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It's Knight time: Breaking down the Wild's opening round playoff series

Minnesota and Vegas will tangle in the postseason for the first time

by Dan Myers @mnwildscribe / Wild.com

There's a saying in Las Vegas, about as old as Sin City itself: The house always wins.

From a hockey standpoint, Las Vegas' team has done a remarkable job of living up to that old credo. They went to the Stanley Cup Finals in their first year of existence. They've been in the playoffs every year since. This season, they went into the final night of the regular season schedule holding the top spot in the entire NHL, only to see division rival Colorado equal them in points and take the Presidents' Trophy on a wonky tiebreaker. 

But if the Golden Knights are the glitzy, powerful casino in this metaphor, does that make the Minnesota Wild ... a stealthy card-counter? 

For whatever reason, since the Golden Knights entered the League in 2017, Minnesota has caused all kinds of problems for Vegas. 

The Wild is 11-2-3 all-time against the Knights, the most success any team in the League has had versus Vegas. That includes a 5-1-2 record against them this season, where Minnesota handed Vegas nearly 1/3 of its entire collection of losses during the regular season.

No matter what the circumstances, the Wild has simply found a way to turn the tables on the high-powered Golden Knights. Whether home or away, riding high or desperate for a win, healthy or banged up .... there's something about the NHL's newest team that simply brings out the very best in Minnesota's hockey team. 

"We find that when you play good teams like that, great teams, you raise up your play a little bit and just emotional games against them. It's always been fun. It's always been back and forth and physical and heavy. So it's suits us well," said Wild forward Marcus Foligno. "They're a great team. We're a great team. So it's gonna be a fun series. When we play aggressive, we're a big hockey team, a smart hockey team and we know how to play with that style and in that emotion. We've just come out on top most times against them."

With one of the most unique regular seasons in NHL history now in the rear view, and armed with one of the League's best young players, the Wild will swagger into Las Vegas for Game 1 on Sunday looking for hockey's version of four-of-a-kind .... four wins that is, and a trip to the Second Round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time in six years.


Forwards

In terms of lineups, the Wild and Knights might feature the two deepest groups in the West Division. 

Each club can roll four lines at all times, and have had stretches where even their fourth lines have proven to be incredibly productive.

That's especially the case with Minnesota, which completed the stretch run of the regular season with rookie Nico Sturm centering Nick Bonino and Nick Bjugstad.

More on that line in a bit.

Up front, a big driver of just how far the Wild can go will be decided by rookie forward Kirill Kaprizov, the likely winner of the Calder Trophy as the NHL's top rookie.

Kaprizov set franchise rookie records for goals, assists and points (among others), finishing the shortened season with 27 goals and 51 points - totals that would have put him on pace for 40-plus goals in a standard 82-game regular season.

He also comes into the playoffs red-hot, having recorded 11 goals and 16 points over his past 13 games since April 17. He was blanked in his final game of the season in St. Louis on Wednesday, which snapped a six-game point streak, a stretch which came on the heels of a five-game point streak. 

Perhaps that bodes well for a big Game 1 for Kaprizov? Just six times this season the rookie has followed up a scoreless effort by posting zeroes on the scoresheet, and his longest scoring drought this season is just three games - a stretch that occurred two months ago. That's remarkable consistency from a first-year NHLer. 

Mats Zuccarello has ridden shotgun with Kaprizov since starting his season a couple weeks late as he recovered from injury. In 42 games, Zuccarello scored 11 goals and assisted on 24 others, an 82-game pace that would have been a career year for the veteran winger. 

The center between Kaprizov and Zuccarello has changed a couple times of late, but Victor Rask has seen a bulk of the time there and had his best season in three years, scoring 10 goals and 23 points. 

Beyond that group, Kevin Fiala has spearheaded a second line that has proven solid, especially over the past several weeks. 

After a slow start to the season, Fiala finished second on the Wild in goals (20) and points (40). Fiala scored 26 points over the final 22 games of the season, including 11 goals and 15 assists during that stretch. That 1.18 point-per-game average exceeded his 0.5 points per over his first 28 games.

