Wild at Golden Knights — Game 7 Preview: Vegas faces elimination after blowing 3-1 series lead

This is the third Game 7 in Vegas history but the first one on home ice.

The Vegas Golden Knights have run out of breathing room and now have their backs against the wall in their first-round series against the Minnesota Wild.

After falling short the other night, tonight’s Game 7 matchup will be a do-or-die battle. Anything can happen in a Game 7, no matter how the first six games unfolded.

In this case, the Knights actually dropped the first game (1-0 in overtime) but went on to win three straight to take a 3-1 series lead. From there, Minnesota clawed its way back into the series with wins in the last two contests, including a convincing 3-0 shutout victory on Wednesday to set up the critical final test tonight at T-Mobile Arena.

It all comes down to tonight. The pressure is on, especially for Vegas, for many reasons.

For one thing, the Knights were the higher seed. They had a fantastic regular season and finished in a tie with Colorado with the most points in the entire NHL. They were one point away or one win away from clinching not only the division but also the Presidents’ Trophy. They blew that chance near the end of the season in a 2-1 home loss to the Avalanche in which Pete DeBoer made a surprising decision in net and had just 15 players in the lineup due to salary cap complications.

But the Knights also had loftier expectations coming into the regular season, especially after adding Alex Pietrangelo in free agency. He was supposed to be a difference-maker for the Knights, the missing piece to the puzzle that Vegas needed to go the distance and compete for the Stanley Cup. So far, he has failed to be that guy, and the Knights are in jeopardy of finishing the year with a one-and-done postseason run.

Minnesota has had Vegas’ number for four years, and it was a tall task for Vegas to win four games against a team that had dominated the matchup, especially on home ice. Surprisingly, the Knights overcame that obstacle with back-to-back road wins in Games 3 and 4 en route to grabbing a 3-1 series lead. Statistically, the Knights were in a great position to win the series and advance.

But that lead has since evaporated. Instead of ending it in five games, Vegas has given Minnesota new life, and the Wild enter tonight’s game with all the momentum.

The Knights, losers of back-to-back games, have a lot more to prove, especially as a franchise with a definite time frame in mind for success.

Minnesota’s regular-season performance exceeded expectations, while the Knights came into the 2020-21 campaign with a Cup-or-bust mentality.

But when you add in the fact that this is the third straight year in which the Knights have blown a 3-1 series lead, the pressure mounts considerably.

In 2019, things fell to pieces on the Joe Pavelski major, and Gerard Gallant’s team ended the season despite holding a 3-1 series lead and a late 3-0 lead in Game 7. DeBoer’s Sharks overcame the 3-1 deficit and 3-0 hole and completed the improbable comeback. That had to have played a role in the Knights’ decision to make the coaching change.

But here we are, two years later, and DeBoer and the Knights have blown two more 3-1 series leads. The Knights were able to win Game 7 against Vancouver last year after Shea Theodore finally broke through and got one past Thatcher Demko.

But the Knights were unable to do so on Wednesday against Cam Talbot, so similar scoring concerns have resurfaced.

The potential advantage this time around is the fact that the game will be played in Vegas and will be the first time T-Mobile Arena will host Game 7 action. That being said, Vegas is 1-2 at home so far this series and has never clinched a playoff series on home ice, so it’s not a slam dunk by any means.

Either team could come away victorious tonight, and of the three 3-1 series leads that have turned into Game 7 showdowns, this has to be the weakest position Vegas has found itself in, all things considered.

It’s still a winnable game, though, but the Knights have to go out and actually win it.

They will have to do so without Ryan Reaves, who was added to COVID protocol. Cody Glass was sent down to Henderson last night, which could mean that one of Max Pacioretty or Tomas Nosek is available, though both are considered game-time decisions.

Here’s what to watch for as the Knights fight to keep their season alive.

What to watch for

  • Marc-Andre Fleury should be the starter. Assuming that’s the case, he needs to be better than he has been in the last few games. He gave up four total goals in the first four games but has surrendered six in the last two. He has been sensational in the series and has carried the team on his back all year, but the Knights are going to need him at his best tonight. Fleury is someone who can steal a game, but he needs some help from his teammates. The Wild should not be able to get second and third chances off rebounds, and Wild skaters should not be in alone behind the defensemen. The Knights can’t give Minnesota any breaks tonight.
  • The Knights need to capitalize on their scoring opportunities. It’s not something a team can plan for, but it’s pretty simple: the Knights will not win this game if they do not score. Vegas has been shut out in two of its three losses in the series, and offense has been hard to come by for both teams, as the Knights had a shutout win of their own. The Wild have been a shot-blocking machine, and the Knights have not done themselves any favors by failing to adjust. Much like Jonathan Marchessault did on his pivotal goal in Game 2, Vegas needs to change the shooting angle on shots in order to bypass Minnesota’s defensive structure as well as make life harder for Talbot. The Knights need to get bodies to the net to take Talbot’s eyes away and to be in position for potential rebounds or deflections. Vegas needs to test Talbot and force him to move. He made several strong pad saves in Game 6, so if he continues to take away the lower part of the net, the Knights need to focus on getting the puck up. Shooting aimlessly from the point and failing to get extended zone time is not going to cut it in Game 7.
  • Momentum swings have reigned supreme in this series. Many of them have been the byproducts of challenges and reversed calls, most of which have benefited Vegas. One would think the series has seen enough of them, but anything can happen in a Game 7; the Knights know that all too well. But no matter what happens, the Knights need to ride out the wave, whether it’s in their favor or against it. If Minnesota scores a goal, the Knights need to respond with a smart, sound shift and keep it simple rather than allow the Wild to build on that momentum. It’s easier said than done; every play in playoff hockey feels significant, but Game 7 is in another league. The Knights need to stay level and take it shift by shift, period by period. On the flip side, if the Knights have some momentum, they have to sustain it without taking unnecessary risks that leave the team exposed. That happened several times the other night, and on two occasions it led to a goal against.
  • The Knights need more from the top line, particularly from Mark Stone. He is the leader of the team, and when he scores, the entire team jumps on board. Stone and Alex Tuch have been game-changers in this series, and the Knights need more from them tonight. Theodore doesn’t have a single point in the series, yet he had a prolific regular season and was the only one who could score late in last year’s seven-game series against Vancouver. The Knights need the stars to show up, regardless of whether Pacioretty returns to the lineup. But at the same time, every player has to chip in and contribute in some capacity; the Knights will only win if they do so as a team./

How to watch

Time: 6 p.m.

TV: NBCSN, ATT&T SportsNet

Radio: Fox Sports 98.9 FM/1340 AM