2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs: Wild vs. Blues first-round preview

(2C) Minnesota Wild vs. (3C) St. Louis Blues

Wild: 53-22-7, 113 points

Blues: 49-22-11, 109 points

Season series: MIN 0-1-2; STL 3-0-0

Game 1: Monday (9:30 pm ET; ESPN, SN360, TVAS, BSN, BSMW)

There is precious little separating the Minnesota Wild and St. Louis Blues in their best-of-7 Western Conference First Round series.

Though the Wild earned home ice and pulled four points ahead of the Blues on the final day of the regular season, the similarities between them are stunning.

They played three times in the regular season, two going past regulation. The other, a 6-4 Blues victory in the 2022 Discover NHL Winter Classic, was played outside in bitter temperatures at Target Field.

“It’s exciting. Every battle we’ve had against them has been extremely intense and physical,” St. Louis forward Ryan O’Reilly said. “It’s going to be a great series. Starting on the road, I do not think it changes that. It is what it is. We’ve got to be ready to go.”

The Blues have yet to play this season at Xcel Energy Center, where the Wild are 31-8-2. Minnesota believes that can be an advantage in a series that presents very few clear-cut margins.

“I mean, our record speaks [for] itself here, “Wild goalie Cam Talbot said. “We’re a different team when we are in front of our fans and get our matchups and we’ve got a couple of good lines that can shut teams down and we’ve got two extremely good lines that can score goals.

“So when we get our matchups and stuff like that, we’re a little bit more dangerous and playing in front of our fans and the momentum shifts and stuff like that, we can feed off of that in a series like that. That means a lot for our group. “

[RELATED: Complete Wild vs. Blues series coverage]

St. Louis and Minnesota combined to score 28 goals in the season series. The Blues have nine players who scored at least 20 goals, led by Vladimir Tarasenko‘s 34 and a team-high 82 points. Pavel Buchnevich scored 30 goals. Robert Thomas has a team-best 57 assists.

“I think this team is the best I’ve seen at putting the puck in the net,” said O’Reilly, who scored 58 points (21 goals, 37 assists). “We get momentum offensively it’s quite dangerous and playoffs is obviously going to be a lot tighter, tougher checking, but I’m excited. I like our group and excited for this challenge against ‘Minny,’ who’s playing unbelievable hockey. It’s going to be a war. “

For Minnesota, it is the top line that is the engine.

Kirill Kaprizov scored a Wild record 108 points (47 goals, 61 assists). Mats Zuccarello scored 79 points (24 goals, 55 assists) in 70 games and center Ryan Hartman had 65 (34 goals, 31 assists). That’s 105 of the 305 goals Minnesota scored this season.

“I know in the playoffs, every game, every shift is kind of all out, so I think we’re going to be ready,” said Kaprizov, who had three points (two goals, one assist) in a seven-game loss to the Vegas Golden Knights in the 2021 Stanley Cup First Round. “I know we’re going to be ready as a team to go out there and to play really physical, really good hockey every single shift, every single game.

“To be honest, it’s not about the fancy plays and all the really interesting things we do on the ice. It’s all about the little plays, the battles in the corner, the small things we do. If we can continue to do those things “right and continue to win our battles and win our shifts and ultimately help the team win, that’s what we need to continue to focus on.”

Video: COL @ MIN: Kaprizov nets 47th down low crashing net

With two regulation goals separating the two teams after their regular-season series, each is expecting a long, demanding first round and embracing the challenges it will bring.

“You saw how we played them down the stretch here, and it’s been some great games back and forth,” Minnesota forward Tyson Jost said. “It’s going to be a great series. We’re excited for it and we’re looking forward to that.”

Game breakers

Wild: Kaprizov has been a handful since he arrived in the NHL at the start of the 2020-21 season, which ended with him winning the Calder Trophy voted as NHL rookie of the year. This season, he was better. He became the first player in Wild history to score 100 points. His 47 goals this season led the Wild and were fifth in the NHL.

Blues: Tarasenko reemerged as one of the most dangerous offensive players in the NHL after a two-year, injury-induced absence from the list. On a team full of prolific scorers, nobody has been more lethal than Tarasenko, who also led the Blues with 230 shots on goal. Tarasenko was limited to seven goals in 34 regular-season games during the past two seasons but is now playing at the level that saw him score at least 30 goals in five straight seasons from 2014-19.

