Of all the negative trends the Wild reversed during its late-season rally, one remained stubbornly, incorrigibly intact. No matter how much the team practiced and tinkered and obsessed over its power play, it continued to sputter near the bottom of the NHL rankings.
Special teams often figure prominently in the playoffs, and they promise to be a major factor in the Wild's first-round series against St. Louis. The Wild's penalty kill remains a jewel in its crown, with an NHL-best success rate of 86.3 percent. But in a playoff series against a stingy opponent such as the Blues, when five-on-five goals will be hard to come by, the importance of the power play is magnified — adding to the pressure on a Wild power play that is ranked 27th of 30 NHL teams.
The Wild enters Thursday's playoff opener with a dismal conversion rate of 15.8 percent. On the road, it is worse, scoring 12 goals on 108 chances for a success rate of 11.1 percent. The Blues have the league's fourth-best power play, connecting on 22.3 percent of its chances.
As big of a boost as the Wild could get from its penalty kill, the team knows an inept power play could be costly. Tuesday, several players said they looked at the playoffs as a chance to start fresh.
"Special teams are so important, whether it's scoring a goal, getting momentum or just not getting frustrated with it if things aren't going our way," said forward Jason Pominville, who plays on the first unit. "It's about putting it behind you and looking at what you can do on the next one to be better.
"[The Blues] have good special teams. We have the ability to be good as well. And we've just got to go out there and prove it."
Pominville said the Wild must concentrate on entering the zone cleanly, retrieving the puck quickly and getting pucks to the net on the power play. Other players noted the importance of winning faceoffs, capturing loose pucks and fighting for position in front of the net.
In a special-teams session near the end of Tuesday's practice, the power-play units worked on all of those facets. The Wild showed some life with the man advantage in its final two regular-season games, scoring on its only power-play chance at Nashville and going one-for-four at St. Louis.
Still, the team failed to score a power-play goal in 13 consecutive games before those two, underscoring the futility it has faced for much of the season. The Blues present a stern challenge, with a penalty kill ranked ninth in the league at 83.7 percent. During the regular season, the Wild had some success against them, scoring three times on 15 chances.
Forward Chris Stewart, who added a deft scoring touch and front-of-the-net muscle to the power play when he joined the Wild roster in March, said the team must generate substantial scoring chances and pressure the Blues even if it does not score. Coach Mike Yeo acknowledged the primary role that special teams hold in the playoffs, but he added that the Wild has not been seriously damaged so far by its lack of power-play punch. And he said it cannot start fretting over missed opportunities now.
"We've had the ability, even though there's been frustration at different points of the season, to continue to win hockey games even though our power play wasn't necessarily at the top of the league," Yeo said. "But we have to be careful.
"Every time you have a power play in the playoffs, it's an opportunity to grab the lead or climb back in the game. There's still lots of hockey after that. It's managing those emotions and how you come back the next time if you're not successful."
The hard-hitting Blues are mindful of limiting the Wild's chances. Steve Ott, their chief agitator, said that maintaining poise will be "a key factor" in the series as the Blues try to outmuscle the Wild without drawing penalties.
Mikko Koivu, who centers the top unit, said the Wild has not lost faith in its ability to turn the power play around.
"The more you play the game, the more you know it's going to come eventually," Koivu said. "And as long as you're working as a unit, trying to get better, I'm a believer that it's going to get better."