In a normal hockey season, the pace of play is roughly three games per week with occasional back-to-back games. But in pandemic times, a shortened 56-game season jammed into a few months means playing every other night on a regular basis and far more back-to-backs.
Fortunately for the Vegas Golden Knights, tonight is one of those opportunities to go right back out and play on the heels of a 4-2 loss to the LA Kings last night when they meet the Minnesota Wild tonight.
Last night was a game that seemed to carry all the hallmarks of what we’ve seen from the VGK when they lose: giving up the first goal early; failing to establish the forecheck; failing to establish offensive zone time; getting beat with speed and puck movement; a few key mistakes that end up in the back of the net.
Now the Golden Knights don’t always lose when they surrender the first goal. Sometimes the goaltending bails out the defense and they find a way to win. Occasionally goals come off the rush in a game that allows you to slide by for a night. When none of those things happen, it’s a recipe for a loss. None of that happened last night.
Vegas has to quickly turn its attention to the Wild, a mercurial team that has at times looked both amazing and puzzling. Overall, Minnesota has managed to stay in the playoff race and currently sits third in the Honda West Division with 44 points. For the first time in over a month, Vegas finds itself in second after the Colorado Avalanche leapfrogged them with a big win over the Arizona Coyotes last night. It sets up several important goals for one team in this two-game series.
For the Vegas Golden Knights, the team wants to get itself back on track quickly. After losing three of its last six games and giving up an average of four goals a game in those losses, the Golden Knights have to bear down defensively. If a team has attacked with speed through the neutral zone, we’ve seen the VGK defenders get back on their heels a bit and get beaten to pucks.
Part of this can be controlled with better gaps between defender and onrushing forward through the neutral zone and requires gaging the speed of the oncoming player and adjusting coverage as necessary. The other important thing is once the battle on the wall is joined, outwork the attacking forward to come out with the puck.
Forwards can aid in the battle through coverage or adding a body to the battle, but the support must be quick and decisive. The game moves too fast to get caught standing around, and can often lead to a puck in behind your goaltender.
Keep An Eye On
When it comes to the Wild, perhaps the biggest player to watch will be Kirill Kaprizov. He has proven himself to be one of the best skaters and puck handlers in the league right now, capable of changing direction on a dime and delivering the puck through extremely small windows. He’s also not afraid to shoot it either. Kaprizov’s 12 goals and 28 points leads the Wild and he has single-handedly changed the look and feel of this team.
For Vegas, I’m going to watch how Alex Pietrangelo looks in his second game back from injury. He looked good if a little rusty last night, but now that the adrenaline of that first game back is gone, I’m interested to see how he fares. Pietrangelo is still one of the best D in the game, and having him back there to help move the puck up ice and guide the power play again will be huge.
Keys to the Game
Tonight’s keys for the Vegas Golden Knights all revolve around settling down and playing to the game plan.
- Prevent the early goal against. I’m not even going to say fast start. Just don’t fall behind early and I’ll be happy with that. Starting the game five minutes late every night is a fatal flaw come playoff time.
- Zone entries must be better. Vegas needs to not only get the puck deep but get to it quickly and engage that board battle. When they can do that consistently, every time they end up with the puck they can generate time and space afterward.
- Contain Kaprizov. If you can keep Dollar Bill Kirill in check, you’re halfway home to beating the Wild.