It’s one thing to be rattled by a big, bone-crunching check in an NHL playoff game. It’s quite another to be rattled by the mere thought of taking a heavy hit, as Wild forward Kyle Brodziak pointed out Monday.
Much of the discussion surrounding the Wild’s first-round playoff series against St. Louis has centered on the Blues’ reputation for throwing around their considerable weight. Though the Wild isn’t as big or as aggressive throughout the lineup, it has proved it measures up in other ways. As it enters Thursday’s playoff opener at St. Louis, the team views its speed as a counterbalance to the Blues’ size, while promising to match its opponent’s muscle as much as possible.
Brodziak warned that the Wild cannot allow the Blues’ bullying ways to get into its collective head. To gain the upper hand, he said, the Wild must be well-prepared to face a physically imposing opponent without losing its identity as a swift, disciplined team.
“The more we’re ready for a physical game, and ready to play our skating game, it’s going to be an advantage for us,’’ said the 6-2 Brodziak, one of the tougher customers in Thursday’s projected Wild lineup. “We know they’re going to be physical, and that’s part of their game plan. But I think we’ve got enough guys in here who can play that way, too, and we’ve got a whole group of guys who can skate really well.
“We need to worry about what we can control out there. I think it’s important for us to keep our emotions in check and just be really ready for it to be a physical series, and don’t let that rattle us.’’
The addition of gritty 6-2 forward Chris Stewart in April added some heft to the Wild lineup, and coach Mike Yeo said Monday that rugged winger Matt Cooke will be in the lineup for Game 1. Still, the Wild is a mild-mannered bunch in comparison to the Blues.
Spring Lake Park native David Backes leads a forward corps that blends skill and size with a bruising edge that wears down opponents. The Blues also feature a big, well-rounded group of defensemen. Four of the six regulars are 6-2 or taller, while the tallest defensemen in the Wild’s projected lineup — Ryan Suter, Jonas Brodin, Marco Scandella and Jordan Leopold — are all 6-1.
Suter acknowledged that the Blues are extraordinarily difficult to play against, and that the Wild will have to scrap for every inch of ice. But his theory is that it’s hard to check what you can’t catch. Teammate Jason Zucker, one of the Wild’s fastest players, noted that if the team can consistently get the puck in behind the Blues’ defensemen and play low in the zone, it will limit the Blues’ ability to deliver crushing hits.
“They’re big, they’re strong, they like to be physical,” Suter said. “How do we counter that? With our speed. Make them try to keep up with us.
“They have speed, too; don’t get me wrong. I think we just have to focus on our game, getting pucks behind them, skating to open areas, trying not to let them hit us.”
The Wild enters the series knowing it can handle the Blues. It went 2-1-1 against St. Louis in the regular season; to continue that success in the playoffs, several players said, it must forecheck well, retain a diligent work ethic and attend to detail. Center Mikko Koivu added that the Wild also must be physical “when the time is right,” without getting away from its core strengths.
Charlie Coyle, its tallest forward at 6-3, knows that duty will fall to the Wild’s bigger players. The Blues have shown them how effective that punishing style can be, and they hope to get St. Louis thinking about taking hits as well as dishing them out.
“It doesn’t have to be a big hit,” Coyle said. “Just play physical; get in there and play with an edge. I think we’ve got to play that way, and that’s going to frustrate them. It doesn’t matter who you are, that’s not easy to play against.”