When asked about the performance of rival teams, you'll often here hockey players offer boring, safe soundbites about how they're focused on their own play and what they can control. Given the current chaotic state of the Pacific Division, it would be hard to believe that the Vegas Golden Knights aren't at least checking in on what's going on around them.
Whether they'd admit it or not, the Golden Knights know how quickly things can change and how important it is to keep an eye on the standings. At this time last year, they were fending off challenges from the Los Angeles Kings and Seattle Kraken, barely aware of the struggling Edmonton Oilers until Connor McDavid and company went 14-0-1 down the stretch, finishing just two points shy in the race for the division crown.
Fast forward a year, and the volatility of the Pacific is showing itself once again. Let's take a look at what's going on and what it means for Vegas.
The Golden Knights can lament injuries, inconsistent goaltending and some uneven efforts, but much of their loss of control of the Pacific comes down to the outstanding play of the Vancouver Canucks.
Having just wrapped up a season-long seven-game road trip, the Canucks went 5-1-1 to build what is now an seven-point stronghold on the division lead. Under the guidance of new head coach Rick Tocchet, the club has enjoyed a breakout campaign on the backs of emerging Hart Trophy candidates like Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes.
With Vancouver firmly in control of the division, the Golden Knights are now chasers and will need to make up ground in order to defend their Pacific title.
Los Angeles Kings
While it hasn't been the prettiest sight around T-Mobile Arena these days, at least they're not the Los Angeles Kings right now. One of the early season success stories, the Kings finally earned their first win of 2024 on Monday after dropping eight straight. On the bright side, they managed four points over the losing streak thanks to overtime and shootout defeats, which have kept them clinging to the No. 3 spot in the Pacific standings.
Some of the Kings' woes, such as offensive struggles, should correct themselves over time. However, the play of Cam Talbot has dipped during the slide, and backup Pheonix Copley will now be sidelined for the foreseeable future with a lower-body injury.
Perhaps no team's fortunes have changed as much over the past few weeks as the Kings. Once firmly in the mix atop the Pacific, now they are perilously close to being outside of the Western Conference playoff picture entirely.
Here come the Oilers, again.
Edmonton seems to have turned last spring's surge at the end of the regular season into a full blown routine. In response to what was a mostly awful first half of the season, they reeled off an eight-game win streak and followed it up with their current record-setting 10-game streak.
It probably shouldn't have required a string of 18 wins in 21 games, but the Oilers are right in the thick of things and looking like serious contenders once again. At the halfway point of the season, they are also looking like the team no one wants to face come playoff time.
The surge of the Canucks and the plight of the Oilers have been the division's most prominent first half story lines, but the topsy turvy first 41 games (they've actually played 43, but close enough) of the Seattle Kraken have been just as notable. Much like with Edmonton, a disappointing start has since given way to a major rebound back into the playoff picture.
On December 19, the Kraken were 11 points out of the Pacific's top-three and 19 points back of the division-leading Golden Knights. Then came a nine-game win streak (it was snapped with Monday's 3-0 shutout loss to Pittsburgh), moving them three points behind Los Angeles for the No. 3 spot that is now being hotly contested.
Seattle has "found their identity", according to head coach Dave Hakstol, in front of red-hot goaltender fill-in Joey Daccord. If the season were to end today, they would be just outside the playoff picture. But now that they more closely resemble last year's 100-point club, its looking increasingly clear that the Pacific boasts five formidable teams.
The dynamics of the entire division have shifted, meaning this will be a far different race to the finish for the Golden Knights than in their Stanley Cup-winning campaign. For one thing, they are not in the driver's seat this time around. Furthermore, the continued stellar play of the Canucks along with the sudden rise of Edmonton and Seattle has fostered a competitive environment wherein Vegas doesn't have the luxury of coasting comfortably as they wait for a fully healthy roster.