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No-Man's Land: Controlling the Neutral Zone is Key in First Round Series vs Blues

Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

Many so-called experts are weighing in on the first round match-up of the Minnesota Wild and St. Louis Blues. Some are comparing the overall talent of each roster, while others look at which position groups give the other team the edge. The Blues and Wild both play a similar style - they like to go to work on the opposing defensemen and grind out a cycle game to create pressure and extended zone time. The Blues use their size and physicality to turn that wall cycle into quick offense with lots of shots on net.

However, the Wild, while capable of grinding it out in the corners, tend to find getting out of the cycle and getting scoring chances from it more difficult than their first round counterpart. The Wild will need to be conscious of this and look to get the puck to the net every chance they get. If indeed the edge in goaltending is on the side of the Wild, not testing the likes of Brian Elliott or Jake Allen often will spell disaster in the first round.

Now here in lies the single most important part of the game for the Wild in the Western Quarters - getting to the offensive zone. Yes, the 50 feet in between the blue lines is where this series will either be won or lost.

Minnesota had been better at exiting the defensive zone this season than last. But as the team's possession numbers have slipped since Devan Dubnyk's arrival, the reason can be attributed to the inability to exit the zone efficiently AND with possession. With seemingly weak plays on the boards on the backhand, the Wild are resorting to chipping the puck out of the zone, or worse, turning the puck over at the blue line. Take for instance this play from a game in February against the Edmonton Oilers. What should have been an easy zone clear with numbers up ice, Mikael Granlund is unable to corral the puck along the boards and makes a weak one-handed swipe at it. It is turned over at the blue line and results with on add-man rush down low with Benoit Pouliot scoring for the Oilers.

NHL Edmonton Oilers vs Minnesota Wild FULL Condensed Game 2/24/2015 HD

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A play like this against the more dangerous Blues will mean lots of goals against no matter who the goaltender is. Weak puck plays will not keep Dmitrij Jaskin, Vladimir Tarasenko, or Jaden Schwartz at bay.

Think of the old field position analogy when it comes to facing the Blues. In football, you would want to force the other team to have to travel the entire length of the field rather than from the 50 yard line to score. Giving your defense the entire field to defend allows it to bend rather than break. The Wild will have to make sure-handed plays, when clearing the defensive zone, use quick short passes to exit with possession, and get the puck in behind the Blues defense. Attention to the finer details of getting the puck deep will force the Blues to come through all five skaters on their way to the offensive zone.

Back in the years of Jacques Lemaire, the Wild were known as a neutral zone trap-style team. What fails to get mentioned is that almost every team employs some version of the neutral zone trap. The Blues are very good in the neutral zone, but when the Wild is playing its game, teams hardly get a whiff of a scoring chance. Minnesota needs to have complete buy-in on back-checking and playing defense from guys like Thomas Vanek, Chris Stewart, Matt Cooke, and the rest of the forwards. Having mobile defensemen that can make a good first head-man pass will be vital throughout the playoffs.

The team that controls the neutral zone more effectively than the other will win this series.