Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs is tonight - 8:30 Central on ESPN.
We've got the best Wild team in history, coming in with a franchise record 53 wins and 113 points in the standings. They have the second best record in the Western Conference and set a host of new franchise scoring records this year, both individual, and as a team. With all of that, they find themselves in the same division as 2 of the other top 4 teams in the West, and so we get a truly exciting first round series that pits two really good teams against each other and will send a really good team home after 4 to 7 games.
WHY ARE THE BLUES GOOD?
Short answer: They shoot the puck into the net really good.
The Blues offensive system is based around the idea of creating only the highest quality chances as much as possible. Instead of dumping the puck in and trying to grind out a scoring chance, they prefer to carry the puck into the offensive zone. Instead of shooting and looking for a deflection or a rebound, they prefer to make a pass across the zone to force the opposing goalie to move and make a save at the same time. They are consistently among the top teams in the NHL in "high-danger passes" passes from the middle of the ice or that cross the middle of the ice in the offensive zone. The Blues don't play for possession of the puck (they are below 50% on most possession metrics, while the Wild are above average). But they make it not matter because they are constantly seeking those high danger passing plays. To further this, they have assembled a team that works within this system because they have a bunch of forwards with good finishing ability that have had high shooting percentages through their careers.
So, the Blues took a bunch of good shooters and put them in a system that gives them good looks and as a result, they have the highest team shooting percentage in the NHL this season. They are 29th in the NHL in shots attempted, but 3rd in the NHL in goals scored.
WHAT CAN THE WILD DO ABOUT IT?
Two questions then for the Wild.
- Can they disrupt those in-zone passes consistently? When the Wild really dominated Las Vegas last year in the playoffs it was because they completely shut down passing plays once Vegas crossed the red line and forced the Knights to grind out chances which is really hard to do against the Wild.
This becomes magnified when the Blues get on the power play. More space for a team already adept at completing those high-danger passes is not a comfortable thing for penalty killers. The Wild have not been a good penalty killing team this year, and if the Blues can ride a hot power play, this series gets a lot harder to win.
- Can they get the Blues to dump the puck in? Spurgeon and Brodin are amazing defensemen when it comes to retrieving pucks and turning those dump-ins the other direction. This skill is largely negated by the Blues always carrying the puck over the blue line. If the backchecking forwards can force the Blues into close proximity to the Wild defensemen as they enter the zone, we might see some dump ins and that would play into the Wild's strength.
CAN THE WILD MATCH THE BLUES FIREPOWER?
Yep. The Wild are a really good offensive team. (You read that correctly) and the Blues haven't really shut them down in their three meetings this season. The Blues play a man-on-man strategy in their defensive zone, which is simple, but exploitable especially if the Wild defense can pull some Blues out of position by activating in from the blue line. To do that with consistency and without creating opposition chances the other way, it will have to happen in tandem with long periods of Wild puck possession. If the Wild have the puck in the offensive zone for long stretches, we should see the Blues defensive system start to break down and create some open looks for the Wild goal scorers.
Dump and chase and grinding out possession in the corners is very much what the Wild want, especially with Ek/Greenway/Foligno on the ice. If that line can tilt the ice for Minnesota, then good things will follow. The Boldy/Fiala/Gaudreau line is good at finding those soft spots in the zone, and Kaprizov/Zuccarello/Hartman can pull any defensive system out of alignment with skating and puck movement, so there's no shortage of weapons the Wild can bring to bear to counter the Blues shooters.
Of course, this is a strategy that works better at 5 on 5 than it does on special teams, so the fewer penalties that are called, the better it plays into Minnesota's hand.
The Blues are one of the biggest teams in the playoffs size-wise, but they didn't play a particularly physical style during the regular season. The Wild are smaller but hit a lot more. I'm interested to see how much the physical part of the game changes the series. The narrative is always that the playoffs play "heavier", but it's a little unclear which team that would favor here.
A HOT GOALIE IS ALL THAT MATTERS IN THE PLAYOFFS RIGHT?
It sure helps. The Blues will start Ville Husso in his first postseason start tonight, but he's been good most of the year for them, while it sounds like the Wild will go with Marc-Andre Fleury in Game 1.
We all know what Fleury is capable of in the playoffs, so the best possible outcome is more of that this year. Talbot has been awfully good as well down the stretch, so I would imagine it won't take much to switch goalies as the series progresses.