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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    The Wraparound: Stars seek to solve Robin Lehner in Game 3

    The Wraparound is your daily look at the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs. We’ll break down Thursday’s NHL playoff game with the all-important television and live streaming information included.

    Check out the NHL Bubble Wrap for details on Wednesday’s playoff game.

    Bruce Cassidy is your 2019-20 Jack Adams Award winner. Julien BriseBois, Lou Lamoriello, and Jim Nill are your finalists for the NHL GM of the Year award.

    THURSDAY’S NHL PLAYOFF GAME

    Game 3: Golden Knights vs. Stars (Series tied 1-1) – 8 p.m. ET, NBCSN (livestream): After being shutout in Game 1, Vegas responded with a shutout win of their own in Game 2. Robin Lehner returned to goal and had 24 saves, while Paul Stastny, William Karlsson and Tomas Nosek scored all three goals in less than ten minutes in the second period for a 3-0 win.

    The Stars scored with their first shot of the series less than three minutes into the first period of Game 1, but have not scored since. They are without a goal in the last 117:24 of play, taking 48 shots on goal during the drought. Dallas is 5-2 following a loss this postseason. They have only trailed a series once this postseason, going 2-1 down against Calgary in the First Round before winning three straight to take the series in six.

    It was Lehner’s second straight shutout, and he has not allowed a goal in 131:44. Each of his last four wins have been shutouts. His four shutouts lead the league, while seven only five goaltenders in NHL history have had six more shutouts in a single postseason. Only seven goalies in history have recorded three straight shutouts in the postseason, with Ilya Bryzgalov (2006, Anaheim) the most recent to do so.

    [NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

    This is the first time in the modern era (since 1943-44) that each team has posted a shutout in the first two games of the Conference Finals or Semifinals. It is only the eighth time this has happened in any round of the postseason, and second time this year (Columbus-Toronto in Qualifying Round).

    Only four playoff series have had three shutouts in the first three games, most recently in the 2004 Conference Quarterfinals, when the Islanders and Lightning opened their series with four straight shutouts.

    This postseason, the first team to reach two wins in a series has a series record of 19-1.

    [Full NHL Conference Finals schedule]

    FRIDAY’S NHL PLAYOFF SCHEDULE
    Game 3: Islanders vs. Lightning (TB leads 2-0) – 8 p.m. ET, NBCSN (livestream)

    Carter Hart’s star continues to rise for Flyers

    carter hart
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    The position of Flyers goaltender is one that has a very up and down history. Bernie Parent, Ron Hextall, Antero Niittymaki, Roman Cechmanek, Ilya Bryzgalov, Dominic Roussel — it’s a mixed bag of results for the franchise.

    Carter Hart is the latest entrant into the arena, and so far has given hope that an issue that has dogged the Flyers has been solved. Since making his NHL debut in Dec. 2019, the 22-year-old netminder has made 74 appearances and recorded a .918 5-on-5 save percentage, which puts him 23rd among goalies with at least 70 games played over that span. (That ESSV% also puts him tied for fifth in franchise history.)

    He’s also made a little history along the way becoming the youngest goalie to win his NHL debut since Carey Price in 2007. He was also the first goalie in NHL history to record multiple winning streaks of seven-plus games at the age of 21 or younger and the youngest goalie in franchise history to earn a postseason win and shutout.

    [NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

    As the Flyers have developed into a Stanley Cup contender in their first year under Alain Vigneault, the pressure to win in Philadelphia hasn’t affected Hart.

    “I just got to do my job,” he said. “That’s what it comes down to at the end of the day. That criteria is just stopping pucks. When it’s time to play the game, that’s all I have to worry about. We got a great crew in front of us that makes my job a lot easier.”

    The first season and a half of Hart’s NHL career has been an education. He’s observed his teammates, seeing how they handle the day-to-day grind of the long schedule and curated his own routine. Most importantly, he’s seen how he needs to take care of his body, especially as a goaltender, in order to be ready for every start.

    Putting in the work

    On the ice, working with Flyers goaltending coach Kim Dillabaugh has accelerated Hart’s development. Dillabaugh came from the Kings organization where he worked with Jonathan Quick as he became one of the NHL’s top goaltenders.

