The Minnesota Wild were not going to let the Vegas Golden Knights outwork on them Saturday night.
Offensively, the Wild bullied their way towards the crease for close-range looks. Defensively, they packed it in tightly and were willing to sacrifice their bodies in piling up 26 blocked shots.
The formula led Minnesota to a 2-1 victory and allowed it to become the first opponent this season to sweep Vegas in a two-game set at T-Mobile Arena.
“You can see where the games are going,” Vegas coach Pete DeBoer said. “We have to be comfortable in those types of games. The playoffs are on the horizon and I think everybody is dialing in playoff-type details to win. The shot blocking was for sure a factor tonight.”
The Golden Knights have now lost three straight games for the first time this year and allowed the Wild to creep within two standings points of their current second-place spot in the West Division. They’re still comfortably in playoff position with a 12-point lead over the fifth-place St. Louis Blues, which host the Golden Knights on Monday and Wednesday, but left searching for how to ramp up their game to another level as stakes increase.
DeBoer wasn’t disappointed with the Golden Knights’ effort on Saturday — and he hasn’t been in the previous two losses either – but he did wish they manufactured more scoring chances late in the game. He wasn’t alone, as defenseman Shea Theodore also cited a diminished energy level once Minnesota took the lead with 13 minutes left to play.
“I thought we played well but just kind of let off the gas,” he said. “When they scored there, we got down on the bench — I don’t know. We have to fix that. We have to have a little more spark to our game.”
DeBoer stressed winning battles in front of the net against the Wild, which have now beaten the Golden Knights four straight times, but it proved easier said than done. Minnesota’s first goal came on a power play six minutes into the third period when Kirill Kaprizov camped out right to the side of Marc-Andre Fleury and tapped in a pass from Joel Eriksson Ek.
A minute later, Eriksson Ek was only a foot or so farther back when he pushed his own rebound past Fleury directly out of a faceoff.
“I think the story of tonight (was) their two goals traveled probably 8-12 inches, both right around the crease,” DeBoer said.
The Golden Knights’ defense might have made a couple key miscues, but their offense was more underwhelming throughout the entirety of Saturday’s game. Vegas’ lone goal came less than six minutes in when everyone near the puck stopped playing because they thought the Golden Knights were offside — everyone except Tomas Nosek.
The veteran forward backhanded a shot past Cam Talbot to put the Golden Knights up 1-0 and continue a streak that’s seen him provide at least a point in four of the last five games.
Talbot was otherwise stingy for the second straight game — racking up 27 saves to Fleury’s 25 — but the Golden Knights didn’t challenge him as consistently as they did in Thursday’s 3-2 shootout loss.
“Tonight they played pretty defensive, didn’t make a lot of mistakes,” Vegas forward Mark Stone said of the Wild. “You can’t really feast off turnovers because they don’t make a ton. We had our looks, had our chances, 1-0 going into the third and you lose the game. We’re right there with a chance to win and give up two goals. We’ve got to find a way to score more goals.”
Vegas’ power-play unit was again no help in the department as it continued to slide down the NHL ranks, now sitting tired for 23rd in the league at a 17.9% success rate after a third straight game with no results. Minnesota picked up a slashing penalty midway through the third period, giving Vegas a great chance to tie the game.
But the Golden Knights didn’t muster any clean looks on Talbot during a 2-minute stretch that DeBoer said he “hated.”
“Very concerned,” Stone said of the Golden Knights’ continued power-play troubles. “It can win us a hockey game. It won them the game tonight. They score a power-play goal and we go 0-for-2…that needs to be fixed.”
Peaks and valleys are a natural part of any hockey team’s season so no one on the Golden Knights is overly concerned with a recent downturn to what’s been an otherwise smooth campaign.
But with only 20 games remaining in the regular season, the intensity appears to be changing among teams in contention. The Golden Knights have noticed and two straight losses to the Wild has them determined to adjust to it.