Wild vs. Golden Knights: 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round preview

Wild vs. Golden Knights: 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round preview
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Heading into the 2020-21 season, the Golden Knights carried Stanley Cup hopes, while the Wild felt like afterthoughts. Plenty of people who follow the Wild probably would have settled for Kirill Kaprizov living up to the hype.

Maybe the hockey world’s cooled a touch on the Golden Knights, but they’ve held up their end of the bargain. And, remarkably, Kaprizov’s been even better than we could have imagined.

The Wild have exceeded expectations in a drastic way, too, and this preview aims to measure their chances against a mighty Golden Knights team.

WILD VS. GOLDEN KNIGHTS – series livestream link

Sunday, May 16: Wild at Golden Knights, 3 p.m. ET (NBC)
Tuesday, May 18: Wild at Golden Knights, 10 p.m. ET (NBCSN)
Thursday, May 20: Golden Knights at Wild, 9:30 p.m. ET (NBCSN)
Saturday, May 22: Golden Knights at Wild, 8 p.m. ET (NBC)
*Monday, May 24: Wild at Golden Knights TBD
*Wednesday, May 26: Golden Knights at Wild TBD
*Friday, May 28: Wild at Golden Knights TBD

Wild – Golden Knights: Stories to Watch

“Kirill the Thrill” and the no-longer-mild

Whether they were reaching or missing the playoffs, the Wild haven’t always lived up to their team name — at least in the sense of excitement. Instead, their defensive-minded approach understandably often branded them as “the Mild.”

While the Wild still usually play good-to-great defense, Kirill Kaprizov’s changed their trajectory. In the past, a casual fan of the sport might see the Wild on the schedule and groan. Now, they’re more likely to flip over to see what golden opportunity Kaprizov might create on any given night.

Beyond the more practical benefits of the Calder-lock-winger, he’s simply made Minnesota a lot more fun.

With that in mind, it’s easier to picture the Wild beating the Golden Knights even if the series is played at the sort of hectic pace the franchise historically preferred to avoid.

“We find that when you play good teams like (Vegas), great teams, you raise up your play a little bit and (we’ve) just had emotional games against them,” Wild winger Marcus Foligno said, via the Athletic’s Michael Russo (sub required). “It’s always been fun (against Vegas). It’s always been back and forth and physical and heavy. So, it suits us well.”

Wild won season series vs. Golden Knights

Honestly, in most years, head-to-head series stats don’t mean a ton (personally). When people really emphasize it, there could even be some eye rolls.

But considering the concentrated nature of this unusual 2020-21 season, it’s worth noting that the Wild went 5-2-1 against the Golden Knights this season. No wonder Robin Lehner was mad when the Avalanche narrowly won the Presidents’ Trophy, denying Vegas what seemingly would be a friendlier matchup vs. the Blues.

While the Wild enjoyed a surprisingly strong season, the Golden Knights were even better overall. But sometimes matchups just line up, and that might be the case here, setting the stage for an upset.

How healthy is Vegas?

Considering how closed-off NHL teams are about injuries (gamblers, take a moment to grumble), it’s almost always difficult to tell just how healthy a team is heading into any postseason. Combine that lack of transparency with a compressed schedule, and health is even more relevant than usual.

So, things can change quickly. But given the (incomplete) information we have, it sure seems like the Wild might be a bit healthier than the Golden Knights.

Again, there could be “maintenance day” elements to some of this. Even so, Max Pacioretty and Alec Martinez missed time late in the season. Robin Lehner also wasn’t able to play during a significant chunk of 2020-21.

Scan Rotoworld’s injury page and you’ll see that Vegas is dealing with a higher quantity and quality of injuries than Minnesota.

All kinds of pressure

Being that the Golden Knights are somehow only in their fourth season, it still feels odd to realize that they have such high expectations. Shouldn’t we still be in the honeymoon phase?

(Then again, Vegas is the land of brisk marriages, some with no honeymoons at all.)

The Golden Knights stumbled onto a strong team from the start, and they’ve responded during recent seasons. This is a team that’s made all-in-type-moves over the years. Bringing in Mark Stone and Max Pacioretty wasn’t cheap. Some expensive experiments, like the Tomas Tatar trade, really just burned money and picks.

And, in their recent round of moves, they moved players around like a Rubix Cube to bring in Alex Pietrangelo. If the Golden Knights fall to the Wild, there would be some serious, serious angst. It doesn’t really matter that Minnesota is a formidable opponent.

One big question for Minnesota: Was it luck?

For a significant portion of 2020-21, the Wild were a tight defensive team, leaning on Kirill Kaprizov to break open close games.

Lately, they’ve found some magic on the power play, and also have been shooting at a high percentage. That’s promising, and it indicates that this is a Wild team that finally has some versatility. They can trade punches — whether that means literally, or scoring in bunches.

But their underlying numbers have slipped.

Maybe the Wild can haunt the Golden Knights in a familiar way. Vegas has been something of a “volume” chances team (see: Thatcher Demko‘s coronation during the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs), so maybe the Wild can win the quality over quantity battle?

Still, it’s worth noting that the Wild haven’t looked as hot by various five-on-five measures lately. Vegas might be the team to make them pay if any of that implies Minnesota’s developed some bad habits.

One big question for Vegas: Will there be goalie drama again?

The old football adage “if you have two quarterbacks, you have no quarterback” doesn’t truly apply to goalies.

The 2006-07 Ducks began with Ilya Bryzgalov being dominant, and then Jean-Sebastien Giguere bringing a Stanley Cup home. A decade later, Marc-Andre Fleury himself showed that sometimes a team will lean on two goalies to win it all. In 2016-17, Fleury actually won more playoff games (nine) than Matt Murray (seven) as both goalies were brilliant during the Penguins’ repeat run.

Heading into the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs, it sure looks like Vegas has two strong options in net.

Fleury’s enjoyed a resounding rebound season, and might end up a Vezina Trophy finalist. Injuries slowed Robin Lehner for much of this campaign, but he’s still a top performer. (Lehner may also be the goalie that they believe the most in, deep down.)

File most of these questions under “good problems to have.” That said, if the Golden Knights struggle against the Wild, the situation could rapidly become a headache.

Wild – Golden Knights series prediction: Golden Knights in six

Heading into this season, people would be shocked to hear the Wild receive serious consideration to beat the Golden Knights in a 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round series. Yet here we are: Minnesota truly has a chance.

And not just because of injuries.

Yet, for all of these doubts, the Golden Knights have, at times, ripped through opponents like a wrecking ball. This should be another fascinating best-of-seven set.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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