**Southern Nevada Sports Hall of Famer, Steve Carp’s returns to SinBin.vegas for the 2021 season. His weekly column publishes every Sunday during the Golden Knights season and is brought to you by the Jimmerson Law Firm.**
There’s no sense in reliving the past. What’s done is done. The $12 million goaltender experiment worked in the regular season. The salary cap gymnastics? Not so much.
Thus, the Golden Knights have a tough first-round matchup in the Stanley Cup Playoffs with the Minnesota Wild the opponent. We all know the Wild’s success over Vegas, going back to Year One, particularly in Saint Paul. But playoff hockey is different and the Golden Knights are the better team. It’s now up to them to prove it.
But this will be a challenge, especially if two of Vegas’ key pieces — Max Pacioretty and Alec Martinez — are missing. Both will be needed to help defeat Minnesota and if they are out for any additional length of time, it’s going to make the task that much tougher.
Concerns? Yeah, I’ve got a few.
Who’s in net?
Pete DeBoer still hasn’t said who starts Game 1 Sunday. He also hasn’t said if he plans to maintain the regular-season rotation though he hinted at doing just that.
We’ve been through this discussion several times. My guess is Marc-Andre Fleury has earned the right to start Sunday. If he plays well and the Knights win, perhaps he remains in goal for Game 2 Tuesday. If he’s so-so or terrible, in goes Robin Lehner.
The Knights beat the Wild the last time they played and Fleury was the goalie in the 3-2 overtime win in Saint Paul on May 5. Lehner played in two of the eight games vs. Minnesota and was 0-1-1.
I can tell you this. We don’t win the Jennings Trophy, we don’t have the record we have without having the best tandem in the league. What rolls out to in the playoffs, I’m not going to tip my hand. And to be honest with you, I’m not even sure I know. -Pete DeBoer
Perhaps DeBoer maintains the rotation, which means Lehner starts Game 1. But right now, it remains a guessing game. We do know who is in the Minnesota net. That would be Cam Talbot, who has a 2.46 goals-against average and a .923 save percentage in starting 23 career playoff games. It’ll be up to the Knights to make him work to beat them.
To that end, we still don’t know Pacioretty’s availability for Game 1. He leads the team with 24 goals while missing the final eight games of the season.
I always worry when Pacioretty gets injured. His tend to linger and take a while to heal. I do know that Vegas is going to need him. He is the top sniper and can boost the power play. If he’s out for any length in this series, you’re asking Reilly Smith, Jonathan Marchessault, Mark Stone, and William Karlsson to pick up the slack. You’re also going to need more offense from Shea Theodore and Alex Pietrangelo.
Let’s not forget why the Golden Knights failed to survive in the Edmonton bubble last summer. Their inability to score is what did them in.
When GM Kelly McCrimmon met with the media Friday, he said the Knights would be able to field a full complement of players for the playoffs and the salary cap was no longer in play.
What he didn’t say was who would be on that full roster.
Ryan Reaves skated Friday and Saturday and he appears to be set to return to the lineup after missing the final 18 games. So did Tuch and, in a bit of surprise, Nosek on Saturday. But neither Pacioretty nor Martinez practiced Saturday and DeBoer said that they, along with Nosek are game-time decisions.
Nick Holden is a likely replacement for Martinez if No. 23 can’t go Sunday and Holden will be a good addition in terms of steadiness and familiarity with playoff hockey. He may not be the offensive threat Martinez can be but Holden blocks shots, can hold his own in the 1-on-1 battles, and be counted on to be on the right side of things more often than not.
Patrick Brown has also been skating and perhaps he can return to action after being on LTIR. He would be a fourth-liner, likely skating with Reaves and Will Carrier as Nic Roy will be with Tuch (assuming he’s good to go) and maybe Dylan Sikura, who is probably going to be given Black Ace status.
Nosek’s availability could be big. He’s a good faceoff man, a solid penalty killer, and was having his best season in the NHL when he got hurt April 24 vs. Anaheim. He skated with Stone and Chandler Stephenson at Saturday’s practice which was interesting. You would think he’d be reunited with Reaves and William Carrier as the fourth line. Then again, maybe he gets to move up to the top line.
So while the Knights will dress 18 skaters, who those 18 will be may not be the top 18. We’ll have to see what happens in warmups.
With Vegas having home ice, it does not need to win a game in Saint Paul in order to advance. The Knights merely have to hold serve inside the Fortress.
In the four years the Knights have been facing the Wild, they have only won twice at Xcel Energy Center. And both wins came in overtime or a shootout. Overall, they are 5-10-1 all-time vs. Minnesota.
