Throughout the West Division first-round playoff series against the Wild, Vegas Golden Knights coach Pete DeBoer had said injured winger Max Pacioretty would be a game-time decision, and the decision every time was to keep the team's leading goal scorer out of the lineup.
That changed for Friday night's Game 7 in Las Vegas, and it paid off in a big way for the Golden Knights.
Pacioretty, who paced Vegas with 24 regular-season goals and added 27 assists, returned to the lineup after not playing since May 1 because of an undisclosed injury. He was back on the top line at left wing with center Chandler Stephenson and right winger Mark Stone and scored the winning goal in the second period as the Golden Knights defeated the Wild 6-2 to advance to the second round.
"Huge lift," said DeBoer, who improved to 6-0 in Game 7s. "Just writing his name on the board in the lineup gave our group a lift. … It changed everything, about our confidence, our confidence to score."
With the score tied 2-2, Pacioretty got loose in the Wild zone, drove down the middle to the net and converted a pass from Stephenson to beat Wild goalie Cam Talbot for a 3-2 Vegas lead at 7:44 of the second. The Golden Knights poured it on from there, securing a second-round matchup with Colorado.
"It was some good days and bad days, and I turned the corner a couple days ago," Pacioretty said, adding that the time away from the ice was "a lot more nerve-racking when you're up there [in the press box] watching and have no control over the game."
The addition of Pacioretty to the lineup had a trickle-down effect, too. It enabled DeBoer to move Alex Tuch back to the third line, where he skated with left winger Mattias Janmark and center Nicolas Roy. Janmark responded by notching a hat trick, scoring the Golden Knights' first, fifth and sixth goals.
"I had a couple hat tricks back home in the Swedish league but never had one over here," said Janmark, acquired from Chicago in April. "… Game 7 is what everyone dreams about and scoring a hat trick is what everyone dreams of."
Fourth-line right winger Ryan Reaves, who missed Game 6, was taken off the NHL's COVID-19 protocol list on Friday afternoon and returned to the lineup. Defenseman Brayden McNabb remained on the list. DeBoer said his team dealt with 11 false-positive COVID-19 tests in the series.
Reaves made an impact, but it wasn't in a positive way. With Vegas leading 2-1 in the second, he checked Wild defenseman Ryan Suter face-first into the goalpost, drawing an interference penalty. Kirill Kaprizov tied it for the Wild on the power play.
It wasn't just the forwards who got in on the scoring for Vegas. The third defensive pairing of Nicolas Hague and Zach Whitecloud each contributed a goal.
Hague broke a 1-1 tie 2:05 into the second period, whistling a shot from the blue line past Talbot. Whitecloud, the former Bemidji State standout, extended the Vegas lead to 4-2 at 13:38 of the second, toe-dragging as a Wild player slid by and firing a shot into the far upper corner of the cage.
"It's fun. It's the best time of the year," Whitecloud said. "When you're playing in Game 7, there's nowhere you'd rather be."
The reporter did not travel for this game. This article was written using the television broadcast and video interviews before and/or after the game.