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Preview: Wild take on Blues in second half of back-to-back

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Minnesota looks to even the score after 4-3 loss on Wednesday

St. Louis Blues v Minnesota Wild Photo by Bruce Kluckhohn/NHLI via Getty Images

Tonight, the Minnesota Wild will get a rematch against the St. Louis Blues on the second game of a back-to-back for both teams. It’s also the second game of three straight between the two, as they’ll throw down once more on Saturday. Wednesday night’s intensity ramped up between two teams who don’t like each other, and should come to a head tonight with both of them tired and grouchy from playing 24 hours previously. At one point, a scrum erupted in front of the net, leading to a verbal debate at center ice between Cam Talbot and Jordan Binnington. No doubt, the mouthy Binnington started the discussion given his past history of erudite musings with opponents.

I did a deep dive on St. Louis’s MO before the game on Wednesday, which you can read in full here. Adjustments for tonight’s game are listed in the Burning Questions section of this article. If you’d like to just see the highlights on the Blues, they are as follows:

  1. In net, starting goalie Jordan Binnington is good and backup goalie Ville Husso is not as good. When playing short-handed, both goalies are worse than the NHL average.
  2. The Blues take more penalties than their opponents and are bad at stopping quality opportunities when down a skater. Combining this with their bad PK goaltending, and it’s a nightmare situation if the Wild can draw a good amount of penalties.
  3. St. Louis has struggled all year to create as much offense as opponents, largely because they tend to prioritize shot volume over shot quality.
  4. The Wild have not only clinched a playoff spot, but are almost certainly destined for either a second-place or third-place finish in the division - this means that our playoff opponent is out of our control. On the other hand, St. Louis is still fighting to make the playoffs in the fourth and final spot, which gives them a lot more to play for.
  5. We hate the Blues for what they have done to us. We hate them oh, so much, and if you saw Wednesday’s game then, like me, you hate them even more.

Burning Questions

Can the fourth line return to prominence?

For much of the time they’ve been together, Minnesota’s fourth line of Parise-Sturm-Bonino has been extremely effective. They have actually produced the best shot-quality impacts at of all Wild forward lines. Before Wednesday’s game, they averaged 69% of the expected goals while on the ice per MoneyPuck.com, averaging about 3 xG for and less than 1.5 xG against per 60 minutes of ice time. This came in only 81 minutes on the ice together and doesn’t account for quality of competition, but for a fourth-line you’d have to admit these are good results since they’re supposed to be the easiest group for other teams to play against as well.

Wednesday night was another story - they were Minnesota’s three worst skaters in 5-on-5 xG% at a staggeringly low 15.1%. Their offense dried up, and their defensive game was porous. In fairness, these three players took 5, 6, and 7 faceoffs in their defensive end, which means they had a much tougher situation in which to start their shifts. Hopefully they improve in the next game, as they’ve been a secret weapon for the Wild in the first 81 minutes they spent together.

Will Nick Bjugstad return to the lineup?

I asked this question in my preview for Wednesday night’s game as well, and was surprised that he wasn’t slotted in. That night, I thought the real question was not whether he’d enter the lineup, but whom Bjugstad would replace. So tonight, I’m truly curious whether Evason will put Bjugstad into the lineup after last night’s loss. The only problem is, I have no idea which line should take him on because the top three lines were all rolling at 5-on-5, and the fourth line has shown impressive chemistry in the past few weeks.

Will the refs swallow their whistles?

On Wednesday night, Wes McCauley’s crew came under fire from Wild fans domestic and abroad for the officiating. While the penalty differential was only 2-1 in favor of the Blues, which is to be expected in a game in which St. Louis trailed during all three of the penalty calls, it appeared to many viewers in the State of Hockey that there were many non-calls which benefitted the Blues. One such call was a tussle behind the play in which a St. Louis player grabbed onto a green-sweatered fellow; another questionable call was Dumba’s hooking penalty, in which it’s unclear whether contact was made at all, let alone a hook. This call led to the first goal of the third period, leading to an eventual comeback by St. Louis. Most importantly, however, was the non-call with thirty seconds remaining in which Zuccarello appeared to be tripped in the offensive zone. St. Louis then bravely took the puck from the Norwegian while lying on his back, took it up ice, and scored on the play.

A fan’s first instinct might be that the refs would give the Wild some liberties tonight to make up for Wednesday’s questionable officiating. Given St. Louis’s poor penalty killing in terms of shot suppression and PK goaltending, this would be a great avenue to a Minnesota victory. However, most research has found that referees don’t like calling penalties late in games, on teams that are trailing, or on teams which have already had many penalties called upon them. The prevailing theory is that this is done in order to “manage the game” rather than determine its outcome. I expect the refs to swallow their whistles and “let them play” in order to supposedly absolve themselves of guilt tonight. In reality, all this inaction will absolve them of is the duties that they are being paid to carry out.