Avalanche at Golden Knights Preview: Vegas looks to clinch division title and Presidents’ Trophy

This is the most important game of the season.

The Vegas Golden Knights and Colorado Avalanche battle Monday in a game that could decide the winner of the NHL West. So far, the Golden Knights are 4-3-0 against the Avalanche this season. Unfortunately, tying the season series may not be enough to keep Vegas away from a first-round series with their kryptonite, the Minnesota Wild.

The Avalanche are a dominant possession team at 5-on-5. But the Golden Knights have been the best about giving them a run for their money in the West division this season. Vegas has a 46 percent expected-goal share (division-best) and 45.06 percent shot share (second) at 5-on-5 against the Avalanche.

The Golden Knights have also had the better special teams versus the Avalanche. Vegas’s power play has four goals (third in the division) and the penalty kill has given up just one goal against, the best in the West. Those special teams could be critical on Monday, as they’ve come in handy recently.

Both teams have only started one goalie against the other. Marc-Andre Fleury has a .932 save percentage and 4.61 goals saved above expected in the first seven games. Philipp Grubauer has a .915 save percentage and 0.51 goals saved above expected against Vegas. Fleury’s also been great from high danger against Colorado, with a .906 high-danger save percentage.

The Golden Knights are led against the Avalanche by Max Pacioretty, who has eight points (six goals) against Colorado. Fourteen Golden Knights have at least one point against the Avalanche, with William Karlsson and Mark Stone both at five points.

The Avalanche are led by Nathan MacKinnon’s six points, all primary. Fourteen players have scored at least one point for Colorado, including Devon Toews (five) and both Joonas Donskoi and Mikko Rantanen (four).

The Golden Knights may not have needed a win more than they do tonight against the Avalanche. This game may be the difference between a first-round series against the St. Louis Blues — whom the Golden Knights are 6-1-1 against this season — and the Wild, a matchup where Vegas has a 3-4-1 record against.

They’ll likely have to do it again without their leading scorer against Colorado in Pacioretty. Tomas Nosek, who has a point against Colorado, is also out with an undisclosed injury. Now would be a really good time for either one to return, but in an ideal world this is when Pacioretty comes back. Colorado could be without MacKinnon.

After this game, the Golden Knights conclude the season with a contest against the San Jose Sharks. The Avalanche have two games left against the Los Angeles Kings.

With Colorado four points back from Vegas with a game in hand, taking this one would clinch the division title and Presidents’ Trophy for Vegas.

What to watch for

  • Two of the most exciting young defensemen face off in this final contest between these two teams, as Shea Theodore of Vegas sees Cale Makar of Colorado for the last time before a possible playoff matchup. Theodore has three points against the Avalanche this season — all primary assists — while Makar has two points, including a goal. Theodore has 42 points this season in 51 games, while Makar has 43 in 41. They each have eight goals. Who plays a more critical role for his team in this game could help decide the outcome.
  • Marc-Andre Fleury has five shutouts this season, with two of them coming via the Avalanche. Philipp Grubauer has yet to shut out the Golden Knights this season, although he has limited Vegas to just one goal twice. That goaltending battle has been one of the most important things to watch in all seven of the games in this series so far, and that’s not likely to change here. The Golden Knights need Fleury to have another good contest, and if he can, then the Golden Knights will have the advantage.
  • This is a matchup of the two likeliest teams contending for the West title in the playoffs. That is to say, this could be a second-round preview in the making, with all the elements of a playoff game. Both teams want home ice for at least the first two rounds, both would likely prefer facing St. Louis over Minnesota, both likely recognize that the winner of the West will likely be the winner of the Presidents’ Trophy this season and have home ice for the playoffs, period. Vegas is at 80 points through 54 games, and the only other division winner with 80 points is the Carolina Hurricanes through 55 games, but Vegas holds the tiebreaker (regulation wins). Vegas and Colorado are quite possibly the best two teams in the NHL and have a lot on the line. Tonight is gonna be super anticlimactic, isn’t it? /

How to watch

Time: 7 p.m.

TV: AT&T SportsNet, ESPN+, NHL.TV, SportsNet

Radio: Fox Sports 98.7 FM/1340 AM