Every year we hear the same things about playoff hockey.
“There’s less space out there.”
“The referees put their whistles away.”
“It’s just different.”
Some of this may be anecdotal, but there’s no doubting the questions concerning how a player who hasn’t experienced it before will adjust. Do they even have to adjust? After the first two games of his first NHL playoff series, the Minnesota Wild’s prized rookie, Kirill Kaprizov, has been absent on the scoresheet.
With the first two games of the series taking place in Vegas, the Vegas Golden Knights have taken advantage of the benefits of getting the matchups they want. Kaprizov and his two linemates, Mats Zuccarello and Ryan Hartman, have been held at bay by the Golden Knights top line of Mark Stone, Thomas Nosek, and Chandler Stephenson. While Kirill had six goals and two assists in the eight games against Vegas during the regular season, he’s struggled under the pressure of the matchup.
Speaking on Kaprizov’s play through the first two games, head coach Dean Evason said, “they’re paying special attention to him, whoever is up against him. Clearly, the people around him are getting opportunities. We’re happy with the changes we’re getting. Clearly, we need to bury some of them.”
He’s got five shots, which isn’t eye-popping but is right in line with his regular-season average of 2.85 shots per game. But Kaprizov’s strength isn't in his scoring ability — although it's pretty darn good — but in his ability to distribute.
Evason is right about his success; Kaprizov’s line has the second most high-danger chances on the team, behind the Jordan Greenway, Joel Eriksson Ek, Marcus Foligno line. According to Evolving-Hockey.com, they are also well-above water at 5v5 with a 68 xGF% and are the only Wild line with a positive CF% at 55%.
He will take some time to adjust to this “new” style of hockey, but with the third game of the series taking place at home, that adjustment may come fast. The Wild were sensational at the Xcel Energy Centre this year, and much of that was driven by Kaprizov’s play. He notched 16 goals and 12 assists in their 28 games at home.
As for his play on the defensive end, Evason has been impressed and isn’t too concerned about getting Kaprizov away from he (defensemen) matchup.
“The way he’s playing the game and how he’s playing the game in all three zones is real good,” the Wild’s head coach said. “He just has to stay the course like we do and believe [that] we’ll all breakthrough.
We have our game plan, what we won't do, as far as who we’d like [to see]. Different players, different lines, and different pairs to play against the opposition, and playing against Vegas is no different. We’ve played them 8 times. We know what they’re trying to do. We know what we’re gonna try to do. I’m sure they have a book on us as well. It's nice to have that last change, there’s no question about that, and we’ll try to get our matchups.”
The Golden Knights are the favorite in this series, just by nature of being the higher seed. Splitting the first two games on the road should be considered a positive for the Wild. Both games were close, incredibly close. Losing last night’s game 3-1 shouldn’t change the team’s process, as they controlled the game for large swaths of time.
Despite that loss, Evason doesn’t sound like he expects to make any changes to their approach.
“We’re disappointed we didn’t get the results last night,” Evason said, “but the way that we played the game and how we played in all three zones, especially offensively, [was good]. The opportunities that we set up for ourselves or created, we have to just continue to do that and have the belief that things will go our way. We’ve done that all year and we don’t expect our group to change now.”