Salary cap constraints may have made Vegas’s road out of the West a bit more difficult.
When the Presidents’ Trophy was still on the line, Vegas had a chance to clinch it in a head-to-head matchup with Colorado last week. But injuries and the cap forced the Golden Knights to play the game with just 15 skaters and, though they did control most of the game, they lost a 2-1 decision and wound up second in the division.
Now they face the Minnesota Wild, who Vegas had a losing record against.
The good news is the salary cap doesn’t matter in the playoffs, so Vegas won’t have to run a short bench again. The bad news is this was the worse of the two possible Round 1 opponents for the Golden Knights, because the Wild have kept up with them.
Minnesota comes in having beaten Vegas in three of their past four games and with nothing to lose as a Round 1 underdog. The contributions from some of Minnesota’s younger players has helped propel the team to a great season, but the playoffs are another animal. The Wild were getting hot when the 2020 season was paused as well and then couldn’t get past Vancouver in the qualifying round. They haven’t won a playoff series since 2015, but a corner is clearly being turned here.
Better days are still ahead for the Wild, but can they arrive a bit early by upsetting the NHL’s second-best team this season?
Tune in to find out.
(5-on-5 via Natural Stat Trick)
Golden Knights: 53.37 CF% (6th), 58.19 GF% (3rd), .922 SV% (8th), 9.58 SH% (4th), 1.017 PDO (5th)
Wild: 46.23 CF% (28th), 53.85 GF% (9th), .919 SV% (14th), 10.38 SH% (1st), 1.023 (1st)
Golden Knights: 17.8 PP% (22nd), 86.8 PK% (1st), 3.39 GF/G (3rd), 2.18 GA/G (1st)
Wild: 17.6 PP% (24th), 80.8 PK% (12th), 3.21 GF/G (9th), 2.84 GA/G (16th)
Golden Knights: 3-4-1
The season series didn’t go as most would have expected. The whole Wild season, in fact, went much better than most pre-season predictions.
The arrival of Kirill Kaprizov started changing the perception of the Wild as a “boring” team without much of an identity. One of the top two Calder Trophy contenders, Kaprizov led the team in scoring and actually scored more goals (27) than any Wild player got last season.
But it’s not just about Kaprizov. Joel Eriksson Ek‘s two-way game is a vital part of the team. Kevin Fiala, just like last season, turned on the jets in the latter half of the campaign and figures to be a key player for the team. Mats Zuccarello, too, who finished third in team scoring despite missing the first month.
The Wild have performed better than some of their underlying numbers might indicate because a) the team defence is very good and keeping high quality shots to a minimum and, b) the goaltending has been mostly excellent. Between Cam Talbot and Kaapo Kahkonen one will be challenged to slow Vegas’s own solid offence – and it’s worth mentioning the Wild allowed three goals or more in each of their last 10 regular-season games.
The Golden Knights, meantime, are exactly who we thought they were. An elite NHL team, packed with talent, two No. 1 goalies and underlying numbers that indicate a powerhouse. They have recent playoff success in their past as well, reaching the Western Conference final in last year’s bubble. In fact, Vegas has one more series win in their three playoff appearances than the Wild have in franchise history.
So this seems like a lopsided series on paper, right? Not so fast. The Wild had Vegas’s number this season and all of those meetings came in the second half. Vegas dominated the bottom of the division, but had a losing record versus the Wild and were .500 against the Avs. Max Pacioretty was having a career season, finishing with a better than point per game pace for the first time in his career, but his availability for the start of the series is in question.
Vegas’s strength is its depth, but losing Pacioretty would be no small thing.
The fact both teams can score and have had competitive games all season makes for what should be a high-event Round 1 series that should be a close one.
Golden Knights GM Kelly McCrimmon was asked about the status of injured forwards Max Pacioretty and Ryan Reaves for the start of the postseason on VGK Insider Show @FoxSportsLV but didn't provide an update on whether they will be available. #VegasBorn
— David Schoen (@DavidSchoenLVRJ) May 14, 2021
Golden Knights X-Factor: Alex Tuch
He probably won’t be the leading point-getter in Vegas, but if Tuch leads the Golden Knights in playoff goals again after doing it in the bubble, it could be a really good thing. We expect the top two lines to get theirs, and that Jonathan Marchessault, Mark Stone and Pacioretty (if healthy) will be offensive leaders. On the third line, Tuch’s goal scoring is what can create tough matchups. If the Golden Knights get goals that deep in the lineup, on top of their great defence and goaltending, it’ll position them for a long run. Tuch has a single goal in his last 10 games coming in, but that’s how goal-scorers go and a hot streak might not be far off.
Wild X-Factor: Kirill Kaprizov
Usually don’t like picking the obvious here, or just lean on the team’s leading scorer having to be an important player to win a series, but in Minnesota’s case this is absolutely true. Kaprizov had an incredible regular season and looks like a superstar on the rise – but the playoffs bring different challenges. Checking is tighter. Play gets more physical. Refs tend to put whistles away a little more often. The fact is the path to the net is going to be harder than Kaprizov has faced in the NHL yet and he will be the game-planned focus on Vegas’s side. Can the Golden Knights shut him down, or will Kaprizov still get his in Round 1?