Winners of the first two games of the current three-game set, the St. Louis Blues have been a bit of a bugbear for the Minnesota Wild in 2021. The Wild will get one more chance to put a tally in the win column at put the Blues behind them - at least for a week and a half, when they’ll finish the regular season with a back-to-back against St. Louis in mid-May.
For now, the Wild have to focus on putting together 60 strong minutes - and not just a successful second period - in order to defeat a Blues team that has won four of five matchups this season, including the 5-4 overtime victory they earned on Wednesday night after the Wild fought their way back from a 3-0 second period deficit.
The third period comeback was fueled primarily by Dean Evason’s decision to remove the struggling Victor Rask off of the Wild’s top line, moving him down to center Kevin Fiala and Marcus Johansson while Ryan Hartman got the promotion to skate with Kirill Kaprizov and Mats Zuccarello. The move paid dividends all around, as Rask immediately contributed on Fiala’s goal only 2:21 into the second as well as adding a goal of his own later in the frame. With goalie Cam Talbot off for the extra skater, Kaprizov ended up tying the game with under a minute to play, though they couldn’t complete the comeback as the Blues Ryan O’Reilly finished off the Wild for his second overtime winner against Minnesota this season.
Whether Evason will keep his new-look lines or continue to jumble things up with a healthy Nick Bjugstad waiting in the wings won’t be known until morning skate. Bjugstad has been practicing for over a week and even skated in pregame warmups on Wednesday after three Wild players missed part of Tuesday night’s series opener, but Hartman, Joel Eriksson Ek and Nico Sturm were all deemed able to go, so Bjugstad spent another night in the press box.
Talbot got both starts in the back-to-back and didn’t look as sharp as he had coming into the series. Backup Kaapo Kahkonen hasn’t seen the ice since in a week, so it would make sense if Evason decided to keep his rookie netminder fresh and give him a go in the series finale.
Meanwhile, the Blues have pulled away from the Arizona Coyotes for the final playoff spot, and are playing like a team that could possibly give the current division-leading Vegas Golden Knights a run for their money in the first round. Vladamir Tarasenko was a late scratch for Wednesday’s game with a lower body injury, but his day-to-day status means that he’s got a good chance to return on Saturday. His replacement on the second line, Sammy Blais, scored just over three minutes into the game, so even if Tarasenko can’t go again the Blues have players they can depend on to keep the offense humming. On defense, St. Louis welcomed back Colton Parayko to the lineup after a two-game absense. Parayko slotted in to the Blues second pairing with Torey Krug and saw 24+ minutes of ice time, the second highest among St. Louis skaters.
Jordan Binnington is likely to get the start in net for the Blues after Ville Husso got the win despite a save percentage of .867.
Can the Wild bounce back after a rough back-to-back? Can St. Louis keep up their pre-playoff pace and show they can contend for the West? Puck drops at 7 p.m.
Who’s first line is it, anyway?
Tuesday night’s NBCSN crew kept referring to the Wild’s top line as “Rask’s line”, which is kind of hilarious considering Kaprizov’s presense on the pairing. But now with Rask likely to be slotting between Fiala and Johansson to start things off on Saturday, who will get the promotion to the Wild’s top line? Hartz finished the game between Kaprizov and Zucarello, but he’s not your typical 1C. You can’t imagine they’d want to break up the chemistry that Joel Eriksson Ek has with Marcus Foligno and Jordan Greenway, right? Does that mean Nick Bjugstad will draw in despite not seeing game ice since April 5th?
And no matter who it is, they have to look better than Rask has on the top pairing...
victor rask is just painful to watch pic.twitter.com/G7OS4ZwiXj— Hockey Wilderness (@hockeywildernes) April 30, 2021
Will Evason give Kakonen a chance at Blues redemption?
The last time Kahkonen saw the ice against the St. Louis Blues, well, it didn’t go as well as one might have hoped.
In case you’ve blocked it out, Kahkonen surrendered nine goals on 38 shots, for a .763 save percentage and an absolutely embarassing 9-1 loss.
Since then Kahks has bounced back in a pair of wins in limited action, while Talbot has been the primary starter for Minnesota. Evason has to give Kahkonen at least a start or two between now and the end of the season to keep him fresh for the playoffs, so maybe this is the best chance for the Wild’s rookie goaltender to have some success against a team that he’s likely had nightmares about recently.
Can Dumba sharpen up?
Some fans are ready chase Matt Dumba out of town with torches and pitchforks after some poor decisions and turnovers have led to some critical Blues goals over the last two games. Despite the recent tough outings, though, Dumba has had a pretty good season on both sides of the puck, and shouldn’t have the verdict on his 2021 season written after a three-game series against St. Louis - a team that the entire Wild roster has struggled against this season.
Nevertheless, general manager Bill Guerin have a tough decision coming up, and Dumba’s play down the stretch and in the playoffs will go a long way towards whether or not the Wild will protect or expose their offensive defenseman to the Seattle Kraken’s expansion draft. Glaring mistakes and poor games loom large under a bright spotlight.
Along with the rest of the Wild, Dumba could really use a strong game to get things back in order prior to the playoffs. Can he tighten up his defensive game in the final night of the three-game set against the Blues?