LAS VEGAS (AP) — The payoff for sharing the NHL’s best record comes Friday night for the Vegas Golden Knights.
Vegas will host a Game 7 for the first time when it plays the Minnesota Wild, who have staved off elimination by winning the past two games.
“This is what it’s all about,” said Vegas coach Peter DeBoer, who is 5-0 in Game 7s. “This is why you work all season — to have the record you have, to host this game in your building and give yourself a best opportunity.”
The winner of the first-round series will advance to face the Colorado Avalanche, who tied the Golden Knights for the best regular-season record. Colorado secured home-ice advantage because it had more regulation wins and swept the St. Louis Blues in the first round.
The Golden Knights have held 3-1 series leads in each of the past three postseasons only to wind up in a must-win situation. They lost in overtime in Game 7 two years ago in San Jose, when DeBoer was the Sharks’ coach. Last season in the playoff bubble, after losing to the Vancouver Canucks in Games 5 and 6, the Golden Knights bounced back to advanced to the Western Conference final.
Now, after losing in Las Vegas on Monday and in Minnesota on Wednesday, the Golden Knights are set to host a winner-take-all game in one of the NHL’s most electric arenas.
“It’s an exciting opportunity,” Vegas forward Reilly Smith said. “Our fans are definitely going to be full of energy and they’re going to be pretty loud, so let’s make the most of it. Your home arena with all your fans excited and full of emotions — it’s the stuff that we dream about as kids.”
The Golden Knights, who reached the Stanley Cup Final in 2018 in their inaugural season, are 2-8 since then in playoff games with a chance to advance.
Cam Talbot had his second shutout of the series as Minnesota won 3-0 on Wednesday. Vegas goalie Marc-Andre Fleury has now allowed six goals in the last two losses after giving up only four goals over the first four games of the series. DeBoer gave no indication a change was coming.
“We haven’t announced our goaltender, starter, all series so I’m not going to do that now,” DeBoer said Thursday. “All your lineup decisions for Game 7 are based on the history of the group and the players and the playoffs and the regular season. I think all that goes into the mix, and you do what you think’s best for the team.”
The Wild are 3-0 in Game 7s — all on the road. Two of the wins came in 2003, in Colorado in the conference quarterfinals and in Vancouver in the conference semifinals. The Wild also took the final game of their opening-round series in Colorado in 2014.
Kevin Fiala, the Wild’s second-leading scorer during the regular season, broke out in a big way in Game 6 after going without a point over the first five games. He had an assist and a goal in the third period, affirming the confidence he expressed after the Wild were shut out to fall behind 3-1 in the series.
General manager Bill Guerin spoke to the coaching staff after that game, urging them to encourage Fiala.
“Just tell him that we’ll need him at some point,” Guerin told the staff, according to coach Dean Evason. “It doesn’t have to be every game.”
The patience was rewarded Wednesday.
“You just have to stay the course and play right and maybe you’ll have the chance to make a difference, and he did tonight,” Evason said. “Kevin hasn’t changed anything. He’s played the same way.”
Evason and Fiala spoke after Game 1, when he was disappointed by not finding any favorable scoring chances during Minnesota’s 1-0 win in overtime. Fiala got some great looks at the net in Game 2 that still left him scoreless. During Game 4, after a series of denials by Fleury, Fiala snapped his stick on top of the crossbar at a stoppage in play out of visible frustration.
All along, Evason has encouraged him – and the rest of the team – to trust that the process of following their strategy and fundamentals will eventually lead to goals. That’s what happened in Game 6.
“A lot of confidence in my group on our team. We won two in a row now, but we’ve got to regroup,” Fiala said. “It all starts at zero. We’re going to realize that and have a great start. Anything can happen in Game 7, and we’ll be ready.”
AP Sports Writer Dave Campbell in Minneapolis contributed to this report.
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