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Center Play May Determine Rest of Wild-Blues Series

Even after last night's victory, the Wild appear to have a disadvantage down the middle.

Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

It's OK to be excited.

The Minnesota Wild took home-ice advantage from the St. Louis Blues last night, earning a 1-0 series lead. Much like the Wild, the Blues are a very good, very deep team that should be considered a favorite to win the Stanley Cup, should they advance to the second round.

It's hard to highlight one particular area of strength for the St. Louis Blues After all, they're a team that's been in competition for the President's Trophy all year. You don't get to be there by having a bad team.

But perhaps most notable about this excellent Blues team isn't their all-world winger Vladimir Tarasenko, nor their two excellent defensemen in Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk. It may be that they're able to put three excellent centers on the ice.

David Backes is the captain of the Blues, and much as Mikko Koivu sets the tone for the Wild's defensively-responsible game, the Blues' physical reputation starts with Backes. Backes is big, mean (as you saw by him going after Mikael Granlund late in the third period), but more importantly, skilled, able to both score and distribute.

Jori Lehtera signed in St. Louis this year, and his role on the team is in large part to get the most out of Tarasenko. As a teammate of Tarasenko's in the KHL, Lehtera was able to step right into the North American game and continue his chemistry with Tarasenko. Don't sleep on him just because he's an unfamiliar name- with 10 multi-point games this season, he's capable of scoring in bunches.

A much more familiar name to Wild fans will be Paul Stastny, who went from Colorado to his hometown St. Louis in Free Agency. Stastny has regressed from the 25-goal form he showed last season, and his mere 46 points could be considered a disappointment. Last year, however, he gave the Wild fits with his speed and all-around game, lighting them up for 5 goals and 10 points in the Avs-Wild playoff series.

As for the Wild? I'm confident in Dubnyk, their defense, and I think they're especially loaded at the wings. But up the middle? I think that if the Wild get eliminated, that's going to be the reason why.

Mikko Koivu has been the Wild's best center this season, and his scoring has largely held steady at 5v5. However, at best, Koivu has fallen victim to a cold power play (or, if you want to be cynical, is a large part of the problem), which explains most of the drop-off in scoring from last year to this year. Perhaps of more concern is Koivu's recent playoff performance. He lit up Colorado last season, but in the last two seasons playing the Blackhawks, he's scored just one point. The Blues are a strong possession team, much like the Blackhawks, and Koivu will need to do more than merely cancel his opponent out if the Wild want to advance. Assisting on Pominville's empty-netter to defend their lead was a good start.

Of more concern is Mikael Granlund. His 39 points on the season is roughly in line with his point total from last season, but it feels different than last season. Last season, Granlund caught fire in the second half, rising to the challenge of anchoring the first line between Zach Parise and Jason Pominville. This year? We mentioned his scoring held steady from last season, but if you consider that he had more ice time and a more prime opportunity (playing with Parise the whole year), it has to be alarming that his scoring even declined a small amount. Granlund did step up last night, scoring an empty-net goal, playing a good game overall, and even shined in the face-off circle. Granlund keeping that level of play up will be crucial.

Charlie Coyle has sort of been the opposite of Granlund this season- his scoring numbers don't look impressive compared to last year's, but considering his usage, it's a significant improvement. For what it's worth, Coyle was definitely a "playoff performer" last season, going off against Colorado before being derailed by two separated shoulders. We saw Coyle play a strong two-way game on a third line for much of the second half of this season. If that continues, Blues coach Ken Hitchcock should think twice about sending out his fourth line against a line with Coyle being flanked by Niederreiter and Vanek. But Coyle's also known for his inconsistency, and against a top-tier team, the Wild can ill afford that.

An X-Factor with this could well be Erik Haula. Haula didn't play last night, and with Bergenheim playing well last night, won't likely be in the line-up for Game 2. In fact, it would probably take only an injury to get him in the lineup at center. Even so, it bears mentioning just how good Haula was as a pivot during last year's playoffs, where he terrorized the Blackhawks with his speed up the middle. If Haula comes in and flashes that level of play, that's a very valuable injury replacement.

The Wild's depth at center isn't as consistent as St. Louis'. It's not as established. And it's probably not as talented overall. But if Koivu, Granlund, and Coyle can be near the top of their games, the Wild have more than what it takes to get 3 more wins from St. Louis. If Koivu continues to be quiet in the playoffs, if Granlund still can't quite keep up with his linemates, and if Coyle can't unlock his inner "Beast Mode", then it's going to be a much taller order to get out of the first round.