The Minnesota Wild came up short against the Vegas Golden Knights in the playoffs last season. After being down 3-1 in the series, the Wild fought back and forced Game 7. But they ultimately didn't have enough in the tank to beat the likes of Marc-Andre Fleury, Mark Stone, Alex Tuch, and the deep Golden Knights roster. You can't be too disappointed, seeing as Vegas went on to the Conference Finals after defeating the Colorado Avalanche. But still, that was a winnable series, and the Wild couldn't take it.
The main storyline was the Golden Knights' ability to stifle Minnesota's top scoring threats. Kirill Kaprizov and Kevin Fiala combined for just three goals and only one of those came at 5-on-5. Conversely, Stone and Tuch combined for seven.
Their lack of production wasn't the only reason the Wild lost, but it was undoubtedly a primary culprit for their demise. The Wild were simply outplayed in all situations, which is detrimental for a team that relies on even-strength play for most of their offense. But in the end, teams need their stars to shine. That simply wasn't the case for Minnesota.
Now, the Golden Knights' depth also paved the way past the Wild with several unexpected key performers. But Minnesota also got production from their role players, too, with eight different players reaching the scoresheet. Joel Eriksson Ek and Ryan Hartman scored twice in the series. Even Zach Parise, who was wrongfully scratched in the first three meetings, scored two goals and three points in the remaining four games of the series. Matt Dumba, Jordan Greenway, Nick Bjugstad, and Nico Sturm all chipped one a goal.
Kaprizov and Fiala can't just be Minnesota's best performers this time around. They need to take over the series if the Wild want a chance in the postseason. The St. Louis Blues, who are a sure thing as the Wild's first-round opponent, will be a tough team to beat. They'll be icing a potent offense with the likes of Ryan O'Reilly, Vladimir Tarasenko, and Jordan Kyrou, among others. In all, the Blues have eight 20-goal scorers and one of the best offenses in the league.
While Minnesota has the advantage defensively and in goal, St. Louis' offensive firepower will be tough to beat if Kaprizov and Fiala aren't dominant offensively. Granted, the playoffs are a completely different animal with a high-intensity playing style that makes anything possible. But Fiala was an impact player in the play-in series against the Vancouver Canucks two years ago.
The Wild should get production from their two stars. Both are having career seasons. It helps that Fiala has better linemates now with Matt Boldy and Freddy Gaudreau. Fiala is on the best scoring tear of his career right now, scoring 28 goals and 59 points over the past 48 games. That's even more impressive considering he had just 4 goals through the first 29 games of the season.
Aside from being a lethal goal scorer and playmaker, Fiala continues to be a dangerous player in transition. His ascension to top-line production hasn't come at a cost defensively, either. All of this makes for an interesting summer with Fiala's RFA status at the forefront of the State of Hockey's anxieties.
Likewise, the Kaprizov-Hartman-Mats Zuccarello trio has been among the best lines in the league this season. They are very cohesive and have undoubtedly impacted Kaprizov's production. Still, the reigning Calder Trophy winner has been lights out this season. Kaprizov has already broken numerous franchise records with 44 goals and 97 points through 76 games this season.
Reaching the 100-point plateau is certainly not out of question. Kaprizov has simply upped his game to another level this season and is scoring at a ridiculous rate. According to MoneyPuck.com, he has scored 13.7 goals above expected — the sixth-highest rate in the league. And even after a brutally unlucky start, Fiala has scored 4.4 goals above expected. Their dangerous releases are a key component of their offensive toolkits, something they'll need to use to exploit the Blues.
Kaprizov and Fiala are two of the NHL's most dangerous offensive players and are the heart of the Wild's offense. Simply put, unlike last season, they must be productive in the playoffs or it will be an uphill battle to get past the Blues. Their production ultimately will decide whether or not the Wild make any damage in the postseason.