Under the NHL’s current playoff format, there have been many instances of unfair first-round matchups that feature two top teams that don’t deserve an early exit. This series between the sixth-ranked Wild and eighth-ranked Blues certainly qualifies.
It’s unjust for either side, but it should make for an incredibly entertaining series for the fans — one that’s sure to be fiercely fought and tightly contested.
That’s how it would seem based on each team’s record, at least, but it’s infamously not what our projection model has seen when it comes to the Wild and Blues. For the past two seasons, the model has been very fond of the Wild and relatively unkind to the Blues. That leads to a series probability that doesn’t add up.
Should the Wild be favored? Yes. To this degree? Absolutely not.
The Wild enter the series as heavy favorites, according to the model, expected to win the series 75 percent of the time. That’s a bold take for a team that’s 2-5-4 against the Blues over the past two seasons, and it’s worth noting that the model does not consider head-to-head matchups when estimating series probability. In most cases, it’s just noise. In this case? There may be something to the Blues having the Wild’s number.
The other caveat to the odds is the difficulty that comes with modeling both of these teams, specifically using public expected goals.
For the Wild, it’s a matter of rink bias making them look worse offensively and better defensively than they actually are. Minnesota is still an elite defensive team, just maybe not at this level. For the Blues, it’s their passing ability that creates better offensive chances than is shown in public expected goals. According to SportLogiq, their expected goals percentage at five-on-five is two percentage points higher than the public models suggest (48.6 percent, per Evolving-Hockey).
That would put the Blues close to 51 percent, and when the finishing and goaltending talent are factored in, that’s more than enough to contend. A six-percentage-point gap between expected and actual goals (54.2 percent) is a major red flag, especially when the expected number is below 50 percent. Teams with that profile don’t usually go far. But if the real gap is closer to four percentage points and the Blues are in fact above 50 percent expected, that’s a lot easier to stomach.
The problem is that the Wild have that, too, especially with the addition of Marc-Andre Fleury at the trade deadline. At five-on-five, where most of this series will be decided, Minnesota is still a far stronger team (and not small enough for the Blues’ heaviness to be a huge factor). Though the Wild likely don’t deserve a 75-25 edge, they do deserve a decent-sized one — even if the season series hasn’t exactly gone their way over the past two seasons.
The Blues prioritize quality over quantity shooting, with little coming from the outside or the point. St. Louis is one of the NHL’s better teams at converting its quality chances into actual goals, both at even strength and on the power play.
But the Blues won’t be the only team scoring at a high rate in this series. The Wild are right there near the top of the league. They fare slightly better in their shot generation but don’t see the same quality shot creation despite converting at a high clip.
That said, they might be fine against the Blues. St. Louis ranks in the bottom half of the league in shots and quality chances against, leaving more room for Minnesota to exploit.
On the other hand, St. Louis is trending up in its expected goal generation, which bodes well ahead of the tough task of cutting through Minnesota’s strong defense. The Wild are one of the better teams at defending the blue line and keeping their opponents to the outside. Move past their defense, and there’s still strong goaltending to get by. Over the past month, the Wild had the best team save percentage in the league at five-on-five.
The special teams battle is where things get interesting, with that advantage fully going to the Blues. While their offensive generation isn’t as overwhelming on the advantage, their finishing is, thanks to elite puck movement. That’s going up against a Minnesota penalty kill that has been pretty lackluster all season and downright awful this past month. Flip to the other side of the matchup, and there’s a Wild power play that just isn’t a consistent threat against a strong short-handed team.
Is that advantage enough? The majority of the game is played at five-on-five, and the Blues have been suspect defensively all season. That and their inability to consistently create chances might bite them against a team that rates as highly defensively as the Wild.
The Wild hold two major roster advantages in this series: star power and defensive depth. The Blues can go toe-to-toe with the Wild in net and are one of the few teams that can match Minnesota’s forward depth, but those two factors may prove difficult to overcome.
Kirill Kaprizov is the best player in this series, and it’s not close. The league got a small taste of what the electrifying winger was capable of last season and he only ascended further this season. In 81 games, Kaprizov scored 47 goals and 108 points, currently ranking in the top five in the league in both categories (Kyle Connor could still pass him in goals, with 46 and a game Sunday). He’s a game-breaker in every sense of the word, incredible at moving the puck up the ice and extremely dangerous off the rush. He single-handedly transformed the Wild into one of the most exciting teams in hockey. This season, he was worth 4.6 wins according to GSVA, good for top 10 league-wide.
