The Vegas Golden Knights will wrap up their six-game road trip with a tilt against the Minnesota Wild tonight at Xcel Energy Center.
This will be the first meeting between these two clubs this season. Vegas went 2-1-0 in the season series last year but is 7-11-1 all-time (mostly due to a 2-6-0 start). The Golden Knights defeated Minnesota in seven games in the first round of the 2021 postseason.
Tonight’s contest will feature several familiar faces, including former Golden Knights skaters Ryan Reaves (who was traded to the Wild from the Rangers earlier this season) and defenseman Jon Merrill.
But a particularly memorable face will man the pipes against his former team for the second time in his career, as Marc-Andre Fleury is expected to get the nod tonight for the Wild; Minnesota is skating in the second half of a back-to-back after suffering a 4-1 loss last night in Dallas.
Fleury has never lost to the Golden Knights, though he has yet to square off against them in a Minnesota Wild jersey. He was the starter for Chicago in his return to Vegas last season, stopping 30 of 31 shots in a 2-1 victory. He went 19-21-5 with Chicago before being moved to the Wild at the deadline; he managed an impressive 9-2-0 record with the Wild before losing three of five games in a six-game first-round loss to St. Louis.
Fleury found himself involved in more goalie controversy when Cam Talbot requested a trade after the unexpected timeshare, but things have been calmer for the 38-year-old, who is 16-11-3 with a 2.88 goals-against average and .905 save percentage this season. Backup Filip Gustavsson has played well, going 11-8-1 with a 2.31 goals-against average and .922 save percentage. Both goalies have recorded a shutout.
But Gustavsson gave up three goals in a 4-1 loss to Dallas last night, leaving the crease open for the former Golden Knights fan favorite. Fleury is 3-3-0 in his last six starts and 4-4-2 in his last 10.
Both teams have been underperforming.
The Wild went 5-4-1 leading up to the All-Star break and are 0-2-0 thus far in February, losing 3-2 to Arizona and 4-1 to Dallas. Vegas is 3-5-2 in its last 10 and has strung together losing streaks of three and four games over the last few weeks.
However, the Golden Knights are coming off a 5-1 victory against the Nashville Predators and will look build on that win after losing the previous four (0-2-2) and seven of the previous eight.
Though the Golden Knights currently sit atop the Pacific Division standings, they trail Seattle in points percentage (the Kraken have two games in hand).
If the playoffs started today, both Vegas and Minnesota would make the cut. Vegas would be the No. 1 seed in the Pacific, while the Wild — who are in fourth place in the Central Division in points (58) and points percentage (.580) — would be the second wildcard team.
Not surprisingly, Kirill “The Thrill” Kaprizov leads the Wild across the board with 28 goals, 33 assists, 61 points, 13 power-play goals, 28 power-play points, 188 shots and a 14.9 percent shooting percentage. He has six goals and nine points in 11 career games against the Golden Knights and enters tonight’s contest on a seven-game point streak (3-6—9) with points in 10 out of his last 11 games (5-8—13). He has recorded at least a point in all but 10 games this season.
Mats Zuccarello is second on the team in scoring with 50 points (19-31—50); Joel Eriksson Ek has 42 points, while Matt Boldy has 36. Calen Addison leads the blue line with three goals and 25 points in his first full NHL season.
Minnesota is 15-8-1 on home ice this season, while the Golden Knights are 16-5-4 away from T-Mobile Arena.
Minnesota and Vegas have remarkably similar numbers on special teams.
Both clubs have been particularly strong on the power play, with Minnesota ranking 11th (23.8 percent) and Vegas trailing ever-so-slightly at 23 percent (12th). The clubs are even tighter (0.5 apart) on the penalty kill, where the Wild rank 14th (79.9 percent) and the Golden Knights rank 16th (79.4 percent).
However, Minnesota has the second-ranked power play in the NHL on home ice, converting on 30.1 percent of its opportunities, which trails only Edmonton (32.3 percent). Vegas is producing on 23.2 percent of its chances on the road, which is good for sixth overall.
Keys to the game
Scoring first remains a point of contention for the Golden Knights despite the fact that Vegas bounced back with five straight goals, including two goals in the span of 27 seconds just 1:23 after falling behind, Tuesday in Nashville.
The Golden Knights gave up the first goal in 11 of 13 January contests and have done so in 14 of the last 16 games going back to Dec. 27 against Los Angeles.
The Golden Knights are 21-4-0 (.880) when scoring first this season, which is second only to the unconscionable Boston Bruins (.893) in win percentage. When giving up the first goal, Vegas is 9-14-4 for a .333 win percentage.
That win percentage shrinks to .273 (3-6-2) in 2023, as Vegas has scored first just twice over the last five weeks; only Montreal has fared worse, scoring first in one out of 23 games.
Scoring first isn’t crucial, but falling behind has been a consistent factor during Vegas’ extended slump.
The power play is another area of Vegas’ game that has taken a lot of air out of the Golden Knights’ sails in recent games.
Losing Mark Stone (who is now out indefinitely) has hurt the man-advantage significantly.
In fact, after scoring 14 goals on 41 attempts in December, Vegas only scored three on 21 in January. Vegas has potted just one since Stone went down with an injury Jan. 12 against Florida.
In that stretch, Vegas has won just two of nine games.
Jack of all trades
Since Stone’s injury, Jack Eichel has produced a total of one assist.
In nine games.
There’s no way around it; players who make $10 million have to contribute, and Eichel is not doing so. He led the team in scoring for much of the season but has seen that production fall off a cliff.
It’s not just production, however; Eichel has failed to elevate his teammates’ play and has not been a difference-maker on the ice.
He has recorded 12 shots in his last two games, which could indicate he may be due. But he needs to be taking over games, not racking up his shot totals.
Eichel has been a letdown during his moment to shine. That cannot continue, regardless of what the Golden Knights do at the deadline given Stone’s questionable status.
Paul Cotter — Jack Eichel — Jonathan Marchessault
Reilly Smith — William Karlsson — Michael Amadio
William Carrier — Chandler Stephenson — Phil Kessel
Brett Howden — Nicolas Roy — Keegan Kolesar
Alec Martinez — Alex Pietrangelo
Brayden McNabb — Shea Theodore
Nicolas Hague — Zach Whitecloud
Kirill Kaprizov — Ryan Hartman — Mats Zuccarello
Jordan Greenway — Joel Eriksson Ek — Marcus Foligno
Matt Boldy — Sam Steel — Frederick Gaudreau
Brandon Duhaime — Connor Dewar — Ryan Reaves
Jacob Middleton — Jared Spurgeon
Alex Goligoski — Matt Dumba
Jon Merrill — Cale Addison