Veteran Marcus Johansson has skated with Fiala of late, their common denominator being speed. Johansson has struggled to stay healthy and provide consistent offense, but there's no arguing with his postseason pedigree. He was outstanding in the playoffs for the Boston Bruins in 2019, scoring 11 points in 22 games in his most recent playoff run and helping the Bruins to the Stanley Cup Final, where they lost in seven games to St. Louis. 

Ryan Hartman has centered that line lately and is coming off a career regular season where he scored 22 points in 51 games, two more than he had in 69 games with the Wild last season. 

But it's the Wild's "bottom-six," if you want to call them that, that is really where the rubber meets the road.

Video: MIN@STL: Foligno bats rebound out of midair for goal

Jordan Greenway, Joel Eriksson Ek and Marcus Foligno form the Wild's most consistent line and have the potential to be hellacious in the postseason. All three stand at least 6-foot-3, all weigh at least 215 points. All three can skate, can defend, can play physical and each is coming off career regular seasons, where Foligno and Greenway each set career bests in points while Eriksson Ek finished third on the club with 19 goals.

On the fourth line, Sturm and Bonino have been terrific down the stretch, with the former quietly posting 11 goals (tied with two others for fourth-most on the club) and the latter averaging more than a point-per-game over the final 16 games. 

It shouldn't be a surprise that Bonino has gotten better as the games get bigger. He thrives this time of year, after assisting the Pittsburgh Penguins to back-to-back Stanley Cups in 2016 and 2017.

"He's won a Cup. That tells you everything," said Wild coach Dean Evason. "He knows exactly what to do. He knows how to do it. And he teaches our group every night. His value is immense. Clearly that's what [Wild GM] Billy [Guerin] knew and why he went out and got him."

The Wild will have flexibility with its lineup too. 

Bjugstad has seen a bulk of the action late, but there's no denying Zach Parise's postseason pedigree. 

Scratched in three of the final four regular season games, Parise brings 101 games of postseason experience to the fold, scoring 35 goals and 77 points over his career in the playoffs. He's also averaged nearly a point-per-game in his last five trips to the playoffs with Minnesota.
 

Like the Wild, the Golden Knights boast a deep forward group that more than makes up for in production what it might be lacking in star power. 

Knights captain Mark Stone, who along with Wild defenseman Jared Spurgeon might be one of the most underrated, under-appreciated players at his position in the League, was fantastic again this season, tallying 21 goals and 40 points for 61 points. His assists and points led the club and his goals were second.

Stone, who has finished in the top-5 in voting for the Selke Trophy (best defensive forward) each of the past four seasons, was also a plus-26, which was tied for 10th-best in the NHL and fourth-best among forwards. 

Perhaps no player in the division tormented the Wild more this season, as Stone rolled up two goals and eight assists in seven games versus Minnesota, including a five-assist night (all primary helpers) in a 5-4 overtime win for Vegas on March 1.

After Stone, things could get tricky for the Knights in this series as injuries could force other players to increase their roles.

Max Pacioretty, Vegas' leading goal scorer this season - and another Wild terror - has been banged up and hasn't played in a game since May 1. He missed eight games in all this season, and his status for Game 1 is in question. 

Pacioretty had four points in six games against Minnesota this season, but has 10 goals and 17 points in 22 career games versus the Wild.

If Pacioretty can't play, that could mean an elevated role for former Wild forward Alex Tuch, who had 18 goals and 33 points in 55 games. 

Jonathan Marchessault had 18 goals and 44 points and has been one of the NHL's most consistent secondary goal scorers over the past five seasons.

Reilly Smith is also capable of more after scoring 14 goals and 25 points in 53 games, a substantial per-game decrease in production over his first three seasons with the Knights. 

Vegas lacks brand names down the middle, but William Karlsson has been outstanding in four years in Las Vegas. He had 14 goals and 39 points this season, another ho-hum 60-ish-point pace for the man who was once a toss-in for Vegas in the Expansion Draft four years ago.

