With the NHL one month out from the playoffs, teams are starting to get a bit more of a clear picture of who they might be facing in the first round of the playoffs.
For the Minnesota Wild, second place in the Central Division is starting to feel like it is theirs to lose. They likely won’t catch the high-powered Colorado Avalanche for first in the division and, barring any late-season collapse, should be facing whichever team finishes third in the Central.
That third-place spot will be a battle, but the Wild can start to see which few teams are battling for that spot will likely be their first-round opponent. So, let’s explore some of the possible teams they might find themselves matched up against in round one on their quest for the Stanley Cup.
The St. Louis Blues would enter the Stanley Cup Playoffs with the experience of winning a championship, something that the Wild don’t have. However, that doesn’t mean the Wild should be considered underdogs in this potential series.
The Wild are a deep team that can match the physical style of hockey that the Blues lead on in the run to the cup in 2019. As good as Jordan Kyrou has been this season with 22 goals and 40 assists, Kirill Kaprizov is the only player in this series among the league’s best, sitting in the top 10 in the league, scoring 82 points.
The most significant area of concern for the Wild must be on special teams. The Wild aren’t spectacular at either the penalty kill or power play. Meanwhile, the Blues rank in the top eight in the league in both categories. Special teams are so crucial in the playoffs, where it gets even tougher to score at even strength, so that might be the biggest storyline in this possible series.
This matchup might make the Wild more nervous than any of their realistic first-round opponents. It’s not due to their overall group; the Wild might have a deeper collective of players who can produce points by looking at their entire rosters. The big wildcard for Nashville Predators is they could enter the playoffs with the best defenceman and goaltender in the Western Conference.
Roman Josi currently leads all defencemen in the NHL with 81 points in a year where he will undoubtedly be a finalist for the Norris Trophy. In net, they have a workhorse in Juuse Saros, who, in a staggering 55 games already this season, owns a .920 save percentage (SV%) and a 2.58 goals-against average.
Those two players create a massive problem for the Wild. Fleury should help lessen the gap in talent in the nets, but the Predators having an offence threat on defence like Josi and a goaltender of Saros’ calibre will be tough to stop.
The Dallas Stars are similar to what the Wild used to be, heavily dependent on defence and timely goals. They rank 22nd in the league in goals scored with 188, but 11th in the league in goals-against with 192.
They decided against traded pending unrestricted free agent (UFA) John Klingberg, despite him requesting a trade. With him still in the mix, they have as good a top-six of defence as anyone in the league.
However, the offence is a different story, and with Alexander Radulov struggling to produce this season with 21 points in 59 games, the situation is much more challenging for the Stars. Most of their offence goes through Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, Jason Robertson, and Joe Pavelski. If those players struggle, even a little bit, there isn’t a ton of firepower behind them to help produce consistent offence.
The Winnipeg Jets have been finding success through the same philosophy for a few seasons now, with a very talented top-six forwards and an elite goaltender. Although, this season, their top-six has only been able to lift them to 15th in the league in goals scored with 210 in 68 games.
Their defence is also middle of the pack with players like Joshua Morrissey, Nate Schmidt, and Neal Pionk. It’s not what it once was when players like Dustin Byfuglien and Jacob Trouba were striking fear into opponents each and every night.
Of course, the defensive problems on this team often get bailed out by the brilliance of goaltender Connor Hellebuyck, who has had a SV% of .912 or higher in each season since 2017-18. When you have a goaltender that good and consistent, he can steal games and even a series.
If these two teams meet in the first round, the Wild will have to make sure they can solve Hellebuyck before he gets on too much of a roll. They should feel very confident about their chances of emerging victorious if they can achieve that.
Obviously, the playoffs are still a month away, and a lot can happen in that time. Teams can surprise with a late-season push or ultimately have their season derailed by a few bad weeks.
However, with less than 20 games remaining, these look like the most likely opponents for the Wild in the first round. They are all challenging in their own ways, and only time will tell which matchup we are actually in store for come early May.
Sports writer covering the Minnesota Wild. Graduated with a degree in sport media, also working with the Oshawa Generals of the OHL.