6 questions facing the Golden Knights heading into the 2021 postseason

Who will start in Game 1 against Minnesota? Is it Cup or bust?

The Vegas Golden Knights fell about as short as a team can fall from winning the West Division and Presidents’ Trophy. Vegas and Colorado both finished with 82 points following the Avalanche’s 5-1 win over Los Angeles Thursday night, but Colorado held the tiebreaker (regulation wins), thus dropping the Knights to second in the West and second in the NHL.

Vegas lost control of its own destiny after suffering a 2-1 loss to Colorado on Monday.

The Knights are the only team in the NHL that reached 40 wins this season, but the second-place finish forces a first-round matchup against the Minnesota Wild, arguably the worst outcome for the Golden Knights. Vegas will have home-ice advantage in the series, which is set to begin Sunday at T-Mobile Arena.

It has felt like a long season despite the shortened schedule, but it’s time for Vegas to switch gears into playoff mode. The Knights will make their fourth consecutive postseason appearance and are looking to go the distance this time around. Vegas reached the Stanley Cup Final in its inaugural campaign, lost in shocking fashion in overtime of Game 7 in the first round in 2019 and lost in five games in the Western Conference Final last year.

This year’s path has been made more difficult with the Wild draw, but the Knights have high aspirations.

Here are six questions facing the Golden Knights as they enter the second season.

1. Who will start in net for Game 1 and how will the Golden Knights employ goaltenders in the playoffs?

There’s no question that Marc-Andre Fleury has done more than enough to warrant getting the nod in Game 1 on Sunday.

He finished the season, the best statistical campaign of his career, with 26 wins in 36 starts, recording a 1.98 goals-against average, .928 save percentage and six shutouts, all good for top-three finishes in the NHL. He also enters the postseason on the heels of a nine-game winning streak.

Robin Lehner went 13-4-2 in 19 starts, finishing the year with a 2.29 goals-against average, .913 save percentage and one shutout. Lehner had a strong season, accounted for five wins during the Knights’ 10-game winning streak and played a role in the two goalies earning this year’s William M. Jennings Trophy for allowing the fewest goals in the NHL (124). However, he enters the playoffs having lost three of his last four starts, and the one win in that stretch was one of his worst performances of the season.

It’s hard to imagine not starting the goalie in consideration for the Vezina Trophy who has won nine straight.

Yet here we are.

It remains a mystery how Pete DeBoer will handle goaltending in the playoffs; there’s a very real possibility that he will stick with the rotation strategy even in the postseason.

Perhaps a telling sign was the fact that instead of giving the well-deserved start to Fleury in Monday’s critical game against Colorado, DeBoer elected to continue with the rotation and seemingly gave Lehner the start simply because it was his turn. The Knights ended up losing that hard-fought game — with just 15 skaters in the lineup — on this goal in the third period.

There were two Vegas skaters that could have and should have tied up that stick, but that puck still should not get through, especially at that point of that game.

The division title didn’t come down to one goal; the Knights could have won any number of games in recent weeks to push them over the edge. The only issue with that logic in the context of this discussion is the fact that Fleury has won each of his last nine starts.

But putting Fleury aside, Lehner has not been anywhere near his best in recent games. He was in net for Vegas’ third-period collapse against (ironically) Minnesota, and he gave up three soft goals against St. Louis in his next start.

None of this should take away from what he contributed throughout the season, including some big stops at key moments.

Remarkably, Lehner went 9-0-1 after returning from a concussion and didn’t lose in regulation until Vegas’ April 30 contest against Arizona. But following that loss, his final three starts of the season were the 6-5 loss to Minnesota, the rough performance (despite getting the win) against St. Louis and the 2-1 loss to Colorado. On the whole, he was very solid for the Golden Knights this season, but not so much at the end.

To his credit, he’s been the first to admit when he hasn’t come up with enough saves.

But questionable and untimely goals are often the difference between winning and losing in the playoffs. Though Fleury was not perfect this year and gave up goals he should have stopped, he made both the routine save and the highlight-reel save when it mattered most.

Down the stretch, that wasn’t always true of Lehner.

After the Minnesota game that saw Vegas blow a 5-3 third-period lead, DeBoer admitted, “That’s about as tough as they get, that kind of loss. ... Thankfully it’s not two weeks from now in a playoff series because that would obviously be a lot harder to take, as tough as this one is to take.”

Now it is two weeks later.

