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2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs Round 1 Preview: Golden Knights vs. Wild

2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs

(Bruce Kluckhohn/NHLI via Getty Images)

2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs
Can Alex Pietrangelo and Vezina candidate Marc-André Fleury be the ones to shut down Calder favorite Kirill Kaprizov and the suddenly exciting Minnesota Wild for good? (Bruce Kluckhohn/NHLI via Getty Images)

Welcome to the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs, unlike any playoffs seen before. This year’s tournament is different than the 2020 tournament, as the realigned divisions, eliminated wild cards and conference structures, and the 56-game pandemic-shortened season produced a uniquely structured tournament. The atmosphere may not be the same as in previous years, but at least some fans will get to experience this year’s tournament in person. Despite all the adversity that the hockey world has faced this season, the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs will surely be a tournament to remember.

Most people wouldn’t have been too surprised to see a Vegas-Minnesota first-round meeting at the start of this season. But no one expected it to come in this fashion. Vegas is the juggernaut we all expected them to be, rolling over opponents all season to the league’s second-best record. But the Wild aren’t too far behind. Minnesota, known as one of the league’s most boring and mediocre teams throughout their history, has been anything but this year. The injection of Russian star Kirill Kaprizov has infected the Wild with a high-flying attitude that’s propelled them to their best points percentage in franchise history. Is it enough to overcome the potent Golden Knights and win just their fifth playoff series? Let’s take a look.

#2 Vegas Golden Knights (40-14-2) vs. #3 Minnesota Wild (35-16-5)

Recent History: Nothing to speak of. Vegas and Minnesota are usually in different divisions, and the Golden Knights are only in their fourth year of existence. So this isn’t really a surprise.

The Last Time Here: Vegas claimed the one seed with a 3-0-0 round robin performance in 2020, then started the playoffs 7-2. But a pair of goalies sapped their swagger. First, it was Marc-André Fleury’s agent’s infamous backstabbing Tweet. Then, Thatcher Demko stole Games 5, 6, and nearly 7 in the second round. Vegas ultimately prevailed to reach their second conference finals in three years. But after splitting the first two, Vegas dropped the next three and the series to the Dallas Stars.

Canadian teams have not treated the Wild kindly in the playoffs lately; good thing there won’t be any in their way for at least the first two rounds. Vancouver knocked them out of the bubble in four games last year. Their last proper playoff appearance was a 4-1 butt-kicking from the Winnipeg Jets in 2018. Though it’s worth noting Ryan Suter missed the entire series and Zach Parise missed the last two games with injuries.

Season Series: This is the only first round series where the lower seed has more head-to-head victories than the higher one. Minnesota took five of eight meetings, losing in regulation just once. But when Vegas won, they won big; despite a 3-4-1 record, the Golden Knights had a plus-one goal differential against the Wild in 2021.

Vegas Wins Because: They’re still all in on a Cup push. We didn’t know it at the time, but the Golden Knights have been contenders since their very first game in October 2017. The club pulled off one of the most incredible runs in sports history in their inaugural season, winning the Pacific Division and losing just three games in the first three rounds of the playoffs. A blown 3-1 series and 3-0 Game 7 lead to San Jose in 2019 soured their ambitions, but only temporarily. Vegas reached the final four last year, and they’re hungrier than ever to finally get over the hump in 2021.

There are few weaknesses up and down this year’s roster. The Golden Knights still have their day one first line of Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson, and Reilly Smith intact, and they’re as sharp as ever. The trio racked up an impressive 58.38% Corsi and 54.1% Expected Goals together, though Smith’s scoring numbers (25 points in 53 games) took a somewhat significant dip. But that’s ok because that’s basically their second line now. The big moves in the 2018-19 season to bring in Mark Stone and Max Pacioretty are still paying dividends, even if Pacioretty came at a pretty high cost. They rank 1-2 in team scoring, and Stone is still one of the best defensive forwards in the sport. If he were a center, he’d probably already have a Selke Trophy to his name by now.

Chandler Stephenson has done a nice job centering those two since arriving in 2019 from Washington, a great low-risk, high-reward buy by Vegas after Stephenson fell out of favor in Washington. Some of Stephenson’s success has to do with playing with those two stars. But his underlying numbers are nearly identical with those two as away from them, though that’s in a very limited sample size (49:34, to be exact). Add in other pieces like Alex Tuch and deadline addition Mattias Janmark (who admittedly only has 1 goal in 15 games), and Vegas has solid depth as well. Though it’s disappointing Cody Glass hasn’t been able to run with the 3C job. I’m not expecting him to play much of a role (if any) in their 2021 run.

