Stanley Cup playoffs preview: There's little separating the Wild and Blues

·5-min read

Normally intrigue is sucked from the stretch run of the season when two teams are tightly wedged into postseason positioning weeks in advance. For whatever reason with the Minnesota Wild and St. Louis Blues, however, we've seen the complete opposite play out.

The No. 2 and No. 3 seeds in the suddenly compelling Central Division have each barely blinked since the NHL's trade deadline, trading wins at a pace only each other could match. They each have 15 victories in 20 games and hold a combined 30-5-5 record since finalizing their rosters in the second-to-last week of March. The difference between them is one point, which Minnesota picked up on its Winter Classic rivals with two regulation losses over that stretch compared two St. Louis's three.

How they have went about being the hottest two teams in the league isn't so similar. The Wild have reaped the reward of being the team Marc-Andre Fleury was willing to waive his no-trade clause to join. They now feature the league's best goaltending at five-on-five by a wide and considerable margin. But what's interesting is that it hasn't just been Fleury's performance which has allowed Minnesota to outscore the competition nearly two-to-one under that base condition. Cam Talbot has bloomed into the league's best netminder in split carries with Fleury over the last five weeks. Both have a case to start in the postseason, which is a nice problem to have.

On the flip side, what stands out most about the Blues is the scoring uptick. St. Louis has scored a league-high 90 goals in their last 20 games, including an average of nearly three per game at five-on-five alone. The Blues had a nine-game win streak in March which saw them score a minimum of four goals in each outing while averaging 5.4 per game overall. Vladimir Tarasenko is leading the scoring movement, notching a league-best 14 goals since rosters were firmed up. Pavel Buchnevich has scored 11 over the same stretch to cross the 30-goal threshold for the first time.

But it isn't as though these teams are limited to what they have done best. In addition to being the stingiest team at current moment, the Wild are also a top-five scoring team in the NHL and have racked up the second-most five-on-five goals since the deadline. Kirill Kaprizov and Kevin Fiala have been largely responsible for that, each trailing Tarasenko by one with 13 goals apiece across this 20-game sample.

St. Louis's goaltending depth can't compare to Minnesota's as long as Fleury and Talbot share duties, but having options loses its importance come playoffs. St. Louis's unequivocal starter, Ville Husso, is new to this, but has been exceptional all season long when emerging from Jordan Binnington's shadow. Husso has been one of the league's top netminders all season and hasn't had the dips both Wild netminders have suffered.

You won't find a more evenly matched series in the first round of NHL playoffs than the one between the Minnesota Wild and St. Louis Blues. (Photo by Scott Rovak/NHLI via Getty Images)
You won't find a more evenly matched series in the first round of NHL playoffs than the one between the Minnesota Wild and St. Louis Blues. (Photo by Scott Rovak/NHLI via Getty Images)

What have you done for me lately?

We couldn't bury the lede, so let's go a little more granular after detailing the current form each of these teams has shown over the last few weeks already. In the data from the last month-plus, the Blues and Wild have met twice, with the Blues handing the Wild two of their four losses since March 21, both in overtime. St. Louis improved to a perfect 3-0-0 over the Wild this season, continuing a measure of dominance in the head-to-head matchup for several seasons now.

The latest were tightly contested contests, clearly. But what stands out is the game or team scripts don't follow the standard each team has laid out down the stretch run of the season. St. Louis scored, but fell way short of the "expected" bar with the Wild limiting opportunities very effectively, while Minnesota uncharacteristically allowed the goals the opponent didn't deserve.

In many ways, these high-scoring games decided in a manner which won't translate to the postseason exist as outliers for both the Wild and Blues. Take from that what you will.

The Wild win if...

Health permits. Jared Spurgeon, Matt Dumba and Mats Zuccarello are dealing with ailments right now, which could conceivably take each out of the mix for Dean Evason.

The Blues win if...

The special teams advantage remains. St. Louis has one of the best combined special teams, ranking in the top five in both power play and penalty kill. While dominance in these scenarios tends to mean less in the postseason, it could prove to be the difference in a series where little separates the two teams.

Series hero

Isn't it always Marc-Andre Fleury? The Flower has proven to the hockey world — and maybe also himself — that he's still an elite netminder after a shaky stint with the leaky Chicago Blackhawks. Equipped with eight 20-goal scorers, the Blues should keep any goaltender on their toes. That's the sort of challenge that always brings out the best in Fleury.

The Fernando Pisani Trophy (Unsung Hero)

This is probably something of a slight, but Robert Thomas does not receive nearly enough credit for his role with the Blues. He's ascended to the top-line role, anchoring the scoring duo of Tarasenko and Buchnevich and picking up nearly 60 assists on the season for his facilitative work.

Prediction

Blues in 7

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