ST. LOUIS – The Blues have pestered the Wild for months, from spoiling the Winter Classic at Target Field on New Year’s Day to interrupting the franchise-record pace with two rare late-season blemishes.
Their final dig this spring came on Thursday, a 5-1 blowout at Enterprise Center in Game 6 that eliminated the Wild from the best-of-seven series 4-2.
“Obviously really disappointed,” Mats Zuccarello said. “I think we all had belief that we were going to come back to Minnesota for a Game 7.”
This is the third consecutive year the Wild hasn’t advanced past its first matchup; the team hasn’t been to the second round since 2015, getting bounced early the six times it’s made the postseason over the past seven years.
“Had a lot of positivity around this team this year and thought we could do something special,” Marcus Foligno said. “When you do not get the job done, especially in crunch time and time where you need to do it and follow through, it’s disappointing for sure.”
St. Louis goalie Jordan Binnington was almost perfect, picking up 25 saves to stop 83 of 88 shots while backstopping the Blues to three straight victories. Next up for the Blues is another Central Division showdown, this time with the Avalanche.
After those Game 4 and 5 losses, the Wild tried to adjust.
Cam Talbot replaced Marc-Andre Fleury in net, finishing with 22 saves in his first start of the series, and the Wild added fresh legs in Dmitry Kulikov and Connor Dewar for the injured Nic Deslauriers to its lineup. But the team was still off.
“I was doing everything I could to stay ready,” Talbot said. “You do not want to come into an elimination game, but you want the opportunity to play during the playoffs and they gave me the opportunity and it just was not good enough.”
The Wild’s struggles made for a jarring comparison to the Blues’ poise with many of the players from their 2019 Stanley Cup run in action.
Take the first goal at 14 minutes, 59 seconds of the first period, which saw Nick Leddy skate into Wild territory untouched and hurl in a shot from outside the left faceoff circle with all five Wild players on the ice around him.
“It has to be a save from that far out,” Talbot said.
Wild coach Dean Evason mentioned that Talbot was screened on the goal and that the puck should not even have reached the net.
“I’m sure it looks like it’s a terrible goal,” Evason said. “But you have 1-on-5. He should not have an opportunity to shoot.”
St. Louis, however, was not the only issue the Wild had this season.
Special teams were also a problem, and they remained a glaring mismatch against the Blues.
The power play had a chance to score the equalizer early in the second, but St. Louis outshot the Wild 3-0 and Foligno skated out of a shooting lane to deliver a drop pass out of the zone.
Then at 9:26 during a Blues power play, Ryan O’Reilly was left alone in front for a one-timer. Tyler Bozak polished off a rebound 3:59 later before St. Louis capitalized again on the power play, this time a rising shot from Vladimir Tarasenko at 18:36. David Perron’s assist was his second of the game.
The Blues went 2-for-6 and 8-for-26 in the series; the Wild was 0-for-5 and 4-for-24 overall.
“Special teams were not special for us,” Foligno said, “and were special for them.”
What did not help the Wild was that it spent most of that period without a go-to contributor for both units in Joel Eriksson Ek.
He left late in the first period after taking a high stick from Kulikov and did not return until late in the second with a shield on his helmet.
“You’re looking for your best centerman to shut it down, and he’s not there,” Foligno said. “It’s frustrating. Obviously, it was a pretty brutal injury. I think he had a lot of stuff going on in his mouth. Just unfortunate he wasn’t able to get out there faster.”
Comebacks were key to the Wild’s success, especially when staring down a multi-goal hole, but the rally sputtered.
So did the offense that scored more than any other season in Wild history, with Matt Dumba’s booming shot 6:25 into the third the returning lone tally before Colton Parayko sent the puck into an empty net with 1:41 remaining for his second point of the night. Thirty-goal scorers Kevin Fiala and Ryan Hartman had zero in the playoffs; same with Foligno.
That, however, was not all that exacerbated this letdown.
With a glut of goals, bonafide superstar in Kirill Kaprizov and superb home record, the Wild looked like it could be a handful in the playoffs – and the team reinforced that reputation, becoming a buyer at the trade deadline to gear up for the trek ahead .
But this maneuvering and the team that thrived most of the season was still no match for a pesky opponent in the Blues, who have now won 17 of the last 22 meetings between these two rivals.
“It’s two good teams battling,” Zuccarello said, “and they put the puck in the net and we did not.”