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Golden Knights brace for road trip through tough Southeast

Once upon a time, a trip through the NHL’s old Southeast Division involved a lot of sun and fun for road teams with a little hockey mixed in.

Golden Knights coach Pete DeBoer remember those days well.

“Yeah, I was coaching down there during that era where teams would roll down there, spend a day on the beach and then come in and sweep the state,” the former Florida Panthers coach said.

A couple of decades later and a swing through the Sun Belt is far from a vacation.

The Knights face three of the four best teams in the league based on points percentage during this trip and open Monday against Washington (23-10-9, 55 points), which would be higher in the standings if it could figure out how to win in overtime.

“For us to reach our goal of the Stanley Cup, we’re going to have to go through teams like this that are deep, that have gone through the test in the playoffs, as well,” winger Keegan Kolesar said. “We’re really excited for this road trip. I think it’s a big statement for our team. We’re looking forward to the challenge.”

The Southeast Division existed from 1998 through 2013 and included Atlanta/Winnipeg, Carolina, Florida, Tampa Bay and Washington.

It produced two Stanley Cup winners (Tampa Bay in 2004 and Carolina in 2006), and the Capitals won seven division titles to go with the Presidents’ Trophy in 2010 under the direction of general manager George McPhee.

But there were several lean years, as well, earning it the nickname “Southleast Division.”

Eight times in its 14 seasons, the division housed three of the five worst teams in the Eastern Conference. In seven seasons, the first-place team did not reach the 100-point mark in the standings and finished with the lowest number of points among division winners.

DeBoer coached Florida from 2008 to 2011 and missed the playoffs all three seasons.

Times have changed, however.

Washington ranks 11th overall in points percentage largely because it is 1-7 in games decided during 3-on-3 play and features the league’s leading goal scorer, Alex Ovechkin (29 goals).

Carolina, the Knights’ opponent Tuesday in the second of back-to-back games, is third in the league standings (.737 points percentage) and owns the stingiest defense at 2.39 goals allowed per game. The Hurricanes thumped the Knights 4-2 on Nov. 16.

Florida solved its defense/goaltending issues and is first in the Atlantic Division, points percentage ahead of two-time Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay. Those teams round out the Knights’ four-game trip on Thursday and Saturday, respectively.

“It’s a big test for us. Not an easy back-to-back coming,” defenseman Brayden McNabb said. “All four teams are very good defensively. They have high-octane offense. It’s going to be a challenge. Our defensive structure is going to have to be dialed in. If we do that, we’ll give ourselves a chance to win every night.”

The Knights ended an eight-game, three-week homestand with Thursday’s overtime win against Montreal, but injuries and inconsistency have started to catch up. Despite leading the Pacific Division, the Knights would be in fifth place in every other division based on points percentage.

This is the first extended road trip since mid-December when the Knights swept Boston and the three New York area teams. They have won six straight on the road and are 11-5 away from home.

“I think everybody knows the teams that we’re playing and what they can do,” center Chandler Stephenson said. “Sometimes it’s refreshing to get on the road from the long homestand that we had. I think it will be nice to get back to the Vegas way of playing and just kind of getting some confidence back.”

Contact David Schoen at dschoen@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-5203. Follow @DavidSchoenLVRJ on Twitter.