The Minnesota Wild struggled down the stretch this season, while the St. Louis Blues made a coaching change and finished the season strong. The Wild have a tough task ahead so let’s look at the keys to winning this first round series.
The Minnesota Wild finished the season’s final five games with a 4-1-0 record, carrying a bit of positive momentum into the first round of the Western Conference playoffs. How much remains to be seen, considering that since the start of March, the Wild went 8-11-2 and lost out on the top spot in the Central Division by three points.
St. Louis also won four of its last five games and played wonderful hockey after the firing of coach Ken Hitchcock, which forced Mike Yeo into the hot seat a few months earlier than planned. Under Yeo, the Blues went 22-8-2.
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The season series between Minnesota and St. Louis was fairly even, with the Blues winning three of the five match ups, the tiebreaker coming in a 2-1 win in Minnesota back in March.
Mar 14, 2017; Washington, DC, Minnesota Wild left wing Jason Zucker (16) skates with the puck against the Washington Capitals at Verizon Center. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
The Wild’s downfall in those three losses to the Blues was the inability to finish close games. In each of the three losses, Minnesota lost by just a single goal, including the March shootout loss. In the team’s wins against St. Louis, the Wild were able to capitalize on offensive chances and pull away from the Blues, winning 3-1 and 5-1 efforts.
Key #1 – Offensive Consistency
That brings us to key number one: consistent offense. The Minnesota Wild finished 2nd in the league in goals this season, averaging over 3.24 goals per game. Three Wild skaters finished with 25 or more goals, while seven total skaters finished with 15 or more.
If the Wild can score four or five goals like they did in the wins against St. Louis, Minnesota has a good chance of making this a long series and heading to the second round. However, if St. Louis jumps out ahead and limits Minnesota’s chances in the offensive zone, the Wild may look more like the team that was on the ice for that final month of the season as opposed to the one from November-February.
Key #2 – Goaltending
Devan Dubnyk went 7-8-2 in his final 17 starts, from March to the end of the regular season. He had two starts in that span with save percentages in the .700s and was pulled from a start against Chicago after giving up two goals on two shots.
The poor play doesn’t solely fall on Dubnyk, who faces a lot of high danger shots because of some shaky play from his defensemen, but he certainly didn’t look like the Vezina Trophy candidate that we saw for the majority of the season. Remember that, up until March, he had a GAA under 2.00.
If the Minnesota Wild are going to win this series, Dubnyk has to play his best in between the pipes. Anything less and this series could get out of hand.
Mar 25, 2017; St. Louis, MO, USA; St. Louis Blues right wing Vladimir Tarasenko (91) is seen during the second period against the Calgary Flames at Scottrade Center. Mandatory Credit: Billy Hurst-USA TODAY Sports
There’s no question that the St. Louis Blues have multiple forwards that can burn the Wild. Patrik Berglund had 23 goals this season. Jaden Schwartz finished second on the team with 55 points, including 19 goals. And veteran center Paul Stastny (18G, 22A) should never be taken lightly.
However, the key skater on this St. Louis team that Minnesota absolutely cannot allow to get hot is winger Vladimir Tarasenko. His explosiveness and stick-handling ability make him tough for any skater on the Wild to match up with.
Tarasenko finished the year with 39 goals and 36 assists — 75 points total — and was a huge boon for the Blues on the power play. He had nine goals and 13 assists in power play situations. He also had eight game-winning goals on the year.