RALEIGH, N.C. - Thirty games to go. Call it whatever one likes. The stretch, the drive, the hunt. They all fit.
If a team has done the work to be in the mix at this point, the next 30 games are about completing the job of achieving a postseason slot.
Sixteen teams qualify for the Stanley Cup tournament and history tells us any team can win. The LA Kings won the Stanley Cup in 2012 as the last qualifiers in the Western Conference. The first trick is to get in. Certainly, odds improve with a higher seeding and for a team like the Vegas Golden Knights, who sit 10 points above the cutoff line in the Western Conference, the next 30 games can be about positioning. Home ice advantage improves the higher a team climbs.
In the suddenly muscular Pacific Division, winning the regular season banner and getting to face a wild card team in the opening round is favorable. If the regular season ended today, the Calgary Flames would take top seed in the Pacific and Western earning a first round matchup with the conference's bottom seed Colorado Avalanche. The San Jose Sharks and Golden Knights would be pitted in a vicious grudge match and a very good team would be bounced before the second round. That's parity and the playoff structure in today's NHL.
Through 52 games, Vegas has collected 62 standings points and sits third in the Pacific Division and fifth in the Western Conference with a 29-19-4 overall record. In the first 26 games, the Golden Knights went 13-12-1 with 27 points and sat fourth in the Pacific Division and ninth in the Western Conference.
The next 26 games, beginning on November 28, have been better as Vegas has collected 35 points and compiled a record of 16-7-3. Vegas has outscored opponents by 13 goals during that time and moved up to 16th in the league on its power play at 17.3 percent. The team improved its penalty kill to 84.7 percent and ranks fifth in the league.
Marc-Andre Fleury leads the league with 45 games played and starts, 27 victories and six shutouts this season. He also ranks tied for sixth with a 2.49 goals-against average amongst goaltenders who have played in at least 25 games.
Injuries and an uneven team game hurt the club early on but they found their stride in late November. Historically there's an uptick in the level of competition in the NHL at this point in the season and Vegas will need to keep improving in its final 30 games.
The Golden Knights are one of seven teams, joining Columbus, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, San Jose, Toronto and Washington who have five players that have scored at least 13 goals this season. As a team, Vegas is tied for 11th with 156 goals this season. Jonathan Marchessault leads the team with 17 goals, William Karlsson and Alex Tuch have 16 goals, Max Pacioretty has 15 goals and Cody Eakin has 13 goals this season.