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Recap: Fiala and Kahkonen lead Wild past Vegas in defensive affair

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Wild grind out a physical, defensive win against a shorthanded Golden Knights squad

Vegas Golden Knights v Minnesota Wild Photo by Bruce Kluckhohn/NHLI via Getty Images

Despite scoring nearly five goals per game over their past six wins and facing a Vegas Golden Knights team without stars Mark Stone and Alex Pietrangelo, the Minnesota Wild were out to prove they could win a low-scoring affair against the league’s stingiest defensive team and a Vezina candidate in Marc-Andre Fleury.

That they did, as a first-period snipe by Kevin Fiala was all the Wild would need in a 2-0 victory, thanks to strong play by the Minnesota defense and a lights-out performance by rookie Kaapo Kahkonen, who earned his first career shutout by calmly stopping every one of the Golden Knights 26 shots on net.

One of the National Hockey League’s best first period teams this season, the Wild came out strong on both ends of the ice, doubling up the Golden Knights on shots in the first frame, while clogging passing lanes and breaking up plays with active sticks in the defensive zone. The defensive pairing of Jonas Brodin and Matt Dumba were especially strong for the Wild, limiting chances in front of Kahkonen and preventing Vegas from getting many high-dangers chances through to their goaltender.

Offensively, the regular suspects of Kirill Kaprizov and Mats Zuccarello had their moments, and Zach Parise had his strongest game since being made a healthy scratch last week, but Fiala was the star in the Wild’s return home to the X. On Friday night against the Arizona Coyotes, Fiala spent most of the game trying to set up Parise in his return to the ice after being scratched, to no avail. Clearly Fiala was playing the long game, convincing opponents that his tendancy with Parise is to set up instead of take the shot, and on a two-on-one opportunity in the first period, Fiala took advantage. With Parise playing wingman, Fiala bucked his recent trend and kept the shot for himself, beating Fleury topside to get the game’s first goal. Victor Rask got the assist on the scoresheet, but it was Parise’s presense that allowed Fiala the time and space to give the Wild the only score they would need.

Fiala and Fleury did battle much of the night with Fiala getting eight shots on goal and generally having a fantastic game, showing skill and hustle throughout. But outside of the first goal, Fleury had the better of the chances, making save after tremendous save.

As for the Wild’s Calder-contending forward, while Kaprizov’s effort tonight didn’t show up on the scoresheet, his dynamic play turned heads as usual. His quarterbacking of a tic-tac-toe play nearly set up Eriksson Ek for a highlight-reel goal, but JEE couldn’t quite elevate his shot and the puck was deflected away harmlessly by a Vegas defender.

The officiating added to the low-scoring nature of the Wild’s victory, which once again did Minnesota no favors. The first three penalties of the game were assessed to the Wild, including a bizarre sequence where Carson Soucy was being held up in front of the Vegas bench while his replacement, Ryan Suter, jumped on the ice, leading to a too many men bench minor for the Wild - despite the fact that Vegas themselves had six players on the ice as well. But the Wild prevented the Golden Knights from taking advantage, preventing a single shot on Vegas’ two first period power plays. Though the Knights got some chances with the man advantage in the second after a Suter tripping call, Kahkonen was able to stop all four shots he faced on the penalty kill.

The Wild only got two chances to crack the scoresheet on the power play, but that might be good news at this point, because power play shifts like the Wild had against the Golden Knights tonight might actually do more harm than good. Their third period man-advantage attempt might have been one of the worst of the season, featuring bad passes, sloppy play and no rhythm. The Wild were lucky the Golden Knights weren’t able to capitalize on Minnesota’s lost momentum.

With the Wild carrying a precarious 1-0 lead into the third period, many fans were no doubt fearing the defensive shell they’d seen in recent games, allowing their opponent free access to the offensive zone and often leading to blown leads or comeback wins. But while the Wild did seem to be on their heels at times during the final frame, they did manage to get some offensive chances going, like a fantastic hustle and forecheck by Kaprizov that nearly set up a Zuccarello goal.

With Fleury pulled in the waning seconds of the game, Eriksson Ek was able to clear the Wild zone and found Brodin with a pass and nothing but open ice in between him and the net. As Brodin was going to deposit the puck in the empty cage, Vegas’ Jonathan Marchessault gave Brodin a wicked two-handed slash causing Brodin to lose the handle and miss the net. But since the offense occured on a empty net breakaway, Brodin was awarded the goal, and the Wild defeated the Golden Knights 2-0.

With the win, Kahkonen stretches his personal winning streak to seven games while earning his first career shutout in a calm, solid performance. At this point, I don’t see how the Wild can’t keep starting him, including in the rematch against the Golden Knights on Wednesday. It was also nice to see Parise have a solid game with eight shots and an expected goals for percentage of 73%, third highest on the team behind Fiala and Rask.

If the season ended today, these two teams would face off in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. And what a series that would be - high scoring one second, a defensive battle the next, and physical throughout. Here’s hoping that if the two teams are fated to match up in the postseason that it will be in the second round instead of the first.

We’ll get another dose of Wild/Golden Knights in under 48 hours back at the X. Minnesota will need another quick start, especially if Stone and Pietrangelo make their returns to the lineup.

Burning Answers

Full game effort?

While the Wild may have had their ups and downs, for the most part, Minnesota didn’t relax for an entire period like they have in recent games, especially defensively. The Wild blueliners did an incredible job of preventing passes, cleaning out creases, and matching physicality for physicality against the Golden Knights. Offensively there was a bit of a slowdown especially in the second period and the first half of the third, but Minnesota never completely took their foot off the gas. There’s still improvement to be made (and there will need to be for the rematch if Vegas is back to full health), but after the Arizona series, the compete level was good to see.

Can the top-six return to form?

Well, not really. Points-wise, only Marcus Foligno got on the board with a second-assist on Brodin’s awarded garbage time goal. Kaprizov had his usual moments of jaw-dropping skill, but for the most part, the advanced stats as well as the eye test would show that the top six had a pretty mediochre night at best.

Luckily, the third line of Fiala-Rask-Parise more than made up for it, will all three leading the Wild in xGF% at over 73%.

Can the Wild win the penalty battle?

That’s a big fat nope. Not only did Vegas earn three power plays to Minnesota’s 2, the Wild’s power play looked somewhere between lost and atrocious, unlike recent games where the time with the extra attacker seemed like it should have resulted in about a dozen goals. In fact, the Wild ended up with more shots on three penalty kills (1) than they did on their two power plays (0).

There’s always next game, I guess. But at this rate, they should probably look into seeing if there’s a way to decline any penalties assessed to their opponents.