Only two games into the best of seven series between the Vegas Golden Knights and Minnesota Wild it’s Vegas holding the hammer. Game Three is the critical moment for the VGK to use it and squash any Wild hopes in the series. Here’s why.
Game One saw Minnesota weather the first-period storm from the VGK and then establish their game, holding the Golden Knights off the board and to the outside with perimeter chances and shot blocks. Once the game entered overtime, it was hand-in-hand with Lady Luck and she turned out to be Wild. 1-0 Minnesota.
In Game Two that narrative changed as Vegas opened up more attacking lanes, cutting through the Minnesota defense and generating more high-danger chances. It also helped that Jonathan Marchessault was able to open the scoring off the rush as well, providing a goal for an emotional player who can charge up his team. More importantly, it was an immediate rejoinder after falling behind 1-0 in the game. Scoring just 18 seconds after going down a goal didn’t allow any negative thoughts to enter the VGK heads, and could not have been more perfect. Mentally it might be the most important point of the series.
Now the scene shifts to St. Paul and despite leaving home with a split, the Golden Knights are actually in control of their destiny once again. By asserting themselves the way they did in Game Two and not only scoring at five-on-five but piling on with a late power-play goal when Minnesota was most desperate, the Golden Knights have effectively said this is our ice, our net, our puck, and you can come and get it.
Don’t discount the importance of that late goal and what led up to it. Minnesota was pushing for the tie. It was desperation time, goaltender pulled. And then, rookie phenom Kirill Kaprizov takes a penalty that really derails the Wild comeback attempt.
At that point, Vegas could have gone into a shell and killed the clock. They didn’t. Instead, they showed more of a killer instinct and went after the Wild. Scoring that goal was an emphatic statement. Vegas did not quit when they were ahead. Minnesota will recognize that mindset and know they have to break it in Game Three. If they don’t, the snowball effect could likely roll the series right out the Zamboni doors in favor of the Golden Knights.
Here’s another major point in favor of the Golden Knights: two of its streakiest scorers each found the sheet on Tuesday night. Alex Tuch led the Golden Knights in goal-scoring last playoffs and ran hot and cold during the run. If he’s going to have a few games of being “on” it could very well catapult the VGK into the next round.
When it comes to Jonathan Marchessault, this is a player who has an incredible amount of offensive talent and was on pace for a 27-goal total if Vegas played a full season. Essentially he contributes a goal every third game but can go on a tear just as easily as we saw when he tallied five goals in five games between April 21 and May 3 of this year. Getting his confidence up is also important because he can take over a series as well.
Also, consider that we really haven’t seen Mark Stone break out yet. Last playoffs he was almost a point-per-game player (7-10-17 in 20 GP) but has one assist in the first two games. Missing Max Pacioretty aside, if Stone is able to make more things happen offensively for the Golden Knights then the team will really have it good.
Defensively, there was also a sea-change for the Golden Knights. Whether you chalk it up to first-game jitters, or just mental mistakes, Vegas’ defense chased hits, overplayed pucks and made uncharacteristic mistakes. Tuesday the VGK seemed much more settled and adjusted. Even though Kevin Fiala was generating chances Kirill Kaprizov was almost absent except for his momentum-killing penalty late in the game. It looks like the adjustments made between games made a tremendous impact.
And then there’s the Marc-Andre Fleury factor. Fleury looks like a kid again. He’s making acrobatic saves, tracking pucks with energy and intuition, and sharing that famous grin with teammates through the bars of his mask. That attitude is contagious. I challenge you to find me a guy who gets as much joy from playing the game and playing it well as he does. This is his team again. You can bet he won’t let it slip from his gloves.
There’s one major key to Game Three, and that’s weathering the storm coming in the first period. Heck, the first five minutes of the first period. Minnesota won’t say it’s desperation time. This is still a good hockey team. But if you lose a second straight game to a Vegas team that you had shaken after Game One, that’s not good at all. The VGK will need a total team defense commitment and Fleury to be his typical brilliant self, but getting to the ten-minute mark tied or even in the lead would be soul-crushing for the Wild.
Vegas can put the series away in Game Three. Now they just have to execute in the most important first period of the season.