The first round playoff matchup for the Golden Knights is less than ideal considering the history between the two teams. The Wild boast a 5-1-2 record against Vegas this season, they have the best record of any team in the NHL against the Golden Knights at 11-2-3, and Vegas has never won in regulation at the Xcel Energy Center.
However, none of this means the Golden Knights can’t, or even shouldn’t, beat the Wild in four of the next seven games to win the first round. Vegas completed the season as the only team to reach 40 wins, never lost more than three straight, and outscored their opponents by 68 goals in 56 games, so we know they are capable.
Despite the lack of success against Minnesota, the eight games between the teams have shown the advantages the Golden Knights have as well as the pitfalls they must avoid. I’ve studied all eight games and have come up with my “blueprint” of what the Golden Knights need to do in order to beat the Wild. It’s broken down into four parts, with the most important being first, and the least last.
Bottom 6 Hold Strong, Top 6 Advance
One of the most important differences between Vegas and Minnesota is scoring depth. While the Golden Knights have more high-end players with the capability of scoring consistently in a series, the Wild have the deeper roster when it comes to overall scoring ability. Minnesota genuinely roll out four lines that can score on any given shift, the Golden Knights really only have two. Therefore, it is going to be crucial for the Vegas top-six to dominate play when they are on the ice and stick the puck in the net much more often than their opponents. On the flip side of that, Vegas’ bottom-six cannot drown against the Wild.
The good news is that the Golden Knights’ 3rd and 4th lines don’t need to score in order for Vegas to win the series. Instead, they need to be able to hold their own and not require a majority of their shifts to be matched up properly and/or start in the offensive zone. If the VGK bottom-six simply break even, the top-six will be able to carry the water and bring the Golden Knights a fairly easy series win.
The greatest challenge the Wild offered the Golden Knights this season was when the puck was laying in front of either net. Offensively, it would be great if the Golden Knights could pick up their game and score a few more of these than they have in the past, but that’s not necessary for them to win the series. What is necessary is the ability to clear the front of their own goal. When the puck is laying out in front of Fleury or Lehner, Vegas cannot be thinking about exiting the zone. Instead, they need to be thinking about safety. Get the puck out of that area because the longer it’s there, the more likely the Wild are to win a battle and put it in the net.
Vegas should have an intense focus on clearing rebounds without any regard as to where the puck goes. Have to ice it? Fine. Punch it into the corner? No big deal. Heck, even take a penalty to avoid a rebound goal, we’ll take our chances on the PK. The Wild have killed Vegas in that area more than anywhere else on the ice, and Vegas must avoid it in this series.
Consistency at the defensive blue line
For Vegas to control the run of play consistently in this series, they’ll have to have the shot suppression machine turned all the way up. While that starts in the offensive and neutral zones, it will be of massive importance that the Golden Knights challenge every entry the Wild make in this series. If Vegas consistently deny the Wild from carrying the puck into the zone, they’ll limit their mistakes in exiting and they’ll make scoring an absolute chore for even a deep Minnesota team.
Gap control will be the key as the Wild like to get going through the neutral zone with their excellent skating defense corps. But, the Golden Knights’ blue line is full of great skaters themselves. If the gaps are good, the Wild will struggle to generate consistent offense and they’ll likely grow frustrated and start handing Vegas transition chances.
Make the goalie decision unimportant
No matter who Pete DeBoer decides to start or if he goes with the rotation, the goalie position will be a ticking time-bomb for the Golden Knights once again this postseason. In this series, the Golden Knights are fully capable of making that a non-story. By that, I mean limit shots, limit chances, and limit any opportunity for the goalie to be the difference in the game. If Minnesota are consistently struggling to reach 25 shots, it won’t matter which goalie is in the net. The more chances the Golden Knights allow, the more challenging the goalie decision will become, even if the guy in net stops a majority of them.
Do all this, and the Golden Knights will win in four. Don’t and we could be looking at a barn burner of a series.