With the rest of the league done and waiting, the hockey world watched as the Colorado Avalanche defeated the Los Angeles Kings 5-1 to wrap up the West Division title and the President's Trophy. The win also secured the first-round matchups in the West Division of the playoffs, as Colorado now takes on the St. Louis Blues, leaving the Las Vegas Golden Knights to play the Minnesota Wild in the first round.
The matchup with Vegas, the first between the teams in the postseason, was preferable to a Round 1 series against Colorado.
At the end of the season series between the Wild and the Golden Knights, we wrote about how the Wild have has managed to succeed against them this season. Minnesota closed out the year 5-1-2 against the Golden Knights and has owned a favorable record (11-2-3) in the brief history of the Vegas franchise since they came into the league in 2017.
On the flip side, Minnesota lost five of eight to Colorado this season and often looked thoroughly dominated by the Avs.
Now that the Wild have their preferred matchup in the postseason, the mantra should be no excuses heading into the seven-game series.
The Wild got a seemingly favorable opponent in the play-in series against the Vancouver Canucks last season. But they were dispatched in four games, prompting a major retooling of the roster by general manager Bill Guerin. The excuse following that series was that the Wild didn't have good enough goaltending to win.
Well, goaltending went from a weakness to a strength in 2021. Both Cam Talbot and Kaapo Kahkonen played valiantly this season. It was a sight for sore eyes after the previous few seasons of goaltending with Devan Dubnyk and Alex Stalock. However, if you are just looking at the games in May which lead the Wild into the postseason, neither goaltender — Talbot or Kahkonen — has a save percentage at even strength over .900.
Another common excuse over the past decade of Wild playoff failures is that they have not had that superstar game-changer who can play bad for 59 minutes but then have one shift where he makes the difference with a game-winning goal. The team now has that in Kirill Kaprizov, who had an otherworldly rookie season that showed he belongs among the game's best.
Also, don't forget about Kevin Fiala, who has shown that he too can be that elite goalscorer the Wild need in the postseason. He closed out the season with 20 goals and 20 assists, including an impressive 26 points over the final 23 games of the season. Fiala was also easily Minnesota's best forward in the play-in series against Vancouver last summer, tallying three goals in the four-game defeat.
Did the defense change at all in recent years? Nope, it remains a major strength for this team, led by captain Jared Spurgeon.
If there's one weakness on the roster, it's center. But while the team's centers have had their struggles this season, the Wild has overcome this deficiency with high scoring from Kaprizov, Fiala, Marcus Foligno, Joel Eriksson Ek, and Jordan Greenway. All had five or more points in the season series against Vegas.
Add all this up, and the Wild have what they wanted. The situation is perfect for Minnesota to strike and advance to the second round for the first time since 2015. They seemingly have an edge to them when they play Vegas, and there's no reason to believe that won't continue into the playoffs.
"It’s always been back-and-forth and physical and heavy [against Vegas]," Foligno told The Athletic. "So it suits us well. They’re a great team. We’re a great team. So it’s gonna be a fun series."
But if there's one reason for doubt, it's that this Vegas team was built for playoff success. Can the Wild stop that freight train?
Vegas certainly knows what they have to do. "They’re really good at grinding,” goaltender Robin Lehner said. “I was talking to (Marc-Andre) Fleury about that. How good they are at creating offense around your net. They always move. There are a lot of plays from behind the net and a lot of cross-ice plays."
There are no excuses now for the Wild. They have their desired matchup, and it's time for them to take advantage of it.
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