NHL West Division First Round Playoff Preview: Minnesota Wild at Vegas Golden Knights.
Vegas finished the regular season with 82 points which tied them with Colorado for most in the NHL. But because the Golden Knights lost to the Avalanche on May 10th, 2-1, they lost the head-to-head tie-breaker with Colorado for the top seed in the West Division playoffs. Not only did that loss cost Vegas from winning the President’s Trophy, but rather than facing a St. Louis team that they dominated during the regular season, they now face a Wild team that defeated them in five of their eight encounters this season.
The Golden Knights reached the Western Conference finals for the second time in the first three years of their existence last fall before losing to Dallas in five games. General manager Kelly McCrimmon made a big splash in the offseason by signing defenseman Alex Pietrangelo away from St. Louis to a seven-year $61 million deal. Salat cap constraints forced the franchise to trade away center Paul Stastny and Nate Schmidt. Salary cap issues continued to plague the team late in the season when injuries led to them playing with just fifteen skaters in their showdown with the Avalanche since they lacked the flexibility to bring on extra players. Yet by adding Pietrangelo to join Mark Stone and Max Pacioretty, management has successfully added three high-level players while keeping the core from their magical expansion season where they reached the Stanley Cup finals.
Stone leads the team with 61 points from 21 goals and 40 assists. Pacioretty’s 24 goals were the most for the club, and he added 27 assists.
Robin Lehner entered the season as the expected starting goaltender after he took over the number one duties in the playoffs last year. He got inked to a five-year, $25 million deal. But a slow start and some injuries created an opportunity for Marc-Andre Fleury, who took full advantage of playing time. Fleury posted a 1.98 goals-against-average and a .928 save percentage. He begins the postseason as the team’s number one goalie.
McCrimmon was creative with salary cap maneuvers with other teams to allow the team to trade for forward Mattias Janmark from Chicago. He has played on the third forward line with Alex Tuch.
Minnesota finished in third place in the West Division with a 35-16-5 record and 75 points. The Wild finished in tenth place in the Western Conference last year and qualified for the play-in qualifying tournament, where they lost to Vancouver. General manager Bill Guern was active in his first offseason with the organization. He let several veterans go while trading for Marcus Johansson, Nick Bonino, and Nick Bjugstad to restock the forward depth. Perhaps his most impactful move was moving on from goaltender Devan Dubnyk and signing Cam Talbot as a free agent from Calgary in a move that might best be described as addition from subtraction.
Rookie Kirill Kaprizov has been a sensation for the team in offering them the elite-level talent they have lacked at forward. The former KHL star scored 27 goals and added 24 assists in his first regular-season in the NHL. Kevin Fiala started slow, but he has led the team in scoring since March. He has 20 goals and 20 assists. Mats Zuccarello added another 11 goals and 24 assists.
The blue line is the strength of the team with two outstanding defensive players in Jared Spurgeon and Jonas Brodin who anchor their two pairs. Talbot was an improvement over Dubnyk in goal with a 2.63 goals-against-average and a .915 save percentage. He did struggle down the stretch with a .904 save percentage since the start of April.
Minnesota did not make a move at the trade deadline. They lack the playoff experience of the Golden Knights. However, the Wild are a confident bunch when playing Vegas with 11 wins in their last 16 games against them.
Prediction: Vegas Golden Knights win 4 games to 3