Officially the Three Stars in the Wild’s 3-0 victory over Vegas on Wednesday night at Xcel Energy Center were Kevin Fiala, Cam Talbot and Ryan Suter. All three were worthy of the honor. Fiala had a goal and an assist in the Wild’s three-goal third period. Talbot made 23 saves to record the shutout, and Suter played 24 minutes, 8 seconds in an extremely physical game.
But the Wild’s real No. 1 star stood behind the bench looking dapper in his expensive suit. Dean Evason had received criticism from this space at different times throughout the Wild’s first-round series against the Golden Knights because of what seemed to be his unwillingness to make adjustments.
This was especially true in the second period of the Wild’s 4-2 win in Game 5 on Monday night in Vegas. Despite coming away with a victory that kept the season alive, Evason seemed to do little as his team was outshot 22-1 in the second period. Talbot stood on his head in the period, giving up only one goal, but he could have used some help. Instead, the Wild appeared to have no real plan for how to slow Vegas once it got rolling.
That wasn’t an issue Wednesday in Game 6 as the Wild faced elimination for a second consecutive game, this time on home ice. After trying to keep up with Vegas for five games, Evason changed direction and put in a game plan that would have made former Wild coach Jacques Lemaire proud and likely put much of the national television audience watching the game to sleep.
Operation Slow Down forced a Game 7 on Friday night in Vegas. The performance might not have been aesthetically pleasing, but the Wild didn’t care. All they wanted was to extend their season by at least one more game and Evason’s plan to do that was to give Vegas as little room to operate as possible.
This almost certainly will be the blueprint the Wild takes to Vegas for Friday’s game, but there is one catch. As much as Wild fans complained about officiating earlier in this series, Minnesota got an enormous break on Wednesday. Referees Gord Dwyer and TJ Luxmore made it clear early on that they weren’t going to call anything short of a mugging.
This upset many of the 4,500 fans in Xcel Energy Center when the Wild didn’t get the benefit of some potential calls early, but when it became clear there wouldn’t be penalties called on either side the Wild were able to use the style that Lemaire’s 2003 crew did to reach the Western Conference finals. The NHL has worked to create more offense by cracking down on interference in the neutral zone and other slowdown tactics, but if those things aren’t going to be called, there is no reason not to use them to your advantage.
The Wild’s ability to stop Vegas from playing at full speed and to take away shooting and passing lanes throughout the game, frustrated the Golden Knights. The Wild had 18 blocks to Vegas’ 11 and 25 hits to the Knights’ 18. The only reason the Wild might have issues with repeating portions of this formula on Friday will be if the referees start calling the infractions that Dwyer and Luxmore let go for both sides Wednesday.
It helped the Wild that Vegas continued to play without winger Max Pacioretty, the team’s leading goal scorer during the regular season. Fourth-line winger Ryan Reaves was scratched for the first time in the series. It wasn’t clear if Reaves was injured or a healthy scratch, but his absence enabled the Wild to play a more physical style with no fear of retribution from one of the NHL’s toughest players.
In the second period, winger Marcus Foligno put such a hard hit on Vegas’ Zach Whitecloud that the defenseman’s impact knocked the glass out of its stanchions. If Reeves had been playing, Foligno might have had to answer to him for the hit. Shortly thereafter, Wild defenseman Matt Dumba delivered a textbook open ice hit on Alex Tuch that sent the 6-4, 220-pound winger flying.
Vegas defenseman Alec Martinez fought Dumba, but exchanging punches with Martinez is much different than having to face Reeves. That fight seemed to give the Wild some energy, especially when Dumba got the crowd going by raising his arms as he skated to the penalty box.
The Wild took a 1-0 lead in the third on a perfect chip pass off the boards from Zach Parise in the neutral zone that found Fiala streaking down the right wing side into Vegas territory. Fiala delivered a perfect cross-ice pass to Ryan Hartman, who beat a sprawling Marc-Andre Fleury.
The Golden Knights appeared to tie the score at 1-1 when Chandler Stephenson’s shot beat Talbot with 11:05 left in the third, but it was ruled that Tuch had interfered with Talbot by being in the crease. Vegas coach Pete DeBoer challenged the ruling but lost. That put the Wild on the power play and Fiala beat Fleury to give Minnesota a 2-0 lead.
This is the third time in the Wild’s history they have forced a Game 7 after going down 3-1 in a series. The first two came in 2003, when the Wild rallied to oust Colorado and Vancouver. The pressure Friday will be on Vegas, which has lost two of three games at home in this series.
The Golden Knights are no stranger to blowing a 3-1 series lead themselves. This is the third consecutive season in which it has happened. Two years ago, Vegas lost 5-4 in overtime to host San Jose in Game 7 of their first-round series. Last season, Vegas beat Vancouver, 3-0, in Game 7 of their second-round series in the bubble in Edmonton.
Considering the Wild’s season appeared to be on life support late last week, Evason’s team will gladly take its chances in one final matchup against the Golden Knights. “Anything can happen in Game 7,” Fiala said. “We’ll be ready.”
One thing is certain: Operation Slow Down — a tribute to the 2003 Wild — is about to hit Vegas.