Minnesota grabbed a 1-0 series lead courtesy of Joel Eriksson Ek’s overtime goal in Game 1 Sunday afternoon.
It’s that time of year again, where every loss feels like the end of the season and every win feels like a fast track to the Stanley Cup Final.
Neither is realistic.
But the Knights are in great need of a win to even things up before the series heads back to St. Paul, where the Vegas franchise has two all-time wins, neither of which came in regulation.
Marc-Andre Fleury played well enough in Game 1 to have warranted being named the first, second and third stars, but his team came up empty at the other end of the rink against Wild netminder Cam Talbot.
Though Talbot earned the shutout with a 42-save effort, Fleury was more heavily tested and forced to come up with nearly 10 highlight-reel saves.
One in particular didn’t look anatomically possible, but Fleury kept the puck out of the net, and he’ll have to do so again tonight.
One thing working in Vegas’ favor is the fact that the Knights have been here before.
This is the ninth postseason series in franchise history and the fourth time the Knights have dropped the first game.
In three previous series, the Knights bounced back to win Game 2 every time, never trailing 2-0 in a playoff series.
Two of those did not result in series wins (2019 against San Jose and 2020 against Dallas), but all that matters right now is getting a win tonight, and that’s not something foreign to the core of this team.
Here are five things to watch for as the Knights look to do just that in Game 2.
What to watch for
1. Let Flower shine
Somehow, this is still a thing.
There’s still a chance (albeit small) that Pete DeBoer will not start Fleury for Game 2.
Fortunately for the Knights, the Vegas bench boss went with Fleury in Game 1, and Fleury did not disappoint. The Knights may not have won, but a goaltender can’t do much more than Fleury did for Vegas on Sunday.
Regardless of how goaltending was handled in the regular season, Fleury must be the starter for Game 2. It doesn’t even have anything to do with Robin Lehner at this point; Fleury was just that good.
2. Light that lamp
The Golden Knights need to give Fleury some goal support.
No matter how well Fleury plays, the Knights have to score to win, and Fleury cannot score the goals himself. Eriksson Ek’s goal was not on Fleury, nor was the loss. At all.
The Knights continue to struggle to score in the postseason.
The fact that Max Pacioretty is likely to miss his eighth straight game is not an excuse or explanation for Vegas’ offensive woes.
In fact, the Knights have scored just 12 total goals (10 not including empty-net goals) in their last nine postseason games going back to last year, including Games 5-7 against Vancouver, the entire series against Dallas and Game 1 against Minnesota. Ten goals in nine games will not get it done in the playoffs. No matter what.
This is a new season and a new series, but the Knights need to get over whatever this imaginary offensive hurdle is and just put the puck in the net.
It doesn’t have to be memorable, it doesn’t have to be pretty. There’s no need for Mark Stone to go coast to coast and weave his way through the entire Minnesota lineup like he did on Sunday.
Stone goes coast-to-coast and nearly pulls off an incredible goal. Also draws a penalty on Dumba. pic.twitter.com/R6aA6BVAC6— Danny Webster (@DannyWebster21) May 16, 2021
If it deflects off every single player on the ice as well as a referee and both linesmen before sliding over the goal line, so be it.
All the Knights need to do is get one, and the earlier, the better.
The Knights scored the first goal of the game in five out of eight games against Minnesota during the regular season, and all three of Vegas’ wins against the Wild were in games in which the Knights lit the lamp first.
Obviously, that didn’t prove to be relevant in Game 1, as the Wild scored the only goal of the game. However, it’s important for the Golden Knights to get on the board early.
It has only been two weeks since the Knights scored a combined eight goals in two games against Minnesota.
Confidence and momentum are powerful things, and an early goal should restore both.
3. Chill the “Thrill”
From a possession standpoint, aside from the combination of Alex Tuch, Stone and Chandler Stephenson, all of Vegas’ lines outperformed all of Minnesota’s.
But that doesn’t tell the full story.
That’s because the trio of Kirill “The Thrill” Kaprizov, Mats Zuccarello and Ryan Hartman was the most dangerous line for either team in Game 1. The line was borderline unstoppable but for the fact that Fleury single-handedly shut it down. The Knights need to come up with more of an answer to Minnesota’s second line.
Hartman had what felt like 10 grade-A chances but finished the game with an individual Corsi of eight (two high-danger) as well as seven individual scoring chances and five shots.
As you can see in the event map below, he had five quality opportunities in the low slot.
Zuccarello and Kaprizov had prime scoring chances as well, and the three combined for 12 shots, 17 iCF and 13 iSCF at 5-on-5. But Fleury was a very effective last line of defense for the Knights.
