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June 23, 2021

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Entering playoffs, Golden Knights shrug off recent struggles against Wild

Pacioretty

John Locher / AP

Golden Knights left wing Max Pacioretty (67) celebrates after scoring against the Minnesota Wild during overtime of an NHL hockey game Monday, March 1, 2021, in Las Vegas.

The Golden Knights drew the short straw in the West Division playoffs by landing a first-round date with the Minnesota Wild. The Wild are only team to have a winning record against them this season and the one with the most wins against Vegas all-time.

Ask the Golden Knights, though, and it doesn’t matter. The Stanley Cup Playoffs are a whole new animal, after all. Game 1 of the seven-game series is at noon Sunday at T-Mobile Arena and on NBC.

“I think the format and the number of times you’re playing teams in the division definitely gives you a better book on your opponent than you would have in a normal playoff series in a year,” coach Pete DeBoer said after eight regular season games with the Wild. “Having said that, that book is still pretty impressive when you look at Minnesota, especially how they’ve played us.”

The Golden Knights are 5-10-1 all-time against Minnesota, including a 3-4-1 record this year — the most losses both this season and ever against one team. In games decided in regulation — and remember there’s no 3-on-3 or shootouts in the playoffs — Minnesota won four of the five games.

Even stripping aside the wins and losses, the underlying numbers point to Minnesota’s success. The Wild outscored Vegas 18-14 at 5-on-5 in eight games, and held an expected-goals advantage in seven of them.

The mental aspect of it is harder to quantify, but no doubt Minnesota was thrilled when Colorado beat Los Angeles on Thursday to secure this matchup. The Wild know that even as underdogs in the series they can beat the Golden Knights. Look no further than the comeback win on May 3, when Vegas led by two goals with less than 10 minutes to play. After, DeBoer conceded sometimes a team can get in another’s head.

Asked about that Thursday, captain Mark Stone shrugged it off. It’s not as if the other possible playoff opponent, the St. Louis Blues, would have been a guaranteed win. They won the Stanley Cup two years ago.

“No, we knew we were going to have to go through somebody good,” Stone said. “St. Louis is a proven Stanley Cup winner and Minnesota has obviously become one of the better teams in our league. Same with Colorado. We knew going into the playoffs we were going to be playing a pretty strong opponent.”

Stone will be a major factor in any success Vegas has.

He led the team in points for the season (61), but also with 10 points in five games against the Wild. Even if five of those assists did come in one game, he and center Chandler Stephenson (seven points) were the leading scorers against Minnesota this year.

The availability of the third member of the triumvirate is up in the air. Max Pacioretty led the Golden Knights with 24 goals and was eighth in the NHL on May 1. The issue is that we haven’t seen Pacioretty since then, as he left that game with an injury.

Missing Pacioretty would be a major blow for the Golden Knights, who scored the third most goals in the NHL as a team this year. They have scored almost four goals per game since Pacioretty’s injury, but losing a top scorer against a defensively sound team is never ideal.

The rest of the forward group hasn’t lit up the scoreboard. Alex Tuch, who missed Friday’s practice after leaving Wednesday’s game, has six points against Minnesota this year, but his status is unclear, as is what his line might look like.

William Karlsson is the only other forward to register even five points (he also had six). But Karlsson’s linemates in Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith combined for just five points and had negative expected-goals numbers against the Wild this year, according to Natural Stat Trick. The trio scored one 5-on-5 goal against Minnesota and allowed four.

On the other side, the Wild got contributions up and down the lineup, including seven points in the season series from Marcus Foligno, five points each from Jordan Greenway and Kevin Fiala, and four goals and six points from breakout forward Joel Eriksson Ek.

But the biggest thorn in Vegas’ side was rookie sensation Kirill Kaprizov, who after being held scoreless for the first three games of the series, rattled off six goals and eight points in the final five, including three goals in the last two games.

Kaprizov should win the Calder Trophy as league Rookie of the Year in a landslide, and the Golden Knights can at least take consolation that they weren’t the only team he victimized. Kaprizov finished with 51 points in 55 games, including 27 goals that ranked eighth in the league and second in the West.

“I don’t think we can get overly too hung up over one player, we just want to focus on ourselves and make sure we’re defending hard,” said defenseman Nicolas Hague, who will make his playoff debut. “He’s definitely one of those guys to be cautious of out there, but not give too much attention to as one guy.”

Kaprizov altered the complexion of the Wild’s roster, but the core of a team that has always played well against Vegas still remains. Their top-four on the blue line remains stout with captain Jared Spurgeon, Ryan Suter, Matt Dumba and Jonas Brodin, while Foligno and Nico Sturm tied for the team lead with 10.8 Goals Above Replacement (according to Evolving Hockey) and can provide some lethal depth away from the Kaprizov line.

The Golden Knights will have the edge in goal with the Jennings Trophy-winning combination of Marc-Andre Fleury and Robin Lehner, and whoever starts will give Vegas an advantage over Minnesota’s goaltending.

It’s not that Cam Talbot has been bad (.915 save percentage) but he’s struggled over the last month with an .896 save percentage since April 5. He faced Vegas six times this year and won three of them with an .898 save percentage. The Wild will likely ride him through the playoffs, as backup Kaapo Kahkonen doesn’t help form the tandem of the quality of Fleury-Lehner.

Vegas will have the best forward (Stone), best defenseman (Shea Theodore) and best goalie (Fleury) in the series, which on its face gives the Golden Knights a leg up. They’ll definitely be the favorite — Westgate SuperBook has them with implied odds of victory at about 70%, while The Athletic and Moneypuck.com are at about 61%.

The Golden Knights finished with the most wins in the league, but a points draw with the tiebreak-owning Avalanche sent Vegas to a second-place finish in the West. That meant the Wild in the first round.

The series will be one of the most entertaining in the first round.

“We feel good about our game right now,” Hague said. “We’re happy with our regular season. I mean, 40 wins, that’s something to be proud of.

“Now the real fun starts.”