Golden Knights visit L.A. as top team in West

LOS ANGELES — The Vegas Golden Knights roll into Staples Center to face the Los Angeles Kings on Thursday night on a historic streak that has elevated them to the top of the Pacific Division.

The Golden Knights’ 4-1 victory over the Anaheim Ducks on Wednesday night was their fifth consecutive victory and extended their point streak to 10 games (9-0-1), the longest run for any NHL expansion team.

With two players, James Neal and William Karlsson, among the NHL’s top 10 goal-scorers and playing with speed and determination, Vegas has crafted one of the best sports stories of 2017.

The victory over Anaheim elevated Vegas (24-9-2) to the top spot in the Western Conference, a position that no one thought achievable when the season commenced in October. Under the guidance of coach Gerard Gallant, who was unceremoniously fired last season by the Florida Panthers, the Golden Knights have developed into a legitimate playoff contender.

Although his team has emerged as the model for how to launch a sports expansion franchise, Gallant remains humble while his players continue to improve and grow in confidence. While their play was far from perfect in the Wednesday victory, Gallant keeps feeding them positive reinforcement.

“We try and battle and work hard every night, and tonight we found a way,” Gallant said. “We didn’t start the game off great. I thought the first eight minutes we were sloppy, but after that I thought we played a great game and a great road game. We found a way to get two big points.”

Shea Theodore, who returned to score a key goal against Anaheim, his former team, concurred with Gallant. Despite surrendering an early goal to the Ducks, the Golden Knights raised their level of play to capture the victory. Allowing the first goal to the opposition has not been a problem, as Vegas has posted a respectable 9-8-2 record when allowing the opening goal.

“We do a really good job of coming back in and regrouping,” Theodore said. “We know what our strengths are. That break in between periods, we come in and we talk about it a little bit and focus up, and I feel like that is definitely a good thing about our team.”

Los Angeles (22-11-4) is looking to bounce back from a 2-0 loss at San Jose on Saturday, the first time the Kings were shut out this season. Despite possessing one of the league’s best records, the Kings were inconsistent in the two weeks leading up to the league’s holiday break, posting a 2-3-1 record and averaging two goals per game in those contests.

In an attempt to kick-start the offense, coach John Stevens shook up his line combinations at practice Wednesday, specifically at the left wing position. Tanner Pearson moved up the depth chart to play alongside Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown. Marian Gaborik was paired with Adrian Kempe and Tyler Toffoli, while Alex Iafallo vacated his customary spot alongside Kopitar and Brown and was grouped with Nick Shore and Trevor Lewis.

The Kings are looking to avenge a loss in the inaugural meeting between the teams, a 4-2 setback in Las Vegas on Nov. 19. Goaltender Jonathan Quick was driven from the net at 11:22 of the first period after surrendering three goals on nine shots as the Kings were decisively outshot 40-29.

Stevens is one of few observers who expected the Golden Knights to thrive in their inaugural season.

“I’m not surprised,” Stevens said after practice on Wednesday. “They have got a really experienced management team, they are really well coached and they have depth.”

Los Angeles needs improvement in one facet of its special teams play to break out of its recent mediocre stretch. The Kings are tied with the Sharks for the best penalty-kill percentage (.865) but have languished with the extra man, converting only 15.4 percent of their opportunities, which ranks 28th. In 11 games this month, the Kings have converted only 2 of 24 power-play opportunities (8.3 percent).