NHL Western Conference playoffs: Minnesota Wild vs St. Louis Blues series preview and predictions
With the NHL playoffs starting on Monday, teams are gearing up and making any last-minute adjustments in order to make a deep playoff run and win the Stanley Cup. Our focus turns to the other #2/#3 matchup in the West, coming out of the Central Division, it is the Minnesota Wild and the St. Louis Blues.
The last few weeks of the season, these two teams were pretty much locked into playing each other in the 1st round, we just didn’t know who the home-ice advantage would go to, eventually going to the Wild. With many similarities between the two teams, let’s break down the teams and look at the best bet for the series.
Breaking down the Minnesota Wild
The Wild utilized a hot run to end the season to get the #2 seed in the Central Division, winning 19 of their last 25 games. Offensively, the Wild were easily one of the best teams in the NHL. Led by young offensive phenom Kirill Kaprizov, who led the Wild in points with 108 and goals, with 47, the Wild scored 3 or more goals in a game in 23 of their last 25 games. On the season, the Wild converted on any scoring opportunity that came its way as they ranked 17th in expected goals, but finished 5th in goals.
When it comes to a starting goalie, the Wild have a decision to make. They traded for 2-time Stanley Cup and Vezina Trophy winner, Marc-Andre Fleury, at the trade deadline. Fleury, who is 37 and been in the league for 18 seasons, struggled with his previous team, the Blackhawks, but showed flashes of his former self while with the Wild. It looks as though the projected starting goalie will be Cam Talbot. Talbot had a decent season with 32 wins and a .911 save percentage. However, looking at his advanced stats, Talbot ranked 115th in goals saved above average. Talbot was part of the reason that even though Minnesota did a great job keeping pressure away from its net, ranking 2nd in expected goals against, it finished the season 16th in goals against.
For the Wild to beat the Blues, they will have to keep the offense hot and look for more scoring outside of Kaprizov. They will also need their goaltending to step up in a big way and make a few big saves, and even steal a game in case the offense stalls out.
Breaking down the St. Louis Blues
The Blues were just as hot, keeping pace with the Wild game-over-game in the battle for the #2 seed in the Central Division. They won 12 of their last 15 games but did flame out at the end, losing their last 2 games of the season, which sealed their fate at getting the #3 seed. Offensively, the Blues are almost a carbon copy of the Wild in terms of being opportunistic with their scoring chances, only slightly better. STL finished the season ranked 15th in expected goals, only applying average pressure on the attack, but finished the season ranked 3rd in goals. The Blues also took a more balanced approach to their goal scoring and didn’t rely just on one person. They had 9 players score 20 goals on the seasons, with their top-10 players in points having 45 or more.
Once again, much like the Wild, the Blues have a decision to make on who starts in net. Jordan Binnington, who was amazing in their Cup run in 2019 and who signed a 6 year/$36 million extension last year, played poorly all season. In 37 games he won 18 of them and had a .901 save percentage with a 3.13 goals against average. The advanced stats weren’t any better as Binnington ranked 100th in goals saved above expected. Ville Husso, who started the year as a backup, was much better. He had a .919 save percentage, 2.56 goals-against average and ranked 7th in goals saved above expected. Husso will more than likely get the start in the series, and he will need to be in top form as the Blues don’t help out their goalie on the back end. St. Louis ranks 24th in expected goals, allowing way too much pressure in front of their goalie, but finished 11th in goals against on the season — in part because of Husso.
In order for the Blues to advance, they will have to put aside the contractual obligations of Binnington and go with the better goalie in Husso. If Husso can play like he did all year, with the balanced attack the Blues have, they should find success.
Minnesota Wild vs St. Louis Blues predictions: Blues 4-3
The Wild and Blues only squared off 3 times last season, with the Blues winning all 3. The last 2 games were close, though, as they both went to OT. Even though the Wild have home ice, the Blues have a more balanced attack, the better goalie, and the better price, so I’m taking the Blues +115 to win the series.
If the Blues defense can step up and stop Kaprizov, which is easier said than done, I find it hard to see where the offense will come from for the Wild. St. Louis will go right at its opponent in waves and really test Minnesota’s goaltending. With both teams being so similar and so closely ranked, I think this series does go the distance of 7 games — with the Blues coming out on top.