The last time the Vegas Golden Knights were supposed to play the Minnesota Wild, the sports world stopped.
Vegas got on a plane March 11, 2020 with the intention of playing a game in St. Paul, Minnesota. The next day, the Golden Knights returned home and wouldn’t play another game until August.
COVID-19 has created challenges far and wide, with many craving even the littlest of normalcy. Sanity returns Monday for 2,600 fans when they enter T-Mobile Arena Monday to watch the Golden Knights take on the Minnesota Wild in a West Division showdown.
“There was a big buzz around the group this morning … about the fact that we’re going to have fans there,” said Golden Knights coach Pete DeBoer. “It’s a great first step on the way back to filling T-Mobile and getting that atmposhere back. Even with the number we’re going to have tonight, it’s a huge boost compared to playing in the empty rink.”
Clark County approved a directive to allow 15 percent of T-Mobile Arena’s capacity, capping at 2,600 fans, to attend Golden Knights games during March. Vegas will play seven times at home this month.
There aren’t many home-ice advantages that rival T-Mobile Arena. Even at its 17,500-seat capacity, the Golden Knights have averaged 18,223 fans during the first three years of their existence.
The Golden Knights’ 75 wins at home since the inaugural season and .676 points percentage at “The Fortress” are top-10 marks since 2017-18.
“Any time you can have your home crowd in the arena and cheering you on, and bring that energy like our fans do, it’s an advantage for us,” said defenseman Zach Whitecloud. “We’re all excited to have them back, and for them to come and watch games in person, we’re excited for them.”
What a treat for fans to come back to, as well. This is a matchup of the top two teams in the West Division; the Golden Knights are atop the division by points percentage (.735) and have a game in hand on Minnesota (.667).
The Wild have been a thorn in the Golden Knights’ collective side since 2017. Minnesota is 6-1-1 in eight all-time meetings with the Golden Knights, with five of those wins coming by at least two goals.
There’s a newfound energy surrounding Minnesota. Normally a grind-it-out, wear-you-down type of team that excels defensively, the Wild have found the scoring touch. They’re 10th in the league in scoring (3.17 per game) with four players with at least five goals.
Leading the way is 23-year-old rookie Kirill Kaprizov, the presumable Calder Trophy favorite at this juncture. Kaprizov, a 2014 fifth-round pick by Minnesota, leads the Wild with 17 points and has registered a point in every game during Minnesota’s six-game winning streak.
“What’s impressive about him is his willingness to do a lot of dirty work, winning battles in the corners, going to the net,” DeBoer said of Kaprizov. “He’s not a big guy, but he’s very strong on his feet. He makes a lot of things happen when he’s on the ice.”
The Golden Knights have already had troubles with Minnesota in the past, but it’s a deeper, more dangerous team this time around. Nevertheless, the fans in attendance tonight will get their money’s worth.
“Their game is real,” DeBoer said. “You look at their lineup, they’ve got a sneaky, deep lineup. It’s a great test for us.”
Vegas Golden Knights projected lineup
Alex Tuch — Chandler Stephenson — Mark Stone
Max Pacioretty — Cody Glass — Reilly Smith
Jonathan Marchessault — William Karlsson — Keegan Kolesar
William Carrier — Tomas Nosek — Ryan Reaves
Shea Theodore — Alex Pietrangelo
Alec Martinez — Zach Whitecloud
Nicolas Hague — Dylan Coghlan
Nosek in, Roy out
Tomas Nosek will play his first game since Feb. 9 after spending the previous two weeks in COVID-19 protocol.
The fourth-line center will take his place back in the lineup, while Keegan Kolesar will be at third-line right wing with Jonathan Marchessault and William Karlsson.
Nicolas Roy will be a healthy scratch for the first time this season.
“I’m feeling pretty good right now,” Nosek said. “It’s been a tough start after COVID, but I’ve been skating for more than a week.”
Nosek’s time away from the team due to COVID did provide a silver lining. His wife Eliska gave birth to their second boy, Matias, on Feb. 20. Their first child, Patrik, last January.
Because of COVID, Nosek said they had to reschedule Eliska’s appointment to induce the labor. They were able to reschedule and Baby Nosek arrived safely and healthy.
“Thank God I was able to be there,” Nosek said. “I was happy so they could reschedule it and I was able to be there. One of the happiest moments of my life. It’s a great feeling to become a dad again.”
Lehner remains out
Golden Knights goalie Robin Lehner will not dress for the eighth consecutive game as he continues to deal with an upper-body injury.
Lehner has not played since Feb. 7 with what was considered a “tweak” during morning skate on Feb. 11.
“It’s one of those injuries where, when you get it, you hope it’s a week, but it’s all based on symptoms and becoming symptom-free,” DeBoer said. “There is no timeline on those types of injuries.”
This will be Marc-Andre Fleury’s ninth straight start, and the Golden Knights have gone 5-3-0 with Lehner out. Oscar Dansk is expected to be the backup after winning three consecutive starts last week with the Henderson Silver Knights.
“You’re hopeful that when the injury happens that it’s a quick recovery, but if symptoms persist, it might be a little longer,” DeBoer said. “It’s heading in a positive direction and hopfeully we’ll see him soon.”