The Golden Knights left Lake Tahoe with memories that will last a lifetime.
The Knights did not, however, pack up any points with them. The Avalanche won 3-2 to improve to 2-1 in the teams’ four-game series against each other.
That means the Knights (10-4-1) have to put Saturday’s game — and all the craziness surrounding it — behind them quickly entering Monday’s series finale at Colorado (9-4-1). The team can’t afford to fall behind in a season where the division standings matter more than before.
“We have a chance to split the four games with a win on Monday,” coach Pete DeBoer said. “That’s the goal.”
The NHL changed to a division-only format for the regular season and the first two rounds of the playoffs this year to reduce travel during the COVID-19 pandemic. The switch had the side effect of raising the stakes for rivalries.
For the Knights and Avalanche, two Stanley-Cup contenders, it meant they had eight games in the regular season to size each other up and jockey for playoff positioning. Half of those games come in the stretch that started Feb. 14 and ends Monday. Defenseman Shea Theodore said before the season that the series was one of the first things he noticed when the schedule came out.
So far, it hasn’t disappointed. Each game has been decided by one goal. The only two-goal lead for either side — which came Saturday for Colorado — lasted 1:14.
“They’re the best team we’ve played so far,” captain Mark Stone said after the second game Feb. 16. The words carry significant weight considering the Knights have played every team in the West Division except the 8-6-0 Minnesota Wild.
But just because the series has been entertaining doesn’t mean the Knights have liked the results. The team’s last-minute loss Tuesday and setback Saturday resulted in essentially an eight-point swing in the standings. The Avalanche gained four points while preventing the Knights from picking up any.
“It’s pretty disappointing,” defenseman Alec Martinez said Saturday. “These are some big points.”
That’s why it’s important the Knights earn the split Monday and prevent the final three games in this four-game set from turning into a 12-point swing. Another loss would put them behind the Avalanche in points percentage, and their schedule isn’t conducive to playing catch up.
After the series with Colorado, the Knights will play 40 games in the final 73 days of the regular season. Seventeen will take place at T-Mobile Arena and 23 will be played on the road.
That kind of grueling stretch would pose challenges for any team. So it would behoove the Knights to give themselves some margin for error and enter it looking down at the Avalanche in the standings instead of up.
”Game two, losing the way we did in the last minute of the game, was tough,” DeBoer said Saturday. “I thought today, we put in 40 minutes of work, but you’re not going to beat a really good team like this without 60 minutes of work. We have an opportunity to do that on Monday night.”