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Recap: Wild drop finale to Blues

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St. Louis comes back to win meaningless Game 56.

NHL: Minnesota Wild at St. Louis Blues Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

For as much time as fans of the Minnesota Wild may have spent “scoreboard-watching” the Colorado Avalanche’s game to determine playoff seeding in the West Division, the Minnesota Wild players may have beaten their fans out in that statistic. After the 8 P.M. start in Colorado, the Guys in Green let a 3-0 first-period lead slip away, and more.

The game started out well enough for the Wild, who have a convenient excuse in resting five key players: star forwards Kevin Fiala, Kirill Kaprizov, and Mats Zuccarello, as well as the team’s best two defensemen Jared Spurgeon and Jonas Brodin. Slotting in for the forwards were Zach Parise from the press box as well as Luke Johnson and Kyle Rau from the taxi squad. Defenseman Brad Hunt got in a warmup game from the press box, and defenseman Dakota Mermis saw action from the taxi squad as well. See the burning questions section below for a review of their performances.

In spite of lacking their three best scorers and two top defensemen, the Wild popped out to a quick two-goal lead from the sticks of Nico Sturm and Ryan Suter.

Sturm’s goal was one of the greasiest I’ve seen this season, the result of two whacks at the puck and two feet in the blue paint. To make things greasier, Bonino and Bjugstad both picked up assists via a flubbed shot and a deflected pass, respectively. Even so, the goal looked good in that it was the result of a grinding line coming in with speed and finishing to the net - always a good thing in this dumb sport we all love.

Suter’s goal was a seeing-eye shot assisted with a low-to-high pass by Marcus Foligno. The real assist should go to Jordan Greenway, whose screen was set dead-center in goaltender Jordan Binnington’s sight lane, preventing any kind of reaction on the shot. Another goal scored with a line of grinders on the ice playing to their identity in the absence of the team’s most skilled players. After two quick goals in the first five minutes, St. Louis was reeling.

Minnesota added to this goal late in the period on a skillful hand-eye play by Foligno.

Three goals screaming at Binnington with pace and then batted in via a net-front attacker. The Wild are back to their old identity. Kaprizov and Fiala - who needs ‘em? Seconds later, Minnesota drew a penalty and their win probability was estimated at 90% according to MoneyPuck.com. Saying what you will about the taxi squad additions, it’s a lineup with enough grit and grinders that holding a 3-0 lead through two periods should be perfectly attainable. That’s what made the next two periods especially painful.

In the second period, the Blues steadily crawled (like a worm) back into this game, and then in front, with four goals in the middle ten minutes of the game. First was a goal from Zach Sanford, then a power play goal by Luke Schenn, a snipe by Wild-killer David Perron, and then another power play goal from Luke Schenn.

After this point, the Wild were scored on two more times over a SEVENTEEN-minute span during which we registered zero (0) shot ATTEMPTS. Right after the Wild tried a shot that broke this streak which went wide of the net. The Blues promptly scored their seventh of the night.

The good news about this game is that, even on the road in a situation in which St. Louis got to choose their matchups, the “normal” personnel groupings were able to play well in the advanced stats. Cole-Soucy, Suter-Dumba, Greenway-Eriksson Ek-Foligno, and Sturm-Bjugstad-Bonino all generated a higher rate of xG-for than xG-against, meaning that each of these lines and defense pairs won the scoring chances battles over the course of their games.

Against a sound defensive team such as the Blues, this is a promising sign for the playoffs compared to what we saw tonight. When our top two defensemen and three most skilled wingers return to the lineup, scoring chances should even out across the roster and give the Wild a fighting chance against our playoff opponent(s?).


Burning Questions

Which of the substitutes look good?

Honestly, the substitutes looked better in many advanced stats than I expected based on what my eyes saw.

Let’s start with the good: at 5-on-5 the pairing of Brad Hunt and Dakota Mermis registered seven shots-on-goal while giving up five, and had an xG rate of 72% in fifteen minutes. Parise-Rask-Johansson played over ten minutes at 5-on-5 and also won the SOG, xG, and Corsi battles. It appears that if we need one AHL/taxi squad player to come up and play with established NHL’ers, the team can manage.

On the other hand, Rau-Hartman-Johnson was abysmal. They didn’t register a shot on goal, although the did better in at least getting a few shot attempts through - the problem was that they all missed the net. Harman has played well of late, but it seemed that he couldn’t carry both Johnson and Rau. Both of them looked like the pace of play was just a bit too fast in the NHL, as they mishandled pucks and looked lost at times. It’s not a question of effort, it’s just that these guys are career AHL-NHL “tweeners” and have been playing taxi squad practices all year. I pray that the Wild can avoid injuries to the forward group so that we don’t dip too deep into this well.

Is Kaapo Kähkönen the safety net for Cam Talbot?

Not tonight he wasn’t.

I absolutely adore Kaapo, and I think he’s going to be a productive goalie who can stick around in the NHL for a serious career. His rookie year has shown streaks of good, and two really awful games. Unfortunately, tonight was one of those two games.

He does have a good excuse in that he was only playing with 34 of an NHL lineup. The problem with this is that three of his four 5-on-5 goals against came with Greenway-Eriksson Ek-Foligno on the ice, who are the Wild’s stoutest line even in the face of difficult matchups. Two of the four goals came with Hunt and Mermis playing defense, neither of whom actually defend at a high level relative to the NHL, and the other two with Suter-Dumba.

The other three goals came on the penalty kill. St. Louis’s power play is hot and looked hot tonight, but goalies need to play better than that on the PK.

This isn’t to say that Kaapo isn’t a dependable backup - he really has been. Throwing out his meltdowns tonight and against the Avalanche, he’s been average at stopping the shots that he’s faced - with a defense this good, that’s plenty to give his team a chance to win on any given night. The good news about the playoffs is that if Kaapo does have a meltdown game in the playoffs, it won’t matter whether we lose by one goal or by fifteen - they all count the same in a seven-game series.

Can we get a Kaprizov highlight performance?

Tonight, we actually saw Kirill do the best thing he’s done for this team all season: not get hurt right before the playoffs.

Unfortunately, we didn’t get to bask in another night of slick hands, laser-beam shots, or putting schmucks on their asses. He didn’t get to ice the cake on his rookie year with a hat-trick to reach 30 goals - he’ll have to settle for 27 goals in 55 (fifty-five!) games, a 40-goal pace over 82 games.

In its place, I’ll offer you this: on Sunday afternoon, Kirill Kaprizov and Kevin Fiala will play Stanley Cup Playoff hockey for the Minnesota Wild, each for the first times in their careers, in Las Vegas against the Golden Knights. And this year, I’m feeling lucky.