ST. LOUIS – In the grand scheme of things, the Wild’s 82nd game of the season Saturday afternoon isn’t as stressful as two years ago, when the Wild had to win in Denver to make the playoffs, and isn’t as stress-free as last year’s finale when the Wild was in severe do-not-get-hurt mode against Nashville.
But Saturday’s regular-season finale against the Blues, a game in which the Wild can break the NHL record if it wins for a 13th consecutive time on the road, will play only one part in determining its first-round opponent.
Unfortunately, the Wild and its fans will have to be patient until about 10:30 at night — hours after the Wild’s 2 p.m. nationally televised game on NBC is complete — to learn the opponent. The outcome of Chicago’s game at Colorado or Anaheim at Arizona will be the final determining factor.
“It’s really kind of pointless to wrack our brains and try to figure it all out right now,” coach Mike Yeo said.
Let’s try anyway.
The first thing to know: If the Wild beats the Blues in regulation, it will play the Predators or Blues in the first round. If the Wild beats the Blues in overtime or a shootout, it will play the Predators, Blues or Ducks in the first round. If the Wild loses to the Blues, it will play the Ducks or the Blues in the first round.
So, by the end of Saturday’s Wild-Blues game, the Wild will have three potential opponents, or perhaps get it down to two.
Now, here’s how the Wild would play the Predators, a team the Wild beat three times on the road in the past six weeks: The Wild beats St. Louis and Colorado beats Chicago in regulation.
Now, here’s how the Wild would play the Ducks, who are tied with the Blues with 107 points: The Blues get more points than the Ducks or if the Blues beat the Wild in regulation or overtime and the Ducks win in a shootout.
Any other scenario, the Wild faces the Blues, meaning Saturday’s finale is the Wild’s likeliest first-round opponent.
“I’m not sure it’s ever been this tight going down to the wire like this with so many different options,” said Wild forward Zach Parise. “Right when we find out, you start preparing right away.”
The Wild, 2-0-1 vs. the Blues this season, won the past two meetings, crushing St. Louis at home and winning in regulation at St. Louis for the first time in almost eight years in a game goalie Devan Dubnyk stole.
Despite the Blues traditionally dominating the Wild in St. Louis, it’s hard to consider Saturday’s game a statement game.
“You want to finish your own season on a good note and with a win, but if we do happen to play these guys, this game’s not going to have any meaning in Game 1,” Parise said.
Plus, despite the Blues having a chance to win the conference, coach Ken Hitchcock plans to sit some of his “banged-up” guys the way the Wild did Thursday in Nashville. Injured Alex Steen and Vladimir Tarasenko are expected to return, though, and Brian Elliott will start in goal.
“You’ve got to do what’s best for Game 1 of the playoffs right now,” Hitchcock said. “What’s best for Game 1 is some guys need to get in and get playing and some guys need to get a little bit healthier.
“We’re still going to ice a lineup that’s capable of winning the hockey game.”
Yeo wouldn’t reveal his lineup, although Parise, Nino Niederreiter and Thomas Vanek, who all missed Thursday’s game, practiced Friday and are expected to play. Only Chris Stewart didn’t practice; he worked off the ice with strength coach Kirk Olson. It wouldn’t be a surprise if Yeo sat defensemen such as Ryan Suter or Jared Spurgeon.
Dubnyk will start in goal, although he might not finish the game.
“This is a big game for us,” Dubnyk said. “There’s motivation everywhere to be found — it’s a possible first-round opponent, you want to have a winning feeling going into the playoffs, we have a chance to break the record. There’s a lot of things that you can look at to grab some motivation.”
In case the Wild and Blues meet, Hitchcock doesn’t expect either team to show its cards.
“We’re not going to show anything we’re going to do, nor are we going to show any of the combinations, a lot of the combinations that we’re going to work with,” Hitchcock said.
The Wild and Blues know each other, so Yeo said there are no surprises.
“Sometimes these games are sort of funny the way they play out,” he said. “I know that the players on both sides of these types of games are competitors and want to play hard, but the bottom line is everybody is just anxious to get the playoffs going right now.”