    “Dilly has been great for me and [Brian Elliott],” Hart said. “We have a good relationship on and off the ice. We have good dialogue between all three of us. I think that’s real important between a goalie and coach is that good communication. He does a really good job of preparation and getting ready before practice. Honestly before games, a couple chats. I think it’s really important to have a good relationship with your goalie coach.”

    “That goaltender-goalie coach relationship is a key one in any organization,” said Flyers head coach Alain Vigneault. “There’s no doubt that that one there is a strong one. Carter is a young goaltender that’s working on his game and trying to get better. He’s putting in the time and he’s putting in the preparation. There’s no doubt that rapport, that understanding at what needs to be done between a goalie coach and a goaltender, both with Carter and Brian is obviously there.”

    The work Hart’s put in is paying off. After a strong regular season, aside from a stinker in Game 2 against Montreal that saw him get pulled, he’s been outstanding with a .966 ESSV% in five starts. That 5-0 defeat to the Canadiens was forgettable and the type of game that could stay with some young players. That’s where a lack of playoff experience could be beneficial in this case. Just go out and play. No time for nerves or to let a bad game linger.

    Hart bounced back in Game 3 with a 23-save shutout to give Philadelphia a 2-1 series lead.

    “It’s a good thing that he’s a little too oblivious to some things as a goalie in Philadelphia,” said Jakub Voracek after Game 3. “He’s really strong mentally. He’s a young kid that works really hard. He’s pretty impressive the way he bounces back, even since last year. If he had a bad game, he always came back and he was strong. I think that’s what good goalies do. Sometimes you have a tough night.”

    The Flyers have been strong at bouncing back after losses. The last time they dropped consecutive games was a four-game losing streak in early January. As NBC Sports Philadelphia’s Jordan Hall noted, Philadelphia has followed up their last nine losses with regulation victories and outscored opponents 41-17.

    Hart might be the youngest starter in the NHL, but 79 regular season and playoff games into his career he’s provided stability for the Flyers in a major area of need.

    “He’s a great young goalie. A lot of potential,” said Sean Couturier. “He’s just a true pro ever since he got in. He does a lot of little things right. On and off the ice he prepares himself like a true pro. You can just respect that from a young guy, a young goalie. He’s doing everything he can just to get better.

    Philadelphia leads their best-of-seven series with Montreal 2-1. Game 4 is Tuesday at 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN (livestream).

    MORE:
    • Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round schedule

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    Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

    Healthy Carter Hart driving Flyers’ recent surge

    Flyers
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    You could not possibly blame Philadelphia Flyers fans if they were some combination of wildly optimistic and simultaneously terrified with the way goalie Carter Hart has began his NHL career.

    On one hand, there is plenty of reason to believe he could finally be the franchise goalie they have been waiting decades for their team to find.

    On the other hand, this is a Flyers goalie we are talking about. If there is a team and fanbase that knows a thing or two about false hope and crushing disappointment at the position, it is them. At this risk of being hyperbolic, they have been to goalies what the Cleveland Browns have been to quarterbacks. It is almost as if you are always waiting for Lucy to pull the football away at the last second when a Flyers goalie is the topic of discussion and there is even a shred of optimism about their play

    The list of names that have trailed — and ultimately failed — to lock down that position is an exercise in “hey, do you remember that guy?” fun. Just consider that since the start of the 2000 season the Flyers have had eight different goalies start at least 99 games for the franchise. That is more than any other team in the league. The only teams that have had at least seven during that stretch are Toronto and Atlanta/Winnipeg. For the Flyers, that list includes everyone from Roman Cechmanek, to Ilya Bryzgalov, to Antero Niittymaki, to Robert Esche.

    Many have tried to fix the problem. Some gave them real reason for excitement. All have failed to some degree.

    But ever since the Flyers drafted Hart in the second-round of the 2016 draft (when he was the first goalie taken off the board at No. 48 overall) there has been hope and anticipation that he could finally be the guy.

    It is still very early in his career, but the early returns have been everything the Flyers could have realistically hope for, and probably more.

    He’s been one of the league’s best goalies since the start of November

    Since returning to the Flyers’ lineup on February 10 after missing a month due to injury, he has been one of the driving forces behind their improbable climb to the top of the Metropolitan Division.

    He is 8-1-0 in his nine starts during that stretch with a .928 save percentage.

    He has won 10 of his past 11 decisions overall, and has been mostly outstanding for the season once he got over a brutal start in October.

