The Vegas Golden Knights and Minnesota Wild will kick off their season series tonight in the first of two games at T-Mobile Arena. The Knights (12-4-1) and Wild (12-6-0) are currently in first and second place in the West Division, respectively, though the Knights have a game in hand.
Historically, Minnesota has been a tough opponent for the Knights. In fact, Vegas holds a 2-6-0 all-time record against the Wild with just one regulation victory. From a points-percentage perspective, only Boston has proven to be comparably troublesome for the Knights.
It doesn’t help that the Wild are coming in hot. Scorching hot.
After going 6-6-0 through the first 12 games of the year, the Wild have now won six games in a row over the last two weeks, outscoring their opponents 27-10 in that stretch and climbing the standings.
What was supposed to be somewhat of a transition year for the Wild organization is turning into a compelling run, at least through the first quarter of the season.
Tonight will be a test for both teams.
Minnesota is 10th in goals per game (3.17), which is not too far ahead of Vegas’ 14th-ranked average of 3.0. Both teams are in the top-5 in fewest goals allowed per game, with Vegas sitting in a very close second (2.06, trailing Tampa Bay by 0.01) and Minnesota averaging 2.44, good for fifth.
Both teams have struggled on the power play, though Minnesota takes the cake in this category with a meager 7.9 percent conversation rate, good for 31st in the NHL. It’s especially glaring considering the Wild average the fourth-highest amount of power-play time per game (6:27). The power play has been slightly better during the winning streak (11.1 percent), but Minnesota relies on 5-on-5 production, an area the Knights are in the midst of improving.
In their last six games, the Wild have scored 21 goals at 5-on-5, which equates to an average of 3.5 per game, nearly triple Vegas’ rate of 1.33. In other words, over the last six games, 78 percent of Minnesota’s offense has come at 5-on-5, while Vegas has managed 57 percent.
Of course, the only thing that matters at the end of the day is the final score. Plus, the Wild are in the midst of the longest winning streak in the NHL, which heavily skews most of these statistics. But when evaluating the matchup in tonight’s game, recent momentum and recent performance are not insignificant factors.
Mats Zuccarello has collected three goals and 11 points since making his season debut Feb. 16, and he is fourth on the team in points despite playing just seven games (six of which, not so coincidentally, have been wins).
Young phenom Kirill Kaprizov has three goals and eight points during the winning streak and leads the team in scoring with 17 points in 18 games this season. The winger was brought over from Russia in the offseason after leading the KHL in goals in back-to-back seasons. Notably, the KHL points leaders in 2018-19 and 2019-20 were Nikita Gusev and some guy named Vadim Shipachev, respectively. Kaprizov has been sensational all year; he leads all rookies in scoring, is the early favorite for the Calder and is making a name for himself as one of the more creative players in the league.
Jordan Greenway and Joel Eriksson Ek have shifted into top-six roles and are playing on a new level this season; the two 24-year-old forwards have combined for 26 points and rank second and third in team scoring, respectively.
Two of the team’s top offensive contributors from 2019-20, Zach Parise and Kevin Fiala, have largely underwhelmed thus far. However, both have had success against Vegas; Parise has three goals and five points in six career contests against the Knights, while Fiala has four goals and 10 points in nine games against Vegas as a member of the Predators and Wild.
In net, the majority of the workload has fallen on the shoulders of 24-year-old Kaapo Kahkonen, though offseason acquisition Cam Talbot as well as last year’s starter Alex Stalock both recently returned from injury (Stalock has since been waived). Kahkonen has won each of his last five starts, and Talbot recorded a 28-save shutout in his Feb. 26 return to the lineup after missing most of February.
Vegas, meanwhile, has won two straight games and is coming off a 3-2 overtime win against Anaheim that featured a vintage two-goal performance by Wild Bill and yet another stellar effort from Marc-Andre Fleury, who was the sole reason William Karlsson even had the chance to score the game-winner in extra time.
A series of jaw-dropping saves by Fleury early in overtime kept Vegas in the game and ultimately led to Fleury’s 100th win as a member of the Golden Knights.
He is now 9-3-0 with a 1.59 goals-against average and .941 save percentage this season. He is 2-3-0 against Minnesota since joining the Knights (4-10-0 all-time), averaging 2.6 goals against in those five games. He will make his ninth consecutive start tonight.
Three things to watch for
- It was more of an issue earlier on this season, but the Knights must come out with a strong start in tonight’s matchup. Minnesota has scored 22 first-period goals this season, tied for fourth overall, and has a +12 goal differential in the opening frame (compared to -8 in the second and +5 in the third). Particularly considering how much trouble Vegas has had against this franchise, allowing Minnesota to take control of the game early won’t do Vegas (or Fleury) any favors. This is especially true since the Knights have trailed after the first period in four out of their five losses this season. The only exception was the 1-0 loss to Anaheim in which Vegas troll Max Comtois scored the lone goal of the game in the second half of the third period. The Knights cannot afford an uninspired effort out of the gate, especially against the surging Wild.
- But a strong start isn’t enough. Vegas needs a 60-minute team-wide effort, especially since Minnesota has gotten production from throughout its lineup. In fact, 13 different Wild skaters have scored a goal over the last six games, and 18 players have recorded at least one point. While Minnesota’s top six is responsible for the majority of its offense, Vegas needs to be able to roll four lines. The Knights will have their hands full but will need to contain “Kirill the Thrill” if they want to come out on top.
- In addition to hosting the Wild, the Golden Knights also will be welcoming fans to the arena for the first time this season. T-Mobile Arena will have 15 percent capacity, or roughly 2600 fans, in attendance, which should add an extra element to the game. Vegas is 8-2-1 at home this season, but having authentic fan noise should amplify the intensity of the competition. It has been almost an entire calendar year since the Knights have played in front of Vegas fans, and some players, like Dylan Coghlan, have never done so in a meaningful game. Plus, Alex Pietrangelo will make an unofficial debut of sorts, as it’ll be his first game as a Golden Knight in front of Vegas fans after signing a massive contract in the offseason. The NHL has done a pretty decent job incorporating crowd noise and effects into broadcasts, but there’s no substitute for the real thing. While partial capacity can’t replicate the raucous energy that has become synonymous with Vegas home games, the players will look to feed off the energy in the building in what is essentially a battle for the top seed in the division. Hopefully the Knights recognize that the gold helmets are not safe for spectators.
Vegas Golden Knights
Alex Tuch — Chandler Stephenson — Mark Stone
Max Pacioretty — Cody Glass — Reilly Smith
Jonathan Marchessault — William Karlsson — Nicolas Roy
William Carrier — Keegan Kolesar — Ryan Reaves
(Tomas Nosek: GTD)
Shea Theodore — Pietrangelo
Alec Martinez — Zach Whitecloud
Nic Hague — Coghlan
Greenway — Eriksson Ek — Fiala
Kaprizov — Victor Rask — Zuccarello
Parise — Ryan Hartman — Marcus Foligno
Nico Sturm — Nick Bonino — Nick Bjugstad
Ryan Suter — Jared Spurgeon
Jonas Brodin — Matt Dumba
Carson Soucy — Ian Cole
How to watch
Time: 7 p.m.
TV: AT&T SportsNet
Radio: Fox Sports 98.9 FM/1340 AM