The 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs kicked off on Saturday with the Boston Bruins dueling with the Washington Capitals. After the Pittsburgh Penguins face off with the New York Islanders on Sunday morning, the action kicks off out west with a matchup between a dominant force in the Vegas Golden Knights and an up-and-coming contender in the Minnesota Wild. In the regular season, the Wild won the season series over the Golden Knights 5-1-2.
The Wild have been a consistent playoff team over the past decade, qualifying for the postseason in all but one year (2018-19) since the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs where they lost 4-1 in the first round to the Chicago Blackhawks. Since then, the Wild have gone 2-6 in playoff series with their last series winning coming in 2015, where they defeated the St. Louis Blues in the first round in six games.
Last year, the Wild qualified for the Stanley Cup Qualifiers, only to lose in four games to the Vancouver Canucks. They have been one-and-done in the first round in each of their last four playoff appearances.
Since last year’s failure, the Wild needed a boost to get themselves back to the postseason and give their franchise a promising direction that pointed toward the possibility of deep playoff runs rather than first-round exits.
Enter rookie sensation Kirill Kaprizov.
Kaprizov dazzled the NHL world with 51 points in 55 games played, putting the Wild on his back and pushing them through to the playoffs in the Honda West Division. With 27 goals and 24 assists, he has given the franchise long-term excitement they have lacked since the excitement of acquiring Zach Parise and Ryan Suter on July 4, 2012 wore off.
While Suter and Parise have not been the front-line contributors Wild fans have been accustomed to seeing, other role players have stepped up to support their rookie star such as Kevin Fiala (40 points), Mats Zuccarello (35 points) and Jordan Greenway (32).
Goaltending has been a revelation for the Wild with journeyman Cam Talbot anchoring the gap between the nets with a .915 save percentage (Sv%) and a .263 goal allowed per game average (GAA).
As for Vegas, they are once again among the favorites to reach the Stanley Cup Finals with their outstanding puck movement and stout goaltending duo. The Golden Knights were first in the NHL in fewest Goals Against Per Game Played (GA/GP) with 2.18 and third in most Goals For Per Game Played with a mark of 3.39 (GF/GP).
They and the Colorado Avalanche were tied for the most points in the entirety of the NHL with the Avs edging out the Golden Knights on tiebreaker for the West Division title and the Presidents’ Trophy. Last season, the Golden Knights lost in the Western Conference Finals in five games to the Dallas Stars.
Mark Stone and Max Pacioretty are once again the one-two punch that leads the way for the Golden Knights’ offense. Stone had 61 points in the regular season with Pacioretty chipping in 51. Also, the supporting cast for the Golden Knights has been strong like it has been the last few years with Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson and Shea Theodore all notching at least 39 points during the regular season.
Between the posts, the Golden Knights bolster the duo of three-time Stanley Cup champion Marc-Andre Fleury and Robin Lehner. Fleury has been dominant with a 1.98 GAA and .928 Sv% in 36 starts while Lehner provided a 2.29 GAA with a .913 Sv%.
This series will come down to the Wild being able to break through the goaltending duo of Vegas. The Golden Knights will be able to find scoring in bunches with their puck movement and put pressure on Kaprizov and the rest of the Wild to keep up. I don’t see the Wild being able to hang with the Golden Knights in a seven-game series despite winning the season series over Vegas, leading once again to a first-round exit.
Prediction: Golden Knights in Five