Wild vs. Blues: Playoff Preview

It’s the most wonderful time of the year! The 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs are finally upon us and while we still have a few days to wait for the first games to be played, this is basically Christmas time, only better for hockey fans. It will be the third straight year that the State of Hockey is represented in the playoffs and today we found out who the Minnesota Wild will face in the first round; the big-bad St. Louis Blues. It will be the first time in Wild franchise history playing the Blues in the playoffs.

Last year, the Wild got to the second round after beating the Colorado Avalanche in seven games but fell short of the Western Conference Finals, losing to Chicago in six games. Traditionally, St. Louis has been a tough opponent for Minnesota; before this season, the Wild hadn’t won against the Blues in St. Louis in regulation since 2007. However, the Wild did win the season series this year (2-1-1) against the Blues.

No team has collected more points since the all-star break than the Minnesota Wild and they will look to continue the surge throughout the playoff. Here’s a look at what the Minnesota Wild must do to beat St. Louis and advance to the second round of the playoffs for a second straight year.

Road warriors

Prior to losing Saturday in St. Louis in what turned out to be almost an exhibition game to wrap up the regular season, the Wild had won 12 consecutive games on the road, tying an NHL record in the process. The Blues have the home ice advantage to start the series but the Wild might actually prefer that given the prosperity of the team’s road game. However, given how good Minnesota was at home in the playoffs last season (5-1), one would think they should be able to continue to have success at the ‘X’.

The Wild and Blues will faceoff in the opening round of the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs.  (Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports)
The Wild and Blues will faceoff in the opening round of the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs. (Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports)

With that in mind, the Wild would be well served if it could get home ice advantage by winning a game or two in St. Louis to start the series off. A Wild team playing as well as it has on the road combined with continued playoff success on home ice could be a lethal combination for them.

That being said, it’s one thing to talk about it and an entirely different thing to execute. St. Louis is a tough team to play against at home and they don’t often lose at Scottrade Center. For the Wild, going down 2-0 to start the series would be very tough; the Blues are a physical team that wears opponents down over time so the Wild would be best using its strong road play to jump out to quick 1-0 or 2-0 series lead, or at the very least, go back to the Xcel Energy Center for games 3 and 4 with the series tied.

Slow down Tarasenko

Talk about another thing that’s easier said than done, containing Vladimir Tarasenko is like trying to contain… okay I can’t think of a simile right now but he’s very good at hockey. Seriously though, the 23-year-old Russian phenom has torn up the entire league this year, notching 37 goals and 36 assists in 77 games. Three of those goals and 2 of the

Vladimir Tarasenko has exploded as a 23 year old and scored nearly a point per game this season in St. Louis. (Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports)
Vladimir Tarasenko has exploded as a 23-year-old and scored nearly a point per game this season in St. Louis. (Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports)

assists came in 4 games against the Wild this year, including 4 points in the last 2 games against Minnesota.

The strength of the Wild is its ability to play with solid defensive structure and limit its opponents chances to score. Tarasenko is a matchup problem for anyone he’s on the ice against whether its 5 on 5 or a power play situation. Letting him have too much time and space with the puck can be devastating because of his incredible vision, soft hands, and lethal shot. For the Wild to be successful, it must not let Tarasenko free-wheel around the ice unaccounted for all game. It might be wise of Mike Yeo to do something similar to last year when he put Erik Haula out to basically shadow Nathan MacKinnon during home games in an effort to shut him down.

Tarasenko is a supremely talented young forward who is a constant threat to create goals. It’s unlikely the Wild will be able to completely stop him but if he’s getting 1-1 every game, it’s going to be a long, uphill battle for Minnesota to win the series. St. Louis is a deep team with plenty of players who can score but slowing Tarasenko should be priority number. 1 for Yeo and company from a defensive standpoint.

Special teams

It goes without saying that special teams is absolutely vital in the playoffs where one goal can completely swing the momentum of a game and ultimately, a series. For the Wild however, it’s especially important that its special teams units shine brightly.

This Blues/Wild series will feature an intriguing match-up of the Wild’s first ranked penalty kill and St. Louis’ fourth ranked power play. Man advantage opportunities are at a premium in the postseason, meaning each chance is magnified in importance. For Minnesota, part of the reason the team has been so successful as of late is because the penalty killing has been so superb. It will need to continue to be so if the Wild is to beat the Blues 4 times.

The Wild's power play needs to step up in the post season. (Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports)
The Wild’s power play needs to step up in the post season. (Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports)

Minnesota’s power play has been dismal all year and will get no reprieve in facing a tough St. Louis penalty kill that ranked seventh in the league this year. The power play is a dead horse that’s been beaten all year in Minnesota but it would really help if the Wild could up its power play percentage to the 20% area and get a couple extra goals here and there against a Blues team that doesn’t give up much. St. Louis is going to try to play physical with the Wild’s skilled forwards and give up very little 5 on 5 so the power play is crucial for Minnesota. St. Louis is a team that takes its fair share of penalties and the Wild need to take advantage of that at a better clip than it has in the regular season in order to lighten the load with 5 skaters a side.

Win the goaltending battle

This is the one area of the series where the Wild may hold a distinct advantage. Devan Dubnyk has obviously been Devan Dubnyk; in other words, incredible since mid-January. He’s the man in Minnesota and Darcy Kuemper — who will likely be the Wild’s full-time playoff backup — is really only there for insurance purposes at this point, because it’s Dubnyk’s net. He’s also 2-0 against St. Louis when the Wild has its full complement of players in the lineup and has shown the ability to shut St. Louis down. The situation in St. Louis is different, however. Both Brian Elliot and Jake Allen have seen steady play all year and while there may not be any “controversy” in St. Louis over who will start, it’s certainly not a situation that’s settled like Minnesota.

Whoever starts in net for St. Louis usually gets plenty of help from an outstandingly deep defensive corps and four lines that tend to have the puck more often than not. However, the Blues goaltenders are not typically the type to steal games for the Blues and can, on occasion, get lit up.

For Minnesota, it’s about getting the puck into St. Louis’ defensive zone and getting plenty of pucks and lots of traffic to the front of the cage. If they can do that, they have a good chance to score some goals on whichever one of Elliot or Allen is playing for the Blue notes.

Final thoughts

No matter how you try to spin it, this is going to be a tough series for Minnesota. St. Louis is a scary blend of size, skill, and depth. The Blues haven’t had much in the way of playoff success the past few years but that doesn’t make them any less of a threat. However, Minnesota is a different team this year than in past years and the Wild has solid depth throughout its own lineup that can match-up with St. Louis.

For the Wild to win the series, they will need to frustrate St. Louis with a strong, defensively sound game and limit the chances of their skilled forwards while also executing defensive zone exits efficiently. It would help to win that first game to give themselves some breathing room and Devan Dubnyk must continue to play the way he has been the past few months. The team also needs help its special teams to create momentum but maybe most importantly, they need to get into the offensive zone and create chaos in front of the Blues net to create scoring chances and test the St. Louis netminder(s).

Either way it should be a great series and with the playoffs schedule that just came out showing a few days rest before puck drop, we can all anxiously await Christmas in the summer.