Brayden McNabb

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Why Golden Knights are climbing NHL standings

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In what is somehow just their third season, the Vegas Golden Knights have experienced plenty of ups and downs. After some bumpy times, Vegas’ trajectory points up, possibly to the top of the Pacific Division.

Currently, the Golden Knights are (20-14-6, 46 points) essentially tied with the Arizona Coyotes (21-14-4, 46 points), although the Coyotes hold a game in hand. Either way, it’s increasingly looking like the Golden Knights will battle with someone — probably Arizona — for the top Pacific spot, while the motley crue of other divisional teams muck it up for the third seed, and maybe a wild-card spot if the Central sags.

To reiterate: this wasn’t a foregone conclusion. The Golden Knights were sputtering, and teams like the Oilers and Canucks were playing over their heads.

So, what has changed for the Golden Knights, beyond others slipping? Some findings will be obvious; others might surprise you.

Golden Knights make different bets

In an interesting piece on Golden Knights coach Gerard Gallant, the Las Vegas Review-Journal’s David Schoen believes that you can draw Vegas’ turning point somewhere between Nov. 26 and Nov. 27. Considering the Golden Knights’ record split (start through Nov. 26: 11-11-4; Nov. 27 to present: 9-3-2 for 20 points), that seems reasonable.

It’s not just about their record, though. Schoen reports that, around this time, Gallant decided to deploy a less aggressive system, erring closer to “zone” instead of “man” coverage.

“There’s less running around,” Defensemen Brayden McNabb said to Schoen. “You more protect the middle, always come back to the house (front of the net). For that, we’re not out of position. We find it really helps for our wingers and forwards that they’re always in their spot, so if we get a chance to kill a play and move the puck, we always know that we’re going to have guys in their spots.”

While the flat goals for and against went Vegas’ way after that change, it can be difficult to tell how much of that hinges on pure luck, especially in a small sample size.

With that, let’s consider some metrics at Natural Stat Trick. Interestingly, the Golden Knights have actually allowed more high-danger chances per 60 minutes during their heating-up month (10.97) than they did from the start of the season through Nov. 26 (10.75). Vegas has, however, taken a greater share of the high-danger chances overall (from 50.99 percent to an impressive 55.36).

Overall, those numbers indicate that such strategy tweaks might indeed be wise. The key, really, might be for Gallant to show a willingness to adjust — which he already has.

Malcolm less middling, shooting goes from bronze to gold (or at least silver)

From the Dept. of Not Particularly Surprising: the Golden Knights are finally getting bounces.

During their first 26 games, Vegas’ even-strength shooting percentage was just 7.34, the third-worst mark in the NHL. Since then, their rate improved to 8.7. That shooting percentage only ranks in the mid-range, but it’s a whole lot better that bottom of the barrel. It also makes you wonder how dangerous Vegas can be if the Golden Knights catch fire.

Now for something actually surprising: the Golden Knights’ goaltending.

Malcolm Subban and Marc-Andre Fleury have basically switched places. MAF was far better up until Nov. 26 (.919 save percentage vs. Subban’s .883). Since Nov. 27, Subban managed a strong .927 save percentage over eight games, while Fleury sunk to .881 in six contests.

As mixed and baffling as those results can be, consider this comforting overall.

The Golden Knights leaned on Fleury far too long, to the point that it’s felt like Flower-or-nothing. That’s a dangerous gamble with a 35-year-old with a ton of games under his belt.

Vegas is likely most comfortable turning to MAF during big games, but if Subban can at least be an above-average backup, it would be a luxury not unlike playing with house money.

Golden Knights have a lot going for them

Overall, Vegas figures to be a contender if it can get enough stops to go with two potentially dominant scoring lines and a solid defense. As you can see from prognostications including Travis Yost’s interesting breakdown of the division at TSN, and Dom Luszczyszyn’s projections (sub required), many signs point to Vegas winning the Pacific.

