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  • Scouting the Wild's Winter Classic Opponent

    Jade Forshee

    Coming into the 2021-22 NHL season, the Central Division might have been the toughest to predict. Many experts predicted the Colorado Avalanche would run away with the division, followed by the Winnipeg Jets, Dallas Stars, and the Minnesota Wild. However, the St. Louis Blues are tied for 2nd place in the Central. The Wild’s upcoming opponent in the Winter Classic didn’t get much love from experts in the preseason predictions. So what exactly do the Blues bring to the New Year’s Day matchup? Can the Wild handle business against them? Let’s take a look.


    The Blues boast an experienced forward group, including nine forwards who won the Stanley Cup in 2019. Ryan O’Reilly’s first year in St. Louis was that 2018-19 Stanley Cup season, and he led the team in scoring both in the playoffs and the regular season. O’Reilly’s playoff success saw him lift the Conn Smythe Trophy as the Stanley Cup Finals MVP.


    After Alex Pietrangelo left the Blues in the 2020 offseason, O’Reilly was named captain. O’Reilly is a gritty forward who can play a high-energy game. He is second in ice time among St. Louis’ forwards. With 18 points in 27 games complemented by spectacular defense, O’Reilly is a handful. The Wild will need to pay attention to where he is on the ice, or they could be in for a long New Years Day.


    Veteran forwards Brandon Saad and David Perron highlight O'Reilly's skill. Saad and Perron have won the Stanley Cup. Saad won two with the Chicago Blackhawks, and Perron won it in 2019 with the Blues. All three skaters are top-10 on the Blues in points and make up the second-highest scoring line for the Blues.


    Perron is currently on LTIR but is expected to play in the Winter Classic. He is tied for 6th on the Blues with O’Reilly with 18 points. But he has been out of the lineup since Nov. 27th after sustaining an upper-body injury. Perron has been a solid contributor when healthy, scoring at least 58 points in the past two seasons. Perron is a pass-first forward, meaning his game dovetails with Saad's, who has 11 goals and three assists. That combination of skills is a perfect mix.


    Given O’Reilly’s defensive ability, expect coach Craig Berube to try to match this line against Minnesota’s top line of Kirill Kaprizov, Ryan Hartman, and Mats Zuccarello as often as possible. Since St. Louis doesn’t have last change, it’ll be tricky to get this matchup, but this matchup could decide the game when they do. Will the Wild’s speed overwhelm them, or will O’Reilly grind the game to a halt?


    Like the Wild, the Blues pair their physical line with a highly skilled line of Pavel Buchnevich, Ivan Barbashev, and Vladimir Tarasenko. Currently, these three are the top point-scorers for the Blues. Buchnevich and Tarasenko lead the team with 29 points, and Barbashev is right on their heels with 25 points. Barbashev’s availability for the Winter Classic is up in the air due to being on the COVID list. Still, even Buchnevich and Tarasenko will be plenty to worry about if Barbashev doesn’t go.


    Before missing almost all of the 2019-20 season after undergoing shoulder surgery, Tarasenko scored at least 33 goals a season after cracking the Blues lineup in 2014-15. Playing right wing on St. Louis’ top power-play unit, Tarasenko averages 20 power-play points a season and is a legit threat with the extra man.


    Buchnevich is in his first year with the Blues and seemed to have found an excellent fit for himself across from fellow Russian Tarasenko. Buchnevich only played more than 70 games for the New York Rangers once in five seasons but scored at least 38 points in limited ice time. However, Buchnevich is on track to have a career year in goals, assists, and points with the Blues.


    The Wild will need to do their best to slow down this line and stay out of the penalty box. Look for head coach Dean Evason to deploy either Marcus Foligno's line or the Brandon Duhaime-Nico Sturm line against these high-powered guys when 5-on-5 to try and limit their scoring chances and keep up with their speed.


    On the back end, the Blues have a lot of name recognition in Justin Faulk, Torey Krug, and Colton Parayko. Robert Bortuzzo and Parakyo are the only two Blues defensemen that were a part of the Stanley Cup team from 2019.


    Overall, the Blues defensemen are a solid group of veterans, five of whom have played at least seven seasons in the NHL. Unlike the Wild, the Blues do not get a lot of scoring from their defensemen. Only three of their six blueliners have scored over 10 points. The way this Wild team is playing, they should take advantage of St. Louis’ defense core. Getting pucks in deep and “going to work” can wear down the defense and allow some good opportunities for the skilled Wild forwards.


    Finally, the Blues’ two goalies are in different places this season. Jordan Binnington, St. Louis’ No. 1 goalie, seems to be in line to start on New Year's Day in the Winter Classic and is currently going through a rough patch. Binnington is 3-5-2 over his last 10 starts and is allowing 3.2 goals per game. This year, he has been beatable, and the Wild can capitalize on his struggles by peppering him with shots and maximizing their second chances.


    The other side of the goalie duo is Lakeville’s own Charlie Lindgren. Currently in his first season with the Blues, Lindgren has only played in five games but has won every game he has played. The former St. Cloud State goalie has a 1.22 goals against average and has stopped 95.8% of the 118 shots he has faced.


    It would be a career highlight for Lindgren to draw the start. He’s riding a five-game win streak and would be playing 30 minutes away from where he grew up against his hometown team.


    The Blues have been a surprise to some this season. Currently, they have a highly talented forward group that can put pucks in the net. All of that being said, this game is winnable for the Wild.


    In this matchup, Minnesota will be without captain Jared Spurgeon and key forward Joel Eriksson Ek. But with their high-scoring top line intact and two high energy lines mostly available, the Wild should wear down the Blues and win the game fans have been looking forward to ever since it was announced two years ago.

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