Look out NHL — the Golden Knights are back

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LAS VEGAS — There are still seven games remaining in the regular season, but it’s already beginning to feel like the playoffs in Vegas.

There’s the gorgeous spring desert weather that accompanies the postseason. It was a comfortable 75 degrees outside T-Mobile Arena as the Golden Knights and Vancouver Canucks fans filed into the building for a key divisional tilt on Tuesday night.

Inside, the stands shook as the capacity crowd cheered and waved golden glow sticks in the air — a tradition usually reserved for the playoffs.

Most importantly for the Golden Knights, their play on the ice was reminiscent of the team that steamrolled through competition to a Stanley Cup last spring. Vegas dismantled the Vancouver 6-3 after storming out to a 4-1 lead before the first intermission.

“I think it does feel like last year in the playoffs a little bit,” said Jonathan Marchessault, who leads the team with 41 goals, two shy of tying the franchise record. “We’re dialing it in right now. The last 10 games have been really good for us. Not just the results, but the effort level and the way we’ve played.”

It had been a while since the Golden Knights looked ready to defend their title. After a sizzling start to the season, breaking the record for a Cup champion with seven-straight victories to begin the year, Vegas struggled. From Nov. 5 to March 7, the Golden Knights won only 22 of 51 games. Their .490 points percentage was the eighth-worst record in the NHL over that span.

In the 12 games since they’ve found their footing. Jack Eichel and several other key players have returned to the lineup from injuries, and suddenly Vegas isn’t just winning, it’s doing it in the same fashion it did last spring.

The Golden Knights are 9-2-1 over that stretch, with several wins over teams around them in the Western Conference playoff chase. Their four-game road trip last week included wins over St. Louis, Winnipeg and Minnesota to slam the door on any chance the Blues or Wild would catch them in the standings.

Tuesday they returned home to face the division-leading Canucks, and thrashed them.

“I loved the way we played,” coach Bruce Cassidy said. “I loved the way we started and battled the whole night. Full value, I felt. I’m going to watch it again tomorrow and it will probably back that up. A lot of good stuff.”

The top line of Eichel, Marchessault and Ivan Barbashev that dominated last year’s postseason looks primed to do it again. Eichel has seven goals and eight assists in 14 games since returning after knee surgery. He was in full command of Tuesday’s game, transporting the puck from zone to zone with ease, and setting up teammates for dangerous looks seemingly every shift.

His wingers are just as hot lately. Marchessault has nine goals in the last 12 games, climbing to ninth in the league with 41 on the season. The only thing more impressive than the volume of his goals is the magnitude of them. Every time Vegas needs a big goal, Marchessault finds a way to deliver. It’s been that way for seven years now. It was that way in the playoffs last season, when he won the Conn Smythe, and it has been the case during this recent winning stretch.

Barbashev has been equally impressive in his own way. He has four goals in the last six games, added two assists in Tuesday’s win, and adds a physicality to the top line that translates particularly well as the games become more important, and tighter checking.

“It’s always fun to play kind of like playoff hockey, and that’s what we went through the last four or five games,” Barbashev said. “Everyone is dialed in and ready to go from the puck drop.”

Many of Vegas’ key players are rounding into form at the perfect time.

“I just think the team is in a good place,” Cassidy said. “Some guys who were injured are healthy, and they’re feeling it again. It doesn’t happen automatically. So you have some of that. They’re feeling good about their game.”

There were two points in Tuesday’s game where it looked like the Canucks might make it competitive. Nils Hoglander scored midway through the first period to cut Vegas’ lead to 2-1, but Eichel hopped over the boards and scored 20 seconds later.

Then early in the third period, Vancouver defenseman Quinn Hughes scored his second goal of the game to pull the Canucks within two goals with plenty of time to play. On the very next shift, Brett Howden scored a backdoor one-timer on a feed from Keegan Kolesar to dash any hopes of a comeback.

