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  • Minnesota's First-Round Series Will Be A Defensive Slugfest

    Image courtesy of Isaiah J. Downing-USA Today Sports
    Luke Sims

    The Wild are a strong goal-prevention team facing two offensive behemoths who can play Minnesota's game, too.

    The odds are not in the Minnesota Wild’s favor this year. They are limping into the playoffs with key players hurt or recently coming off the injured list. Their potential playoff opponents are on absolute tears lately and boast big guns at almost every position. Both the Colorado Avalanche and Dallas Stars are nipping at Minnesota’s heels even when it comes to the Wild’s strengths.

    So what hope do the Wild have in this year's playoffs? How can they overcome these challenges in the face of these daunting rivals? 

    Look at the men on the blue line and the masked man between the pipes. 

    The Central Division playoff bracket will be a slugfest for the Wild. We’ll find out tonight whether Minnesota plays the Stars or Avs in the first round. But in all likelihood, they’ll face both teams if they advance in the playoffs. 

    Let’s break the series down into three primary matchups: forwards, defensemen, and goaltending. Regardless of who they play, the Wild only have the clear edge in one of these aspects. If they play Dallas, they only have the advantage in defense. If they play Colorado, they only have a clear advantage in goaltending. 

    Do the Wild have a 100-point scorer on their team that consistently dominated play in the regular season? Kind of. Kaprizov scored 40 goals in 67 games following a 100-point season. But the Dallas Stars have a player who hit that level, and the Avalanche have two that hit the century mark this year.

    Even with Gabriel Landeskog ruled out for this year's playoffs, Nathan MacKinnon and the Mikko Rantanen – the best “Moose” in the Central Division -- are an absolutely terrifying duo and a force to be reckoned with. Jason Robertson and Co. in Dallas are not an easy task either. Kaprizov’s capable of carrying Minnesota through a series, but coming off an injury, that’s no guarantee. 

    Statistically, the Wild have a better goaltender this year. Now, that goaltender did not stop 64 shots in an overtime game last year as Jake Oettinger did. Still, Filip Gustavsson is having a terrific season in Minnesota and should be the Game 1 starter. After seeing Otteinger’s playoff performance last, where he took Dallas to Game 7 with a .952 save percentage, he’s got to have the edge going in.

    Gustavsson has proven himself against opponents in playoff positions more than Fleury has. Gustavsson was in net for the Wild’s 4-2 win over the Avs on March 29, as well as a brilliant 2-1 win over the Stars on February 17. He kept the Wild in those games and gave them a chance to win. 

    Do the Wild have an elite puck-moving defenseman that has registered over 60 points this year? No. The Stars and the Avalanche both have that. Minnesota cannot keep up with the offensive powerhouses in Miro Heiskanen and Cale Makar, respectively. The combination of Jared Spurgeon, preconceived notions of Matt Dumba, a fractured hull of John Klingberg’s past, and rumors of Calen Addison are simply not enough to compare to the dynamic biscuit-slingers that Dallas and Colorado have. 

    The Wild are fine in transition as a team. They have guys who can clear the zone efficiently and effectively. But guys like Jonas Brodin and Spurgeon are just not great at filling out the scoresheet. Spurgeon doesn’t strike fear into the hearts of opponents like Makar does. The Wild’s forwards can assist in the transition as we’ve become accustomed to seeing Kaprizov and Matt Boldy doing one-man breakouts. 

    What the Wild can lean on is that they have nine NHL-caliber defensemen available to play. Their depth stacks up against both teams, and they have options if things suddenly stop working on the back end. Dean Evason should not hesitate to change up the pairs if it does work. The Wild can’t afford to wait around and hope things will fix themselves. That’s how teams lose a series after being up 2-1. If the like of Jon Merrill, Alex Goligoski, or Klingberg struggle, the Wild’s biggest advantage is they have Brock Faber or Addison in reserve.

    Even with strong team defense, it’s going to be tough sledding for Minnesota. The Wild third in save percentage, you say? Avalanche and Stars are fifth and seventh, respectively. Evason’s squad may be fourth in goals against, but Dallas and Colorado are both in the Top-10. 

    It will take a team effort, spearheaded by the Wild’s defense and goaltending to take this team past the first round. The reward for that will be having to do the same against another impressive adversary. Buckle up. 

    All stats and data via Evolving Hockey and MoneyPuck.

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