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How did the Vegas Golden Knights end up in the thick of the playoff race?

NHL: Ottawa Senators at Vegas Golden Knights
Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

Ever since entering the NHL, the Vegas Golden Knights have been a model franchise. They experienced success from their very first season, reaching the Stanley Cup Finals, and have been a perennial contender ever since. This season, the Vegas Golden Knights have pushed their chips into the middle of the table with some big name acquisitions.

They acquired the biggest name on the trade market in superstar Jack Eichel, giving up some serious future assets to do so. This move was part of the Golden Knights’ plan to get over the hump this season and win the Stanley Cup, an achievement they’ve never completed despite multiple deep playoff runs.

  • Vegas Golden Knights acquire: Jack Eichel, 2023 3rd Round Draft Pick
  • Buffalo Sabres acquire: Peyton Krebs, Alex Tuch, 2022 1st Round Draft Pick (Top 10 protected), 2023 2nd Round Draft Pick

Despite all these moves, including the departure of beloved goalie Marc-Andre Fleury during the offseason to bolster skating depth, the Golden Knights now find themselves battling for a playoff spot as the season draws to a close.

How do things currently look for the Golden Knights?

NHL: Vegas Golden Knights at Philadelphia Flyers
Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

As things sit right now, the Vegas Golden Knights are holding onto the third place spot in the Pacific Division. That is the last guaranteed playoff spot for the division and because the Central Division is so strong, it seems very possible that the Pacific might only send three teams to the postseason. Thus, the Golden Knights need to make sure that they finish in the top three to ensure they make the playoffs.

The Golden Knights sit three points behind the second-place Los Angeles Kings and seven points behind the Calgary Flames, although the Flames do have two games in hand. While catching the Kings would be ideal, putting more room between themselves and the teams chasing the playoffs is more important for the Golden Knights.

The Edmonton Oilers, Vancouver Canucks, and Anaheim Ducks are all within reach of the Golden Knights. If any of these teams get hot and win a few games in a row, that could create a messy situation for Vegas.

How did the Golden Knights arrive at this situation?

NHL: Ottawa Senators at Vegas Golden Knights
Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

After a slow start to the season, the Golden Knights seemingly found their rhythm and started to shoot up the standings. They quickly went from the bottom of the division to the top where they stayed with the Calgary Flames for much of the season. However, a recent slump has brought them down into the precarious position they currently hold.

They’ve had to deal with a massive amount of injuries all season long and that hasn’t slowed in recent days. Several of their top players have missed considerable amounts of time and the depth hasn’t been there to pick up the slack.

The goaltending has also been less than superb, something that bodes poorly for a potential lengthy playoff run. Hot goaltenders can shift the momentum of a playoff series, the Vegas Golden Knights saw it last season against the Montreal Canadiens, and neither Robin Lehner nor Laurent Brossoit has shown the ability to be that guy.

How can the Golden Knights still make a deep playoff run?

The key for the Golden Knights is simply making the playoffs. If they choose to stand pat before the trade deadline, their current roster is too expensive for everyone to play and still fit underneath the salary cap. However, because the NHL playoffs do not use a salary cap, they could ice a lineup with all of their stars in the postseason.

To reach that point they will need to keep a sizeable amount of money on the Long-Term Injury Reserve (LTIR). Currently, Mark Stone and Alec Martinez are on LTIR with a combined salary of $15 million. If they’re unable to return before the playoffs, the Golden Knights could ice a lineup that is well over the salary cap.

The NHL still hasn’t seen a fully healthy Golden Knights lineup and that’s a scary thought. If they can make it into the playoffs, they’re going to be a team that no one wants to face.