Now the Golden Knights are in one of those playoff series.

The margin for error is practically nonexistent.

Now is the time to put the game in Fleury’s hands, starting in Game 1 and in every game after that until there’s a reason not to.

2. Can the Golden Knights overcome their struggles against the Wild?

The Golden Knights did not want this matchup in the first round. There’s no getting around that.

Vegas has an all-time record of 5-10-1 against the Wild. In four seasons, the Knights have yet to earn a regulation win in Minnesota, as this year’s only road win against the Wild came in overtime. The only other game the Knights have ever won in St. Paul was a 2-1 shootout win in the 2018-19 season.

For a franchise that has had so much success since the very beginning, that’s quite a statement.

Fortunately for Vegas, the Knights have home-ice advantage, even if the Wild did take two out of four meetings at T-Mobile Arena this season.

Overall, the Knights went 3-4-1 against Minnesota this year but 1-3-2 in the final six games after winning the first two at home. Interestingly, the Knights outscored the Wild 24-23.

Fleury was 3-3-0 in the season series, managing a 2.41 goals-against average and .919 save percentage. Lehner went 0-1-1 with a 3.87 goals-against average and .884 save percentage.

No other Western Conference team has given Vegas more fits.

But zero regulation wins on the road in four years?

There has to be something to that. Right?

Maybe. Maybe not.

Sometimes a team just has another team’s number. It happens, and it’s not unusual for a team to struggle on the road against a particular opponent.

For example, the Detroit Red Wings went almost 20 years without defeating the Flyers in Philadelphia (1997-2016). There’s no logical explanation for that, especially since the Detroit franchise was so dominant for so many years. It was just one of those things.

But for the most part, the regular season and past results are irrelevant once the postseason starts.

That’s because playoff hockey is different. In the Stanley Cup Playoffs, any team can beat any other team. For the Knights, it’s a new season and a blank slate in the first playoff meeting between two franchises.

Game 1 will set the tone for the series.

If it’s anything like the regular season, buckle up.

3. Will Vegas be healthy enough to compete against a relatively healthy Minnesota roster?

Based on yesterday’s practice and media availability, it seems safe to say that there’s a good chance Ryan Reaves will return to the lineup for Game 1. Mark Stone talked about looking forward to adding physicality to the lineup for Game 1, which indirectly points to a Reaves return.

Max Pacioretty, Alec Martinez, Tomas Nosek and Alex Tuch were absent from yesterday’s “semi-optional” practice, though Tuch and Nosek practiced today; Martinez and Pacioretty did not. Nick Holden served as a placeholder for Martinez in yesterday’s practice, which could mean Martinez may be ready for Game 1, but that will be a game-time decision at best.

Pacioretty missed the final six games of the regular season but is a crucial part of Vegas’ offense. The Knights went 15-2-1 in the regular season when Pacioretty scored a goal, with the two regulation losses both coming against Colorado. Pacioretty produced at more than a point-per-game pace with 24 goals and 51 points in 48 games before missing the end of the season.

Martinez led the NHL in blocked shots and really solidified Vegas’ back end. His absence would be a massive loss for the Knights. He was contributing offensively prior to getting hurt, collecting points in each of his last four games (two against Minnesota, two against St. Louis). Also, his prior playoff experience and success should not be undervalued in a series that could be tight.

Tuch missed the third period of Wednesday’s regular season finale for what was deemed a tweak, not a serious injury. It’s a good sign to see him back on the ice, even if he remains a game-time call. It should be an especially meaningful series for Tuch since it’ll be against the team that drafted him in the first round of the 2014 NHL Entry Draft.

Kelly McCrimmon was evasive in his answers regarding injuries yesterday, instead focusing on the fact that the Knights will be able to dress a full lineup now that there is no salary cap in the postseason.

Management risked a lot in salary cap navigation in order to accommodate Alex Pietrangelo’s contract in the offseason. That resulted in Vegas playing short in 10 games, including with 15 skaters in the biggest game of the year against the Avalanche.

But that won’t be an issue anymore. Patrick Brown has skated with the fourth line in practice; Mattias Janmark, who will make his Golden Knights playoff debut, was on the top line yesterday and the third line today (Nosek replaced him on the top line in today’s practice).

The Knights could be playing Game 1 without some big names in the lineup. The Pacioretty loss is palpable; even Stone has seemed like a different player without him. But Reaves should bring energy, Tuch significantly strengthens the bottom six and having 18 skaters could go a long way.

