With the Wild holding a lead over the Colorado Avalanche for the 2nd Wild Card position, making the Stanley Cup Playoffs is all but clinched. However, the 2nd Wild Card spot is forced to play the best record in the Western Conference. This season, with two teams from the Central Division vying for the best record in the conference, the Wild should be quite familiar with its opponent in the first round.
Who are those teams? Well the Dallas Stars and the St. Louis Blues - the Wild's first round opponent from last season. Sure the Los Angeles Kings are hanging around, but the Stars have a six point lead over the Kings with five to play. So technically, if both the Blues and Stars lose out, the Kings could overtake them.
The Wild beat the Blues in six games of the 2015 Western Conference Quarterfinals. St. Louis has been a perennial playoff team, but also a perennial playoff dud. The Blues have just one series win in 13 post-seasons. They try to be a physically imposing team that would rather get caught up in goofy antics than actually trying to score and win games.
At least, that's the strategy they had last season.
The Blues are already have 101 points this season and trail the Dallas Stars by just two points in the standings. The Wild holds a 2-3 record this season versus the the blue notes. They are a puck possession monster that dictates the flow of the game. Add the way Brian Elliott and Jake Allen are playing between the pipes right now, and the Blues are a scary team that Minnesota has historically never matched up well against.
The current run that the Blues goalie tandem is on is impressive. They just recently combined for four consecutive shutouts that included teams like the San Jose Sharks and Washington Capitals, and twice the Vancouver Canucks. For the month of March, Elliott has posted a .986 save percentage in four games, while Allen has had a respectable .939 in eight games. Devan Dubnyk may be heating up heading in to the playoffs, but that duo is playing some really great hockey as that team fights for a second consecutive division title.
The Wild penalty kill has been horrid against the St. Louis - giving up five goals in 14 short handed tries. The power play has scored only twice in 20 opportunities. And the power play has been mostly requisite of an NHL power play this season, even with its multitude of problems.
The Wild has also gone through a coaching change since the Wild last beat the Blues. Where former head coach Mike Yeo had been able to find the exploits of a team that features a hot head like David Backes as captain, and known antagonist Steve Ott, John Torchetti has yet to beat the Blues this season. On March 6, in a second night of a back-to-back, the Wild was really out-played and beaten by a score of 4-2 after St. Louis had jumped out to a 3-0 lead early in the game. Minnesota scored two third period goals before Robby Fabbri sealed it with a long empty-net goal. But the even strength event chart shows a much different story.
Devan Dubnyk was pulled half way through the game and Darcy Kuemper didn't fare much better. Losing three of five games this season also doesn't bode well for Minnesota.
There is reason the Wild could prevail yet again in a seven game series, though.
Minnesota would have to play with the kind of discipline it had last season in the playoffs. If it can avoid being goaded into the after-whistle curriculars, Minnesota should find itself with a lot of power play chances. Prior to the coaching change, the Wild owned the 9th worst goals for total in the league with the extra man. Enter John Torchetti, and the Wild has the 2nd most goals for. The Wild can use the Blues' over-aggressiveness and after-whistle garbage against them.
The hometown team may not be as prolific of a puck possession team that they had been last season, but in the 16 games it takes to win a Stanley Cup, hot goaltending can be the best equalizer. Dubnyk is 10-2-1 in the month of March and has a .927 save percentage. He is getting hot at the right time, and if the Wild want to advance in the post season, its going to need to rely heavily on its netminders.
But the Wild have also scored in bunches lately. They currently rank 3rd among total goals scored since Torchetti took over, and tied for third in Goals For per 60 minutes. The Blues have scored 13 fewer goals in that same time span. The Wild have the hot stick right now. And it has been doing it with its depth. Erik Haula and Nino Niederreiter have arguably been the Wild's best line combination since February 14th, Haula has nine goals and 12 assists in that time span while Niederreiter has 11 goals and 8 assists in the same time frame. While Zach Parise, Charlie Coyle, and Jason Zucker have dried up porduction-wise, those two have been consistent.
The power play can also steal games. The Wild power play was once ranked 23rd in the league before the All-Star break. Since then, the power play has been the 6th best in the league, converting on 22.2 percent of its opportunities. The Wild will need to continue to have a hot power play to match-up against the Blues' 3rd best penalty kill.
All-in-all, the match-up with the Blues doesn't favor the Wild. It didn't favor them last season either, yet they dispatched them in six games. But you just gotta think that one of these years, the Blues will finally put it all together. Match them up with the Wild's overall inconsistency this season, and maybe the Wild are ripe for the taking this post season for a team like the Blues looking to exact a little revenge.