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Zulgad: No cause for concern: Wild’s playoff loss to Golden Knights has plenty of positives

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Minnesota Wild at Vegas Golden Knights
May 18, 2021; Las Vegas, Nevada, USA; Minnesota Wild defenseman Matt Dumba (24) celebrates after scoring a second period goal against the Vegas Golden Knights in game two of the first round of the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs at T-Mobile Arena. Mandatory Credit: Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

The Wild lost Game 2 of a playoff series for the 13th time in 15 games on Tuesday and yet their flight from Las Vegas to Minnesota should have been filled with optimism. Yes, the Wild fell 3-1 to the Golden Knights but they return to St. Paul with their first-round series tied at 1-1 and they do so coming off a performance that was more complete than their effort in winning Game 1 on Sunday in overtime.

It wasn’t so much what the Wild did wrong on Tuesday as it was the fact that Golden Knights veteran netminder Marc-Andre Fleury won his team the game. Just as Cam Talbot stole the opening game for the Wild.

Fleury, a guy that Vegas was looking to trade at one point last offseason, was spectacular in the opening two games. He stopped 34 shots on Tuesday, only allowing Matt Dumba’s second-period goal that gave the Wild a 1-0 lead. Vegas’ Jonathan Marchessault scored 18 seconds after Dumba to tie the score and former Wild winger Alex Tuch got the final two goals, including an empty-netter, to secure the victory.

On Sunday, it was the Golden Knights who came out flying and the Wild who looked flat. But Talbot’s spectacular work saved his team. Tuesday, it was just the opposite as the Wild had an extra step in the opening 20 minutes and outshot Vegas, 17-10. Fleury, however, proved to be unbeatable.

“We loved our start,” Wild coach Dean Evason said. “We loved the whole game, not just our team. The game was fantastic. They’re going to be like that the rest of the way.”

We can only hope. The first two games of this series have been spectacular. The tempo outstanding and the counterpunches (not literally) fantastic. Vegas limited the Wild’s Kirill Kaprizov in Game 1 but Ryan Hartman, the center on Kirill The Great’s line, had a fantastic game in part because the Golden Knights were so focused on the superstar rookie. In Game 2, the Golden Knights did a better job against that entire line.

That doesn’t mean there weren’t positives for the Wild. The first one was the performance of winger Kevin Fiala. The second-best player on this team, Fiala plays the wing on a line with Victor Rask and Marcus Johansson. Rask is slow and Johansson has a tendency to disappear. Fiala had only two shots and two hits in 16 minutes, 8 seconds of ice time in Game 1 and didn’t give the Wild nearly enough.

That changed on Tuesday as Fiala decided to take things into his own hands. He finished with a game-high eight shots and five hits in 17:09 of ice time. He also was guilty of being a bit lackadaisical — as was Johansson — on the Tuch goal that gave Vegas a 2-1 lead. But if Fiala continues to play like he did in Game 2, the goals will come.

The other thing Evason had to love was Dumba’s aggressiveness. The Wild have a bunch of incredibly steady defensemen who don’t make many mistakes. Dumba, however, is prone to a bad decision every now and then. He also has the best slapshot of anyone on the blue line and the skill to make plays that others can’t.

That was on display in Game 2 as he scored a goal, had four shots and contributed a game-high eight blocked shots. More than one of them looked likely left a bruise. This is the Dumba that the Wild will have second thoughts about trading or exposing to Seattle in the expansion draft. His heavy shot is so important because playoff games aren’t won with pretty goals. They are won when shots from guys like Dumba get tipped in by a teammate or deflect off an opposing player’s skate.

On Tuesday that didn’t happen because Fleury was so darn good. But with the series now shifting to Xcel Energy Center, and the Wild playing in building in which they went 21-5-2 this season, it’s likely some of those pucks will start beating the previously impenetrable Flower.

That had to give Evason and his players peace of mind, even after a tough loss.