Chandler Stephenson had a career year offensively in an elevated role, scoring 14 goals and 35 points (and a plus-22) in 51 games, outdistancing his previous high in points by nine in 14 fewer games.

Productive depth guys like Tomas Nosek and Ryan Reaves have also been banged up all season. Nosek has been out since late April with an undisclosed injury and is not expected to be back for Game 1 (and could be unavailable for a bulk of the series). Reaves has also missed significant time as of late.

Because of injuries and salary cap ramifications, the Golden Knights were forced to play shorthanded on several occasions down the stretch, including a crucial game against Colorado on Monday night. 

While the cap won't hamstring the Knights in the playoffs, being without regulars like Pacioretty, Nosek and Reaves could be a factor. 


Defensemen

Minnesota enters the postseason with a completely healthy crew on the backend, and six regulars who have played a ton of hockey - and played together - this season.

Jared Spurgeon and Ryan Suter have been a consistent top-4 pairing for many years, eating big minutes. Jonas Brodin and Matt Dumba have also been a rock solid pairing with good chemistry. Carson Soucy and Ian Cole are gritty and big and are as good as any third pairing in the NHL.

Spurgeon, in his first season as the Wild's second full-time captain in team history, has more than overcome a slow offensive start to the season. He scored one goal and had just six points in the first 28 games of the season, a far cry from the 30 to 40-point averages fans are accustomed to seeing over the course of a normal season. 

Video: MIN@VGK: Spurgeon rips one-timer from circle for PPG

That turned around late, as Spurgeon tallied 19 points over the final 26 games, including six goals during that stretch.

Suter has never been a big goal-scorer, but chipped in with three this season to go along with 16 assists. Just six of his 19 points came on the power play, which is a reason why his point production was slightly lower than years past. 

Another reason? The 22 minutes, 11 seconds of average ice time Suter saw was almost 2 1/2 minutes less per game than he had as recently as last season, and some seven minutes fewer than his first couple seasons with the Wild, when he was at the top of the NHL in that category. His ice time was his lowest since 2007-08, when Suter was in his third NHL season as a member of the Nashville Predators. 

While Suter's time has gone down, Brodin's has continued to rise over the past three seasons and the 27-year-old Swede now averages nearly 22 1/2 minutes per game.

He responded with his best offensive season to date, scoring a career high nine goals in 53 games played. Brodin scored on 11.4 percent of his shots on goal, more than twice his career average. 

Video: LAK@MIN: Dumba beats the clock for overtime win

Dumba, the Wild's Masterton Trophy nominee and reigning King Clancy Award winner, had an offensive season more reminiscent of his pre-injury campaigns, scoring six goals and 21 points, equaling his goal-scoring and nearly matching his 2019-20 point totals despite playing in 18 fewer games. 

For the second consecutive season, Dumba scored just once on the power play, an area where he could be poised for a big uptick. Two years ago in his injury-shortened 2018-19 campaign, Dumba scored 12 goals in 32 games. Six of those 12 goals came with the man advantage. 

Cole is the defensive core's version of Bonino, Cole's teammate for two Cup runs in Pittsburgh. 

Acquired from the Avalanche in a trade on Jan. 19, Cole has been a steadying veteran presence. He doesn't bring much in the offensive end, but that's not what's expected of him. He did finish the regular season a plus-21, which is his bread and butter. In 595 games in the NHL, Cole is a career plus-116, posting plus seasons in eight of his 11 campaigns in the league.

Soucy did Cole one better in the plus/minus department, posting a team-best plus-22 to go with one goal and 16 assists. His 16 helpers were quietly tied for sixth-best on the roster. The assist and point totals were each career highs over the previous season, despite Soucy skating in five fewer games.

Brad Hunt played in 12 games, scoring one goal, during the regular season and would likely be the next man up if a defenseman went down in the playoffs.
 

Golden Knights blue line was bolstered last offseason when they inked former Blues captain Alex Pietrangelo to a seven-year contract to anchor the club's defensive core for years to come.