That’s a big deal for the Wild because contending teams are generally built around a skater of that caliber. Kaprizov has turned Minnesota into a team capable of winning it all, and if he can maintain most of his high-level production in the playoffs, he’s going to be a problem. The chemistry he’s built with Mats Zuccarello (assuming Zuccarello returns from an injury that cost him the last four games of the regular season) is going to be a big issue for the Blues because the small-statured winger put up a career year of his own next to Kaprizov. Zuccarello shattered his career high in points with 79 despite playing in only 70 games — a 93-point pace. Of his 79 points, 55 were assists, which helped establish Kaprizov as an elite goal scorer. It’s a dynamic duo the Blues can’t match.
Beyond that, the Wild also have Kevin Fiala patrolling the middle six, where he’s done immense damage down the stretch. Fiala started the season slowly but tore it up in the second half, as he tends to do. That coincided with the lineup addition of Matt Boldy, a talented 21-year-old rookie with whom Fiala found chemistry, giving the Wild two strong duos. Fiala is playing above a point-per-game pace for the season, but that looks even better since Boldy entered the fold — 64 points in the past 51 games, good for 10th in the league and only five back of Kaprizov over the same stretch. He’s not on Kaprizov’s level, but he’s a game-breaker in his own right who is also extremely gifted with the puck on his stick. He’s a strong play-driver too. That gives the Wild a player on two different lines who is better than anyone the Blues have to offer.
The Blues do not have a Kaprizov or a Fiala and that’s a big reason the odds here are so lopsided in Minnesota’s favor. Add Zuccarello to the mix and the Wild have three players with a 2.9 or better GSVA in the top six. Can the Blues match that?
The Blues’ first line has less star power but stacks up with some of the best offensively. Pavel Buchnevich was an excellent offseason addition coming off a career year with the Rangers. He’s evolved into a strong two-way presence who can be deployed in all situations. He’s a smart playmaker, and by increasing his shooting this season, he’s become a more consistent goal scorer, as well.
It helps that Buchnevich is playing alongside one of the best passers in the league. Robert Thomas’ breakout season has been incredibly smooth and valuable to the Blues. Few players move the puck as well as the center, who has run with an expanded top-six role. Between his ability to break into the offensive zone with possession and his ability to thread passes to quality areas of the ice at one of the highest rates in the league, he’s had a direct impact on making St. Louis a more dynamic offensive threat. But like Buchnevich, this isn’t a one-dimensional player, either. He can beat teams with his shot, and having two dual threats makes this line all the more challenging to stop.
Rounding out that trio is Vladimir Tarasenko, who had a 34-goal bounce-back season after scoring seven over the previous two. There was uncertainty on where he’d start the season and how he’d perform after shoulder injuries weighed on his game in recent years, but he’s been one of the best players at driving to the slot at even strength, returning as a dangerous power forward to watch. Skating alongside skillful passers has surely helped him rediscover that scoring touch.
Something to watch out for is just how much the Blues have been outpacing expectations with their scoring. Finishing talent and elite playmaking can only explain so much, and if their offense dries up, they could find themselves in trouble.
The Blues, again, are at a disadvantage on the backend too. The Wild’s Jared Spurgeon is a true No. 1 defender. He’s one of the best in the league at moving the puck up ice and defending entries, which contributes to the Wild always being on the right side of the puck when he’s on the ice. He’s the best defenceman on either side of the ledger here.
The one concern with Spurgeon in this series, though, will be his size. He’s struggled to drive play as effectively in previous playoffs, and that might be something a heavy team like the Blues can exploit.
The Wild do have a safety valve in Jonas Brodin, arguably one of the best pure shutdown defenders in the league. Only five defensemen in the league have a stronger projected defensive impact than Brodin: Charlie McAvoy, Matt Grzelcyk, Devon Toews, Chris Tanev and Miro Heiskanen. Brodin is able to thwart tough competition on a nightly basis, and it’s that ability that makes him one of the league’s 30 best defenders. He’s a No. 1 defender, giving Minnesota two top-tier options.
The Blues don’t even have one. The question here is whether both Justin Faulk and Colton Parayko can rise to the occasion.
Parayko can be counted on to use his heavy shot from the point and make a positive impact in his own end. He’s done well to protect the middle of the ice this season, keeping opponents to the outside when they manage to enter with possession. The problem is his partner: Marco Scandella, assuming he’s back in the lineup after a late-season injury, tends to concede quality chances against when he’s targeted on entries.
