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Golden Knights’ schedule features tough finish before playoffs

The Golden Knights’ 7-2 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Sunday marked an important inflection point in their season.

They won’t play another Eastern Conference team unless they advance to the Stanley Cup Final. Their final 12 regular-season games — and the first three rounds of the playoffs — will come against the West.

There are positives and negative to that reality for the Knights.

They will test themselves against the teams chasing them in the Western Conference and Pacific Division standings and get an up-close look at their potential postseason competition. They also will have to fight to maintain their status as the top seed on their side of the bracket. Their playoff spot might be all but locked up, but they won’t be able to coast the rest of the way.

“This time of the year, you want to play teams that have something on the line,” defenseman Alex Pietrangelo said. “You want to peak here at the end of the season. You want to play your best hockey. How do you do that? You play against the best teams. We have to embrace it.”

Coach Bruce Cassidy had a line ready when told what his team’s remaining schedule looked like.

“That’s too bad,” he said, laughing.

Despite their resurgence this season, the Knights have fared worse the closer their opponents are to home. They finished 22-8-2 against the Eastern Conference and would be the third-best team in the NHL if only those games counted.

The Knights’ record against the West is 21-12-4. They drop to 8-8-2 against the Pacific. That includes a 3-6-1 mark against the teams in their division still fighting for playoff spots in Calgary, Edmonton, Los Angeles and Seattle.

Cassidy can’t quite put his finger on why that’s the case. He just knows it needs to change. Not only are the Knights likely to see teams from the Pacific in the playoffs, they still have one game remaining against the Flames and Kings and two against the Oilers and Kraken.

“It’ll be a tough stretch,” left wing Reilly Smith said. “A lot of those teams are chasing us, so we have to make sure we’re coming out with a good, concerted effort to make teams beat us.”

Those head-to-head games are likely to determine the Knights’ spot in the standings and their first playoff opponent.

They have a two-point lead on Los Angeles in the division and conference race, so the margin for error is slim if they want to win the Pacific for the third time in six seasons. Edmonton is six points back, and Seattle is nine points behind with a game in hand.

Cassidy isn’t putting a ton of emphasis on a division championship. The Knights have the NHL’s third-best road record, so playing away from T-Mobile Arena doesn’t bother them. The importance of this stretch is more about the team sharpening its game.

“We control our destiny,” defenseman Nic Hague said. “Those are the teams we’re going to have to beat to get where we want to be, right? I like it. I think it’s good.”

Contact Ben Gotz at [email protected]. Follow @BenSGotz on Twitter.

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