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Zulgad: Kirill Kaprizov’s struggles provide valuable lesson when it comes to playoff hockey

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Vegas Golden Knights at Minnesota Wild
May 20, 2021; Saint Paul, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Wild forward Kirill Kaprizov (97) looks on after a goal allowed during the second period in game three of the first round of the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs against the Vegas Golden Knights at Xcel Energy Center. Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

The fact the Wild did not have anything close to a top line center to pair with Kirill Kaprizov during the regular season never seemed to slow the rookie phenom. Whether it be Victor Rask, Ryan Hartman or anyone else playing beside him, the winger was going to get his points.

Kaprizov led all rookies in goals (27) and points (51) in 55 regular-season games and also certainly will win the Calder Trophy. What made the 24-year-old so effective was that he not only displayed a goal-scoring touch, but also an abundance of skills that enabled him to make plays for himself and others.

So what if Rask was slow? So what if Hartman was really a wing? Kirill The Thrill was too good to be slowed by opponents, or teammates who couldn’t equal his skill. At least until now.

Kaprizoz, the Wild’s fifth-round pick in 2015, spent six seasons playing in the Kontinental Hockey League before coming to the NHL this season. He has extensive international experience as well, so Kaprizov is no stranger to top-level competition. What he wasn’t familiar with was the intensity that comes with participating in the NHL playoffs.

It has been quite the lesson and has left Kaprizov finally looking like a rookie. That’s bad news for the Wild, who fell behind Vegas 3-1 in their first-round series on Saturday night with a 4-0 loss at Xcel Energy Center. That gave the Knights a sweep of the two games in Minnesota and, if the Knights can beat the Wild on Monday in Vegas, the Wild’s season will be finished.

Kaprizov has been held to one assist and eight shots in the four games. Vegas’ Marc-Andre Fleury made an acrobatic save to rob Kaprizov of a goal in Game 1. Kaprizov’s assist came when he set up Hartman with a beautiful pass to give the Wild a 1-0 lead in the first period of Game 3. Kaprizov ended up being on the ice for three even-strength goals against in the Wild’s 5-2 loss in that game and is a minus-3 for the series.

Dean Evason usually has Kaprizov with Hartman and right winger Mats Zuccarello, but the Wild coach has attempted to put Kaprizov with different players in hopes of sparking him. This has even included a few shifts with winger Kevin Fiala, who is the second-best offensive player on the team.

It hasn’t helped. The Golden Knights went into this series with a plan to slow Kaprizov and they have succeeded. An extra hit here, an elbow in the corner there. Kaprizov is constantly reminded that time and space disappears in the playoffs. The Wild, meanwhile, have found that if Kaprizov is slowed their offense grinds to a halt. Minnesota has only four goals in four games and that total gets to a still paltry six if you include the Joel-Eriksson Ek goals that have been overturned on replay because of an offsides (Game 3) and goalie interference (Game 4).

Michael Russo, who covers the Wild for the Athletic, suggested in a tweet during Saturday’s game that Kaprizov might not be completely healthy. Of course, that’s true of many players at this time of the year. Considering how great Kaprizov’s rookie season has been, and how often one SKOR North employee called him a superstar, there was no joy taken in putting out this tweet before the third period.

Not surprisingly, the tweet quickly was ratioed by many Wild fans who couldn’t understand how there might be even a hint of criticism directed toward Kaprivoz. A few tweets pointed out that Edmonton’s Connor McDavid, who is expected to be named the NHL’s MVP, doesn’t have a point in two playoff games against Winnipeg and the Oilers have yet to win a game. Does that mean McDavid is awful because he doesn’t have a point, they asked.

First of all, nobody is saying Kaprizov or McDavid are awful. Both are wonderful players. But do the Wild fans who jumped to Kaprizov’s defense believe that nobody in Edmonton is talking or writing about the fact that McDavid and Leon Draisaitl have no points between them? C’mon.

You think Kaprizov isn’t disappointed he only has one assist? You think Fiala is happy that he has no points and is a minus-6, despite leading Minnesota with 18 shots on goal? All of these guys expect more from themselves and it’s no sin to think a guy as good as Kaprizov could be giving the Wild more.

To shrug off his playoff stats as no big deal, or to try to lump him in with struggling teammates like Rask, would be an insult to Kaprizov’s skill. More should be expected, or the Wild will remain buried in the mediocrity for which they long have been known.

The guess here is that Kaprizov long term will emerge as a fantastic force in the playoffs, just as he is during the season, and that this series will help him understand exactly what he needs to do to be successful in the NHL’s much more difficult second season.

Wild general manager Bill Guerin, meanwhile, needs to get Kaprizov signed to a long-term contract extension this offseason and then needs to get to work on making sure that he provides Kaprizov a center who gives their line a chance to play deep into the springtime for many seasons to come.