In shades of last year’s play-in series against the Vancouver Canucks, the Minnesota Wild had a chance to regain the series lead on home ice after splitting the first two games. But despite a strong first period that ended with a 2-0 lead, an utter collapse over the second and third led to five unanswered goals by the Vegas Golden Knights, who earned the series lead with a dominant 5-2 victory.
Though Ryan Hartman and Joel Eriksson Ek scored early to give the Wild the early momentum, Marcus Johansson’s first-period injury caused Wild head coach Dean Evason to have to shuffle short lines most of the night, and an overturned goal that would have given Eriksson Ek his second of the game ended up being the turning point Vegas needed to swing the ice in their favor. Mark Stone scored twice, and Reilly Smith had the game-winner for Vegas while Marc-Andre Fleury didn’t see much action after a rough early start, needing to stop only 14 of 16 Wild shots to earn the victory. Cam Talbot got absolutely shelled in the final two periods, ending up facing 39 shots for the game, making 35 saves.
Though the tide would turn midway through the first, Minnesota came out absolutely flying to start game 3, looking to all like they were on a mission to finally solve Fleury. And solve Flower they did, as Hartman teamed up with Kirill Kaprizov to do what the Wild couldn’t do through two games - get an early score and put the Golden Knights on their heels. An absolute beauty of a pass set up Hartman on the goalmouth, who tapped it in for a 1-0 lead.
Wild 1-0: Hartman taps home a beauty of a pass from Kaprizov pic.twitter.com/28PMvfghaN— Hockey Wilderness (@hockeywildernes) May 21, 2021
Prior to game 3, much of the conversation on Wild Twitter surrounded what Dean Evason might do to change things up after some poor performances in game two, with Johansson being the player singled out as having the roughest night. Evason decided to keep him in, but unfortunately for Mojo he didn’t have much of a chance to improve before he left the game due to injury. What originally looked like a trip ended up being Johansson stepping on the puck before losing his edge and colliding hard with the net. Down a player, the Wild would be forced to mix up lines for the rest of the night.
Midway through the third, the Wild were able to accomplish another task that they were unable to do through the first two games: score twice on Fleury. Eriksson Ek took advantage of a Matt Dumba shot and a Marcus Foligno deflection to bury the puck behind a sprawling Fleury, giving the Wild their first two goal lead of the series.
JEEK FOR PLAYOFF MVP! Wild up 2-0! pic.twitter.com/96wiW8V81A— Hockey Wilderness (@hockeywildernes) May 21, 2021
Later in the third, Minnesota thought they had another goal to give them a 3-0 lead when Eriksson Ek buried a Fiala rebound past Fleury, continuing the Wild’s domination in the first period...
Here's the goal if it stands pic.twitter.com/VG2phHz0ZT— Hockey Wilderness (@hockeywildernes) May 21, 2021
But in perhaps the biggest swing of the game, Vegas coach Peter DeBoer challenged that the preceding zone entry was offside. The officials agreed with the assessment, and the goal was taken off the board.
The game-changing decision took the wind out the Wild’s sails, and while Minnesota had a decent finish to the first period - a frame where they finished with a 5-on-5 xGF% of 74.7%, the loss of Johansson to injury and JEEK’s second goal to DeBoer’s challenge clearly had an effect on Minnesota’s compete level heading into the second period.
Vegas came out flying in the middle frame, and while Fiala had the best chance for the Wild but fanned on the breakaway attempt, it was Stone who got Vegas on the board and brought the game back within one for the Golden Knights.
A Vegas power play after Ian Cole tripped Brayden McNabb tilted the ice further, as the Golden Knights absolutely dominated the Wild and got an incredible seven shots on Talbot with the man-advantage, though somehow they couldn’t manage to score. The inability to pot the puck didn’t last long, however, as a Nick Holden shot bounced off the endboards and Talbot couldn’t clear the crease, leaving Patrick Brown with a wide open top corner, and like that, the game was tied.