Vegas’ defense is similarly built; incredible firepower at the top, solid but not other-worldly depth. Shea Theodore was a stealth Norris candidate last year, finishing 6th in the voting. He’s been great once again this year, scoring 44 points (tied for 7th among NHL defensemen) with stellar underlying numbers. Peter DeBoer has separated him and 2020’s main free-agent prize Alex Pietrangelo to spread the wealth on the backend. Pietrangelo got off to a bit of a tough start in his new surroundings, but it was only a matter of time before he found his A-game. His possession numbers (Corsi, xG) are basically the same as they were last year, and his drop in points can easily be explained by a lack of PP1 time. He’s still a great player.

Expect Theodore to be paired with Alec Martinez (who is currently day-to-day with an injury) and Pietrangelo to go with Brayden McNabb. The two former LA Kings are defensive-minded defensemen who balance out their partners and seem to have chemistry. Their third pair of Nic Hague and Zach Whitecloud easily have the most 5-on-5 minutes of any Vegas d-pair together (553:16). They’re not flashy names, but they’ve played very solidly (55.66% Corsi, 58.09% xG). Yes, they’ve benefited from a .940% on-ice save percentage, which is due for regression, but the pair should still be solid even if that happens.

Granted, Vegas as a team has received great goaltending all year, ranking second in the league with a .920 team save percentage. Heading into the year, I was critical of Vegas for not trading Marc-André Fleury to clear cap space and make way for the recently extended Robin Lehner to become the starter. This is why I’m not an NHL GM, folks. Lehner finished the year strong after dealing with a concussion earlier in the year. But Fleury stole the show all season, finishing 3rd in save percentage, 3rd in shutouts, and 4th in goals saved above average. The fan-favorite will be the team’s starter heading into the playoffs, and Lehner is as good an insurance policy as you can find in net. It’s another luxury this star-studded Vegas team is reaping the benefits of.

Minnesota Wins Because: They’ve defied every expectation handed to them this year; what’s another one in Round 1? Most people thought the Wild would make the playoffs as the 4th seed in the West as first-round cannon fodder. Vegas and Colorado were expected to dominate, St. Louis would be a step behind, and Minnesota would claim the last spot basically by default. Instead, they’ve basically traded places with the Blues and become a legitimate threat to Vegas’ Cup ambitions. They’d love to play the same role against (very likely) the Avalanche next round.

Kirill Kaprizov isn’t solely responsible for this team’s offensive turn-around, but he’s a huge reason why. The 2015 5th round pick lit up Russian’s KHL the last two years, and he hasn’t slowed down since coming to North America. Kaprizov led the Wild and all NHL rookies with 27 goals and 51 points. He’s a dynamic, game-changing talent who oozes skill and can make plays most players can only dream of. Vaccine shedding might not be real, but skill shedding might be, because it seems like Kaprizov has made each of his teammates just a little more exciting and entertaining to watch.

Kaprizov’s impact is what Kevin Fiala brought to this team a few years ago on steroids. Fiala was a major bright spot over the year and a half before this season for a team sorely lacking them. He also has plenty of high-end skill and finished second on the club with 20 goals. Mats Zuccarello had nearly as many points this year as he did last season in 25 fewer games, reaping the rewards of playing with Kaprizov. Jordan Greenway had a nice year, posting 26 assists, and he’s a big, physical forward who should perform well in a playoff atmosphere. Add in a career year for Marcus Foligno (26 points in 39 games), and you’ve got some really nice wingers to play with here.

The problem for the Wild is down the middle. The Eric Staal-Marcus Johansson swap worked for absolutely nobody, as Johansson has neither been effective at playing center or scoring in Minnesota. Joel Eriksson Ek has become the team’s first-line center as a result. Don’t get me wrong, Eriksson Ek is a fine player; he scored at a respectable 44-point pace and is an excellent defensive center who could scrape together a few 4th or 5th place Selke votes. But he’s not a first-line center on a true contender.

Yes, you could say the same about Stephenson, but I’ll take Stone-Pacioretty over Kaprizov-Zuccarello. Plus, he has William Karlsson behind him. On the other hand, the Wild have an uninspiring mix of Nick Bonino, Nick Bjugstad, and Nico Sturm (EDIT: I somehow forgot to include Victor Rask in this dynamic, who of course is Kaprizov’s center). Bjugstad’s a big body who could thrive physically. And Bonino had that legendary playoff run in Pittsburgh a few years back. But I’m not sure all three of them combined would make a truly great second-line center.