Psychologically, Minnesota knows it can beat Vegas. If the Wild can get a split at T-Mobile, this series could easily tilt in Minnesota’s direction. So their attitude is to find a way to win one game, and take care of business at the X.
The Knights players nor DeBoer would never admit the Wild has their number or that Minnesota’s in their heads. But if they want to change the narrative, now’s the time.
It starts with making sure Kirill Kaprisov, Joel Eriksson Ek, and Marcus Foligno don’t dominate in the playoffs the way they have in the regular season. Kaprisov, the likely Calder Trophy winner for the NHL’s top rookie, has six goals and eight points vs. the Knights this year. Eriksson Ek, who always seems to be an immovable object in front of the net and a royal pain in the butt to deal with, has four goals and seven points against the Knights. Foligno has three goals and four assists this year vs. Vegas.
Then there’s the fan element. Capacity at the Fortress will be just under 9,000, the largest since Clark County approved allowing spectators. At the X, 4,500 fans will be allowed. While it won’t be a full house at either venue, having larger crowds should boost the home team and we know how loud things can get here so it’s worth noting.
So Who Wins?
There are a lot of unknowns with the Golden Knights as we begin the postseason and we’ve touched on all of them here. Even with all hands on deck, this is a difficult assignment.
But we know that playoff hockey is different. The best team doesn’t always win. A hot goaltender can win a series by himself. Everyone is already banged up and it’s a war of attrition going forward.
What we do know is after eight games, these teams are familiar with each other so it’s going to be hard to sneak something by either coach. The Wild have won in Vegas. They’re not going to be intimidated. The Knights are a veteran team and they were built to win now.
I’m liking what I’ve seen from Pietrangelo the last couple of weeks. After a season that was fraught with injury, illness, and adjustment, he finally appears to be comfortable playing in this system and with this group. He may ultimately be the difference-maker in Vegas’ advancing.
Talbot is a capable goalie. But I’d rather ride with Fleury or Lehner. They won that Jennings Trophy for a reason and Fleury’s wealth of playoff experience will certainly be a factor should DeBoer opt to go with him.
Prediction: The Golden Knights will prevail in six hard-fought games as their goaltending will prove to be the difference.
Other first-round matchups and predictions:
Blues vs. Avalanche: Will the Presidents Trophy jinx strike in Denver? The Avs get Nathan MacKinnon back but the Blues are a dangerous team right now. They play with no fear and they are highly motivated. They’ll have to steal at least one in Ball Arena but Jordan Binnington is capable of winning a game by himself. Blues in six.
Capitals vs. Bruins: Alex Ovechkin is back and while that is good for Washington, Boston’s goaltending appears to be better and the Perfection Line of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, and David Pastrnak may be tough to shut down. Bruins in five.
Islanders vs. Penguins: The Isles’ power play is abysmal but their goaltending is superior to Pittsburgh’s. A hot Semyon Varlamov may be the difference, assuming he’s 100%. Islanders in six.
Predators vs. Hurricanes: Carolina has everything in place to make a long run and home ice will help. They don’t even need to win a game at Bridgestone Arena to move on and they’ll figure out a way to win at least one in Nashville. Hurricanes in five.
Panthers vs. Lightning: Yes, Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov are expected to be in the lineup for the Bolts. But Victor Hedman is less than 100% and Florida has added some nice pieces, specifically Sam Bennett. This will be a fun series. Panthers in seven.
Canadiens vs. Maple Leafs: This will get Canada diverted from its COVID-19 issues. Montreal is up-and-down, Toronto has depth and if the goaltending holds up, the Leafs should move on. If they don’t, well … let the angst commence. Maple Leafs in six.
Jets vs. Oilers: I’m expecting a high-scoring series as Winnipeg will struggle to contain Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl while Edmonton’s goaltending is always sketchy. Too bad fans aren’t being allowed in either building. The atmosphere would have been electric. Jets in six.
**Steve Carp is the author of “Vegas Born — The remarkable story of the Golden Knights.” Follow him on Twitter @stevecarp56. All of Steve Carp’s work here on SinBin.vegas is presented to you by the Jimmerson Law Firm. For over twenty-five years, the Jimmerson Law Firm has been widely recognized as one of Las Vegas’s preeminent full-service law firms. Specializing in high stakes business, civil and family litigation, the Jimmerson Law Firm has an unparalleled track record of winning when it matters most. To reach the Jimmerson Law Firm, call (702) 388-7171 and tell them SinBin.vegas sent you.**