The Seattle Kraken have been one of the surprise stories of the NHL season so far and face a decisive week on the East Coast as they aim to keep hold of top spot in the competitive Pacific Division.
Seattle (29-15-5) and the Los Angeles Kings each have 63 points but the Kraken lead with one additional regulation win and four games in hand.
Three of those games will be played before LA are back in action, when the Kraken's five-game road trip begins on Tuesday against the New York Islanders, followed by back-to-back games against the New Jersey Devils. They will then face the New York Rangers and end the road swing with a game against Philadelphia Flyers.
With just five points separating first from fifth, the Kings aren’t Seattle’s only competition for the Pacific Division. Vegas Golden Knights sit third with 62 points, Edmonton Oilers fourth with 60 points and Calgary Flames fifth with 58. The Kraken have at least one game in hand over all of them.
Seattle entered the NHL as an expansion team last season and, after Vegas made the Stanley Cup Final in their inaugural season just four years earlier, expectations were set unfairly high for the Kraken.
Not only did Seattle not get anywhere close to matching the Golden Knights' incredible achievement but they finished a lowly 30th of 32 teams in the standings.
With a couple of significant additions in the off-season, the Kraken have put the first-year disappointment quickly behind them and significantly increased their winning percentage from .366 to .643 making them -1400 To Reach the Playoffs.
With the Islanders and Flyers in a battle for a playoff position and the Devils and Rangers sitting second and third in the Metropolitan Division respectively, the upcoming road trip will be a major test for the improved Kraken. But, after recently becoming the first ever NHL team to a sweep a road trip of seven games, it’s a challenge they are certainly up for.
A major difference between the Kraken’s first season and the current one is their offense which has jumped from 28th in the NHL and an average of 2.60 goals per game to fourth and an average of 3.61 goals per game.
New addition Andre Burakovsky has been a big reason for the scoring increase and, after signing from the reigning Stanley Cup Champions Colorado Avalanche in the summer, he leads the Kraken with 39 points (13 goals, 26 assists) in 48 games.
The 26-year-old Jared McCann is the top goal scorer with 23 in 46 games and is set to smash the 27 which he scored in 74 games during his debut season with the team.
With 17 goals and 19 assists for 36 points, 20-year-old Matty Beniers has also been a revelation in his first full NHL season, and he is -200 To Win the Calder Memorial Trophy as rookie of the year award.
While still an area for improvement, Seattle's powerplay has also been a lot more successful jumping from 14.5% and 29th in the NHL to 20.3% which is 20th.
Defensively Seattle have gone from conceding an average of 3.46 goals per game, which was 24th in the league last season, to 3.04 and 16th.
While better, coach Dave Hakstol would certainly like his team to tighten up more. But, to their credit the Kraken have more often than not come out on the right side of several high-scoring affairs including a 9-8 win over the Kings in late November, a trait which has made them a must watch.
Harming their defensive record is a penalty-kill of 72.3% which is even lower than last season's 74.9%, both second worst in the league.
Aiming to add depth to the blue-line ahead of the extended road trip, the Kraken have acquired 6'6" Jaycob Mena from the San Jose Sharks and his presence will be a welcome addition as they aim to get better in their own end and shut-down the star power of the Metro sides in their own buildings.
With Chris Driedger injured long-term and Phillipp Grubauer providing well below average goaltending last season, the Kraken signed 33-year-old journeyman Martin Jones on a one-year contract to add some stability between the pipes.
Curiously, Jones' save percentage of .896 ranks relatively low among starting goalies (23rd of netminders who have played more than 25 games), but yet he is fourth overall for wins with a 23-7-3 record.
Jones' save percentage is actually lower than Grubauer's .897 this season but, unlike his teammate who is 5-8-2, the former San Jose Shark has more often than not made one more key save than his opposite number.
And that is something they will need to continue, but could prove a challenge against the likes of Islanders' Ilya Sorokin and Rangers' Igor Shesterkin who are +600 and +1100 To Win the Vezina Trophy as the league's best goalie this season. In comparison, Jones is +5000.
The way Kraken have gone from bottom of the Pacific Division to the top with a run-and-gun style is unlikely to have impressed the traditional hockey purists but it's certainly working for them.
The upcoming road trip will provide an excellent indication as to their true credentials as a playoff contender and +1500 odds To Win the Stanley Cup and all eyes will again be on them as their fascinating story continues.