First-round preview: Minnesota Wild vs. St. Louis Blues

Hockey is entertainment, and like movies and television, it can be enjoyed in several different ways. Sometimes, a person gravitates toward a drama or action movie because the heroes and tropes are familiar. Or the CGI is splashy and kinetic, and you are in awe of the electricity of the experience.

That’s not going to be this series. This series is more of the independent, art-house film type. A journey of self-discovery that accentuates silences and works assiduously at making the characters three-dimensional and the plotlines well-developed. Unlike the easily digestible popcorn flick (the Blackhawks and Penguins’ series), this one lends itself to more dissection. The teams are closely matched. The ending will be open to interpretation. This is likely headed for seven games with a few contests determined in overtime.

We have been waiting for Minnesota’s Mikael Granlund’s breakout year, and now that it’s finally here, it is fair to be dubious in one respect: his shooting. In the past Granlund had shown flashes of slick skating and adept puck-handling, allowing him to gain the entry and make plays. He could pass, and for his size he demonstrated a tenacious will when battling for the puck. But his shot was weak, and it hamstrung his offensive efficacy. He looked to pass when his opponents were expecting it. He overthought opportunities in scoring areas because he hoped to make the perfect play.

This year, he has been deadly around the blue paint. When transporting the puck, he attacks the middle more aggressively. And he uses his agility to pounce on rebounds. Yet he’s also been scoring at crazy angles and picking corners in the off-slot. Before this season, his best shooting percentage was 8.1. In 2016-17, it is 14.7. At 25, he jumped 25 points from his previous career best.

Granlund wasn’t a disappointment before this season; he was an above average player. But his numbers this season bespeak superstar. The truth is, he is probably a tick below star, and will round out as a 55-point player in the future. So how will this affect the series against the Blues?

For one thing, Granlund is probably going to have to navigate and create against the Alex Pietrangelo-Jay Bouwmeester pairing. While Granlund has performed well in previous postseasons, Pietrangelo and Bouwmeester dramatically raise their game come playoff time. Granlund is strong on his skates and shifty, but the Blues’ top D-pair can skate, and they will be physical with him.

If Granlund and Mikko Koviu are neutralized — and that’s a big if because, with Zucker, their line combined for 40 even-strength goals this season — the Wild still have forward depth to assuage that scoring absence. Eric Staal, Nino Niederreiter, Charlie Coyle, Jason Zucker. Zach Parise, Jason Pominville, and Erik Haula are all capable of chipping in goals and generating offense. This team can move the puck east-west and north-south, and changing speeds on transition can look surprisingly effortless for them.

And this heightened firepower highlights the big difference between the Wild and Blues of last playoffs. The Wild are relatively healthy and have continued to shrewdly assemble talent at forward and defense. Snagging Devan Dubnyk last season was a stroke of genius – the once undesirable goaltender has become first class. His .923 save percentage is one of the best in the league, and his five shutouts presage his penchant for stealing games.

Things are less rosy for St. Louis. The Blues are plagued by injury (Robby Fabbri is out and Paul Stastny is day-to-day), and arguably they traded away their best defenseman in Kevin Shattenkirk. Troy Brouwer was an important member of the Blues team that reached the conference finals last season; unfortunately he wears a Flames jersey now. The players who wield influence on the Blues have become more concentrated, while the dispersal of power in Minnesota makes them more formidable.

The Blues have Vladimir Sabotoka returning, which is nice, but it’s going to be nearly impossible for them to win this series unless Vladimir Tarasenko is fabulous and goaltender Jake Allen can at least match Dubnyk’s play. If the end of the season is an indication, the Blues will look to put Tarasenko and Jaden Schwartz with Alexander Steen or Ivan Barbashev. I can see the desire to stack a line considering offense is going to be tough to come by for the Blues in this series.

Building off of that justifiable fear, I also think the Blues should be consistently trying to have a forward on the top line fly the zone and try to get behind Ryan Suter and Jared Spurgeon. Long stretch passes could help, but short, drop-passes on neutral-zone regroups are equally important. Giving Tarasenko the platform to carry the puck with speed and try to slip through the defensive posture is essential, as is having him play off the puck. Maybe try to have Schwartz or Steen zigzag into the zone while Tarasenko’s flight pattern enables him to break off to a quiet space for a one-timer. Whether Tarasenko is trying to strike with the puck and beat multiple players or work off the puck to find more room, the Blues need to feed him as much as possible. Volume shooting from their best player is crucial if they want to win.

The Blues should be open to a risky strategy. They have the worse goaltender in the matchup, so winning 3-2 seems more plausible than 2-1 even though they want to slow the game down. Wild defensemen Suter and Spurgeon like to jump in on the rush and cycle, so any opportunity by the Blues to harness that aggression gives St. Louis a hope for a quick-strike scoring chance. And even if that fails, the Minnesota D will be inclined to stay closer to the blue line. Outside of Tarasenko’s line, the Blues were the better possession team, so maybe their ancillary lines can pepper the Wild with shot attempts and hope for a few fortuitous bounces. The Blues need to embrace an underdog strategy.

Even though the Wild had a persuasive transition offense in the regular season, this feels like a series that will be won in the trenches. It’s going to be difficult to penetrate the middle, and goaltending will matter. Dubnyk is the better goaltender. And the Wild have more players who can create offense in traffic.

Wild in seven

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