The Minnesota Wild tangled with the St. Louis Blues in the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs and won the series 4-2. The State of Hockey will make its fifth consecutive post-season run, but this is the first under head coach Bruce Boudreau. The Wild changed coaches last May, while their opponents are also operating under a new bench boss in Mike Yeo. The Blues fired Ken Hitchcock after a rough start.
Minnesota finished the regular season with a 49-25-8 record, good for second in the Central Division. Many thought they’d win the division, but a late slip in fortunes caused some trouble. The Blues overcame a 24-21-5 start to finish with a 46-29-7 record, which put them at third place in the Central Division.
So yes, coaching is part of the story. A big part.
The Blues were 22-8-2 under Yeo and they collected 46 points in that span, tying the Washington Capitals in points since February 1. They outscored the opposition 93-60, allowing the fewest goals in the NHL, and boasted a plus-33 differential. All the while, they improved on their brand of containment hockey and kept shot totals low.
For all the stifling the Blues defence is capable of, the Wild don’t need a lot of shots to score goals. They’ve got a shooting percentage of 10.4, second only to Washington’s 10.5, and they still managed to score 263 goals during the regular season.
Mikael Granlund leads the way in scoring for the Wild, with 69 points in 81 games. He has a 14.7 shooting percentage and 29 playoff games under his belt, with 16 points in the post-season. The Finnish winger has terrific vision and is capable of breaking free for a highlight reel goal or two, but size is a factor.
Veteran Eric Staal has enjoyed a resurgence in Minnesota. He had 65 points in 82 games this season, including 28 goals. He’s still a complete-game player and he can break a game wide open with a well-timed shot. He’s also tough to contain, with a big reach. Staal is less than stellar in the faceoff circle, though.
Mikko Koivu continues to put points on the board. He had 58 points this season, including 40 assists, and he’s the epitome of Minnesota’s two-way game. Martin Hanzal is also a factor down the middle, with 39 points in the regular season and a solid defensive sense.
The Blues have played a stifling brand of hockey, but they’re still capable of scoring explosive goals. Any team with Vladimir Tarasenko on the roster will do that. He’s a threat to score in all situations and managed 75 points in 82 games, including 39 goals. Tarasenko is as good a one-on-one player as any skater in the league.
Winger Jaden Schwartz had 55 points in 78 games, including 19 goals. Like Tarasenko, he had some serious ice time. The Saskatchewan native is quick and skilled, plus he’s versatile and aggressive. He’ll play a role in team scoring, especially if he’s freed up to take a few shots.
Alexander Steen is a veteran presence for the Blues. He had 51 points in 76 games this season and is capable of fighting for space. He skates well but plays a more defensive brand of hockey and may not come up with the goals. Centre Jori Lehtera is worth considering. He had 22 points in the regular season and could emerge as a reliable playmaker.
The Minnesota Wild know their biggest job is shutting Tarasenko down. Ryan Suter will draw the top assignment and that could spell trouble for St. Louis. The blueliner averaged 26:55 of ice time a game, with only LA’s Drew Doughty logging more minutes in the regular season. Suter also led the NHL in plus/minus.
Regina’s Matt Dumba will see substantial ice time against the Blues’ top guns. He had 34 points in 76 games and likes to rush up ice, but his ace in the hole is an ability to nail opponents in the open. Dumba also has a good point shot he’ll uncork from time to time, but control is an issue.
Swedish defenceman Jonas Brodin had 25 points this season and averaged 19:34 of ice time a game. He’s viable in all situations and can move the puck out of trouble. Marco Scandella is another factor, with 13 points in the regular season and a big frame for the game.
It’s business as usual in St. Louis, at least defensively. Alex Pietrangelo is still the man, with 48 points in 80 games this season. He averages over 25 minutes of ice time a game and plays an all-round style. The King City native has a big, booming point shot and can create plays.
Jay Bouwmeester also puts up big minutes. He averaged 22:24 in the regular season and had 15 points. He skates well, rushes well. He uses his size in a shutdown capacity and is sturdy enough to wear down opponents. Bouwmeester isn’t the most physical player, but his brand of suppression hockey is still effective.
Colton Parayko averaged 21:11 of ice time a game and is another Blues defenceman with a lethal point shot. He’s mobile and had 35 points in 81 games, including four goals. Joel Edmundson is a giant on the blueline at 6’4, 207 pounds. He gives St. Louis a big presence, but penalties can be an issue.
Minnesota’s Devan Dubnyk finished the regular season with a 40-19-5 record, with a .923 save percentage and a 2.25 goals against average to boot. That’s better than his all-time average by a considerable margin. Unfortunately, Dubnyk tumbled from a .947 save percentage in December to a .905 save percentage since then.
Darcy Kuemper is the backup. He went 8-5-3, with a .902 save percentage and a 3.13 goals against average. He’ll do in a pinch, but Minnesota must be hoping Dubnyk holds up. The Saskatoon native can handle the puck and has a slick glove, but Kuemper’s not the sort to challenge shooters.
Jake Allen has benefitted from the arrival of Yeo as head coach. He posted a .938 save percentage under the new boss, the best in the league among goalies to play at least 10 games. He went 33-20-5, with a 2.42 save percentage and a .915 save percentage overall. He also had four shutouts.
Thunder Bay’s Carter Hutton went 13-8-2, with a .913 save percentage and a 2.39 goals against average. He also had four shutouts. Hutton is a lifetime backup goalie, however, and he doesn’t thrive under lots of ice time.
Who Will Win
Shots will be low in this series between the Blues and Wild, but that’s not to say there won’t be any excitement in the air. Minnesota and St. Louis will tangle in the little moments, with lots of tight checking and grinding highlighting the series. Games will be close.
So, who does that favour? Good question. The Blues and Wild are even in a lot of respects, with Minnesota just barely nudging St. Louis in net. Barely. This could go the distance.
My call: Minnesota in seven.