There were no line brawls at Xcel Energy Center on Wednesday, but you would’ve thought the first period was played at Madison Square Garden.
The first 20 minutes of the Golden Knights’ 3-2 overtime victory against the Minnesota Wild wasn’t the flashiest, nor the prettiest for the hockey purists, but it was a huge part why Vegas ended its five-game losing streak to the Wild.
“You got two teams that are going to potentially see each other in the playoffs, potentially seven times,” said coach Pete DeBoer. “I don’t think anyone wants to take a step back from anybody and send the wrong message.”
The Golden Knights played a solid 50-minute game Monday despite blowing a two-goal lead in the third, losing 6-5. If not for collapsing defensively in front of Robin Lehner late, insert shrug emoji here.
That was the biggest change in Vegas’ approach Wednesday. Not only did they match well with Minnesota, but for a rare time, the Golden Knights got punched in the mouth and responded in kind.
Vegas played an aggressive defense; not over-playing, but ensured there was a body in front of whichever Wild player touched the puck. The Knights did a good job taking away time and space while converging in front of Marc-Andre Fleury. Minnesota had only one high-danger chance through the first 40 minutes.
Penalties aside, the Golden Knights couldn’t have played a better first period. They gave the Wild three power plays that tilted the shot counter heavily late; Vegas once held a 7-3 edge in that department.
“Nobody backed down,” said Alex Pietrangelo, who scored the game-winner in OT. “I think up and down our lineup, we all set up the way we had to with what they were trying to do, the way they were trying to play. When they get a couple of power plays in the first period, that’s when their skill players are feeling the puck and kind of gets them in the game. Flower did a great job kind of keeping us in the game on the power play. Those were big penalty kills for us. Those were important times to build momentum.”
It’s not often the Golden Knights get in a chippy game with the opponent. It was a spirited first period, one that featured 30 combined penalty minutes, plenty of scrums, and the first NHL fight for Nicolas Hague — standing tall (pun intended) against Marcus Foligno.
Oh, and a bloody nose for Zach Whitecloud, too.
All of that for no goals through 20 minutes.
But that first period, despite being outshot 10-8, set the tone for the Golden Knights. Fleury did his part in keeping it goalless, but the Golden Knights kept mostly everything to the outside; something they’ve struggled doing with Minnesota.
It paid off in the second period when Chandler Stephenson broke the goal-less tie 8:30 into the second period. Mattias Janmark forced a turnover in the neutral zone and started a 2-on-1 the other way.
After 12 penalties in the first, Minnesota and Vegas combined for two in the second and third. That Minnesota penalty in the third — hooking against Mats Zuccarello at 13:45 — led to Reilly Smith’s game-tying goal at 15:44, just two minutes after Kirill Kaprizov scored his second goal of the game to give Minnesota their first lead.
The win wasn’t just for the Golden Knights cushioning their lead in the West Division; they’re close to avoiding the Wild altogether in the first round. With four games remaining, and three at home, Vegas can clinch home-ice advantage in the first round with a win Friday against the St. Louis Blues, coupled with a Minnesota loss.
But at least for one game, the Golden Knights showed they can hit back when the Wild swing first. In a seven-game series, that’s still to be determined.
“I love how we responded tonight,” DeBoer said. “I think our competitiveness was why the scraps and scrums were out there, because we were competitive in all situations, and that’s where tempers flare.”