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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    Rangers sign Filip Chytil to 4-year extension

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    Eric Hartline/USA TODAY Sports

    NEW YORK — The New York Rangers have signed forward Filip Chytil to a four-year contract extension worth $17.75 million, locking up another member of their core long term.

    The team announced the deal Wednesday night. Chytil will count just under $4.44 million annually against the salary cap through the 2026-27 season.

    Chytil, 23, is in the midst of a career year. He has set career highs with 22 goals, 20 assists and 42 points in 66 games for the playoff-bound Rangers.

    The Czech native is the team’s sixth-leading scorer and ranks fourth on the roster in goals. The 2017 first-round pick has 144 points in 342 NHL regular-season and playoff games. He was set to be a restricted free agent with arbitration rights this summer.

    New York already had top center Mika Zibanejad signed through 2030, No. 1 defenseman Adam Fox through 2029, veteran Chris Kreider through 2027, winger Artemi Panarin through 2026 and reigning Vezina Trophy-winning goaltender Igor Shesterkin through 2025.

    General manager Chris Drury’s next order of business is an extension for 2020 top pick Alexis Lafrenière, who is only signed through the remainder of this season and can be a restricted free agent.

    Blackhawks’ Jonathan Toews returns to ice, hints at retirement

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    CHICAGO — Longtime Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews returned to the ice but hinted his stellar NHL career could be winding down after 15 years.

    Toews, 34, skated with teammates prior to Chicago’s game with the Dallas Stars. It was his first time practicing with them since a game in Edmonton on Jan. 28.

    He made a statement through the team on Feb. 19 saying he would be stepping away because of the effects of Chronic Immune Response Syndrome and “long COVID.”

    In meeting with reporters, Toews stopped short of saying he hoped to play in any of last-place Chicago’s nine remaining games. His eight-year, $84 million contract is set to expire at the end of the season.

    Toews said he’s feeling stronger, but isn’t sure if he’ll be able to play again for the Blackhawks or another team.

    “Both if I’m being fully honest,” Toews said. “I feel like I’ve said it already, that I’ve gotten to the point where my health is more important.

    “When you’re young and you’re playing for a Stanley Cup and everyone’s playing through something, that means something and it’s worthwhile. But I’m at that point where it feels like more damage is being done than is a good thing.”

    Toews, the Blackhawks’ first-round draft pick (third overall) in 2006, joined the team in 2007 and was a pillar of Stanley Cup championship clubs in 2010, 2013 and 2015.

    At the peak of his career, he was one of the NHL’s top two-way centers, winning the Selke Trophy as the league’s top defensive forward in 2013.

    In 1,060 regular-season games, Toews has 371 goals and 509 assists. In 139 playoff games, he’s posted 45 goals and 74 assists, and he won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP in 2010.

    Toews missed the entire 2020-21 season with Chronic Immune Response System, which caused debilitating inflammation and fatigue.

    He appeared in 71 games in 2021-22, then started this season with renewed energy before slowing and eventually shutting himself down.

    Entering this season, it looked as if Chicago might deal him, as it did fellow star Patrick Kane, before the March trade deadline. But Kane went to the New York Rangers and Toews to injured reserve.

    Toews believed he was progressing before a relapse in January left him so sore and tired that he could barely “put on my skates or roll out of bed to come to the rink.”

    Toews said his progress over the past month has been “pretty encouraging” and he’s delighted to be back among his teammates. He has no timetable beyond that.

    “We’re just going to go day by day here,” Chicago coach Luke Richardson said. He deserves anything he wants to try to achieve here.”

    Richardson hoped Toews “can take that next step later in the week and hopefully (he) gives us the green light to go in a game.”

    But Toews emphasized his long-term health and ability to lead a “normal life” is most important. He wants to go out on a positive note and not hit the ice for a game playing through excessive pain and dysfunction.

    “It’s definitely on my mind that this could be my last few weeks here as a Blackhawk in Chicago,” Toews said. “It’s definitely very important for me to go out there and enjoy the game and just kind of soak it in and just really appreciate everything I’ve been able to be part of here in Chicago.”

    Budding Wild star Matt Boldy more willing to shoot, and it shows

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    ST. PAUL, Minn. — Matt Boldy was unable to resist a smile in the aftermath of his second hat trick in five games for the Minnesota Wild, a young right wing and reluctant star trying to make sense of a remarkable hot streak.

    Does the puck feel as if it’s automatically going in the net these days each time he shoots?

    “Yeah, it does,” Boldy said in the locker room after leading the first-place Wild to a 5-1 win over Seattle. “My linemates are playing great. Hopefully you guys are giving them a lot of credit. You look at some of those goals – just putting it on a tee for me.”

    This non-attention-seeker has found himself squarely in the NHL spotlight. Boldy has 11 goals in nine games since Wild superstar Kirill Kaprizov was sidelined with a lower-body injury to raise his goal total to 28, in part because he’s been more willing to shoot. With vision and stickhandling as strengths and the humility of being a second-year player, it’s easy to be in a pass-first mindset.

    “Everybody kind of took turns talking to him. But it’s not that he didn’t want to. A lot of times a situation like that where a guy’s got that skillset, it’s a real unselfish quality, right?” coach Dean Evason said. “But I think he gets now that he helps the team a lot when he scores goals.”