Whether they finish at the top spot or not, there’s a lot to like, and a generally weak division should give the Golden Knights room to experiment. Gallant’s already seen results in changing tactics, so maybe he should hit the lab and see what other concoctions might work for this talent-rich team?

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

No new contract talks between Kings, McBain

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After catching on with Los Angeles in November of last season and scoring nine points in 26 games, veteran d-man Jamie McBain says he’d like to stick with the Kings — but knows the club’s financial situation might keep it from happening.

“[No contract talks], nothing yet,” McBain said of his current status with the club, per Mayor’s Manor. “From the exit meetings – and I’ve already known this, anybody who looks at the paper knows – they have pieces that they have to get in place first. With the salary cap the way it is – even last year, me getting called up, it needed to be for the least amount of money possible – they had to find some money within the salary cap.

“I know they have some pieces they have to figure out first and they have to figure out the salary cap issue.”

The Kings were pressed up against the ceiling for most of last season — a big reason why McBain was brought in (at $550,000) following Slava Voynov’s arrest for domestic assault. The former Sabre and Hurricane performed reasonably well, considering he went the first four weeks of the campaign without a deal, but was a non-factor down the stretch and didn’t play over the final month-and-a-half of the regular season.

One of the guys that supplanted McBain in the lineup last year, trade deadline acquisition Andrej Sekera, is in line for an extension this summer (the two sides have already started preliminary talks), and that’s one of the cap issues McBain alluded to. The Kings also need to hammer out new deals for RFA forward Tyler Toffoli and d-man Brayden McNabb, which might not leave much room for McBain to re-sign.

It’s something the 27-year-old understands.

“It’s one of those things where it all depends on other organizations and the Kings, as far as what teams offer me,” he explained. “It’s tough to say exactly what the future is going to hold.”

Martinez activated off injured reserve

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The Los Angeles Kings have taken Alec Martinez off injured reserve, activating the 27-year-old defenseman ahead of tomorrow’s home game versus Vancouver.

Martinez has been out since early February with a concussion (or at least “concussion-like symptoms.”)

The Kings now have eight healthy defensemen on the active roster. If Martinez plays tomorrow versus the Canucks, it’s likely that Brayden McNabb would be the one to come out, with Jamie McBain being the other healthy scratch.

Martinez, the unlikely playoff hero, signed a six-year, $24 million contract extension in December.

Video: Avs’ playoff hopes fade as Kings inch closer to wild card

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Brayden McNabb had a career-high three-point night chasing Calvin Pickard in the L.A. Kings’ 5-2 win over the Colorado Avalanche Tuesday night.

McNabb’s second of the season at 14:15 of the first period stood to be the winner. The goal, which gave the Kings a 3-1 lead, ended Pickard’s night early.

The Avs’ rookie goaltender allowed three goals on the game’s first eight shots and was replaced by Reto Berra. Berra made 20 saves in relief.

With the win, the Kings (32-21-13) move to within one point of the second wild card spot in the Western Conference. L.A. also has a game in hand on Winnipeg. The Kings are now 3-0-1 in their last four.

L.A. is tied with Calgary (77 points) in the Pacific Division, but the Flames hold the tie break.

The loss drops the Avs (30-26-11) seven points back of a wild card spot.

Marian Gaborik and Jeff Carter had first period goals for the Kings. Kyle Clifford, who had a goal and an assist in the win, scored in the second. Jake Muzzin added his seventh of the season in the third.

Justin Williams had a pair of assists.

Tyson Barrie and Alex Tanguay had the Avs’ goals.

Jonathan Quick improved to 28-17-11 on the season with a 21 save performance.

Video: Jets and Kings get physical in the second

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With the Jets leading the Kings 3-1 in the second period things got physical in Winnipeg.

It started after Matt Greene checked Mark Scheifele with a hit he didn’t particularly care for and escalated when Scheifele responded with an open hit on Trevor Lewis.

Brayden McNabb stepped in to challenge Scheifele and was met by Dustin Byfuglien.

Have a look:

McNabb picked up an extra two minutes for roughing on the play.