Wild Beat Blues on Paper, Not in History

Photo: Scott Rovak - National Hockey League (Getty)

The Minnesota Wild and St. Louis Blues will drop the puck on their first round playoff series Monday night at 8:30 PM on ESPN. St. Louis will rely on their depth and playoff acumen, while Minnesota will look to the skill advantage in their top-two lines. Meanwhile, Wild fans will go to sleep praying to the hockey gods that this team really is different.

Only time will tell us the winner but that won’t stop hockey fans, experts, sportsbooks and computer AI from trying to predict it. There are two very different ways to look at this matchup. And if you like analytical models that use smart-people algorithms to make CPU-based decisions, the Minnesota Wild are your team.

The models used by The Athletic leaned heavy into advanced statistics on the season (both offense and defense) and the amount of star power both teams roster. The Wild are one of the best statistical teams in the NHL, on both sides of the ice. Their star power has shined bright enough offensively, throughout the year, that the franchise’s record books need to be completely re-written this offseason.

Wild Star Power and Depth

The Athletic came away wondering how the Blues will keep up with the Wild. Writers, who normally use numbers to pick apart a matchup, were forced to find non-fungible ways to give St. Louis a chance. They dubbed Kirill Kaprizov, Matz Zuccarrello, Kevin Fiala and Matt Boldy all more skilled than anyone who plays for St. Louis, admitting that will be difficult for the Blues 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. 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.

The Athletic

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 Athletic

The Blues were good too?

But the St. Louis Blues (109 points) have been nearly as hot as the Minnesota Wild (113 points), recently. Both teams ran away from the rest of the Central over the last month. The Wild racked up more points (48) than any other team in the NHL after March 1st. The Blues were 7th (39).

That’s because the Blues were nearly as good as the Wild were offensively, down the stretch. And they may have more depth, throughout their lineup. St. Louis houses NINE 20-goal scorers and ELEVEN 40-point skaters. Their top point-scorer, Vladimir Tarasenko had 82 points. Kirill Kaprizov, the Wild‘s top scorer in both goals and assists, had 108 points. Matz Zuccarello had 87.

Another huge advantage for the Blues is on special teams. Minnesota is one of the worst in the league on the penalty kill, allowing the 8th most goals in the NHL and 4th most in the last month. The Blues allowed the 4th least during the season and THE least over the final month. On the power play, the Wild finished average (17th) in goals scored. The Blues were 2nd.

Then, there’s history…

The Minnesota Wild won’t compete against the St. Louis Blues alone, over the next two weeks. They’re also fighting history. Not just the deeper stuff, which includes 6-straight first-round exits, if you include their play-in elimination during the COVID playoffs. The Wild haven’t reached the 2nd round of the NHL Playoffs since 2014-15 and haven’t reached the Conference Finals since 2002-03.

But, recent history too. Minnesota had a great year but never beat the division rival Blues (0-1-2). No matter how big the game or how badly the Wild needed to win, they couldn’t come out on top. In fact, they’ve lost their last FIVE matchups vs St. Louis. For whatever reason, the Wild loses a lot of their star power in those games, always trying to play down to the Blues level instead. Focusing on “toughness” and fighting.

“Experts”, Vegas Like Wild Too

While sportsbooks and experts around the league are giving the Blues more credit than The Athletic’s analytical models, you’ll still find more Wild picks than Blues. FanDuel has the Wild at -138 favorites to win the series. Sporting News and NBC Sports picked them to win, too. NHL.com had 16 of their writers pick all of the first round series and the Wild came out on top 9/16 times. Sportsnet did the same with their 19 writers and came out 10-9 in favor of the Wild.

My prediction? If the Wild can stay out of the box, they’ll win this series handedly. That will be easier said than done, however. So the Wild will lose two games, at some point, but win the series in six.

Eric Strack | Minnesota Sports Fan