A matchup of opposites: The Wild came back down to earth after a tremendous start while the Blues were one of the best teams in the league in the second half of the season.
THE WILD WIN IF…
Is there a more versatile team in the post-season than Minnesota?
For a number of teams, the concern heading into the playoffs is going to be where scoring comes from outside of the top six because few teams boast the depth of scoring the Wild do. All told, Minnesota had eight players score 15 or more goals this season and an incredible 12 players with at least 10 tallies this season. Included in that was five 20-goal scorers, though Martin Hanzal spent half the season in Arizona and Zach Parise finished with 19 in an injury-shortened season. That’s a remarkable breadth of scoring, especially for a team that finished the past season with only three players cracking the mark.
But as versatile as the offense is, the blueline might be the Wild’s real strength. Offensively, three defenders contributed 30-plus points and two, Matt Dumba and Jared Spurgeon, scored 10 or more goals. Getting production from the blueline can be the difference in a series and Minnesota has managed to get a lot out of their defensemen. This entire defensive corps is among the best in their own end, too.
Ryan Suter leads the charge, of course, and he’s set for what is sure to be another workmanlike opening round. It wouldn’t be shocking were Suter to log 30 minutes per outing after a regular season of nearly 27 per night, and in the rare moments when Suter leaves the ice, he has five strong defenders backing him up. The value of Dumba and Spurgeon has already been outlined, but the Wild also have Jonas Brodin and Marco Scandella as fourth and fifth defenders. Round out the blueline with Christian Folin and Minnesota has six defensemen who are steady as can be. The defense is a big reason the Wild surrendered the seventh-fewest goals against.
And thanks to a spread out attack and strong defense, the Blues are going to have a tough time getting an edge over the Wild no matter the strength. At 5-on-5, Minnesota can be a nightmare to play against, but the same can be said for special teams. The Wild ended the season with the ninth-best power play and eighth best penalty kill, and Minnesota ranked 10th and ninth respectively in those categories over the past two months. The Wild aren’t going to crack easy, no matter the situation.
THE BLUES WIN IF…
This season has been a tale of two teams for St. Louis. The start of the campaign saw the hapless Blues who couldn’t get a save stumble up until the midpoint of the season, while the second half has seen coach Mike Yeo take the reins and guide this team back into a place where Stanley Cup contention isn’t really out of the question. The biggest difference has been a more offensive brand of hockey than what the Blues were playing under since-fired coach Ken Hitchcock.
While Minnesota has come back down to earth after a tremendous start, St. Louis has been one of the best second-half teams in the league. Since Yeo took over on Feb. 1, the Blues are tied with the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Washington Capitals for the most points. Both teams went 22-8-2 over their final 32 games. The difference? The Blues had a plus-33 goal differential. No team matched that mark, let alone finished with a 30-goal spread from Feb. 1 onward. In fact, only four teams finished better than plus-20. That’s indicative of how hot the Blues have been down the stretch.
Goaltending has undoubtedly been what has driven St. Louis the most over the past two months, and Jake Allen has turned his season around. Even Allen would be likely to admit he was awful for the early part of the season, but since Yeo took over, Allen has turned in a 16-7-2 record and no goaltender who has started at least 10 games over the past two months has better numbers than Allen’s .938 save percentage and 1.85 goals-against average. Who would have pegged him to be a potential difference-maker at the midway point of the campaign? Now he’s in position to be a playoff hero.
If anyone stands to make a game-to-game impact, though, it’s Vladimir Tarasenko. There was the infamous on-bench blowup between he and Hitchcock during the 2015-16 post-season, but Tarasenko has been unleashed by Yeo. The Russian sniper played more than 19 minutes per game down the stretch — only Alexander Steen saw more ice time — and Tarasenko’s 17 goals from Feb. 1 on were the third-most in the league. Game-breaking talent only begins to describe what Tarasenko is capable of when he’s playing his best hockey.
Wild: Devan Dubnyk was conspicuous in his absence from the analysis above, but that’s because the second half of the year hasn’t been kind to the Wild netminder. He was at the forefront of the Vezina Trophy conversation for much of the year, but a pedestrian end to the campaign is cause for concern about Dubnyk’s ability to get the job done. Over the first 41 games of the season, Dubnyk went 22-7-3 record with a .940 SP and 1.77 GAA. He’s only managed to go 18-12-2 with a .906 SP and 2.75 GAA since. If early-season Dubnyk shows up, the Wild are in good hands. If the late-season play continues, though, there could be trouble.
Blues: It’s not one player but three that will be key for the Blues, and that’s the trio of Alex Pietrangelo, Jay Bouwmeester and Colton Parayko. St. Louis took a calculated risk by moving out Kevin Shattenkirk at the trade deadline and that move put more pressure on the Blues’ top three defensemen to step up. Pietrangelo has seen an increase of close to two minutes per game post-deadline, whereas Bouwmeester and Parayko’s ice times have stayed relatively steady. Joel Edmundson also saw a close to two-minute increase, and he’ll round out the top four, but the heaviest minutes and toughest assignments will go to the top three. If Pietrangelo, Bouwmeester and Parayko can hold against the Wild, the underdog Blues could surprise the Wild.
One of the best defensive forwards in the league faces off against one of the most dangerous offensive weapons in the league. Buckle up, this’ll be a showdown. When Mikko Koivu and Vladimir Tarasenko have played each other in the past, Koivu has controlled the run of play, but the goal totals are even making this a matchup to watch and I wonder if Blues coach Mike Yeo tries to tackle it head on, or hide Tarasenko when he gets the matchups at home. It might be for the best because Koivu will blanket him all night. He suppresses shots at a rate of 5.4 attempts per 60, one of the best in the league. Of course, Tarasenko is right there at the top in terms of generating shots at 7.9 attempts per 60 while also being one of the league’s sharpest shooters too. Based on total value, Koivu has the edge in GAR (favors defense and possession more) while Tarasenko has the edge in Game Score (favors scoring more). The two are really close though and they’ll be the key for either team to get far, making their battle in this series very important. (Dom Luszczyszyn)
WILD in seven games.