Wild at Golden Knights Preview: Vegas looks to bounce back, regain first place in West

This is always a tough matchup for Vegas; both teams have swept a series so far.

The Vegas Golden Knights are coming off a disappointing 4-2 loss to the Los Angeles Kings but will look to right the ship in the second half of a back-to-back as they take on the Minnesota Wild tonight at T-Mobile Arena.

For those that follow the day-to-day standings, this is a significant game for the Knights, who were knocked out of first place in the West Division last night when they lost to Los Angeles and Colorado defeated the Coyotes 9-3. That being said, the Knights trail by just one point and have a game in hand over Colorado; that game in hand is tonight.

It’s a big game against an opponent that has given the Knights trouble since the inaugural season.

Minnesota is currently in third place in the division, five points behind Vegas and six behind Colorado, making tonight a key game for the Wild as well.

The Knights and Wild have squared off four times this season (all in March) in the form of two two-game sets; both home teams swept their respective series, and several games were particularly memorable or noteworthy.

For example, the first of two games in Vegas at the start of the month saw the Knights mount a third-period comeback that they completed in overtime off the stick of overtime specialist Max Pacioretty. It wasn’t a great game for Marc-Andre Fleury, but players mentioned after the game that the team wanted to get him a win since he has carried this team for most of the season. Fleury bounced back in the next game, stopping 36 shots in a 5-1 win.

The first game in Minnesota the following week was one of two games this season in which the Knights were shut out, the other being a 1-0 loss to Anaheim on Feb. 11. Wild netminder Kaapo Kahkonen, who did not start either of the games in Vegas, made 26 saves for his first career NHL shutout, a 2-0 win. It was essentially a 1-0 game, however, as the Wild scored the second goal with six seconds left in regulation.

The second game in Minnesota was the night of Dylan Coghlan’s hat trick. The game was tied at 1-1 after two periods, but Minnesota pulled ahead by scoring three straight goals in the first 7:41 of the third. Coghlan lit the lamp at 14:00 and 17:50, but the Wild held on for the 4-3 win.

While both teams snapped the other’s six-game winning streak in the first game of both sets, both clubs head into tonight’s game on the heels of at least one loss. Minnesota went 0-1-1 in two games against the Sharks, and the Knights fell to the Kings last night. Minnesota went 9-4-2 in the month of March, while the Knights managed a 12-5-0 record in 17 games.

What to watch for

  • The Knights started last night’s game against Los Angeles with 11 forwards, as Ryan Reaves was a late scratch (and Cody Glass was down in the AHL). Chandler Stephenson was assessed a five-minute major and a game misconduct for elbowing Tobias Bjornfot. It’s possible that the Department of Player Safety could further discipline Stephenson in the form of a suspension or a fine, though it’s difficult to predict what the DOPS will do since consistency and fairness are not things they pride themselves on. Clearly, Glass could be recalled in the event of a suspension, though if management truly wants Glass in the AHL for some unnecessary “5-on-5 seasoning,” the Knights could turn to someone like Patrick Brown (assuming Reaves is unable to go). Additionally, Zach Whitecloud left the game last night with an apparent injury, though Alex Pietrangelo did return to the lineup. But this puts Vegas’ lineup in flux, so the Knights could be at a disadvantage from the start with new line combinations or line combinations that Pete DeBoer shuffles throughout the game. If Reaves is out, that means Vegas will be without what has been a very effective line of late, and it could alter the performance of Pacioretty and Mark Stone (even if Stephenson is not on their level). There may not be an issue in the end, but it’s something to monitor and keep in mind for tonight’s game. It seems likely that Robin Lehner will get the nod in the second half of the back-to-back; he has yet to face the Wild this season. For Minnesota, Kahkonen played last night against San Jose, so it could be Cam Talbot between the pipes tonight; he gave up nine goals on 66 shots in two games against Vegas.
  • The Knights have given up the first goal in three straight games, including both games against the Kings this week. Not only that, but the first goal came very early on in the opening frame. The Kings took a 1-0 lead one minute into the game on Monday and opened the scoring just under two minutes into last night’s contest. Vegas has given up the first goal in four out of its last six games, going 3-3-0 in that span. But scoring first has been key in the Knights-Wild matchup this season. In fact, home teams have scored the first goal in every game, and the home team has been victorious in four out of four meetings so far this season. In the second game in Minnesota, a 4-3 loss for the Knights, Joel Eriksson Ek scored just 19 seconds into the game. The Knights didn’t have much going that night, though Coghlan made it interesting. However, giving up the first goal has been detrimental to Vegas in this series, and the Knights are one of the best teams in the league when scoring first. Specifically, Vegas has the highest winning percentage in the league when scoring first, going 18-1-1 (compared to 6-8-0 when trailing first). A strong start is always important, but it has been crucial against the Wild this year.
  • Though there were several frustrating aspects of last night’s game, including the Knights’ inability to hit the net and some very soft goals by Fleury, the ultimate factor that led to the loss was discipline. The Knights took five minor penalties (three in the first period) as well as a five-minute major. Though Los Angeles technically went 0-for-5 on the night, being forced to kill off penalties changed the flow of the game. Minnesota remains dead last in the league on the power play this season with an abysmal 9.5 percent effectiveness rate. But while the Wild have gone a combined 1-for-7 on the man advantage in four games against Vegas, the Knights’ penalty kill units are sure to be tired after an overly busy game last night. Plus, excessive penalties can throw off a team’s rhythm and force certain players to sit on the bench for extended periods, not to mention the fact that it would force the Knights to shuffle their lines even more frequently. Special teams can cause significant momentum swings, and considering tonight’s game could be very tight, the Knights should avoid giving Minnesota advantages of any kind./

How to watch

Time: 7:30 p.m.

TV: NBCSN, AT&T SportsNet

Radio: Fox Sports 98.9 FM/1340 AM