Minnesota makes up for that weakness (at least a little) by being one of the toughest teams to score against. Their top four of Ryan Suter-Jared Spurgeon and Jonas Brodin-Mathew Dumba is one of the best in the sport. Spurgeon in particular is very underrated and is arguably a top-ten defenseman in the league. However, I think the club would be best if they switched Spurgeon and Dumba (or Suter and Brodin; whatever floats your boat). It’s a small sample size, but Suter-Dumba and Spurgeon-Brodin have performed much better this season.

Time-on-Ice (5v5)CorsiExpected Goals

Their main third pair of Ian Cole and Carson Soucy has been simply ineffective, slumping along to the tune of a 43.31% Corsi and 49.26% xG. High team on-ice shooting and save percentages (13.69% and .939%, respectively) had somehow seen them pull out a 67.6% actual goals for percentage together. Much like I said about Brenden Dillon and Justin Schultz in the Washington preview, it’s a matter of when (not if) those numbers regress and the pair gets what’s coming for them.

Of course, the answer to when doesn’t necessarily have to be this series. Brad Hunt could come into the lineup to replace Cole, and probably should in fact. Hunt’s insertion could help sustain a red-hot Wild power-play (27.1% since March 13, 3rd in NHL). Vegas PP is just 18.2% over that span; it’s about the only area where the Wild have a clear-cut edge. Though both teams are actually tied for 22nd, which shows how poor Minnesota’s man-advantage was to start the year. Vegas has the league’s top penalty-kill at 86.8%, but the Wild are no slouch at 82.2% (T-10th).

As a team, there’s one message that defines the Wild: quality over quantity. You can see it a bit if you look at the numbers of their two most used defensive pairs above. It applies to the rest of the team, too. Minnesota ranks 26th in the NHL in Corsi (46.78%) but 13th in Expected Goals (51.83%). Minnesota’s 13 spot gap between these two numbers is easily the highest in the league (Toronto is 2nd at 8). Outstanding goaltending from Cam Talbot was a huge part of their reason. Reigning AHL goalie of the year Kappo Kähkönen started strong but put up an awful .849 save percentage in his final six starts. Talbot also finished the year on a sour note, and if the Wild are going to pull off this upset, they’ll need him to be in 2016-17 Edmonton form.

Players to Watch:

VGK: D Alex Pietrangelo – The playoffs are why the Golden Knights made the splash of last fall by inking Pietrangelo to a 7-year, $8.7 million pact. Pietrangelo was St. Louis’s number one defenseman when they won the Cup in 2019, and he certainly played like it. Pietrangelo was top-10 in playoff points per game by a defenseman and ice-time. And oh yeah, he also scored the Stanley Cup winning goal. I’d expect Vegas to load up their top pair with him and Theodore at some point in these playoffs (unless they absolutely cruise through the field). Pietrangelo is one of four Golden Knights (Fleury, McNabb, and Martinez) who already has their name on the Cup. You know he wants the rest of his teammates to join him in two months.

MIN: C Joel Eriksson Ek – As I mentioned earlier, the Wild’s biggest weakness is at center, especially in the top-six. Eriksson Ek is the most likely, maybe even the only, player who could fix that for the short-term. Whether he’s playing with Kaprizov to stack the top-line or down in the lineup to spread things out a bit, Eriksson Ek will need to produce offensively in addition to likely being tasked with shutting down one of Vegas’ top two lines. It’s a lot riding on him, but the young center has produced the whole year. This will be a whole different challenge, though.

Here’s another playoff preview for your trouble.

The Pick: The tight season series, solid goaltending, and Kaprizov factor should allow the Wild to hang with Vegas. This likely won’t be a blow-out series like it was when Minnesota met Cup-contending Winnipeg in their last best-of-seven. But Vegas are contenders for a reason. Their strengths are bigger strengths than Minnesota’s, and their weaknesses are less of a concern than the Wild’s as well. It’s basically impossible for a team to overcome both of those handicaps. I think Minnesota will do their best, but the franchise has to lose their first Game 7 at some point. Vegas in 7.

Oddly Specific Prediction: This is an idea I also borrow from one of the best hockey writers, The Athletic’s Sean McIndoe (aka Down Goes Brown). The idea is very self-explanatory: make a very specific and semi-random prediction for each series. The idea is “stolen”; the predictions themselves are not. Both of these clubs dominated at home, posting identical 21-5-2 records, tied for fourth in the NHL. But the regular season rarely carries over to the playoffs; so let’s say the home team wins no more than two games this series.

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All Advanced Stats are 5-on-5, Score and Venue Adjusted unless otherwise stated and are via Natural Stat Trick (except for GSAA, which is from Hockey-Reference)

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