Dean Evason rubbed his eyes, let out a slight sigh of relief and generally wore the look of someone who just went 12 tough rounds.
"It was a bit of an ugly game," the Wild coach said Monday following his team's 2-0 victory over the Vegas Golden Knights, "but two points is two points."
Thirteen hours later, Evason was back behind the video camera at Xcel Energy Center, further dissecting the game and previewing Wednesday night's rematch with the West Division leaders. When asked if the series with the Golden Knights has taken on a playoff-like feel with the teams meeting four times in 10 days, he agreed.
"They're really good hockey games," Evason said. "Obviously, we've had a lot of different elements in all three games. Last night probably was as close as you can get — the grinding that was going on, on both sides. It felt like [playoff hockey]. It was a battle to get offensive opportunities, and guys were competing their butts off in the defensive zone. Probably last night felt like it a little more than the first two."
In this season shortened and compressed by COVID-19, teams are for the most part playing series instead of single games. Last week, the Wild lost 5-4 in overtime, then 5-1 two days later at Vegas. On Wednesday, Minnesota will try to hold serve at home against the Golden Knights, who sit atop the West with 33 points, four ahead of the third-place Wild. Evason's team is 8-3-1 since returning to play Feb. 16 following a two-week hiatus because of a COVID-19 outbreak.
On Monday, the flawless goaltending of rookie Kaapo Kahkonen, Kevin Fiala's first-period goal and overall active game, and a 3-for-3 penalty kill carried the Wild in a defensive contest. Goals were so tough to come by that the second of the game was awarded, not scored, when Wild defenseman Jonas Brodin had his stick slashed when about to score into an empty net with six seconds left in the third period.
"It was a hard-fought game. We gotta find a way to get a goal," said Vegas coach Peter DeBoer, whose team was missing leading scorer Mark Stone and top defenseman Alex Pietrangelo to injuries on Monday.
The Wild would agree with that for its own purposes — especially on the power play. With two unsuccessful chances that included no shots on goal Monday, Minnesota's power play is 5-for-74 this season, a league-worst 6.8% by nearly 4 percentage points (Detroit, 10.7%). It's on an 0-for-19 skid and has scored only once in 27 man-advantage situations at home.
"Clearly, our power play on a whole has to get better," Evason said. " … Last night, we didn't even get set up. Even the entries were absolutely terrible. Probably the worst night we've had, power-play-wise."
Overcoming the continuing power outage were Kahkonen and the league's sixth-ranked penalty kill. Kahkonen made 26 saves and has stopped 188 of 198 shots in a seven-game winning streak that's the longest in the NHL this season. The Finn turned aside 14 shots in the second period, including four when Vegas was on the power play. Evason wouldn't say if Kahkonen or Cam Talbot would start Wednesday, though Talbot gave up nine goals in the two starts at Vegas last week and four in a loss to Arizona on Saturday.
"We don't have a rotation. We don't have anything scheduled," Evason said. "It's game-by-game, and we see where at after that game, where the goaltenders are at and where the team is at. And they we try to make the intelligent decision."
Though the Wild scored four goals against Golden Knights goalie Marc-Andre Fleury in the first game, the veteran has given up only one in each of the past two meetings. His 1.57 goals-against average and .943 save percentage are the best in the NHL among goalies who've started 10 games or more.
Evason emphasized the need for his team to shoot more than it did Monday, when it had 21 shots on goal total and only 11 in the final two periods.
"We've played three against Vegas, and you definitely know what to expect from them," Evason said. " … They play such a strong defensive game, and combine that with the strong goaltending, it's difficult to not only score, but get scoring opportunities."