It has been a crazy season for the Minnesota Wild. From a hot start in the fall to the mumps decimating the locker room to a massive slump all the way to Devan Dubnyk leading the Wild to a playoff berth, it has been a bizarre and unexpected season. Fitting that the playoffs have followed suit.
In the Wild’s best-of-seven series with the St. Louis Blues, ebbs and flows have been plentiful and predictability has been thrown out of the window. Neither team has won two games in a row and antithetical to playoff hockey, each game has been won by more than a goal. In fact, each team has a couple of dominating wins along the way. Uncertainty has reigned in the first round series, but the Wild has no time to look back at what’s happened, it must look forward.
Home may be where the heart is, but it’s not where the wins are for the Wild. Minnesota went 6-5-1 to close out the home schedule in the regular season, and is 1-1 at the ‘X’ so far this series, including a 6-1 rout in game 4. The Wild has a chance however to rid itself of recent demons with a game 6 win this afternoon in St. Paul.
Minnesota has conversely been a stellar road team and has already won 2 of the 3 games in St. Louis, thanks in large
part to a level of urgency that hasn’t been equaled at home. The Wild seems to play a simpler, more resilient game on the road. That is contrasted starkly by a team that tries to play a little too “cute” at home and almost looks to crumble under self-imposed pressure. The team knows it should be winning at home and when things don’t go as planned right away, Minnesota seems to abandon its game in a manner that rarely happens when it is on the road.
The Wild is a team built largely on speed and tenacity and has success when it focuses on making simple plays and being strong in the defensive zone. And it’s a team that, quite simply, can get steamrolled when it gets too far away from that structure. If the Wild are to advance in the playoffs, it will need to figure out how to duplicate the same success it has had on the road when it gets to its own barn.
The series has been a roller coaster of ups and downs to be certain. The Wild now holds a 3-2 series lead but has had a lead twice already and surrendered it both times. Minnesota has had a difficult time making life easy for itself. It has never won a playoff series in less than 7 games and always seems to find a way to make the State of Hockey faithful sweat. Now the Wild is faced with an opportunity to make franchise history if it can eliminate the Blues in game 6 today. History tells us that game 7 is a virtual certainty, but the Wild must forget the past, treat this as its own personal game 7, and put its proverbial foot on the throat of the St. Louis Blues.
Speaking of the Blues, they are not a team that will likely go away quietly. The past three postseason appearances for them have seen the Blues bow out relatively easily, but this is a new year and they have to know that big changes would probably ensue if it happens again. St. Louis is a team with plenty to play for and has rebounded well after losses in this series.
From the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Mike Yeo knows the Blues will be very desperate when the puck drops on game 6.
“I think there’s still pressure on that team over there,” Yeo said. “The way things have gone for them the last few years, we know the word ‘redemption’ is coming into play for them.”
The key to the stopping the Blues appears obvious, but far from simple. The Note has 13 goals in this series and astonishingly, Vladimir Tarasenko has 6 of them. I’m not very good at math but I believe that’s nearly 50%. For perspective, the Wild also has scored 13 goals but has gotten them from 10 different players. St. Louis can’t seem to find T.J. Oshie or David Backes with a searchlight yet the Wild continues to allow Tarasenko to bail them out. Minnesota has used its depth much better than has St. Louis but as long as Tarasenko continues to burn the Wild defense with highlight reel goals like the one below, a fourth and series-clinching win will prove elusive for Minnesota.
I truly have no idea what to expect in game 6. It could be a repeat of game 4, or the Wild could finally execute home ice advantage, who’s to say. One thing is certain though. The Wild must look forward and not backward if it is to win the series and advance. “One game at a time” is a popular hockey cliché but it rings especially true for the Wild. Minnesota has gotten in trouble when it fails to push forward and remain even keeled.
It must forget about all the home struggles it has had lately and focus on just winning one game while playing the same style it has in its last 20 or so road games. It must forget all it has accomplished this season and during this series and look ahead to hopefully giving Wild fans what they have longed for; a playoff series victory on Xcel Energy Center ice.
Nate has been a Minnesota Wild contributor at The Hockey Writers since 2014 and previously spent time covering the University of Minnesota Duluth men’s hockey team. For everything Minnesota Wild related, follow him on Twitter @natebauer.