Tuesday, May 25, 2021 | 2 a.m.
It was no wonder the Minnesota Wild resorted to shoves, elbows and other forms of chippiness in the second period of their 4-2 win over the Vegas Golden Knights Monday night at T-Mobile Arena.
No one likes being treated like little brother and assigned to all-time defense, yet that was the role the Golden Knights inflicted upon the Wild. Vegas skated circles around Minnesota, played keep away with the puck and all but completely forbade the visitors from entering its offensive zone.
The 20-minute stretch was as lopsided as you’ll ever see in playoff hockey with the Golden Knights holding a 22-1 edge in shots on goal and a 6-0 tally in high-danger chances per naturalstattrick.com.
The season-high 12,156 fans in attendance must have found it equal parts exhilarating and infuriating. Not infuriating solely because the home team only got one goal out of it, but also because it showed how much better the Golden Knights are than the Wild when they’re at their best.
Problem is, their best has been frustratingly fleeting despite a 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven series. Such inconsistency is the biggest reason why the series is being extended at least one more game while the eventual victor’s second-round opponent, the Stanley Cup favorite Colorado Avalanche, rests after a first-round sweep of the St. Louis Blues.
The Golden Knights and Wild will go at it again at 6 p.m. Wednesday night in Minnesota.
If Vegas can channel anything close to what it displayed in the second period throughout the entirety of Monday's game, the extra trip North will be nothing more than a minor inconvenience. But if the Golden Knights continue to only be able to sustain their dominance for spurts, they’re at risk of blowing a 3-1 first-round series lead for the second time in three years.
“I think we just have to be a little bit smarter, have a little more urgency with the puck in the first period,” forward Reilly Smith said. “I really don’t think it’s anything they did. It’s self-inflicted wounds. We can’t wait until we’re down a couple goals to start upping our intensity.”
If acceptance is the first step to change, then Smith’s words should be reassuring to Golden Knights’ fans. Vegas has now either come out flat or at least played below its expectation in four straight first periods.
The Wild have outchanced them in the opening 20 minutes of every contest except Game 1 with the Golden Knights appearing lackadaisical and all too willing to lean on goalie Marc-Andre Fleury.
It hadn’t really hurt them before Monday because Fleury had been so impenetrable to start the playoffs. But he finally showed some cracks in Game 5 in allowing three of the Wild’s first six shots past him.
That would prove to be enough as the Golden Knights were forced to play catch-up from a 3-1 deficit for the rest of the night and never quite could complete the task.
“That finally cost us,” team captain Mark Stone said. “We’ve been down a couple games and been able to claw our way back, but today we just couldn’t get it done, couldn’t get that third goal to force overtime.”
Stone emphasized that the Golden Knights had their opportunities, and he wasn’t exaggerating.
Although it was an Alec Martinez rocketed shot that actually found the back of the net in the smackdown second-period, the two Alexs — Tuch and Pietrangelo — often looked like the two biggest scoring threats on the ice with a handful of near-misses. Stone set up both his linemates, Tuch and Chandler Stephenson, with opportunities that could have conceivably gone in.
Jonathan Marchessault similarly came painfully close on converting on a breakaway.
Like they have so often in the playoffs the last two years, the Golden Knights materialized enough chances. They just didn’t finish them.
“We knew this wasn’t going to be easy coming in,” Golden Knights coach Pete DeBoer said. “I think if anyone would have said at the beginning of the series, ‘We’re going to give you an opportunity to go into Minnesota Game 6 and win the series and Game 7 is going to be at home,’ we would have taken that.”
The Wild are a young, scrappy bunch that’s given the Golden Knights fits all season but there’s no question where the talent advantage rests in the matchup. There’s no question Vegas should win this series.
It might be unfair to expect the Golden Knights to bully the Wild like they did in the second period on Monday for 60 straight minutes. But it’s obvious they need to come into the game with that intensity level instead of waiting for it to develop.
Their season just may depend it.