NHL Playoffs Preview: Wild vs Blues

TJ Oshie trade rumors

April 16th is the date set for what is sure to be a highly contested quarterfinal series between the Minnesota Wild and the St. Louis Blues.  The Blues, champions of the competitive Central division of the Western Conference will square off against budding division rivals, Minnesota, in the first round of the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

It is established Western Conference power and speed in St. Louis, against a Minnesota club that is looking to replicate magic from last year’s playoff campaign. The matchup is set, now let’s meet the teams and see how they stack up.

Season Series
Minnesota Wild (2-1-1) vs. St. Louis Blues (2-2-0) 

It always amazes me how often teams matched up in the first round of playoffs see each other on the very last game of the regular season. As was the case between the Blues and Wild, as the “Blue notes” skated to a 4-2 victory in “The Lou” last Saturday afternoon. It was a fairly mellow game, that didn’t see scoring until midway through the second period when St. Louis struck first and often. There wasn’t much movement left in the Western Conference during this game, aside from the Blues winning the West outright, which did not happen as Anaheim beat Arizona later that night. Despite the lack of importance behind this game there was tension throughout, as these teams knew full well that they could be seeing each other again in less than a week’s time.

Interestingly enough, the Wild hold a slight advantage in the season series vs the Blues and by slight, I mean remarkably slim. The season series is dead even in wins and losses at two apiece for both squads, however one of Minnesota’s losses came in overtime. Also both teams have won and lost at both the Xcel Energy Center and the Scottrade Center when facing each other. So technically, advantage Minnesota, but by the hair of a bald man. Not much can be used as a predictor from this stat as it is so tight.

Unfortunately for fans, I can’t recall a lot of nastiness from any of the four games between these two sides this season. It seems like in the Central, the Avalanche or Blackhawks would have given me endless material to chat about regarding how much Minnesota fans and players alike hate Bryan Bickell or Cody McLeod. Ironically enough the Blues’ greatest villain, David Backes, hails from Spring Lake Park, Minnesota, so it’s tough for us as fans to truly hate one of our own. It will also be bittersweet to see TJ Oshie, another Minnesota native, succeed against the hometown green sweaters as well. Oshie is fondly remembered for some great performances with historic high school hockey power Warroad at the state high school hockey tournament. It is safe to say there may be some conflicting emotions for a lot of “the state of hockey” and some of its true blue fans.

It will however be interesting to see if any regular season habits from both teams will be continued or completely altered come playoff time. For the Wild, last year’s playoff record yielded only one loss on home ice in both the quarters and semis thus deeming this season’s marketing slogan for the team: “Home of the home ice advantage.” Oddly enough the Wild have been making their home in just about every other arena but their own this season, especially during the second half.

Since the arrival of Devan Dubnyk, the Wild have gone 27-9-2, with Dubnyk playing in all but one of those games. He was herculean even in most of the losses despite last game versus St. Louis where he was chased after just 14 shots against. Even more herculean was the Wild’s record away from the Xcel in this span. Leading up to game 82 in St. Louis, the Wild had won 12 straight road games and were prepared to set the record at 13 at the Scottrade center, as we all know the Wild will have to settle for sharing the record.

The Wild will have to expel some recent demons at home, as before beating Chicago and Nashville on their own ice, the Wild lost three straight games at the Xcel Energy Center. Winning on the road is difficult in the regular season, even though the Wild made it seem not as treacherous. But in the playoffs it is almost impossible to come out with the “W” in unfriendly confines.

Storyline

St. Louis has been effective just about anywhere they play. With a prolific record of 51-24-7, it’s pretty difficult not to be. The slight edge goes to the Blues’ home ice record as they have three more wins at Scottrade Center than any other frozen pond this season.

St. Louis had pretty smooth sailing from start to finish this season, though they did contest for the Central Division title with Nashville into the waning days of the regular season, and posted a remarkable identical record to Anaheim for bragging rights of best in the West.

For Minnesota, their roller coaster ride was a little wilder, pun intended.

After plummeting to the bottom of the Central Division, the Wild were resurrected after the All-Star break and marched their way back into playoff contention on the haunches of Devan Dubnyk and a reinvigorated roster. The Wild clinched playoffs weeks after St. Louis and did so in dramatic fashion.

A quick side note, a Minnesota sports fan’s life is difficult for many reasons. Despite having a multitude of sub-par, or arguably atrocious franchises, when we do get a team to rally behind they always do things the hard way.

The Wild had a clinch well in their sites with six games remaining, and needed a regulation win in just one of those six games to basically cinch up a spot. In classic “Minne” sport fashion the Wild went on to drop their remaining three home games all in a row, and felt it more fitting to clinch at the United Center in Chicago.