4. How does Vegas’ depth stack up against Minnesota’s?

Minnesota had a clear plan in the offseason: deal with the issues in net and bolster the depth up the middle.

General manager Bill Guerin addressed both, and then some.

Cam Talbot has been a strong signing to stabilize the crease, and young Kaapo Kahkonen played a significant role, especially in carrying the Wild through the team’s COVID shutdown with a 9-0-0 stretch. Talbot will start Game 1.

While the Wild didn’t land any superstar players up front, they did add depth with the likes of Nick Bjugstad, Marcus Johansson and two-time Stanley Cup champion Nick Bonino.

Center depth has been an issue for Vegas in the postseason in the past; it was a significant difference between the Knights and Capitals in the Stanley Cup Final in 2018. Neither team in this matchup has elite center talent up and down the lineup, but Minnesota has a lot more depth with Joel Eriksson Ek, Bjugstad, Johansson, Bonino, Nico Sturm, Victor Rask and Ryan Hartman. Some of them have been used on the same line and have not played center, but the options are there, and Minnesota has found great chemistry across four lines.

In fact, rolling four lines has been a key to the Wild’s impressive season, and the Wild have gotten production and grit from throughout the lineup.

Kirill Kaprizov was one of the best additions made by any team in the offseason, and he is arguably the biggest game-breaker in the series. While he and Kevin Fiala are the team’s top weapons, former fourth-line forward Marcus Foligno is the only one of the three who skated on the first line, and he led the Wild in points per game (1.17) in six games against Vegas this season.

Part of Vegas’ depth issues this year have been cap-related, which won’t be a factor anymore.

The Knights have more high-end talent, but the Knights don’t get reliable offensive contributions from the third and fourth lines the way Minnesota does. That’s why Fiala skates on the team’s third line despite being second on the team in goals (20) and points (40). The Wild offense is very balanced, which makes it difficult to contain.

The Knights do not have the same kind of scoring depth, but that doesn’t mean that Vegas’ bottom six won’t contribute. Janmark has disappeared in recent games but remains a wildcard in the playoffs, and Tuch and Nicolas Roy have shown a lot of offensive upside in recent games.

But if this becomes a high-scoring, back-and-forth series (which would not necessarily benefit Vegas), the Knights will need the top six to come through in a big way. That’s why Pacioretty returning would be such a huge boost for the Knights.

If DeBoer can and is willing to roll four lines, the Knights will have a much better shot. He hasn’t distributed ice time conventionally this season, but that could change if these games are as fast-paced as they’re expected to be.

5. Can the Golden Knights get by with this power play?

They will have to.

The Knights scored four power-play goals on 23 opportunities in the season series against Minnesota, which equates to 17.4 percent effectiveness. That’s roughly equal to the Knights’ season average of 17.8 percent.

But the Knights were able to win 40 games with a power play that struggled for literally the entire season.

There were a few games here and there where the power play looked great (mainly against San Jose), and a few times when it seemed as though the fog was lifting. However, the power play never worked itself out, and the lack of practice during the regular season didn’t do Vegas any favors.

It helps that the Knights had the best penalty kill in the regular season (86.8 percent), though. Special teams can change a series, so the fact that Vegas excels on the penalty kill helps make up for a less-than-stellar power play.

But at the end of the day, teams can’t rely on power-play production anyway. The Knights have been a strong 5-on-5 team all year, and the penalty kill has been the team’s greatest strength. That will have to continue to be enough.

It’s possible to win in the playoffs without a power play; not ideal, but possible. Confidence and momentum can do wonders for a struggling power play, so the Knights will have to take it one opportunity at a time.

6. Is it Stanley Cup or bust?

Pretty much.

The 2020-21 season has been a one-of-a-kind, up-and-down whirlwind, and the division, schedule and playoff formats will never be like this again (thankfully). That makes it a little more difficult to truly say that it’s Cup or bust. But considering the Knights’ roster and expectations, barring any unforeseen circumstances, anything short of a Stanley Cup will be viewed as a failure.

The Knights fired Gerard Gallant and brought DeBoer in to win a Cup. Gallant got them there, and DeBoer has yet to do so.

The Knights were the only team to hit 40 wins and came a few goals short of finishing first in the league standings. The Golden Knights expect to come in first in the playoffs.

So yes, it is Cup or bust.