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Kings, Golden Knights meet from lofty perch in Pacific

Dec 22, 2022; Los Angeles, California, USA; Calgary Flames defenseman Rasmus Andersson (4) and Los Angeles Kings left wing Kevin Fiala (22) go for the puck in the second period at Crypto.com Arena. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Few expected to see the Vegas Golden Knights and Los Angeles Kings at the top of the Pacific Division standings halfway through the season, yet that’s where they will be when they meet on Saturday at Las Vegas.

The Golden Knights have won three in a row and racked up the most points in the Western Conference (56). The Kings trail Vegas by six points in the Pacific Division with the third-most points in the West.

Meanwhile, the Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames are fourth and fifth in the Pacific after taking the top two spots in the division last season.

Vegas was expected to struggle with salary-cap limitations and questions at the goalie position, but forwards Chandler Stephenson, Mark Stone and Reilly Smith have stepped up their offensive production while playing all 41 games so far.

Golden Knights goalie Logan Thompson has also fortified the net, emerging as the only undrafted player selected Thursday to the All-Star Game.

Vegas also welcomed back center Jack Eichel on Thursday in a 5-2 win against the Pittsburgh Penguins. He had a goal and two assists after missing 11 games with a lower-body injury.

“He’s an elite player in the league,” Vegas coach Bruce Cassidy said. “He’s excited to play again. He was having, I would say, an All-Star-type of year when he started. Might still be in the mix.”

The Golden Knights went 7-3-1 while Eichel was sidelined.

“It’s good to see contributions up and down the lineup,” Eichel said. “I think that’s one of the strengths of our group is we have a deep team and can roll four lines out and play against anyone.”

The Kings are wading through a difficult stretch of games that began with a 4-2 win against the visiting Golden Knights on Dec. 27.

Los Angeles then beat the defending Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche 5-4 in a shootout two nights later before falling to the Philadelphia Flyers 4-2 on New Year’s Eve, then defeating the Central Division-leading Dallas Stars 3-2 on Tuesday.

The Kings took on another division leader on Thursday, but lost 5-2 to the visiting Boston Bruins.

The Bruins took advantage of lapses on defense to score two goals 34 seconds apart in the third period to break a 2-2 tie, and scored into an empty net late in the game for the three-goal margin.

“Really good teams take advantage of those moments,” Kings coach Todd McLellan said. “I think we’re becoming that. We’re not quite there yet, but we can do it.”

Los Angeles forward Kevin Fiala, who learned he was selected to his first All-Star Game before the loss to the Stars, said the Kings still have some gaps to fill if they want to get to Boston’s level.

“Maybe it’s just the next step,” Fiala said. “They kind of know how to win and the next step is for us to, in those situations, to just figure out the win.”

Fiala has 10 goals and 39 points through 42 games this season, behind the pace he set last season with the Minnesota Wild, when he totaled career highs of 33 goals and 85 points.

Los Angeles forward Phillip Danault scored his 13th goal of the season against Boston to give him six goals and 10 points in his past nine games.

–Field Level Media