In his first season in Las Vegas, "Petro" didn't disappoint, tallying 23 points in 41 games, with seven of those points coming in the goal department.

The man who has really taken his game to the next level, however, is Shea Theodore, who led all Vegas defensemen in goals (eight), assists (34) and points (42), as well as plus/minus (plus-28), a total that ranked sixth-best in the NHL.

Theodore has upped his game every year in the desert, scoring 29 points in 61 games in 2017-18, 37 points in 79 games the next year and 46 points in 71 games last season. 

Had Theodore played in 73 games this season, that would have put him on a 58-point pace.

But like its forward group, where injuries have sapped the Knights of its depth, Vegas' defensive pairings may be hindered by an injury to Alec Martinez. 

A two-time Stanley Cup winner with the Los Angeles Kings early in his career, Martinez had his best offensive season to date but hasn't played since May 8 and did not participate in the Knights' practice on Friday because of an ailing foot. 

Beyond Vegas' big three on defense is veteran Brayden McNabb, another former King, former Bemidji State Beaver Zach Whitecloud, Nicolas Hague and Dylan Coghlan. 

Hague led that group with 17 points in 52 games while Whitecloud had 12 points in 51 games. McNabb is more of a defensive defenseman while Coghlan posted three goals and six points in 29 games in part-time duty, but all three of those goals came in one game - against Minnesota - on March 10 at Xcel Energy Center.


Goaltenders

To be fair, the last two weeks haven't been kind to either Wild goaltender in terms of their season-long statistics, but the play of their goalies - and Cam Talbot in particular - is a big reason why the Wild finished comfortably ahead of the Blues for third place in the West Division.

Signed to a three-year contract last offseason to serve as the Wild's No. 1 goalie, Talbot didn't disappoint in his first season in Minnesota, finishing the year with a 19-8-5 record in 33 starts, with a 2.63 goals-against average and a .915 save percentage. 

Video: VGK@MIN: Talbot makes terrific glove save on Stone

Those numbers were significant upgrades on production the Wild got the year prior, especially considering that Talbot's numbers took a hit over his final six games of the season. Ironing that out, and getting back to his midseason form, will be critical for the Wild if it hopes to make a run. 

In that regard, Evason is confident that can happen.

"It's a nice feeling for sure to know that he's going to do absolutely everything in his power to keep that puck out of the net and give us a chance. He's done that consistently all year," Evason said. "It's nice for the group to know that if we push a little bit here we may give up and odd-man opportunity or a look and I think the guys believe he'll get the job done."

Kaapo Kahkonen was outstanding early in the year and won some big games during a stretch where Talbot was out with injury, but the rookie has hit a bit of a wall of late. His .902 save percentage and 2.88 goals against are skewed by two starts in St. Louis over the past month where he allowed 16 goals in those games.

Kahkonen has proven capable, however, as evidenced by his 2-0-0 record against Vegas this season, including a 26-save shutout, his first in the NHL, in a 2-0 win on March 8 in St. Paul.
 

If you've been hyper-focused on the Wild this season, it might be hard to believe that the Golden Knights' duo of Marc-Andre Fleury and Robin Lehner captured the William M. Jennings Trophy for fewest combined goals allowed. 

Not that either goaltender isn't good - they form perhaps the best duo in the League - but for one reason or another, the Wild has simply had good luck against them.

Fleury just wrapped up perhaps his finest regular season as a pro, posting a 26-10-0 record with a 1.98 goals-against average and a .928 save percentage - numbers that each ranked second in the NHL amongst goalies with at least 25 starts. 

Of the 71 goals allowed by Fleury this season, Minnesota scored 14 of them - nearly 20 percent of his total goals against - in just 16 percent of the games.

Lehner has battled injury issues this season but is healthy now and posted a 13-4-2 record in 19 starts, to go with a .913 save percentage and 2.29 goals against. 

Together, Fleury and Lehner allowed 115 goals in 55 starts. Minnesota scored 22 of those goals - the most damage done by any team in the West Division. 


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