The Vegas Golden Knights just missed out on winning the Honda West Division, and now face a tough test in the first round against the Minnesota Wild.
During the regular season, the Wild had the VGK’s number. Minnesota was 5-1-2 (VGK 3-4-1) against Vegas this season, and I thought were the toughest opponent the Golden Knights faced – and that includes the Colorado Avalanche.
Here are three major keys to avoiding the upset against the upstart Wild.
Contain Kirill Kaprizov
This key alone could win the Vegas Golden Knights the series.
The almost-certain NHL Rookie of the Year, Kirill Kaprizov is one of the most dangerous players in the league when the puck is on his stick. His ability to make plays and generate his own time and space is nothing short of astounding. He put up a point-per-game pace in the season series (6-2-8) and led the Wild with 32 shots on goal. What’s more, teams get frustrated trying to shut him down and end up sticking out an arm, a leg, a stick, etc. and end up in the penalty box.
Even though the Wild were bottom-third with the man advantage this season, killing penalties is tiring work. You can’t afford to wear yourself down chasing Kaprizov, especially in a seven-game series.
Look for the defensive pair of Alex Pietrangelo and Brayden McNabb to be on the ice whenever possible against Kaprizov. They must keep him from cutting to the inside of the offensive zone, and while he can still create from the outside is far less dangerous than in the slot. Gap control and spacing will be critical to controlling his offensive output.
Get to the Net
The biggest potential for a weak point for me on the Minnesota Wild is in goal. Cam Talbot is having himself a career resurgence, and his partner in crime Kaapo Kahkonen has shown himself capable of making some superhero saves.
That said, they’re beatable.
Talbot’s 2.63 GAA was tied for 22nd in the regular season. Kahkonen’s was higher at 2.88 (40th). Even the save percentage of both goalies was nothing to write home about, with Talbot’s .915 ranking 16th and Kahkonen’s .902 ranking 42nd.
Rather what made them seem so good was how they elevated their games at different times against Vegas. Kahkonen posted his first NHL shutout against the VGK earlier this season. Talbot has been a guy who has shown the ability to up his game in high-pressure situations.
Knowing that it’s important to the Golden Knights to come out of the gate absolutely on fire to start the series. Getting not one, but two first-period goals would go a long way towards jarring the confidence of the Wild keepers. Getting bodies to the front of the net, tipping pucks and taking away the goaltender’s vision will be important all series. It hasn’t been the strongest suit of the VGK this season, but it will have to be in this series. You cannot beat the Wild from the perimeter.
Fleury, Fleury and More Fleury (AKA Run Support Please)
Marc-Andre Fleury has earned the right to be the Vegas Golden Knights starting goaltender in the playoffs. Fleury has been outstanding all season long with rarely a night out of sorts. He’s back to making those take-your-breath-away saves with regularity and you almost take it for granted that he’s never out of a play. He battles more and competes harder than just about anyone else in the game.
That said, the Wild’s real strength is scoring goals. Fleury will definitely keep the team in games the entire series and will be exactly what you expect. However, Fleury can’t score goals. Vegas’ offensive output must remain consistent and give him a cushion to protect. Minnesota is no longer a team you can beat 1-0 or 2-1.
Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments – what are your keys to the win?