The Blues just haven’t found a match for their No. 1, which seems to have a negative influence on his on-ice results. It’s even more troubling when he’s tasked with playing top competition. In their 560-plus five-on-five minutes together this season, Scandella and Parayko broke even in actual goals share but were heavily outchanced. That’s the pair that is likely going to see a lot of Kaprizov in this matchup. So far in their season series, Paryako’s been out-shot and outscored by the Wild with the electric winger on the ice, and there’s a legitimate chance that’s a deciding factor over the next couple of weeks.
The Blues have a one-two punch on defense with Faulk playing on the second pairing, but it’s still not at the level of the ideal contender. At a projected value of 1.7 wins, Faulk’s fine for a second-pair defender. His ability to skate the puck up the ice and contribute offensively should complement their forward group, but his play in his own zone still leaves a lot to be desired.
There are even bigger problems beyond Parayko and Faulk, as the next four Blues defenders are also decisively not as good as Minnesota’s. Matt Dumba, Alex Goligoski, Dmitry Kulikov and newcomer Jacob Middleton are a much stronger group than Torey Krug, Nick Leddy, Scandella and Robert Bortuzzo. Minnesota’s options can all collectively defend better (Krug and Leddy are especially porous) and have offensive, puck-moving upside in Dumba and Goligoski. From top to bottom, the Wild have three very strong pairs, with players who can dictate the run of play, while players like Scandella and Bortuzzo are arguably detrimental to the Blues’ bottom line.
The star-power gap and the defensive depth gap are massive. If the Blues can mitigate those two factors — as they have during the season series over the past two seasons — then this matchup will be extremely close.
And it will feature some interesting battles elsewhere in the lineup.
There’ll be the battle of the two shutdown lines, headlined by Selke-calibre centers Joel Eriksson Ek and Ryan O’Reilly.
Jordan Greenway and Marcus Foligno flank Eriksson Ek on the “GREEF” line, an apt name for an incredibly annoying line. On a team suddenly full of firepower, this trio may be the engine. And they will likely be the key to shutting down St. Louis’s high-octane top line. When the GREEF line is on, other teams do not score. They do not get chances. They get shut down. This season, the trio has earned a 61 percent expected goals rate together and has outscored opponents 24-5 over 428 minutes. It’s the five goals against that are really eye-opening as they equate to just 0.72 goals against per 60 minutes — the best mark in the league among forward lines that have played 250 minutes together and the seventh-best since 2007-08. Some of that is goaltending luck, but a lot is just incredible defense, as the trio allows just 1.62 expected goals against per 60 — a mark that ranks third behind two lines anchored by Patrice Bergeron.
There is a wrinkle here that depends on Foligno’s availability for the series. He took a serious knee from Kurtis MacDermid in Game 82 that forced him to miss the rest of the game. Foligno has developed into a very important player for the Wild, and his absence would really tilt the scales toward the Blues. If he misses the entire series, the Wild’s chances drop by four percentage points.
The Blues’ shutdown line features O’Reilly flanked by David Perron and Brandon Saad. O’Reilly, despite going up against top competition, has a positive impact on the Blues’ expected goals against. That’s consistently been a strength of his game throughout his career, and it’s no surprise the Blues tend to concede fewer scoring chances against when he’s on the ice. The aspect of his game that has dropped off, though, is the offense. He still put up 55 points this season, 31 of which came at five-on-five. More of his impact has come with his passing, which pairs well with Perron and Saad, who lean toward shooting. This line doesn’t have the same scoring pop as the first line or others the team deployed this season, but it does create more than it allows thanks to its defensive strength and ability to cycle the puck in the offensive zone.
There’ll also be the battle between two young dynamic wingers who broke out this season, Boldy and Jordan Kyrou, both of whom grade out similarly by GSVA.
Kyrou has a slight edge in this matchup, with a projected value of 2.4. But his usage is something to watch, as he’s trended down into bottom-six minutes as coaches took issue with his defensive efforts. He’s no stalwart in his own zone, but he has the offensive ability to make a difference. It starts with his ability to get out of danger — a speedy skater with the puck who can bring the puck up the ice with possession and generate chances in transition. That’s helped him earn the 12th-best five-on-five scoring rate in the league at 2.98 points per 60, ironically just behind Boldy.
