Welcome to “Learning the Blues,” where we at Hockey Wilderness are going to go position-by-position to preview the upcoming first-round matchup between our Minnesota Wild and the St. Louis Blues.
We use clichés for a reason. And as annoying one game at a time, or goaltending can be the difference, or defense wins championships, or other similar statements are, something that truly hits home when talking about this first-round matchup is whichever team gets more success on their special teams, will win the series.
One constant thread that has weaved its own way through the entire Wild season has been their special teams and whether or not it is even good enough to be a contending team, whether it is the power play or penalty kill, there have been periods of misery. Since we are not keeping our finger on the pulse of how the Blues feel about their special teams — ew, why would we do that — we just have the season totals to go from.
Well, St. Louis just happens to be one of the best teams on the power play at converting their chances. Through all 82 games, they have earned the second-highest goals for per hour on the man advantage and only the star-laden Toronto Maple Leafs power play was able to score more with the time they were given. But, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows for that game state. While they have been able to convert their scoring chances into goals, their level of scoring chances and the quality of those chances, is much lower than their actual goals scored. They earned the 14th-ranked expected goals per hour, and 15th-ranked unblocked shot attempts per hour. Considering that they have scored so many times on the power play, to have some bang-average underlying numbers could be something to look out for.
If they are able to keep their 17.25 shooting percentage on the powerplay, they would be very, very unfortunate — but the amount of true scoring chances they are able to get, all point into the direction that they should be under that. Although, with weapons such as Vladimir Tarasenko, Robert Thomas, and essentially their unrelenting amount of solid above-average offensive forwards, that rate might hold.
First Powerplay Unit:
Pavel Buchnevich—Robert Thomas—Jordan Kyrou
Vladimir Tarasenko—Justin Faulk
Second Powerplay Unit:
Brandon Saad—Ryan O’Reilly—Ivan Barbashev
David Perron—Torey Krug
While there is a steep drop-off from the Wild’s top unit to their second, the Blues don’t really have that and that is where that amount of depth comes in, especially offensively. They might be a problem, as they have been all season long for whatever team is up against them.
Now, for them to be even more damn annoying, their penalty kill is also one of the best in the league. The Blues have the fourth-lowest goals against per hour rate while shorthanded, in the entire NHL, allowing just 5.75 goals for every 60 minutes they have on the penalty kill. And somehow, that dominance translates into the underlying metrics, as they have the fifth-lowest unblocked shot attempts against rate and eighth-lowest expected goals against rate shorthanded. It really does just blow absolute chunks how well oiled of a special teams machine St. Louis has been this season.
First Penalty Kill Unit:
Ryan O’Reilly—Pavel Buchnevich
Marco Scandella—Colton Parayko
Second Penalty Kill Unit:
Robert Thomas—Brandon Saad
Justin Faulk—Robert Bortuzzo
And to just make matters worse, with that offensive talent on their penalty kill — all four of these forwards have scored at least 20 goals this season — they also are able to get a decent amount of shorthanded goals for them, scoring seven goals this season which is tied for ninth-most in the NHL. Comparatively, the Wild managed to only score two shorthanded goals.
So, basically, the Blues are extremely dangerous on both special teams. Wild head coach Dean Evason has to stress this fact to the entire lineup and for them to really try to not take any penalties. It is the post-season, so that might just happen regardless, but if they get some calls going their way, the Blues are going to make the Wild pay.
Who Has the Advantage?
This is tough to say, but the Blues really do have the advantage when it comes to the power play. Minnesota’s struggles and their powerplay goal drought that sometimes lasted weeks is just too much to ignore. And even if lately they have been able to get enough success on the man advantage to wash those worries away, St. Louis has finished as one of the best at that game state. It basically balances out as the two teams having similar underlying metrics on the powerplay — Blues have the 14th-ranked expected goals for rate on the powerplay, and the Wild have the 19th-ranked — but St. Louis just ends up converting their chances into actual goals way more often.
The Wild might have the better defense at 5-on-5, but when it comes to the times that they are shorthanded, the Blues probably take the cake. Again, just like their powerplay, the Wild have recently seen a decent surge in being able to kill loads of penalties, but their early season failures have still prevented them from being fully embraced as the better shorthanded team. Their change in net certainly changed this and has made them a better overall team on the penalty kill, but, again, it’s just been too bad in the past for me to be confident.
Basically, please, Wild, if you do anything, stay out of the damn penalty box for the next couple of weeks.