The Seattle Kraken are at the 30-game mark of the NHL season, another tangible touchpoint for the measurement of success which has marked them as a playoff team, full of optimism, but also with caution.
They gathered on Monday for a rare open window for practice at Kraken Community Iceplex, in between home games, and aware of what’s next: a Tuesday matchup with the St. Louis Blues, who at this point are as predictable as the weather at 15-15-1, and three points out of a playoff spot while undergoing a mixed bag of hot and cold streaks.
Nonetheless, the message is clear: the Kraken are real, they know they’re legitimate, but with respects to a greater picture, they know they have accomplished nothing.
“We have to continue to grow throughout the year,” Kraken head coach Dave Hakstol said. “We’re in a spot that we've worked hard to, to gain the opportunity to be in right now. But reality is 30 games in, now you have to continue pushing. Strength as a group will be tested as you go through the next 52 games.”
They have slayed traditional giants such as the Pittsburgh Penguins (sweep), beaten Vegas, won high-risk offensive slugfests over San Jose and the legendary 9-8 win over Los Angeles, earned convincing victories over the Florida Panthers and Buffalo Sabres, and survived stretching-of-the-limits in one-goal triumphs over the New York Rangers, Winnipeg Jets, and Washington Capitals.
As of Dec. 19, they have an 84.7 percent chance (stick tap to moneypuck.com) of making the Stanley Cup Playoffs, still as a budding second year franchise.
Yet, as Hakstol said, there are still 52 games to go, with little secrets left, and teams looking to check harder than ever.
“We have to keep building and keep pushing,” said Hakstol. “There's a there's a lot of race left to be run.”
What we know is the Kraken divide their progress down to five-game segments. On the surface, they were still ironing plenty of wrinkles out of the gate, at 1-2-2 in the first five of the season before starting a complete tear – all building up to a collective 13-3-2 record – through late October and all of November. At times, wins were tallied by a masterful blueprint of offensive execution and defensive responsibility. Other times, such as Nov. 23 through December 1 when they won every game but allowed a whopping our goals, per game, they outscored their mistakes.
This past road trip served as the only other significant five-game speedbump, capped by Sunday night’s win against Winnipeg where the Kraken went 2-3. It served notice, as it's been well known the Kraken can score goals nearly at-will. They are grabbing attention across the hockey world for appointment viewing or listening. When they are rolling four lines, there is sufficient firepower to inflict damage, from Jaden Schwartz, to Matty Beniers, to Andre Burakovsky, and Daniel Sprong – all play on different combos.
But what about the ability to thrive in a close, compact, tight-quarters game? Hakstol said the comeback win over Winnipeg, who had been surging at 7-3 in the last ten games while going 13-0 when leading after two periods until Sunday night, told the story about how the Kraken should play in the next stretch.
“One specific habit, if I can narrow it down, we check pretty well,” said Hakstol. “We did that consistently throughout the game, but we also we also just stayed with a real simple game with the puck offensively and really, we got better.”
Hakstol referred to the simple tenets of getting shots from high danger areas of the offensive zone and being willing to shoot more, as a pathway to success. On the other end? No shortcuts.
The Kraken face five games ahead with the Blues, Canucks (who they have not beaten yet), Flames, Oilers, and Islanders.
The good news: all but the Vancouver game is at home. The tough news: three of those teams (the Flames, Canucks, and Oilers) are top ten teams in goals per game, or shots per game. The Islanders rank ninth best in goals allowed per game. The Blues, though inconsistent, have been buzzing offensively over the course of the last four games.
“It's hard to score,” said Hakstol. “It's not going to get easier to score as we continue on in the league. So, we have to be really comfortable defending well, which, if you look over our last month, we've been up and down there. We have to be more consistent, in the way we're playing defensively as a whole over 60 minutes.”
Getting Justin Schultz and Jamie Oleksiak back hasn’t hurt that mission, both logging 19 minutes or more on the back end in Sunday’s win which demonstrated an excellent effort at five-on-five, and provided a boost after both players missed the final two games of the trip, in losses to Tampa Bay and Carolina. But it’s only one part of the equation, where the Kraken, taking pride in depth, rely on all phases of experience.
“We’ve got a solid veteran group,” said defenseman Jamie Oleksiak. “Up and down, even the young guys come up big for us too.”
KRAKEN PRACTICE LINEUP, 12/19: