LAS VEGAS — Minnesota Wild rookie Kirill Kaprizov probably should have come away with a goal and a couple of assists in his NHL playoff debut. The 24-year-old Russian star had an incredible scoring chance late in Sunday’s game against the Vegas Golden Knights only to be turned away by veteran goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury. He also skillfully set up linemate Ryan Hartman several times but came away with nothing to show for it.
Though he failed to find the scoresheet, the 5-foot-9, 200-pound Kaprizov made his presence felt elsewhere. He obliterated Golden Knights winger Tomas Nosek in the neutral zone early in the game, then sacrificed his body to block a shot in front of Wild goaltender Cam Talbot.
Think of it as a statement game. Not only did Kaprizov make it clear that he wasn’t going to be pushed around by the Golden Knights, he also showed he was willing to do whatever it takes to win.
That’s something Wild coach Dean Evason has come to expect out of Kaprizov this season.
“He’s a mature guy that understands and has been through a bit of it,” Evason said. “He’s very calm regardless. He’s not a fiery person. He’s fiery, obviously, when he gets engaged in the physicality end of it. But he’s pretty calm in all other areas.”
That type of physicality from Kaprizov shouldn’t surprise anyone at this point.
He’s more than willing to stand up for himself as he proved during a regular-season game against the Golden Knights earlier this month. After a dangerous check from behind left him face down on the ice, Kaprizov responded by staggering to his feet, unseating Golden Knights defenseman Zach Whitecloud with a double-leg takedown and leaving him with a blood nose as he skated off to the penalty box.
“He knows he’s going to have to defend himself at least to a certain extent out there,” Wild defenseman Ian Cole said. “These teams are going to try to hit him and goon him up, for a lack of a better term. He’s playing through it and still producing and playing great hockey. Just playing through that stuff is the best way to combat it because they’re trying to get him off his game and they’re trying to get him to shut down. He doesn’t let them.”
If anything, it seems to make Kaprizov hungrier, which could be a good sign for the Wild moving forward.
“I don’t think anybody is surprised by who he is and what he does,” Evason said. “There’s enough video out there for everybody to see what he does and how he plays the game and certainly they’ve watched him all year, so I don’t think there’s any surprises there.”
There were approximately 8,600 fans in attendance for Sunday’s game at T-Mobile Arena with a similar turnout expected for Tuesday’s Game 2 of the series. Asked about the playoff feel, Cole responded, “It was a great atmosphere, and they certainly brought it last game.”
As for the Wild, they will be allowed to have approximately 4,500 fans in attendance for Thursday’s Game 3 at Xcel Energy Center. That number could go up on May 28 when Gov. Tim Walz’s state-mandated attendance caps are in line to be lifted.
“We’ve talked about it a lot that our 3,000 fans or whatever we’ve had in our building have been absolutely amazing,” Evason said. “We can’t wait to get there.”
Wild winger Mats Zuccarello is the Wild’s nominee for the King Clancy Memorial Trophy. The award is given annually to the NHL player who best exemplifies leadership qualities on and off the ice and has made a noteworthy humanitarian contribution in his community.
Wild defenseman Matt Dumba won the King Clancy Memorial Trophy last year, and former Wild winger Jason Zucker won the year before that.
As for Zuccarello, he was nominated largely because of his “Match Mats” initiative. For every point Zuccarello scored this season, he has vowed to to donate 1,000 Norwegian Krone his foundation, which is designed to grow grassroots sports programs in his native Norway.