Video: MIN @ STL: Tarasenko finishes Parayko cross-crease feed

Goaltending

Wild: It is an embarrassment of riches since the Wild acquired Marc-Andre Fleury before the 2022 NHL Trade Deadline. Fleury won the Stanley Cup three times with the Pittsburgh Penguins and went to two other Cup Finals, most recently with the Vegas Golden Knights expansion in 2017. Since arriving in Minnesota, he is 9-2-0 with a 2.74 goals-against average and .910 save percentage. He has also lit a fire under Talbot, the incumbent who is 8-0-3 with a 2.25 GAA and .925 save percentage since the deadline.

Blues: It appears that Ville Husso has stolen the No. 1 job from incumbent Jordan Binnington, one of the heroes of the run to the 2019 Stanley Cup title. Husso earned the lion’s share of the work down the stretch of the regular season and has been the better goalie, going 25-7-6 with a 2.56 GAA and .919 save percentage. Binnington went 18-14-4 with a 3.13 GAA and .901 save percentage. He is 9-8-1 with a 3.45 GAA and .891 save percentage since Jan. 1.

Numbers to know

Wild: The penalty kill has struggled for much of the season and finished at 76.1 percent, 25th in the NHL and worst among the 16 playoff qualifiers. That could be more glaring because the Blues power play was 27.0 percent, second behind the Toronto Maple Leafs (27.3). It’s also concerning that Minnesota was the third-most penalized team (354 taken) during the regular season.

Blues: St. Louis mastered the comeback this season, taking points from 12 of 22 games (8-10-4) when they trailed after the first period. Their .364 percentage points in those situations was fourth in the NHL. Conversely, they are 37-3-3 when leading after two periods.

X-factors

Wild: Matt Boldy. The rookie did not report to the Wild until a callup from Iowa of the American Hockey League on Jan. 6. He has been virtually unstoppable as a second-line wing, scoring 39 points (15 goals, 24 assists) in 47 games. Maple Leafs forward Michael Bunting, a candidate for the Calder Trophy given to the NHL rookie of the year, is the only rookie with more points (44) in that span. Boldy gives the Minnesota offense length it did not have before he arrived.

Blues: Nick Leddy. On a team full of offensive luminaries, it a defenseman, that could be the difference-maker. Leddy was acquired before the deadline for depth purposes but played 21:03 per game in a top-four role. He can provide a bit of offense, especially as part of the rotation on the power play and has been solid in all facets of the game.

Video: MIN @ MTL: Boldy banks one in between his own legs

They said it

“This is the best room I’ve been a part of. And I think we do not have the record we do if we do not jell that way. We have a lot of talent in that room, but it’s all about coming together. And I think it’s noticeable, more noticeable when you see trade deadline guys come in and fit right in. That’s just nice to see. We’re proud of that. We’re proud that we can have that identity as a team that can bring in guys and guys want to be here and feel special when they’re here. I think in order to win a Stanley Cup you have to be a close room and I think we have that for us heading into the playoffs, for sure . ” – Wild forward Marcus Foligno

“I think we know we have enough firepower to know when to get [a goal] when it is necessary. We should be comfortable in tight games and that’s what playoffs is going to be. We’re excited for that. ” – Blues forward David Perron

Will win if …

Wild: They stay out of the penalty box. Minnesota does not have the players on either side of the equation to win a series dominated by special teams. No team in the playoff field allowed as many 5-on-4 goals as the 60 given up by the Wild. The Blues led the NHL in 5-on-4 goals with 63.

Blues: They find adequate goaltending. The offense is all-world, and the defense is above average, so it will be goaltending that proves to be the difference-maker. Binnington is the incumbent and has experience making a long playoff run but was inconsistent. Husso has been more consistent but has never appeared in an NHL postseason game.

How they look

Projected Wild lineup

Kirill Kaprizov – Ryan Hartman – Mats Zuccarello

Kevin FialaFrederick Gaudreau – Matt Boldy

Jordan GreenwayJoel Eriksson Ek – Marcus Foligno

Nicolas Deslauriers – Tyson Jost – Brandon Duhaime

Jacob MiddletonJared Spurgeon

Jonas BrodinMatt Dumba

Jon MerrillDmitry Kulikov

Marc-Andre Fleury

Cam Talbot

Scratched: Connor Dewar, Alex Goligoski, Jordie Benn

Injured: None

Projected Blues lineup

Brandon Saad – Ryan O’Reilly – David Perron

Pavel Buchnevich – Robert Thomas – Vladimir Tarasenko

Ivan BarbashevBrayden SchennJordan Kyrou

Nathan WalkerTyler BozakLogan Brown

Marco ScandellaColton Parayko

Nick Leddy – Justin Faulk

Torey KrugRobert Bortuzzo

Ville Husso

Jordan Binnington

Scratched: Niko Mikkola, Calle Rosen, Alexei Toropchenko

Injured: Mackenzie MacEachern (upper body), Scott Perunovich (wrist)

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