As Wild players keep one eye on the rest of the Stanley Cup playoffs, many have been shocked at the amount of goals being scored in games compared to theirs, which have been decidedly low-scoring.
The Wild-St. Louis Blues’ tight-checking, fight-for-every-inch affair has thus far been, as Zach Parise so correctly put it after the Wild’s shutout in Game 4 Wednesday night, “a race to two” goals.
Take away Alex Steen’s empty-net goal in Game 3, and the Blues have scored six goals in four games — three by only two forwards. The Wild has scored five times.
“You had to expect a low-scoring series, but I honestly didn’t expect it to be like this. I really didn’t,” Parise said. “I really didn’t expect the lack of scoring chances both ways. I don’t think anyone saw that coming, but that’s the way it’s being played.”
Facing elimination for a second consecutive game — the Wild is 4-3 all-time at home in elimination games, including three consecutive losses — the Wild hopes to flip the pressure in this series right onto the Blues on Saturday afternoon by forcing a Game 6 Monday in St. Louis.
“We get that win, and all of a sudden they’re second-guessing,” Charlie Coyle said. “They’re still in the driver’s seat, but they’re second-guessing. The pressure’s on, and now they’re thinking, ‘We’re going back home, Game 6, if we lose this one, it’s Game 7 back in their barn,’ and they’re starting to doubt themselves.”
For that to happen, players say they must continue to suffocate the Blues’ top players, especially Vladimir Tarasenko, who has no goals, 16 shots and two assists in the series.
This is a player who tied for fourth in the NHL with 39 goals in the regular season, including 11 goals and 19 points in the final 18 games.
“I feel like when he crosses the blue line, we haven’t given him a lot of time and space. When you do, he’s a player that doesn’t need a lot of it,” Parise said.
Since 2014-15, including the playoffs, Tarasenko is second in the NHL with 131 goals and first with 99 even-strength goals. But after scoring 16 goals in his first 24 playoff games, including six against the Wild in 2015, Tarasenko has only three goals in his past 13 playoff games, including an empty-netter and two meaningless goals in last year’s conference final elimination game.
“There’s no question, we need our best players to play their best,” Blues coach Mike Yeo said. “That’s not just in the playoffs, that’s any time. It’s certainly magnified right now. What we need from Vlady, from all our top players, is make sure we understand if we’re going to play well, if we’re going to beat these guys, then we have to be great defensively.
“That’s how we got up 3-0 in the series, and realistically that’s what we need to do if we want to close it here.”
So while Yeo doesn’t want Tarasenko to get frustrated and cheat for offense, Wild coach Bruce Boudreau similarly wants the Wild to continue to play smart defensively, especially since No. 1 center Paul Stastny might return from a foot injury Saturday.
“All of a sudden one of them could break out and get four [Saturday],” Boudreau said. “We’ve got to be better than we were the last game, and I think we’re capable.”
Other than defensemen Joel Edmundson and Colton Parayko scoring three goals, Jaden Schwartz and Vladimir Sobotka have scored the Blues’ three non-empty-net goals from forwards. That means the Wild is doing one heck of a job against a Blues team that was averaging 2.9 goals per game, 29.6 shots per game and clicking at 19.8 percent on the power play since Feb. 1.
In the playoffs, the Blues have averaged 1.75 goals per game, 26.8 shots per game and 9 percent on the power play.
“I think a lot of it is just discipline and just playing hard defensively,” winger Jason Zucker said. “We can’t focus on [only Tarasenko] and forget about the other guys on the team because they have a lot of guys that can do some damage.”
The Wild has gotten terrific play from the Mikko Koivu line defensively and from defensemen beyond just top pair Ryan Suter and Jared Spurgeon.
Defenseman Marco Scandella, for one, has been a horse. Three of his six biggest-minute games this season have come in this series, including his top two (26:41 in Game 1 and 24:22 in Game 4). Overall, his average ice time in the regular season of 18:20 per game is up more than five minutes per game.
“He’s competed really hard,” Boudreau said.
Yeo said there’s no question Tarasenko is getting heavily checked, but, “If they’re keying on [Tarasenko], it means somebody else is available. We have to do a little bit better of job of isolating people, finding people, and certainly when he gets an opportunity, that’s what he does, he finishes.
“It’s a grind. That’s the type of game we’re playing this type of year. It’s a fight for space all over the ice, but around the net it’s certainly more evident.”