Golden Knights finally topple Wild in dominant Game 7

For one year, Vegas can say it was the better team.

There was this sense they couldn’t get it done.

Nevermind the 3-1 hurdle. They’ve already done that. Though one more loss would’ve brought the memes out for all eternity.

One question lingered: Could they win one more?

And to be completely honest, all confidence of thinking the Vegas Golden Knights could actually pull this off was slim to none. When the final buzzer sounded in Game 6, I had about as much confidence in the Golden Knights winning a fourth game against the Minnesota Wild as Mattias Janmark scoring a hat trick.

Oh, he did what?

Then I had as much confidence in Vegas winning than Max Pacioretty returning to the lineup out of the cold and scoring a game-winning goal.

Wait, what?

Well, surely it had to be as much confidence as the Golden Knights scoring six goals in a win-or-go-home situation, finally conquering the team that had been a thorn in their side for four years, and advancing to the second round where a long-coveted matchup awaits.

Oh. Well, then.

It took a seven-game series to give the Golden Knights the sense of clarity they’ve longed for; they are in fact better, at least this year, than the Minnesota Wild. Janmark did have a hat trick, Pacioretty did in fact score, and the Golden Knights won 6-2 in Game 7 of their first-round series Friday at T-Mobile Arena.

“You hope that moments like that galvanize your group,” said Vegas coach Pete DeBoer. “When we talked this morning in our team meeting, we talked about how we felt we were prepared for this tonight. We were ready to go, and we had all hands on deck … we felt with that lineup that we would be a hard team to beat tonight.”

For four years, the Golden Knights had not figured out the Wild. How could a team with little star power be so structured and give this high-octane offense fits every time they play? Even now, hours after the Golden Knights did what many didn’t think they could do, there might not be much to thinking the better team won.

But in a one-game moment where the future of a 4-year-old franchise hung in the balance,  Vegas delivered like it was expected to.

After being held to two goals combined in Games 5 and 6 — after scoring 12 in the previous three — the Golden Knights needed some sort of offense. So of course Pacioretty returned to the lineup for his first game since May 1 with what can only be deemed as the longest day-to-day/gametime decision stretch this side of the Mississippi.

“There were some good days and bad days, but I turned the corner there a couple of days ago,” Pacioretty said. “A lot of people behind the scenes were helping me around the clock to get to where I’m at, and that’s what helped me feel so good tonight.”

It’s not a shock that Pacioretty returned. Could you imagine had he not played Game 7? Defcon 1 might not have been extreme enough to clamor for an answer of what was really going on with No. 67.

What was a shock was how good Pacioretty looked. It’s one thing to be fresh after a long time away from the rink and have a good game; it’s another entirely when your mere presence electrifies your entire line.

And having Pacioretty back was exactly what Mark Stone and Chandler Stephenson needed. While Alex Tuch was a great stopgap at first-line left wing, he’s not the surefire shot Pacioretty is. That’s why the Wild were able to exploit the top line for as much as they did in Games 5 and 6; if you neutralize one third of that line, someone has to take over.

Minnesota did just that by targeting Stone, much like it did all series. The Wild were begging for someone that was not the Golden Knights’ captain to win a game. In stints, it was Tuch, but once the Wild got things back on track, it was clear Vegas needed its leading goal scorer to open things back up.

As a result, the Stephenson line generated a 20-5 edge in shot attempts and 7-3 in scoring chances at 5-on-5.

“We go up 3-1, but them coming back with the adversity will make us stronger in the long run. To come out and play the game the way we did in a Game 7 with our backs against the wall, with the group we have, moving forward, it’s nice to play with that kind of depth,” Pacioretty said. “We got contributions from every line tonight, and that’s how we’ve got to play going forward. It makes hockey a lot more fun, as well.”

While Pacioretty’s return wasn’t the end-all, be-all to Vegas’ triumph, his arrival set off a chain reminder of how deep this team is.

Tuch returned to the third line with Janmark and Nicolas Roy. No matter who centers that line, they have the luxury of two fast wingers on his side. Case in point; Roy’s two primary assists came off Janmark’s first two goals. Tuch had the assist on Janmark’s hat-trick goal.

It’s been four weeks since the Golden Knights operated at near-full strength, but they operated as well-oiled as it could.

The dragon was vanquished, even if it took the distance to make it happen. Now comes the fun part, something that’s been three years in the making. The world finally gets Vegas-Colorado after two previous tries were foiled; one by the refs, the other by Joel Kiviranta.

There should be some form of excitement after just accomplishing something that seemed bleak not too long ago. The Golden Knights finally cracked the code in taking out Minnesota, but now comes a fresh, rested, fully-healthy Avalanche team that hasn’t played in 30 years.

“I think we know, and I’m sure I’m going to read from you guys about the hill we’ve got to climb,” DeBoer said. “I think we know what we’re dealing with. We’ll enjoy this tonight and start looking at that tomorrow.”

Climb. Avalanche. Get it?