The dust has finally cleared on the Minnesota Wild’s 2021-22 regular season. After recording 53 wins – a franchise record – and finishing the final month of the season on a 12-2-2 run, what is the reward for the best roster the Wild organization has ever fielded? A first-round clash with a team they haven’t beaten in regulation since March 15. 2021.
Simply stating that the St. Louis Blues have had the Minnesota Wild’s number over the past two seasons isn’t enough. It’s been a slaughter. In the previous 11 contests between the two teams, the Wild have gone 2-5-4. While this season hasn’t been as rough, with the Wild taking the Blues to overtime twice, they’ve still managed to drop all three games.
What’s the root cause of their worst against the Blues? There are probably too many to name, but there is one glaring issue. St. Louis has averaged 4.64 goals per game across the previous two seasons against the Wild. In 2021-22 alone, the Blues managed to bag 16 goals in their three games versus Minnesota.
For anyone that has paid attention to the Blues this season, this offensive output against any opponent shouldn’t come as a surprise. Their 3.79 goals per game currently ranks fourth in the NHL, just behind offensive juggernauts like the Florida Panthers, Toronto Maple Leafs, and Colorado Avalanche. They have nine forwards with at least 20 goals on the season, a record in the salary cap era. They also enter the playoffs as one of the hottest teams in the league, with a record of 12-2-2 in April.
It’s abundantly clear that if Minnesota wants a chance to move out of the first round of the playoffs for the first time since defeating the Blues in 2015, they’ll need to slow down St. Louis’ high-powered offense.
The goaltending tandem of Cam Talbot and Marc-Andre Fleury will shoulder most of that burden, as well as a (hopefully) healthy blue line corps. But the Wild have another way to combat the Blues’ offensive efficiency: the GREEF line.
If they’re healthy, that is.
Marcus Foligno took a knee-on-knee hit Friday night, which left him on the ice for quite some time. He was helped off the ice, and his status for Game 1 is in doubt.
But when healthy and together, there is no line in hockey that has been better at keeping the puck out of their own net than the trio of Jordan Greenway, Joel Eriksson Ek, and Foligno. The GREEF line has given up an average of 0.71 goals per 60 minutes in nearly 429 minutes of ice time at 5-on-5 together. That sits at the top spot in the NHL for lines with a minimum of 200 minutes together. In comparison, the Gaudreau-Boldy-Fiala trio allows 2.38 goals per 60 minutes at 5-v-5 (36th), and Kaprizov-Zuccarello-Harman are sitting at 2.4 (37th).
One way to explain that kind of gaudy number is by saying that they’ve been pretty lucky. Their netminders have blessed them with a .969 save percentage at 5-v-5, which happens to be best in the NHL for linemates with at least 200 minutes. But the GREEF line helps their goalies just as much as they help them. They allow just 23.7 shots per 60 minutes at 5-on-5, good for fourth in the NHL. They’ve also given up just 39 high-danger scoring opportunities to their opponents throughout the year, or one every 11 minutes.
Coach Dean Evason spoke after the game about how important it is to have all three hulking, mobile forwards available to play together. When asked if he had a natural replacement, he replied, “There’s not. For whatever reason, those three, when they’re together, there’s a chemistry about them that’s different than a lot of lines that I’ve ever seen.”
That’s why it’s so crucial that Foligno can play and play well. When together, they are the definition of a shutdown forward line. They’ll have to do just that to hold firm against this explosive Blues team. The question is, though, who do you ask them to shut down?
The obvious choice would be the Pavel Buchnevich–Vladimir Tarasenko–Robert Thomas line. They are scoring 5.45 goals per 60 minutes in their nearly 360 minutes of ice time together at 5-on-5, and all three skaters are averaging at least a point per game. The trio is also hitting their stride towards the end of the season. They have the creativity and patience to pick apart an opponent in the offensive zone and the speed and skill to get out on the break and hurt you on the rush. When given a favorable matchup, they can single-handedly turn around a game.
They aren’t the only line that should worry the Wild. The Brayden Schenn–Ivan Barbashev–Jordan Kyrou line also boasts three 20-goal scorers of their own and averages a respectable 3.84 goals per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 across the season. While they aren’t nearly as potent as the top line, they offer the Blues another trio who can get hot and swing the tide of any given contest.
Of course, the Minnesota Wild can counter firepower with some of their own. Whether it be the Kirill Kaprizov line or Kevin Fiala’s, either trio can go toe-to-toe in the offensive zone with the best in the NHL.
But fighting fire with fire shouldn’t, and probably won’t, be Minnesota’s first option. Instead, they’ll need the GREEF line to swing the tide towards defense, and it will be one of the key factors in such an even matchup. If they can stay healthy enough to carry over their dominant performance from the regular season into the postseason, it would give the Wild one less thing to worry about in the series.
Shutting down even one of the Blues lines could very well be the difference between a first-round exit and a decisive win.