The Vegas Golden Knights face a tough test tonight with a home matchup against the Minnesota Wild.
Minnesota leads the entire Western Conference with 39 points, though the team’s eight-game winning streak and nine-game point streak came to an end last night in a 2-1 loss in Los Angeles.
Both teams will be eager to get back in the win column, as the Knights look to bounce back after Friday’s 4-3 loss to Philadelphia.
The Golden Knights are 6-10-1 all-time against the Wild, though that’s in large part due to their 0-3-0, 1-2-0 and 1-1-0 records in Years 1-3. The matchup leveled out last year, as the Knights went 3-4-1 in the regular season before eliminating Minnesota in seven games in the first-round playoff matchup.
Vegas took home the first meeting against the Wild this year, a 3-2 win in which Paul Cotter and Jonas Rondbjerg both scored their first career goals.
The Knights have a very different lineup now, with Mark Stone, Max Pacioretty, William Karlsson and others back in the mix. It took a while, but the team is starting to come together (even though many players remain out).
Minnesota also recently got key players back in the lineup, including two top-four defensemen in Jared Spurgeon and Matt Dumba. However, Jonas Brodin missed last night’s game and is questionable for tonight; that’s notable considering Brodin leads all current Wild skaters in points against Vegas with 12 in 17 regular-season contests.
Kirill Kaprizov has nine points in nine games against Vegas, and Kevin Fiala has 10 in 11.
Not surprisingly, Kaprizov leads the Wild in scoring with 32 points in 27 games, 10 points more than anyone else on the team. He got off to a relatively slow start, scoring three goals and 11 points in the first 15 games of the season. However, he has seven goals and 16 points in his last 12 games.
Ryan Hartman is having a career year with a team-high 13 goals, though he has just one assist in his last four games. Even so, he has been the team’s most consistent player all year, playing a key role in the Wild’s early success. Now he’s centering the top line between Kaprizov and Mats Zuccarello, a dangerous combination.
The Wild have gotten production from up and down their lineup, however, and it hasn’t necessarily come from the likely candidates. Marcus Foligno is second on the team in goals with 12, and Alex Goligoski leads all Wild defenseman with 17 points in 24 games, though many were collected with Spurgeon and Dumba out of the lineup.
Minnesota is third in the league with an average of 3.67 goals per game and has given up an average of 2.78. Vegas has surrendered 3.18 goals per game while scoring 3.38 (good for sixth overall).
Vegas will face Cam Talbot for the second time this season. Talbot is 15-5-0 with a 2.59 goals-against average and .920 save percentage this season; he stopped 32 of 35 shots in the Nov. 11 contest at T-Mobile Arena.
Laurent Brossoit got the win in that matchup, though it’ll likely be Robin Lehner between the pipes tonight. Lehner is 10-9-0 with a 3.11 goals-against average and .906 save percentage.
Stone leads the way for Vegas with 13 points in 10 games against Minnesota; Pacioretty has eight points in 11 games, and Chandler Stephenson has seven points in nine games.
Stephenson missed Friday’s tilt against the Flyers for personal reasons, though he is expected to be back in the lineup tonight. That should provide a significant boost for the Knights, who missed their leading scorer in the loss.
Though Vegas has won three out of its last four games, a new concern has surfaced over the last two: the penalty kill.
Vegas surrendered three power-play goals on three shots against Dallas on Wednesday before going 0-for-2 on the penalty kill in the third period against the Flyers.
It’s an unexpected turn of events considering the Golden Knights had the best penalty kill in the NHL last year (86.8 percent). It also was just a few games ago that Vegas scored two shorthanded goals against Anaheim.
It’s only a two-game sample that has raised some flags, but it’s something the Knights need to address quickly. Pete DeBoer said yesterday that he’s not concerned about turning it around, but he had a similar outlook regarding the power play at the start of last season and this year during training camp.
The Knights can’t afford to have a penalty kill in decline.
Even so, the Golden Knights are starting to heat up now that multiple top forwards have returned to the lineup, Pacioretty is scorching hot with points in seven straight, Stone is starting to take over games again and the club is just two points out of a playoff spot.
It was only a week ago that Vegas played arguably its best game of the season, a 3-2 win against Calgary. They’ll look to get back to that tonight against the Wild.
Keys to the game
- Kill penalties: The Golden Knights need a better performance by the penalty kill. They have to be stronger on the puck, win more defensive-zone faceoffs and clear the crease so Lehner/Brossoit can see the puck. Not taking penalties is the best strategy, but assuming the arm goes up and a call is made, the Knights need better results. Going into Wednesday’s game against Dallas, Vegas had the eighth-best penalty kill in the NHL, operating at 83.8 percent. Now, Vegas sits at 23rd overall with a 78.4 percent kill rate. Vegas has gone 1-for-6 over the last two games, but since the only kill was on a power play that was neutralized five seconds in by a Flyers penalty, it’s basically 0-for-5; plus, many of the goals allowed came quickly. All three Dallas goals came on the first shot; those power plays only lasted 4:11 out of a possible 10 minutes (and 1:19 out of four minutes for the Flyers). Two goals came within 20 seconds.
Jason Robertson — 1:18
Tyler Seguin — 0:04
Joe Pavelski — 1:30
Sean Couturier — 0:17
James van Riemsdyk — 1:02
That will have to be cleaned up, especially since the Wild are really heating up on the man advantage. Minnesota ranks 21st on the power play with a 17.4 percent efficacy rate this season. However, the Wild’s road power play has clicked at 25 percent (seventh overall), and it has gone 4-for-7 on the road in December, good for second overall with a 57.1 percent rate.
- Kontain Kirill: Slowing down the top line of Zuccarello, Hartman and particularly Kaprizov will be an important challenge for the Knights. While the Joel Eriksson Ek line has plenty of firepower, Kaprizov is one of the most dynamic players in the NHL, and he’s a point-per-game player against the Knights. Having Stephenson will help, but the Knights need to make better reads and smarter plays in the defensive end. Allowing this line to cycle and get to the high-danger areas will be costly.
- Lead the way: Jumping out to an early lead would be a nice change of pace for the Knights, who have only had a lead for four minutes and six seconds over the last two games. While scoring first hasn’t been critical for the Golden Knights, it has been very beneficial to the Wild. Minnesota is 13-2-0 when scoring first and 6-5-1 when giving up the first goal. Vegas also is a .500 team when surrendering the first goal (6-6-0) but is just 9-5-0 when lighting the lamp first. The Knights can’t continue to chase the whole game. Vegas trailed for a combined 85 minutes and five seconds (43:31 against Dallas and 41:34 against Philadelphia), which is more than 71 percent of the last two games. The only lead they held in those two games came after Pacioretty’s game-winning goal against Dallas at 15:54 of the third period.
How to watch
Time: 6 p.m.
TV: AT&T SportsNet
Radio: Fox Sports 98.9 FM