There is such a thing as a team having another’s number. The best example is the 2006-07 Dallas Mavericks.
The Mavericks won a league-best 67 games. Of the 15 games Dallas lost, three came from the Golden State Warriors; a team that barely sniffed the playoffs in the 2000s. But this Warriors team, long before Steph Curry was a twinkle in the Bay Area’s eye, gave this Dallas team trouble. Their speed, length and athleticism gave Dirk Nowitzki fits, and they exploited the stout Mavs defense.
Golden State went 3-0 against Dallas in the regular season; they won by double digits in two of those games. Every Mavs fan knew that if Dallas drew Golden State in the first round, tomfoolery would ensue.
That’s exactly what happened. The Mavs got smacked in six games by the Warriors in one of the biggest upsets in sports playoff history.
If you’re wondering if this Mavs fan ever got over such a debacle, it took until 2011 for that.
What this basketball passage tells you is that no matter the circumstance, a team could be the better group on paper, but there’s always the one club that gives them fits more than any other. And it’s no secret that the Vegas Golden Knights have fallen victim to that trap that is the Minnesota Wild in every season since Vegas’ inception.
Despite a 40-win regular season, the most in the NHL at the expense of not winning the Presidents’ Trophy, the Golden Knights are the No. 2 seed in this revamped West Division and have the unenviable task of drawing the Warriors to their Mavericks in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Game 1 is on Sunday.
“We knew going into the playoffs we were going to play a pretty strong opponent,” said Golden Knights captain Mark Stone. “We’re proud of our regular season; we had the most wins, our goaltenders gave up the least amount of goals. There’s some good things, but it starts now, and we’ll be prepared for Sunday.”
History is a fickle thing
It’d be easier to dissect the Golden Knights’ struggles against the Wild as a one-off, but the 5-10-1 mark over the course of four years dictates this is a long-standing issue.
There’s no question the Golden Knights have the more talented team. Line the rosters up side by side, and the star power on Vegas far outweighs what Minnesota brings. The Golden Knights should win this series and set the stage for the ultimate showdown with their Colorado brethren.
But there’s always been something about the Wild that never made sense. Against any other team, the Wild are a really good club. Against the Golden Knights, they’re the Stanley Cup favorites. The Wild went 5-1-2 this season and are 11-2-3 since the Golden Knights entered the League and have outscored Vegas 50-38 all-time.
Goaltending has driven the Golden Knights this far, and it’ll have to be the case again. In four of their five all-time wins, including two this season, Vegas held Minnesota to two goals or fewer. Defense and keeping Minnesota away from the crease will rule the day.
As to who starts, and carries, this series for the Golden Knights, that remains to be seen. Marc-Andre Fleury and Robin Lehner were the Jennings Trophy winners this season by allowing a league-low 124 goals. Lehner started 16 of the 20 playoff games in the Edmonton bubble last fall, but Fleury started 36 of the 56 games this season when Lehner was out due to a concussion.
“I can tell you this,” DeBoer said, “We don’t win the Jennings Trophy, we don’t have the record we have without having the best tandem in the League. What that rolls out to in the playoffs, I’m not going to tip my hand, and to be honest with you, I’m not even sure I know.”
Excitement comes to Minnesota
We talk about the Wild like it’s time to throw dirt on the grave. Having made the playoffs for eight of the last nine seasons is an outstanding accomplishment. But with Minnesota, the problem hasn’t been regular-season success, it’s been an excitement for the franchise, which has not been there. The State of Hockey hasn’t had something to look forward to for a long time.
Now comes this Kirill Kaprizov guy.
The Calder Trophy frontrunner is all the Wild hoped he would be. Kaprizov led the Wild with 27 goals and was near a point-per-game player in his first NHL season. The 24-year-old has brought the excitement and energy they’ve craved.
But the talent doesn’t just stop at Kaprizov. Kevin Fiala had a 40-point season in 50 games, continuing his strong stretch from last season; Mats Zuccarello and Jordan Greenway are talented playmakers on the wing, while Joel Eriksson Ek has become one of the game’s best young two-way players.
“Anybody that’s left standing now has dangerous elements in their lineup and strengths they’ve played really well to, and Minnesota is no different,” DeBoer said. “This is a very, very good hockey team beyond Kaprizov and Fiala and a couple of their star players. This is a great test for us, and for me, we’ve got to, like all playoff series, you want to impost your game on the other team more than they do on you.”
Minnesota will start Cam Talbot for Game 1. The Wild have gotten great usage from their tandem of the veteran Talbot and 24-year-old rookie Kaapo Kahkonen (16-8-0), despite the latter’s production taking a sharp hit as the season went on. Talbot appeared in 10 games in the bubble last fall, allowing 18 goals in six appearances against the Dallas Stars in the first round. Prior to that, Talbot had not started a playoff game since 2017.
The Wild play in front of the net better than any team in the league, especially in front of their own. Their ability to defend in front of Talbot is why they turn defense into offense so well. If the Wild create turnovers and get out on the rush, the Golden Knights could be in for a long series. Getting traffic in front of Talbot and getting dirty goals will be crucial.
“I think it’s important on both sides,” said defenseman Alex Pietrangelo. “For us as a D core, they’ve scored a few against us in that situation. We spent some time yesterday and today working on that. It’s going to be important for us to protect our net and make it harder for their D on our net.”
The Golden Knights can surely win it all. Signing Pietrangelo, keeping Lehner and Fleury, playing with fewer than 18 skaters on many a night — all of these moves have brought the Golden Knights to this postseason.
Unlike last season, the Golden Knights don’t have the easiest path through the playoffs. Even if they get through the Wild, all eyes are on Colorado. There is no more difficult path than what the Golden Knights could face in the first two rounds.
Gut feeling says Golden Knights in six, but much like against Vancouver last year; if you give a young, talented team life, they’ll find ways to capitalize.
It’s not as lopsided as a 67-win Mavericks team, but the Golden Knights won 40 of 56 games for a reason. This is the time.
“It’s do or die,” Stone said. “You’ve got to win four of seven games to move on, but I don’t think you want to change your game. We won 40 games for a reason. We played good hockey.”
Wild projected lineup
Jordan Greenway — Joel Eriksson Ek — Marcus Foligno
Kirill Kaprizov — Ryan Hartman — Mats Zuccarello
Kevin Fiala — Victor Rask — Marcus Johansson
Nick Bonino — Nico Sturm — Nick Bjugstad
Ryan Suter — Jared Spurgeon
Jonas Brodin — Matt Dumba
Carson Soucy — Ian Cole
Golden Knights projected lineup
Tomas Nosek — Chandler Stephenson — Mark Stone
Jonathan Marchessault — William Karlsson — Reilly Smith
Mattias Janmark — Nicolas Roy — Alex Tuch
William Carrier — Keegan Kolesar — Ryan Reaves
Nick Holden — Alex Pietrangelo
Brayden McNabb — Shea Theodore
Nicolas Hague — Zach Whitecloud
Notes from Saturday’s practice
Max Pacioretty and Alec Martinez did not practice with undisclosed injuries. They are game-time decisions, per DeBoer. Reaves and Nosek did skate and despite also being game-time calls, it’s expected they’ll be in the lineup for Game 1.
DeBoer also did not confirm a starting goalie. Fleury was first off the ice after practice.
How to watch Game 1
Radio: Fox Sports 98.9
Opponent blog: Hockey Wilderness