The Minnesota Wild's path to the Stanley Cup will begin on Sunday as they open a seven-game series with the Vegas Golden Knights. With the Wild looking for their first playoff series victory since 2015, here's a look at some of the storylines entering Sunday's opener.
Is Vegas a good draw for the Wild?
The Wild clinched their playoff spot on April 25 but didn't know who they would be facing until Thursday night. With the Colorado Avalanche winning the top seed in the West Division, the Wild drew Vegas, which appears to be a more favorable matchup.
The Wild went 5-1-2 against the Golden Knights this season but Vegas is still a dangerous team that ranked first in the league in goals per game (2.99).
The catalyst for Vegas has been one of the best top lines in the league. Per The Athletic, Mark Stone had 10 points in seven games against the Wild this season and Max Pacioretty is one of the league's most talented goal scorers with 24 on the season.
With Stephenson setting them up to produce a 14.5 on-ice shooting percentage this season, they'll be a top threat for the Wild defense.
Vegas' offensive ability gave them an advantage throughout the season but needed overtime to earn two of their three wins against the Wild. Without a 3-on-3 overtime period to fall back on, there will be other factors that come into play.
Will the Wild's depth be an advantage?
While Vegas' top line will be a problem, their depth could be tested. According to the Las Vegas Review-Journal, Friday's practice was a mess for the Golden Knights with several key players nursing injuries.
Pacioretty missed the last six games of the regular season due to an undisclosed injury and with Alex Tuch, Bryan Reeves and top defenseman Alec Martinez also on the shelf, it's unclear if the Golden Knights will come into this series at 100 percent.
We are talking about playoff hockey, so there's a good chance that most of those names will suit up. But it could put the Wild's strength at the bottom half of the lineup into focus.
The Wild's second line of Joel Eriksson Ek, Jordan Greenway and Marcus Foligno terrorized Vegas this season. Foligno recorded seven points in six games against the Golden Knights while Eriksson Ek and Greenway had a +4 plus/minus rating in five-on-five situations against Vegas.
The Wild have an even bigger advantage in their third and fourth lines. Kevin Fiala has a team-high 26 points in his last 22 games and killed Vegas with five points in seven games.
With Nick Bonino, Nico Sturm and Nick Bjugstad all playing well, the bottom six could be a key factor in countering Vegas' strong offensive approach.
Will Cam Talbot rebound from a shaky April?
While the Wild could keep up with the Golden Knights offensively, it will come down to Talbot to keep them out of the net.
Talbot started the season strong but has struggled since the calendar turned to April. Despite a record of 10-3-3 over his last 16 games, Talbot has posted a .904 save percentage and allowed 8.4 goals over expected during that stretch.
Those numbers won't be good enough against three-time Stanley Cup Champion Marc-Andre Fleury. The 36-year-old rebounded from a tough 2019-20 season to finish third in goals-against average (1.98) and first in goals saved above average (19.4).
The goaltending matchup is reminiscent of last year's qualifying series against Vancouver. While the Wild had an advantage in several categories, the Canucks were able to take advantage of the play of Devan Dubnyk and Alex Stalock to defeat Minnesota in four games.
If Talbot can't improve, the Wild could be in for a similar fate.
Can Kaprizov continue to dominate Vegas?
Just like their overall improvement, a big reason for the Wild's success against Vegas was the play of Kirill Kaprizov. The Wild had a record of 29-3-2 this season when Kaprizov recorded a point but his game was turned up a notch when he played Vegas.
In eight meetings with the Golden Knights, Kaprizov scored six goals, which is tied with the Los Angeles Kings for most against any opponent this season. His eight points in those games are also the third most against any opponent.
If there's any meeting that exemplifies Kaprizov's dominance against Vegas, it was the final regular-season meeting on May 5. After Nicolas Hague ignited a first-period brawl after hitting Kaprizov, he answered with two goals in the third period that temporarily gave the Wild a 2-1 lead.
For years, the Wild has been victimized by players that can turn the game on its head. The battles with Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Vladamir Tarasenko have been well-documented but the Wild finally seem to have a game-breaker of their own in Kaprizov.
Can the Wild win their first playoff series since 2015?
For the past decade, the Wild has been the standard for mediocrity in the NHL. Minnesota has made the playoffs in seven of the past eight seasons but hasn't won a playoff series since 2015. In addition, they haven't advanced past the second round since 2003.
If there's a matchup where the Wild could end that streak, there's a good chance it could come against Vegas. The Wild have had regular-season success against the Golden Knights and finally have a game-breaker that can turn the game in their favor.
Their depth seems to be an advantage against a team that is limping into the playoffs and their blue line is one of the best in the NHL.