The Wild and Blues are two very evenly matched teams, and that is not simply restricted to even strength play. One of the most intriguing matchups for their upcoming series will be the Blues fourth ranked power-play going up against Minnesota's top ranked penalty kill. This is a matchup that could very well decide which team wins this extremely tight series.
Behind a group of penalty killers that were among the league's best at suppressing shots, and with Devan Dubnyk setting up a wall in net, the Wild penalty kill became the backbone of the team. One of the biggest reasons for the success of the penalty kill was their ability to really limit the amount of shots opposing teams were able to generate from the middle of the ice. Here is the shot chart for the Wild on the penalty kill this year:
While most teams like to stay in a fairly structured box on the penalty kill, with everybody staying in their predefined area, being sure to eliminate cross-box passes, the Wild penalty kill uses a relatively unique defensive setup to essentially eliminate shots from the middle of the ice from opposing defensemen. This is especially true when the puck is moved to the middle of the ice at the blue line. This is where we see the Wild break out of their traditional box.
As F1 tracks the puck to the blue line, F2 slides to the middle of the ice to completely take away any possible shooting lane. This seemingly leaves a one-timer option open for opposing teams, but I believe this is akin to a basketball player on defense forcing a righty to dribble to the left. It's not ideal to give teams space, but if you do, it's a huge advantage to know where the puck is most likely to go. Knowing where the next pass is likely to go allows F1 to track the puck without stopping. If the defenseman chooses to pass against the grain, F2 then has time to switch over to F1's side of the ice.
This defensive strategy proved incredibly effective all season long, especially against teams with a single high defenseman quarterbacking the power-play. The bad news for the Wild however is that the Blues power-play has shown very little interest in running the precise look the Wild penalty kill is built to take away. Here is a look at where the shots came from for the Blues on the power-play this year:
Instead of working the middle of the ice, the Blues power-play runs through their elite shooters off of the half-wall as seen in the screenshot below.
Both of the Blues power-play units operate the same way. They get the puck to the half wall on either side of the ice to their trigger guys like Tarasenko, Schwartz, and Oshie, have them take a stride or two off the wall, and look for a quick shot. There's generally not a ton of puck movement, though they will try for the cross-ice pass from circle to circle occasionally.
The Wild have shown a tendency to defend this half-wall play with one of their defenseman while leaving their forwards in the middle of the ice to defend cross-ice passes. This leaves an awful lot of space around the net for guys like Backes and Stastny to battle with the remaining down-low defender. The Blues net-front guys do a great job of constantly moving and circling around the net in order to best find space to bury errant rebounds. The Wild defenseman aren't going to be able to move these guys out of position, so it will be very important for Dubnyk to have solid rebound control. With guys like Tarasenko shooting the puck though, that's much easier said than done.
Where the Wild penalty kill should be able to continue its dominance is in the neutral zone. That is where they will be able to use their speed to force the Blues players into uncontrolled zone entries. The Wild have some of the best puck retrieving defensemen in the league, and any Blues dump in on the power-play should be viewed as a win.
When a team can trot out Vladamir Tarasenko and Alex Steen on their second power-play unit, it's obvious that there is going to be a ton of talent on the ice for these situations. Failing some more Devan Dubnyk magic, there's a real likelihood that the Wild penalty kill is not quite so dominant throughout this series. That could make for an uphill battle against a Blues team that seems to have the edge in even strength play. No worries though, we all know how we can rely on that smoking hot Wild power-play to come up with the big goal when needed.