The Minnesota Wild knew that after they embarrassed the St. Louis Blues on home ice, St. Louis was going to return in Game 4 with a lot of desperation. In Game 3, the Wild seemed to have made the right adjustments by playing smart and aggressive on the forecheck to stifle the Blues’ high-powered offense. But you can’t bottle up that offense forever, and everyone knew Marc-Andre Fleury would need to weather the storm coming his way. Not to mention, the crowd was likely to stick around for more than 39 seconds this time around.
All of this made Minnesota’s patient game plan understandable. Stay in position and inside yourself. Don’t extend if you don’t have to. And ultimately throw the counterpunch once the opening shows itself.
Except the counterpunch was more of a light jab than a haymaker. When all was said and done, Minnesota’s patience cost them a commanding lead in the series with a chance to clinch at home in a decisive Game 5. Instead, they waited too long to mount any semblance of the forecheck that the Wild had been known for throughout the regular season and the last two games.
Minnesota had three measly shots on goal through 14 minutes of the game. Each was from around 30 feet from the net and wasn’t a challenge for Jordan Binnington. The only established forecheck the Wild mustered ended with Kirill Kaprizov‘s fifth goal of the series. But the longer the Wild allowed the Blues to play their game, the worse it would get for Minnesota.
St. Louis called upon Binnington for Game 4 after riding Ville Husso the first three games. The banged-up Blues defense corps had two guys making their playoff debuts on defense. Add in Marco Scandella’s departure during the first period, and Minnesota needed to bend the St. Louis’ blueline to see if they’d break. But the Wild played back and played timid. Rather than grind the inexperienced defenseman into submission or pepper a goalie that struggled all season, the Wild kindly let them settle into the game without any consequences.
And they let the Blues off the hook.
In the play above, Frederick Gaudreau was trying to play the puck but lost position on Brandon Saad. After so much stick fighting, separating Saad from the puck, or at least forcing it to the boards, was a better play than allowing him to pass across to the weak side of the ice. This wasn’t one isolated play, either.
The Jordan Greenway–Joel Eriksson Ek–Marcus Foligno line dominated the series until now, but it didn’t register a single shot on goal. They also surrendered a goal at 5-on-5. Their game is all about applying a heavy forecheck, and it usually ends up with open ice and multiple scoring chances. The line that so often sets the tone disappeared, ironically, setting a tone of giving up too much ice without applying pressure.
When Minnesota is on its game, they force turnovers all over the ice and immediately get the puck into the offensive zone. In Game 4, the Wild were less inclined to use the body to create these turnovers, something that’s been a staple in this series.
“It’s the Minnesota Wild that didn’t get to our game quick enough,” Evason added. “The third period we did. We had a lot of sustained time in the third period, and lot’s of good looks and chances, but it was a little bit too late. We need to get to it from the drop of the puck.”
The Wild gave themselves the ability to play with less urgency than the Blues after winning Game 3. They came to St. Louis and took back home ice. But Minnesota needed a killer instinct in this game. It was an opportunity wasted. The Blues were ripe for the picking but now are headed back to Minnesota feeling good about their game. The Wild handed it to them. Many people expected this series to go the distance, which may be the case after surrendering Game 4. But it didn’t have to be a long series, and the chance to end it Tuesday on home ice is gone.
Wild better hope it can flip the attack switch back on.