Minnesota has managed to put big-time pressure on St. Louis, but the Blues haven't cracked. And now the Wild need a star to emerge and spark the offense with their playoff lives on the line.
Expectations surrounding the Minnesota Wild were high entering the post-season.
The Wild’s regular season was strong, the most bountiful in franchise history, with 106 points. In Bruce Boudreau, they had a new coach who, while failing to ever guide a team all the way to the promised land, had been to the post-season before and was ready to have his signature year. Devan Dubnyk had provided what was for much of the year a performance worthy of Vezina Trophy contention. And with a deep blueline and offense, what wasn’t to like about the Wild?
There was the inevitable talk of peaking early and a fair number suggested that after Minnesota went on a 12-game winning streak to close out 2016 that put them right near the top of the ever-difficult Central Division. There were also questions about whether the offense would hold given the Wild had the 19th ranked offense the year prior. They answered both questions without wavering, though. Minnesota locked down the second seed in the Central and, when it came to filling the net, only the Pittsburgh Penguins put home more goals than the Wild.
But three games into the post-season Minnesota finds themselves in what some would consider an insurmountable hole, trailing the St. Louis Blues 3-0 and facing elimination Wednesday night, and the first three games of these playoffs may have highlighted one of Minnesota’s biggest flaws. It isn’t their coach, their depth up front or on the back end and it’s definitely not that they peaked too early. Instead, it appears the biggest hurdle for the Wild right now is that, despite their ability to produce goals as a whole, the team is lacking a game-breaking star who can spark the offense when it needs it most.
Looking around the rest of the league right now, it’s been those type of stars, both young and old, stepping up that has made all the difference. Pittsburgh is being led by Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Montreal has Alexander Radulov stuffing the score sheet. Ryan Getzlaf and Rickard Rakell have provided Anaheim with solid production. And even in Nashville the top line of Filip Forsberg, Viktor Arvidsson — both 30-goal scorers — and Ryan Johansen has been excellent, outshining the best Chicago has to offer.
Simply put, the Wild don’t have anyone who quite fits the mold of the 30-goal scorer or crafty playmaker who can make something out of nothing, and it really seems as though that’s what Minnesota could use right now. Because even though the Wild have had some dominating performances as a team, no player has been able to put Minnesota on his back and break down the Blues defense to shift the momentum in this series.
Through three games, the most prolific scorer the Wild have boasted is Zach Parise, who has two goals and three points through the start of the post-season. And while Parise is undoubtedly the type of player who can make things happen with the puck on his stick, he hasn’t been that top-flight, 30-plus goal scorer in either of the past two seasons. Injury has played a part, no doubt, but while Parise is a steady contributor, the fact is he’s on the wrong side of his best years. He’s not going to turn a game on its ear with one rush up the ice or be a threat to score every time he touches the ice.
Consider that the Wild’s offense was spread out more than any other during the regular season, with Eric Staal, Mikael Granlund, Nino Niederreiter and Jason Zucker as their most consistent goal scoring threats, each netting at least 20 goals. It’s nothing against any of those four, but one would be hard-pressed to consider any member of the foursome a true-blue superstar.
Take Zucker and Niederreiter. Both were excellent during the regular season, but neither have found the score sheet, let alone scored, through the first three games of the post-season. As for Staal, this season marked a fairly remarkable turnaround for the veteran, but he’s managed only a single assist to start this first-round series.
However, the argument can be made that Granlund is on the rise — and his consistently improved point totals would suggest he’s heading in the right direction — but he’s not exactly the type of prolific scorer that demands the attention of, say, the Blues’ Vladimir Tarasenko. At least, not yet, and the first-round series hasn’t so far shown Granlund’s ready to take on the mantle as the top threat in Minnesota. That doesn’t mean he can’t prove his mettle now, though.
Granlund has shown at almost every level that he can be a star. In his pre-NHL days in the Finnish league, Granlund was a champion, rookie of the year and led the 2010-11 post-season in assists. At the World Junior Championship, he was a tournament all-star and followed that up only two short years later with a three-goal, seven-point Olympic performance that earned one more international all-star nod, this time on the grandest stage. And even at the World Championship last season, Granlund wowed, potting four goals and 12 points en route to yet another all-star honor. Likewise, this could be the time for him to assert himself as a big-game performer and the star Minnesota needs.
Granlund rising to the challenge now might mean more than ever, too, because despite the tremendous play of Blues goaltender Jake Allen play and the Wild’s current three-game hole, Minnesota might have the best chance of any team in a similar position to complete the reverse sweep. Possession-wise, the Wild have been dominant and they’ve produced the bulk of the scoring chances in the series, including those from high-danger areas. And once the ball gets rolling for the Wild, there’s a possibility that it might not stop.
But the fact of the matter is Minnesota’s offense isn’t going to get that spark unless someone to steps up, be it Granlund, Zucker, Parise or otherwise. Because while the Wild may have scored by committee during the regular season, the one thing they’re lacking that could make all the difference right now is one star who can pick up the shovel to start digging them out of a seemingly impossible hole.
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