Neither St. Louis nor Minnesota are coming into the postseason on a torrid pace, but both teams are entering it on a high note. Both squads are 6-3-1 in their last ten games, and the Blues have won their last two. I however believe that you throw records out the window once playoffs start; it truly is a second season.

The Blues have the upper hand in size in this series there is no question. Names like Backes, Berglund, Pietrangelo, and Bouwmeester just don’t match up well physically with some of the Wild’s heavier players like Stewart, Coyle, Scandella or Koivu. The Stanley cup playoffs are synonymous with nasty, physical play; combined with an exhausting travel schedule that can see teams playing home and away games in back to back nights if a series reaches six or seven games.

Advantage St. Louis in lasting power with the size in their lineup, injuries won’t play a big factor in game one of the series as no team has any real issues with known ailments. However it is commonly known that at this point in an 82 game season no team is what you could call healthy. Just about every player who has played a regular shift is dealing with some aches, some pains and these pains can worsen quickly through the first few games in a feisty playoff series, which is exactly what this Wild-Blues contest will be.

Indeed the marathon portion of the NHL season is behind us, and even though the eventual champions will not be crowned until June, the sprint portion is upon us.

For Minnesota, the tale of the tape lies in not only how strong Dubnyk can be in the first ever playoff appearance of his career, but how strong our defense needs him to be. The Wild’s D-core is another year older, but the conversation remains the same, they are quite young. The top six is composed of Ryan Suter, 30; Jonas Brodin, 21; Marco Scandella, 25; Jared Spurgeon, 25; Matt Dumba, 20; and either Jordan Leopold, 34, or Christian Folin, 24.

Head south down the Mississippi river and the makeup of the “Blue Notes’” blue line is a little meatier. Jay Bouwmeester, 31; Carl Gunnarsson, 28; Alex Pietrangelo, 25; Zbynek Michalek, 32; Kevin Shattenkirk, 26; and Barret Jackman, 34. Grizzled, saavy, playoff experience, with a touch of skill and youth from the likes of Pietrangelo and Shattenkirk, who before injury led the NHL in points from Dmen. It is a heavy, talented core that is led a tandem of arguably the best two-way blueliners in the league in Bouwmeester and Pietrangelo. Their pair in the last Winter Olympics for a gold-winning Canada side was absolutely brilliant defensively, like some of the best defensive work I have ever seen.

Up front Minnesota will have to be more opportunistic than they have been as of late. In the stretch of losses at home for the Wild, chances were abound in all three contests, they just lacked a scoring touch. Chances will be at a premium against a sturdy St. Louis unit who had the third-best goal differential at +47 this season only surrendering 201 goals against and lighting the lamp 248 times as a team.

Keys to the Series

A unique side note to this series that will have a profound impact is the special teams battle. Minnesota finished the season with the league’s best penalty kill, operating at 86%. They will be seeing the league’s fourth best power play in St. Louis that runs at 22%. The advantage arrow again here points at St. Louis however, as their penalty kill runs at 83%, while Minnesota’s power play enters the playoffs at a dismal 16%, the third worst PP in the NHL.

Special teams often are a catalyst in playoff series because even strength goals tend to be hard to come by. Watch for this battle to be a desperate one that will pay major dividends to the winner.

Even though these teams do not look that even on paper, to be clichéd, the game is played on the ice. Minnesota is a team that was victorious in the same match up with Colorado last playoffs in the 2-seed vs. 7-seed game, even though the playoff format has changed since then. Minnesota is pesky; they hang around and don’t mind playing from behind. Mike Yeo has built a mentally tough team that doesn’t let themselves get daunted by letting up early goals. Last week at Nashville was a great example, after going down 2-0 in the first period, the Wild scored four straight goals skating to a 4-2 final.

Series Prediction

Can lightning strike twice in two years for the Wild? Can once again Minnesota prove the pundits wrong and upend another Western Conference power in St. Louis as they did Patrick Roy’s Aves last season?

As a native fan to Minnesota it is tough to stay objective. My heart is pulling for the North Star state’s finest, but my head tells me different.

This series will be a seven gamer, I am almost certain of that. It may very well come down to a goofy bounce, which we saw in game 6 at the Xcel in last year’s semis for a Patrick Kane series winner.

The Minnesota Wild has taken another step towards being a cup contender. I truly believe this state will see a cup final at “The X” in my lifetime (I’m 23 by the way). Just not this year.

As much as this hurts me to say, Blues win in overtime of game seven, heartbreak for Minnesota.

 

Ben Gislason

Hockey tracker writer since December 2014. Lifelong hockey lunatic, current college hockey player, and future hockey broadcaster (hopefully). Devastated by the North Stars leaving for the lone star state, have taken in the Wild as my own since. Proud of the state of hockey and all its heritage. Minnesota pro sports is tough to stay loyal to, but I'm not going anywhere...