The playoff race in the Western Conference seems to change on a daily basis and likely won’t be decided until the final day of the regular season.
When it’s all settled three weeks from now, the Golden Knights probably are hoping to avoid Minnesota in the first round.
Jason Zucker had a goal and an assist in his homecoming, and the Wild again proved how well they match up against the Knights in a 4-2 victory over the Pacific Division-leaders before an announced gathering of 18,295 at T-Mobile Arena.
“They’ve been playing playoff hockey for the past how many weeks, and it shows,” Knights forward Erik Haula said. “They do a bunch of good things and it’s good to see that and play against teams that are in desperation mode, and we’ve got to do that as soon as possible.”
The Knights went 0-3 and were outscored 13-6 by Minnesota, which was able to slow down the Knights in all three meetongs. The New York Islanders were the other team to sweep the season series against the Knights, going 2-0.
It was the fourth straight loss at home for the Knights (45-21-5, 95 points), who saw their lead over San Jose in the Pacific Division trimmed to eight points.
“We’ve got to figure it out quick here,” Haula said. “Had a good meeting with the guys after, and we’ve got to realize we only have a handful of games left. and we’ve got to start peaking right now.
“I know firsthand you’ve got to play your best hockey at the end of the year and that will help you a lot. Otherwise, it’s going to be hard. It’s very hard just to turn it on at the end. We just keep learning lessons right now the way we have to play and what makes us successful and we’ve got to see that on Sunday (against Calgary). We have to.”
Ryan Carpenter scored on a rebound for the Knights with 55.3 seconds remaining to cut Minnesota’s lead to 3-2 before Zach Parise scored an empty-net goal for the Wild with 33.9 seconds remaining.
Haula, who played the previous four seasons in Minnesota, scored off pass from David Perron with 6:32 remaining in the third period to break the shutout.
“They came in here and outworked us tonight. That was the bottom line,” Knights coach Gerard Gallant said. “We still played well. Again, there was a lot of good things, but the urgency wasn’t there.”
Charlie Coyle and Matt Dumba struck twice in a span of 1:43 during the second period for Minnesota (40-24-7, 87 points) to put the Knights in a 3-0 hole.
After a fast start by the Knights, Zucker, the first player raised in Nevada to make the NHL, opened the scoring on the Wild’s second shot..
Zucker pokechecked the puck away from Knights defenseman Shea Theodore, who lost an edge and fell down. Nino Niederreiter scooped it behind the net and found Zucker alone in the slot for a quick one-timer at 7:19.
With the goal, Zucker has scored against every team in the NHL excluding the Wild, and he pumped his arm and leaped into the Plexiglas afterward.
“This wasn’t even a dream. I didn’t think it would ever happen,” Zucker said. “So to do it and to have my family there, my wife and kids here, it doesn’t get any better than that.”
Zucker nearly got his 30th goal of the season about five minutes later when he flew down the right wing and forced Knights goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury into a chest save.
The Knights were outshot 11-8 in the first, and their best chance of the period came with 8:30 remaining when Carpenter’s deflection went off the post.
1. Battling backups. The Golden Knights were unable to solve a backup goaltender, which is beginning to become a pattern. Minnesota goalie Alex Stalock made 26 saves and is the fourth straight backup to beat the Knights, joining New Jersey’s Keith Kinkaid, Columbus’ Joonas Korpisalo and Los Angeles’ Jack Campbell.
2. Top line struggles. James Neal’s return couldn’t snap the Knights’ first line out of its recent funk. The trio totaled four shots on goal and was a combined minus-6.
3. Not easy being green. St. Patrick’s Day probably had something to do with it, but there was a lot of green in the building. Wild fans were well represented and even started a faint Minnesota Vikings’ “Skol” chant after Charlie Coyle’s second-period goal.
David Schoen Review-Journal