL.com, Vegas has the ninth most difficult remaining schedule in the NHL. Thirty games left; 14 at home; 16 on the road; average opponents' points percentage: .565.
March Madness: Vegas plays 14 games in March and 10 will be against either divisional opponents or teams in the Western Conference wild card race.
Goal differential: Plus 2. Pretty simple. Not high enough. Score more, give up less.
Penalty kill: Long a strength with this team, the penalty kill has dropped to a 79.52 success rate with ranks 18th in the NHL. DeBoer has made some tweaks here but they haven't had much time to take root.
Team shooting percentage: 8.9 (22nd in NHL). Vegas has struggled in first periods of late and an inability to convert on early chances has been one cause.
Team save percentage: .901 (21st in NHL). This number has to improve. The combination of Marc-Andre Fleury and Malcolm Subban are key to what happens in Vegas the rest of this season. It's a cliché because it's true: "Show me a good goalie and I'll show you a good coach."
The Golden Knights have given up too many high danger chances and allowed the opposition to convert on too many of those opportunities. The skaters have to cut down on the chances and the goalies have to be better when breakdowns occur.