Two of the hottest teams in the NHL face off on Thursday night in Las Vegas when the Central Division-leading Minnesota Wild take on the Vegas Golden Knights in a rematch of a first-round playoff series that Vegas won in seven games last spring.
Minnesota will bring in a four-game winning streak after breezing past the Arizona Coyotes, 5-2, on Wednesday night in Glendale, Ariz., in the front half of a back-to-back. Vegas, despite missing key cogs such as captain Mark Stone (lower-body), Max Pacioretty (fractured foot) and William Karlsson (broken foot), has won six of its last eight games following a 1-4 start and trails the Edmonton Oilers by just four points in a tight Pacific Division race.
Vegas opened a six-game homestand with a 4-2 victory over the Seattle Kraken on Tuesday night as goalie Robin Lehner made 25 saves for his fifth win in six starts and Reilly Smith scored two goals in the span of 46 seconds early in the third period.
“We were 1-4 there, but most of us weren’t panicking,” said Lehner. “We have a lot of belief in our group and our depth and our system, and I think we’re slowly getting there. We’re fighting hard to stay in games, getting points, waiting for some key players to come back. But I think everyone is stepping up and we’re working really hard to stay in the race.”
Golden Knights coach Peter DeBoer pointed to his team’s defense and goaltending for turning things around following the 1-4 start.
“I’ve liked our response,” said DeBoer. “Obviously we were at a little bit of a crossroads there, especially with the schedule at that point. We were heading to Colorado and Dallas, and the guys that were injured were going to be out for a long time.”
The Golden Knights ended up sweeping the tough road back-to-back with a 3-1 victory over the Avalanche followed by a 3-2 overtime win over the Stars.
“I thought our group from that point on recommitted to defending hard, and we’ve been getting great goaltending and timely goals and found a way to win some games,” said DeBoer.
The only clunker was a 4-0 loss at Toronto to start a four-game eastern road trip that saw Vegas come home with a 2-2 split.
“We felt like we were building when we weren’t winning games,” said defenseman Alex Pietrangelo. “I think that Toronto game was almost a good thing for us to kind of take a step back and look at what we need to do to win.”
Minnesota improved to 9-3-0 with its win over the Coyotes, its best start since it began 10-2-0 in 2006-07. Kevin Fiala had a highlight-reel goal and two assists and Kirill Kaprizov, Marcus Foligno, Joel Eriksson Ek and Dmitry Kulikov also scored while Kaapo Kahkonen made 24 saves to win his second straight start.
“I think right from day one, training camp, our work ethic was always there,” said Foligno, who has five goals, about his team’s quick start. “We had an intense training camp and guys really started jelling with each other and it’s been a fun room. We’ve had a lot of games where we clawed back and came from behind and I think it’s due to our work ethic. It’s been fun. It’s a good group and it’s nice to have the wins early.”
Kaprizov’s goal was the 30th of his career and came in his 67th NHL game, the fastest any Wild player in history has accomplished that feat.
–Field Level Media