Quick answers were a hallmark of last year’s run through the playoffs for Vegas. It’s something that’s been missing for stretches of the season but has returned in a big way as of late.

“There’s just no panic,” said Noah Hanifin, who joined the Golden Knights at the trade deadline. “All four lines can roll and every pair can play, and I think over the course of a game that can be hard to play against. Staying with it when they score, and going right back at them kind of kills their momentum, and that’s what winning teams need to do.”

Which brings us to another point. Not everything feels the same as last season’s run for the Golden Knights. Part of the team’s resurgence has been with the help of deadline acquisitions Hanifin and Anthony Mantha — both of whom scored in Tuesday’s win.

Hanifin in particular has jump-started Vegas’ once-stagnant transition offense since coming over in the trade from Calgary. His smooth skating and quick passes have led to quicker, more efficient breakouts, which have given his forwards more space to attack on the rush.

“He impacts the game in all areas,” Cassidy said of Hanifin. “Mostly in his ability to close on people in the neutral zone, so his entry denials are fantastic, and breakouts. I feel like he can separate and is willing to separate, so it becomes a one-pass (breakout) instead of bumps and etcetera.”

The Golden Knights have out-chanced the opposition 125-87 and outscored them 14-9 with Hanifin on the ice at even strength in his 13 games with the team.

“One of the first things I noticed coming here was it’s a really good culture,” Hanifin said. “It’s all about winning here and the standard is high. That’s something you want to be a part of as a new guy. Everybody buys in, plays their role and finds a way to contribute every night.”

We haven’t even mentioned Vegas’ biggest deadline add — Tomas Hertl who began skating with the team this week. The former San Jose Shark is coming back from knee surgery, and while Cassidy won’t give a firm timeline on his return to game action, it could be soon and the team is already getting a boost from his presence.

“I think there’s some excitement with Hertl being on the ice,” Cassidy said. “He’s a guy we traded for but he hasn’t really been with the team. Now he’s in practice.”

Hertl will add to an already deep forward group. Vegas already has one of the strongest center groups in the NHL with Eichel, William Karlsson, Chandler Stephenson and Nicolas Roy. Add a player in Hertl who has topped 60 points in each of the last two seasons, and it’s a daunting matchup for any playoff foe. That’s without captain Mark Stone, who doesn’t have a clear timeline for return after rupturing his spleen in late February, but the team hasn’t ruled out a potential playoff return.

Vegas’ blue line is also finally healthy, and maybe even deeper than the forwards up front. With eight legitimate NHL defensemen Cassidy must choose to sit two good players every night. On Tuesday it was Zach Whitecloud and Ben Hutton, but he plans on rotating the group as the playoffs near. Led by Hanifin, Alex Pietrangelo, Shea Theodore, Brayden McNabb and Alec Martinez, the Golden Knights defense has looked its best lately.

Through the first 63 games of this season Vegas ranked 17th in expected goals allowed per 60 minutes, and 18th in high danger chances surrendered. Over the last 12 games, though, the Golden Knights have allowed the fewest high-danger chances and third-fewest expected goals in the league. They are looking like the big, hulking defensive core that held opponents out of dangerous areas with ease en route to a title.

“I think we’ve had ups and downs this year, and had a stretch where we took awhile to find our game,” McNabb said. “Things weren’t pretty for a bit but we stuck with it, continued to work and it’s starting to pay off now. We’ve done a good job limiting chances, so it’s getting there. We just need to keep it going.”

Vegas still isn’t locked into a playoff spot, but the recent stretch has the team in much safer standing. The Western Conference is stacked with legitimate contenders, but if the Golden Knights do make it in there won’t be many teams hoping to face them.

Suddenly the defending champions that looked very beatable for most of the season are starting to look like the wagon that rolled through the NHL just about this time a year ago, with more talented reinforcements waiting to jump on.

(Photo of Anthony Mantha celebrating his first-period goal with Pavel Dorofeyev: Jeff Bottari / NHLI via Getty Images)

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