    Since Nov. 1 he is in the top-10 among goalies (with at least 20 starts) in all-situations save percentage and even-strength save percentage.

    Most goalies aren’t this good at this age

    What is perhaps most important for the Flyers is that he is doing all of this at an age when most goalies are not being asked to take on this sort of role. Hart does not turn 22 until August and is already starting to establish himself as bonafide No. 1 goalie in the league. As of Friday, he has appeared in 72 games for his career and owns a more than respectable .914 overall save percentage. Just for some historical context, here are the only goalies in NHL history to appear in at least 40 games before turning 22 and also having a save percentage above .910:

    • Roberto Luongo (71 games played, .914 save percentage)
    • Hart (72 games played, .914 save percentage)
    • Andrei Vasilevskiy (40 games played, .913 save percentage)
    • Martin Brodeur (51 games played, .913 save percentage)
    • Carey Price (93 games played, .912 save percentage)
    • Felix Potvin (52 games played, .912 save percentage)

    Pretty good list of goalies there.

    His already strong play, as well as the way he has performed since returning from injury, could make the Flyers a potentially dangerous team come playoff time. They are already an above-average defensive team in pretty much every key defensive metric, while also possessing a deep, talented group of forwards that has made them one of the league’s highest scoring teams.

    Now they might actually have the goalie to help bring everything all together.

    Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

    Winter Classic Memories: Briere vs. Lundqvist

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    Every Tuesday in December we’ll be looking back at some Winter Classic memories as we approach the 2020 game on Jan. 1 between the Stars and Predators from the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, Texas.

    The 46,967 fans inside Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia got to see a pretty entertaining Winter Classic in 2012. It was pretty heated on the ice between the Rangers and Flyers on that Jan. 2 afternoon. The longtime division rivals played an intense game that saw New York make a comeback and hold on to a lead with a dramatic finish. 

    Before the drama went down on the ice, there was some off of it when Flyers head coach Peter Laviolette made the decision to start Sergei Bobrovsky over Ilya Bryzgalov, he of the nine-year, $51 million contract signed that previous summer.

    Things started well for the the Flyers, who opened up a 2-0 lead in the second period with goals from Brayden Schenn and Claude Giroux 1:55 apart. Mike Rupp then answered 30 seconds later for the Rangers and celebrated with a Jagr Salute after No. 68 exited the game with an injury.

    Getty Images

    Early in the third period the Rangers continued the comeback with Rupp adding a second and Brad Richards scoring the go-ahead goal with 14:39 to play.

    The game remained that way into the final minute of the third. With both teams serving penalties, the Flyers emptied their net to make it a 5-on-4 as time ran down. A scrambled in front of Henrik Lundqvist’s net was whistled after Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh was caught covering the puck in the crease. That meant a penalty shot for Philadelphia, much to the amazement of John Tortorella, who expressed his costly opinion of the call after the game.

    Danny Briere was chosen to take the penalty shot with 19.5 seconds left as Flyers fans in attendance prayed for an equalizer.

    “That’s a lot of pressure,” said Flyers forward Jakub Voracek afterward. “You’ve got 50,000 people depending on you to score a goal. Millions watching on TV.”

    Lundqvist played it very aggressively, coming out to almost in line with the faceoff dots. Briere was thinking five-hole. 

    “You go in and you try to get a read on where he is at,” Briere said. “He came really far out. All I was thinking was that the game was going to overtime, that I was going to score. I could see it going in.”

    “I couldn’t believe he called the penalty shot,” Lundqvist said. “But it was exciting. Obviously there’s a lot of pressure on me there. But it was exciting. The whole game was exciting. Pretty intense.”

    The win kept the Rangers atop the Eastern Conference and sent the Flyers to their third loss of the season to their rivals in New York and fifth straight against them. The comeback also marked the first time the Flyers had lost in regulation that season after leading through two periods.

    “It’s frustrating,” Briere said. “It’s disappointing. But I can’t change anything about it now. I got a good shot off, he made a good save.”

    NBC will air the 2020 NHL Winter Classic between the Dallas Stars and Nashville Predators at the Cotton Bowl Stadium in Dallas, Texas, at 1 p.m. ET on New Year’s Day.

    PREVIOUSLY:
    The snow storm at The Big House
    • Syvret’s first NHL goal comes at Fenway Park
    Late winner has extra special meaning for Brouwer

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    Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.