It’s tough not to draw on the past when the St. Louis Blues and Minnesota Wild meet in the playoffs. After all, this is the third series between these two teams. If Game 1 had the feel of Game 1 in 2017, with a hot goalie shutting down the Wild on home ice, it’s because the similarities were striking. For Game 3, the Wild drew on another past performance against the Blues to steal back home ice and a 2-1 series lead.
Minnesota used their skill, skating, and a heavy dose of discipline to swing the momentum back their way. Where St. Louis focused on running around on the ice, going out of their way to finish checks, the Wild just kept skating. When Brayden Schenn launched himself into Jake Middleton deep in the Wild zone, he kept his cool (with the aid of Marc-Andre Fleury) not to retaliate and made sure Minnesota got the power play.
“If you don’t retaliate, it’s a frustrating thing,” Dean Evason said postgame. “You want the guy to come back at you and yap and throw a punch, and when he doesn’t, it’s like, ‘Well, what the heck am I supposed to do now?’” This type of turn-the-other-cheek mentality is not unlike the Wild’s strategy against the Blues in 2015. Former head coach Mike Yeo wanted his team to stop with the extra penalties and not engage with the Blues after the whistle.
This year’s Wild knows that they can’t allow St. Louis to draw them into a march to the penalty box. The Blues have scored a power-play goal in each game of this series. However, by staying away from the extracurriculars and playing only between the whistles, they’re not giving up any more unnecessary man-advantages to a power play that doesn’t need help. “Our group has done a great job of [staying disciplined], but it has to continue,” Evason added. “Their power play is too dangerous, obviously, and we need to stay away from it.”
Minnesota is using St. Louis’ aggression to their advantage. This iteration of the Blues is not the same beefy team that the Wild saw in 2015. There’s size, to be sure, but as the Blues tried to finish checks and force the play on the body, it pulled them out of position. The Wild didn’t waste time finding that open ice. Jordan Greenway scored 39 seconds into the game on a 2-on-1 break. Shortly after, Kirill Kaprizov had a breakaway chance and capped it off on the rebound. Mats Zuccarello got sprung on an odd-man rush in the second period and finished with a wrister over the blocker. Minnesota kept on skating and got clean looks at the net because of it.
But it wasn’t just rush chances the Wild got because of their skating. Joel Eriksson Ek’s ability to get loose in the slot put the Wild up 4-0 and sealed the fate of the Blues early in the 3rd period. It was a clear example of the Wild finding more space in the offensive zone by keeping their feet moving and funneling to the net.
“It’s about taking a hit to make a play,” Eriksson Ek said. “We know that if they try to run around and hit us that we can make plays and hopefully get chances from them.” Taking a hit to make a play allowed the Wild to have 13 takeaways to 5 giveaways. It allowed the Wild to get to rebounds – seven registered rebound chances after just two in Game 1. And it let Minnesota to mount their highest expected goals mark for the series with a 4.28 mark.
If the Wild can maintain this discipline and utilize their skating, this series might end like the 2015 series — in six games with the Wild victorious. It remains to be seen how the Blues will adjust for Game 4, but they now know that the Wild can take on whatever abuse they try to inflict and play even better than before.