You know the old hockey saying: It’s not a playoff series until someone patronizingly pats you on the head.
Steve Ott did so to Jason Zucker on Saturday, illustrating a theme: The St. Louis Blues will try to intimidate their smaller, faster opponents.
This is a different playoff experience for the Wild. Last year, they faced two finesse teams, one of which, the Blackhawks, proved superior.
This year, the opponent plans to punch, facewash, annoy and patronize. The opponent is physical and talented, and yet already the Wild looks like a far superior team to the one that defeated Colorado in the first round last year.
Against Colorado, the Wild was outclassed in the first two games and did not win a road playoff game until Game 7, against a team that we know now had serious flaws and played much of the series without a key defenseman who was silly enough, according to the view of Wild fandom, to jump in the way of Matt Cooke’s passive, docile and conscientiously objecting knee.
St. Louis provides a sterner challenge, and yet the Wild already has won one road game and gave itself plenty of chances to extend or win a second.
Last year’s series turned during Game 3, when the Wild returned home and dominated puck possession in front of a crowd so loud it was remindful of Minnesotans filling the Metrodome with noise during World Series. During Game 3, the Wild outshot Colorado 46-22, and unlike many hockey statistics, that one accurately reflected the ease with which the home team performed.
For most of the season, there were two prevailing clichés about the Wild’s place in the Western Conference:
1. It’s a ridiculously deep, difficult conference.
2. If the Wild found a way to make the playoffs, the worst possible matchup would be St. Louis.
Now you look at Chicago with a goalie problem and Nashville having faded since December and St. Louis looking quite beatable, and here is the way the Wild should be viewing the playoffs today:
1. Beat the Blues, and you have as much chance of making it to the Stanley Cup Final as anybody.
2. And the Wild should beat the Blues, if it can stop being so mediocre at home.
The Wild ranked 19th in the NHL with a home record of 22-13-6, including 15-12-6 in their past 33 home games. They were 0-2-1 in their past three home games and 4-5-1 in the past 10.
The Wild is a better team than it was a year ago because of the acquisition of goalie Devan Dubnyk, increased quality depth at forward and the return of Jason Zucker, who has been one of the best players in this series and received the gift of passive-aggressiveness when Ott patted him on the head Saturday.
This year’s roster, combined with last year’s home-ice advantage, will add up to either a Wild playoff victory or a summer of regret, otherwise known to local sports fans as “summer.”
Last year’s victory over Colorado was a pleasant and belated surprise. A victory over St. Louis should, at this point, be expected.
“That was pretty amazing last year,” forward Charlie Coyle said of the playoff crowds. “I mean, the crowd was unbelievable. I know the whole atmosphere of the playoffs, in terms of player intensity and the pace of play, always changes, but our crowd took it up a notch.
“It was crazy. It was such a cool atmosphere that it definitely helped us. You have a good shift and even if you don’t score, even if you don’t get a chance but are just possessing the puck and grinding in their end for over a minute, you feel rewarded.
“You do that in their building and you don’t score you might get frustrated. You do it here and the crowd goes wild and we come off the ice fired up.”
Maybe our market simply can’t remember what big-game crowds are like, but the Wild’s home playoff games last year set a latter-day Minnesota standard for delirium and game-swaying effect.
After watching the first two games of this series, Wild fans should be motivated more by confidence than desperation.
Jim Souhan’s podcast can be
heard at souhanunfiltered.com.