    The Wild were confident enough in Boldy’s scoring ability to commit a seven-year, $49 million contract extension to him earlier this winter, after all.

    “I think I’ve always had that mentality, but sometimes you just get into spots and it comes off your stick good,” Boldy said. “When things are going well, the puck goes in the net.”’

    The Wild are 6-1-2 without Kaprizov. Boldy is a big reason why.

    “You go through the slumps, you learn what you need to do to score. I think he’s found a good way to be in the right spot and shoot the puck when he had a good opportunity,” center Joel Eriksson Ek said.

    The Wild have only won one division title in 22 years, the five-team Northwest Division in 2007-08. They’re leading the eight-team Central Division with eight games to go, with both Colorado and Dallas too close for comfort. They haven’t won a playoff series since 2015.

    With Kaprizov due back before the postseason and Boldy on this heater, a Wild team that ranks just 23rd in the league in goals per game (2.93) ought to have a better chance to advance. Eriksson Ek and Marcus Johansson have been ideal linemates for the Boston College product and Massachusetts native.

    Since the Wild entered the league in the 2000-01 season, only five NHL players have had more hat tricks at age 21 or younger than Boldy with three: Patrik Laine (eight), Marian Gaborik (five), Steven Stamkos (five), Alex DeBrincat (four) and Connor McDavid (four). Boldy turns 22 next week, so there’s still time for one or two more.

    “He’s big. He controls the puck a lot. He’s got a good shot, good release. He’s smart. He switches it up. He’s got good moves on breakaways. He’s a total player,” goalie Marc-Andre Fleury said. ”Fun to watch him grow this year.”

    Pezzetta scores shootout winner; Canadiens beat Sabres 4-3

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    Timothy T. Ludwig/USA TODAY Sports

    BUFFALO, N.Y. ⁠— Brendan Gallagher and the Montreal Canadiens rallied back to avoid playoff elimination with less than three weeks left in their season. The Buffalo Sabres, meanwhile, are running out of chances to stay in the Eastern Conference wild-card hunt.

    Gallagher forced overtime by scoring his 200th career goal, and Michael Pezzetta scored the decisive shootout goal in a 4-3 win over the Sabres on Monday night.

    “It’s one of those things I think we earned that chance. We weren’t fantastic but we did enough on the road tonight to get a win,” Gallagher said. “Smiles all around.”

    The Canadiens could laugh, especially after Pezzetta celebrated his goal by putting his stick between his legs and riding it like a wooden horse — much like former NHL tough guy Dave “Tiger” Williams did during his 14-year NHL career spanning the 1970s and 80s.

    “I’m not sure we’ll see that again. One of a kind,” said Gallagher. “I’d be worried about falling over.”

    Pezzetta scored by driving in from the right circle to beat Eric Comrie inside the far post. Buffalo’s Jack Quinn scored in the fourth shootout round, but was matched by Montreal’s Jesse Ylonen, whose shot from in tight managed to trickle in through Comrie.

    Jordan Harris and Alex Belzile also scored for Montreal, and Jake Allen stopped 30 shots through overtime, while allowing one goal on six shootout attempts.

    Montreal would have been eliminated from playoff contention for a second straight season – and two years removed from reaching the Stanley Cup Final – with any type of loss.

    The Sabres squandered a 3-2 third-period lead to drop to 3-6-3 in their past 12. Buffalo also blew a chance to move to within four points of idle Pittsburgh, which holds the eighth and final playoff spot.

    “Just a little hesitation,” forward JJ Peterka said of the Sabres third-period lapse. “We didn’t play with much energy and we didn’t play that aggressive as we played the two periods before. I think that was the difference.”

    Buffalo’s Lukas Rousek scored a goal and added an assist while filling in for leading scorer Tage Thompson, who did not play due to an upper body injury. Peterka and defenseman Riley Stillman also scored, and Comrie stopped 38 shots through overtime, and allowed two goals on six shootout attempts.

    Montreal blew two one-goal leads to fall behind 3-2 on Stillman’s goal at the 8:31 mark of the second period.

    Gallagher scored on the fly by using Sabres defenseman Rasmus Dahlin as a screen to snap in a shot inside the far left post. With the goal, Gallagher tied Bobby Rousseau for 24th on the Canadiens career scoring list.

    “I liked the way we corrected ourselves, it’s a sign of maturity, in the way we stayed on task,” Canadiens coach Martin St. Louis said, in recalling how the Canadiens recently unraveled in an 8-4 loss two weeks ago to Colorado, which plays a similar up-tempo style as Buffalo.


    The Sabres hosted their third Pride Night, with Russian D Ilya Lyubushkin electing not to participate in warmups by citing an anti-gay Kremlin law and fears of retribution at home in Moscow, where he has family and visits in the offseason. The remainder of the team wore dark blue jerseys with the Sabres logo on the front encircled by a rainbow-colored outline.

    During the first intermission, the Sabres broadcast a video in which GM Kevyn Adams said: “This is about recognizing someone’s humanity and true identity. We know there are people out there struggling with who they are, and we want them to know that they have an ally in the Buffalo Sabres.”


    Canadiens: At the Philadelphia Flyers on Tuesday night.

    Sabres: Host the New York Rangers on Friday night.