Boldy isn’t far off, at 2.2 wins of value, and the main reason he isn’t higher is the small sample size. With 39 points in 46 games — a 70-point pace — Boldy wasn’t as productive as Kyrou this season, but he makes up for that with his ability to control the pace of play at five-on-five. He was an immediate force in that regard for the Wild, putting up a 57 percent expected goals rate that led the team and a 65 percent actual goals rate that wasn’t far off.
And then there’s the battle of the rest of the supporting cast — the players who help each team’s top nine look so deep and complete. That features Ryan Hartman and Frederick Gaudreau on one side, and Brayden Schenn and Ivan Barbashev on the other side.
For the Wild, the big question mark going into the season was center depth, but Hartman’s transition there has been natural. He’s been extremely effective in between Kaprizov and Zuccarello. Center depth is not a huge problem when the team’s wings are so good, and Gaudreau has been a really nice fit in between Fiala and Boldy, as well, with 44 points in 75 games. He’s one of six Wild forwards with a points-per-60 north of two.
That matches the Blues, thanks to the contributions of Schenn and Barbashev. The forwards help show the strength in numbers St. Louis has, with nine 20-goal scorers. Barbashev has served as a utility player, moving up and down the lineup and from the middle to the wing, giving the team more options if it has to shake things up. Schenn may be on the downswing of his career, but he can still contribute rush chances at an above-average rate.
Finally, there’s the battle in net, which may just decide the series.
Fleury won the Vezina trophy last season, and that is a big reason he’s rated so highly. Priors are important for goalies, and his are quite strong. It’s why he was a hot commodity at the trade deadline despite so-so numbers with the Blackhawks this season. In 10 games with the Wild, those have mostly continued, though. He has a .905 save percentage and has allowed 1.7 goals more than expected. Getting back to his previous elite level is crucial to the Wild getting past the Blues’ firepower and going deep. And if he’s not at that level, Minnesota’s other option in net decreases its odds of winning the series quite a bit.
Right now, it looks like that other option — Cam Talbot — might just be the starter for Game 1 thanks to a 13-0-3 run to end the regular season. But even though Talbot has played much better of late, his numbers for the season remain quite weak. He should have better numbers playing behind this defense and projects as a sizable downgrade from Fleury as a result. Though the team’s strong defense should insulate either Fleury or Talbot, either will need to be at his best against such a high-octane offense.
That brings us to Ville Husso, who is very close to Fleury by GSVA but through a different path: excellent numbers this season but a lack of experience to trust that. In 39 games, he’s saved 16.3 goals above expected, which puts him fifth in the league. He’s also accumulated 23 quality starts. The difference between him and some other starters in the league is that he doesn’t have the usage to show for it. In theory, that keeps him fresh for the most important time of the year, seeing as this is the biggest workload he’s had at the NHL in his career. But he has yet to play a single postseason game at the NHL level.
The Blues could also go to Jordan Binnington if needed. It would be similar to the 2018 Capitals starting the postseason with Philipp Grubauer in net before turning back to Braden Holtby. While Binnington has the experience, highlighted by the Stanley Cup run in his first NHL season, his play in the postseason has lacked since. And this regular season, he was outplayed handily by his partner. Binnington allowed 10 goals more than expected in 37 games and had just 14 quality starts. He’s rotated more evenly with Husso as of late, so he should be fresh for a playoff run if the team turns to him. But his projected value is 0.9 wins below Husso’s right now, which should make the decision of who starts the postseason pretty clear.
The bottom line
There’s a good reason to think either team can advance here, even if the model isn’t so keen on the Blues.
For the Wild, it’s star power and defensive depth that have the potential to overwhelm the Blues. High-end talent can carry a team through a series, and the Wild have a serious edge there, thanks mostly to two dynamic game-breakers, Kaprizov and Fiala. They’re the more dominant team at five-on-five and should control the run of play in the series.
But the Blues are no minnow. They have a bevy of offensive weapons that can make any goaltender quiver and have a massive advantage on special teams that could easily tip the scales. Husso, if he can keep up what he’s done this season, has series-stealing potential too.
The model says this series isn’t close, but the model has also been wrong about the Blues all year. The Wild are one of the best teams in the league and a worthy favorite in this one, but this is far from a cakewalk. The Blues will be an extremely difficult out.
Data via Evolving-Hockey, Natural Stat Trick, HockeyViz, Hockey Stat Cards and the NHL.
(Photo of Alex Goligoski and Ivan Barbashev: Rick Ulreich / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
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