Fleury can’t neutralize countless point-blank scoring chances all series, though. The Knights knew Kaprizov would be an issue coming into the series, but the entire line seemed to catch Vegas off guard in Game 1.
That can’t happen again.
4. Break the block
Minnesota has one of the deepest blue lines in the NHL, and it was evident in Game 1.
Tons of Vegas attempts were blocked throughout the game, and the Wild defense made a lot of strong plays.
One in particular came in the third period.
The Golden Knights were on the power play and seemingly in a great position to score the first goal of the series. William Karlsson was attempting a cross-ice feed to Stone, who was wide open for a backdoor tap-in. However, before the puck could reach the Vegas captain, defenseman Ian Cole dove and blocked the pass with his outstretched stick, used his stick and glove to pull the puck underneath him (making sure not to cover the puck with his glove and take a penalty) and got the whistle.
This play by Ian Cole was next level good.— Stephen Strom (@SStrom_) May 17, 2021
Not only does he save a tap-in goal, but he also throws up his hands to show the refs that he wasn’t covering the puck to avoid a penalty. Just a veteran move. pic.twitter.com/CEPehazpXj
The Knights were fortunate that the referees blew the whistle because it saved time on their power play. But it was a great defensive play and a potentially game-saving play.
Veteran Ryan Suter made a similar play at the end of the first period to break up a similar pass on another Vegas power play.
Those were a few of many standout plays by the defensemen, including several from captain Jared Spurgeon and defenseman Jonas Brodin.
The Knights finished the game with a Corsi count of 81 at all strengths (to Minnesota’s 47), but it was more than just Talbot that stonewalled the Knights and their 2.83 expected goals.
The defense combined for 12 shot blocks, and the team recorded a total of 23.
By contrast, the Knights blocked a total of 13 as a team, 11 of which came from the back end.
The Minnesota forwards combined for 11, nearly the same total as the entire Vegas lineup.
Now, a lot of that has to do with the fact that Vegas was firing the puck at a much higher rate. The Knights can’t block shots that aren’t taken.
But it shows that the Knights are up against more than just Talbot; his teammates are creating barriers in front of him, whereas it seems as though Fleury is often bailing his teammates out.
The Golden Knights need to change things up to make life much more challenging for Talbot. He played a great game, especially weathering the storm in the first period when Vegas outshot the Wild 19-5. He made a few key stops, including when he came out and challenged Karlsson as well as when he kicked out his pad to stop Stone on his coast-to-coast drive.
But he wasn’t forced to track pucks through double screens and multiple deflections, or fly across the crease and come up with desperation saves.
The Knights need to rely less on the dump-and-chase, change their shooting angles, use the defensemen as screens, make Talbot move and force plays to the slot to create more high-danger chances and more traffic to better test Talbot. They need more one-timed shots rather than giving Talbot time to reset and square up to a non-threatening shot.
The longer his shutout streak goes, the harder it could be for the Knights to break through.
5. Clear the crease
One thing that really stood out in the regular-season series between the Knights and Wild was the fact that the Wild scored the majority of their goals off rebounds or loose pucks in front of or around the net or on one-timed shots off feeds from behind the net.
Fleury didn’t give up many rebounds in Game 1, and when he did, the Knights did a very good job of clearing the puck out. However, that can’t change in Game 2, or the Golden Knights will be skating on very thin ice.
There’s only so much Vegas can and should expect of Fleury, for the level of play he demonstrated in Game 1 is not sustainable, especially against such a deep Wild offense.
The Vegas defense (and backchecking forwards) need to do more of what Minnesota did in Game 1 and make strong stick plays to break up plays and help prevent the Wild from cashing in on Vegas mistakes.
The Wild are very skilled but still score a lot of dirty goals, and the Knights lost the giveaway battle in five out of eight games during the regular season as well as in Game 1 (10-5).
The Golden Knights may have been undefeated in overtime in the regular season, but Game 1 was a wake-up call about what happens when you fail to make sharp plays.
Alex Pietrangelo got caught hesitating on what should have been a straightforward clear after the Knights won a key defensive draw at the tail end of the Minnesota power play. Instead, Pietrangelo turned the puck over, which cost Vegas the game.
That’s why tonight’s game is essentially a must-win for Vegas. It may not be do-or-die because it’s not an elimination game, but the Knights need to play with the same amount of desperation they’d need if it were.
Normally, losing both games at home is a tough hill to climb. But doing so against Minnesota will really test this Golden Knights team.
That’s not a test Vegas should take.
Who would YOU start between the pipes tonight?
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How to watch
Time: 7 p.m.
TV: NBCSN, AT&T SportsNet
Radio: Fox Sports 98.9 FM/1340 AM