A couple minutes later, the Vegas domination continued when Smith got two smacks at a puck that deflected off Jonas Brodin into Talbot, and the second one found daylight between Talbot’s pads. Vegas completed the comeback to take the lead with three unanswered second period goals.
But the usually strong third-period Wild never showed up to save the day, as after getting outshot 27-8 in the second period, the Wild didn’t muster a single shot on Fleury for the first five minutes of the third, and were outshot 10-2 through the first three quarters of the final frame. Minnesota got little help from the referees who seemingly left their whistles in the locker room for the third period (though each team did get a power play), but even at five-on-five the Wild were totally lackluster and completely dominated by a Vegas team that had found their footing.
But despite all of that, the game remained a one-goal affair - that is, until William Karlsson came down on a two-on-one and kept the shot to himself, sniping past Talbot to extend the lead to two at the 17:36 mark of the third. Add on a late Stone empty netter, and what looked like a brilliant start for the Wild en route to a solid victory turned into an abject disaster, giving the Golden Knights a 2-1 series lead and returning their home-ice advantage to them on a silver platter.
It’s almost unbelieveable that the same Wild team that looked like a potential playoff spoiler in the first period took the ice in the second and third looking like a team that was slumping for a high lottery pick. The advanced stats say it all: in all situations, Vegas dominated both CF% (71-29% and 57-43%), and xGF% (matching 80-20% margins) in the second and third periods. They were outshot by a combined 36-9 in the final two frames, and Vegas had the better of the high-danger chances by a 10-5 margin.
Evason has been hesitant to make lineup changes so far these playoffs, but even if Johansson does come back from his injury for game 4, Deano has got to get the message. Who knows if Zach Parise, Matt Boldy, or anyone else from the taxi squad is the answer - but until the Wild get Kaprizov and Fiala some offensive support, this series could be over sooner than we’d all hoped after the miraculous OT win in game one.
We’ll see what Evason can cook up for the Wild lineups heading into game 4, slated for 7 p.m. on Saturday.
Can Fiala get going tonight?
Through the first period Fiala was one of the stronger players on the ice, both offensively, defensively, and would have had the first assist had Eriksson Ek’s second goal stayed on the board. But especially after Johansson left the game and throughout the second and third period, Fiala bounced around from linemate to linemate and couldn’t get any rhythm going, ending up with only two shots and a middling 51.43 CF% at five-on-five. I mean, it’s hard to get going when you don’t know who’s hopping over the bench with you. But when the Wild needed someone, anyone to step up and put together a strong shift, Fiala wasn’t able to step up. To be fair, no one really did.
But Fiala did have one of the more memorable highlight moments for the Wild, giving a pair of Vegas players the ole’ as they tried to check him into the bench-side boards:
Fiala: "Ope do ya need to get by there?" pic.twitter.com/WiyGEMt0Q1— Hockey Wilderness (@hockeywildernes) May 21, 2021
Can anybody score a damn goal?
Not only was the answer to this question a resounding “yes” in the first period as both Hartman and Eriksson Ek scored early markers, JEEK very nearly had two damn goals had another non-call hooking/holding not caused Fiala to be offsides just before Eriksson Ek scored, causing the goal to be overturned.
It’s too bad that a third goal wasn’t more forthcoming, because if the Wild had been able to at least stop the bleeding in the second, you have to think that maybe Minnesota could have gotten the jump they needed to pull off another miracle. It’s really hard to do, though, when you’re outshot as badly as they were over the final two periods.
Does the series hit an early breaking point?
Justin’s question in the preview was more geared to fiesty festivities, but yeah, I think the this series has definitely hit a breaking point, especially for the Wild. The Golden Knights are fired up now, and are the team that many expected them to be - tough to play against, tough to score on, and tough to defend. The Wild, on the other hand, have had back-to-back games with awful second periods, and have had little to no answer in the third. And as said before, even in the game 3 preview, though Evason has been hesitent to mess with what he sees as strong team chemistry, this kind of effort has to open his eyes to the fact that, yes, this Wild team desperately needs a shake-up prior to game 4 in order to even up the series.