The Minnesota Wild will have one of their most significant tests of the season Saturday afternoon as they face the St. Louis Blues. There are still a few weeks left in the season; however, one thing becomes more apparent with each day that passes. The Wild and Blues seem to be on a collision course for a first-round matchup, making Saturday’s affair much more intriguing.
In recent memory, the Wild have struggled against the Blues, but everyone starts at zero in the playoffs. Let’s look at some things to keep an eye on this Saturday as the Wild face the Blues for the final time in the regular season.
Wild’s Success on Special Teams
It’s been well documented, but the Wild, for as good as they have been this season, have been horrendous on the power play and penalty kill. The Wild’s power play is currently clicking at 20.2 percent, which ranks 19th in the league. Even worse is their penalty kill, which is 26th in the league at 75.1 percent. That’s not just below-average for a team chasing a Stanley Cup; it’s unacceptable, and the Blues will take full advantage of that.
This season, the Blues rank in the top five in both the power play and penalty kill. If you are a fan of the Wild, that should absolutely scare you. Goals at 5-on-5 are tougher to come by in the playoffs. Teams emphasize defensive structure in the playoffs, so when you get a chance on the power play, you want to be able to take advantage of that.
It’s safe to say the Wild haven’t earned the right to feel comfortable on either unit, especially against a team like the Blues, who certainly have all season. The Wild have the players to be great on both units, but throughout over 70 regular season games, haven’t been able to piece it together.
Related: Wild Must Solve Special Teams Issues Before Playoffs
On Saturday, they will get a chance to showcase they can be good on both the power play and penalty kill against one of the league’s best in those areas.
Marc-Andre Fleury was brought in to be the team’s starter, and it seems inevitable he will be the starter in Game 1 of the playoffs. On the other hand, Cam Talbot has proven to be a reliable goaltender when he is on his game, and it wouldn’t be shocking to see him get some action in a playoff game at some point.
Entering the season, Jordan Binnington was the clear No. 1 goalie for the Blues, but that has since changed thanks to a stellar season by Ville Husso. The Finnish goaltender is 23-6-5 on the season with a .925 save percentage (SV%).
Binnington has struggled this season with a record of 15-13-4 and a .902 SV%. He might have a more significant history of playoff success, but it’s tough to imagine anyone other than Husso starting for the Blues in the playoffs. He has earned that honour, and if both team’s goaltenders can play to their potential, we could be in for an excellent goaltending battle this series.
On Saturday, it will be interesting to see if the Wild try to crowd the front of the Blues’ net, making their goaltender feel as uncomfortable as possible. On the flip side, will the Wild’s goaltender (whoever gets the start) be able to put on a solid performance and maybe start to get the opposing shooters doubting themselves entering this possible series?
Wild’s Star Players
There will be a lot of eyes on Kirill Kaprizov, Mats Zuccarello, and Kevin Fiala in this series, as the Wild’s best offensive players will look to help carry this team past the first round of the playoffs. The team has some solid depth scoring behind them, but when you think of the team’s offence, those are the three names that stand out as the stars on the roster.
Kaprizov currently has 42 goals and 91 points, while Zuccarello and Fiala have over 65. The Blues don’t have a game-breaker at the level of a Kaprizov, but they do have a lot of depth throughout their lineup that will test this team’s defence.
The Blues have seven players with 50 or more points, headlined by Vladimir Tarasenko (72) and Robert Thomas (71). Their top three lines all can generate offence, and their fourth line is one of the strongest on the forecheck, with the ability to jam home the occasional goal.
Kaprizov is a game-changer and look for him to be just that on Saturday afternoon. They will need him and Fiala and Zuccarello to be massive difference makers in the playoffs and getting off on the right foot against the Blues on Saturday would be a great start.
Overall, this is a game that fans of both teams should pay extra attention to for numerous reasons. The winner won’t just be gaining a step on the battle for home ice; there are many other key factors fans will be watching for in this game.
Special teams, goaltending, and star players will all be crucial in the playoffs for the Wild. Seeing positive signs from all those areas in this game will bring a significant sigh of relief to many in the fan base. Not seeing positive signs from those areas will only add extra stress in anticipation for the opening round.