The Minnesota Wild finished the NHL regular season by going 19-2-3 in their final 24 games. The St. Louis Blues lost their final two games of the season, but they earned at least a point in 16 straight games prior to that, going 14-0-2 during that stretch. Both teams enter the playoffs on some kind of roll, and unfortunately for one team, that roll will have to come to an end as they meet in the first round of the playoffs.
The reward these two teams get for finishing the season on a remarkable run is to go up against another team that finished the season red hot. The winner of this series will be "rewarded" once again, as they'll likely get a second-round matchup against the Colorado Avalanche, the current Stanley Cup favorites at BetMGM. The Wild are -165 favorites to win this series against the Blues, advance to round two and take a shot at Colorado.
Close in standings, metrics disagree
The Wild finished the regular season with 113 points and 53 wins, earning them the second seed in the Central Division and home-ice advantage in the first round. The Blues finished third in the division, amassing 109 points and 49 wins.
From a standings point of view, there's not much separating these teams. We already talked about how dominant these teams were down the stretch. Minnesota finished with the second-best record in the West, the Blues with the fourth. The Wild were fifth-best in the whole league, while the Blues were ninth. The Wild were slightly better, but nothing to over-emphasize.
However, if you take a look at the advanced metrics that focus on puck possession and shot generation ability, there is a clear difference between these teams and likely a main reason why the Wild are pretty large favorites to win this series at -165.
According to NaturalStatTrick, Minnesota ranks sixth in the league in terms of 5-on-5 expected goal rate with a 54.2% mark. On the other hand, the Blues rank 19th with a 47.8% expected-goal rate. This is the second lowest amongst playoff teams, ahead of just the New York Rangers. Those are the only two teams in these playoffs with a mark below 50%.
These two teams are actually pretty similar in their ability to generate offense. In fact, they're exactly the same, creating an average of 2.47 expected goals per hour at 5-on-5. This ranks them in the middle of the league. Where these teams differ is their play in their own zone. Minnesota has the second-best expected-goals allowed mark in the league, trailing only the Boston Bruins. They sit at 2.09 xG/against per hour at 5-on-5. The Blues find themselves at the complete opposite end of the spectrum, ranking 27th in the 3- team league.
Thankfully for the Blues, not the entire game is played at 5-on-5. The more penalties called in this series, the better for St. Louis. The Blues had the second-best power play in the league during the regular season and the fifth-best penalty kill. On the other hand, Minnesota ranked 18th in power play efficiency and a dismal 25th (worst amongst playoff teams) in penalty kill percentage. The special teams advantage goes to the Blues.
Breaking down the rosters
When looking at the rosters of these two teams, you can see why they finished the regular season on such a roll and why they're relatively close in the standings. However, you also see two main factors that could give the Wild an edge.
Minnesota has the best player in this series in Kirill Kaprizov. He had 108 points and 47 goals on the season, finishing top 5 in the league in both categories. Leon Draisaitl of the Oilers is the only other player to accomplish that this season. It's Kaprizov's second season in the league and his first full 82-game season, so he hasn't yet garnered the reputation of someone like Auston Matthews or Connor McDavid, but make no mistake about it, Kaprizov is one of the very best this league has to offer.
At the age of 34, Mats Zuccarello is having a career season, scoring 79 points in just 70 games. He missed the last few games of the regular season but expectations are that he'll be good to go on Monday night. Ryan Hartman centers Zuccarello and Kaprizov, and his 65-point season more than doubled his previous most productive offensive season. He's still pesky and abrasive, but he's unlocked an offensive side we didn't know he had.
Kevin Fiala gives the Wild another bonafide star on line 2, as he has scored 64 points in 51 games since rookie Matt Boldy was called up and put on his line. That duo drives the second line for the Wild, and they have a tremendous shutdown line as their third line. The trio of Jordan Greenway, Joel Eriksson Ek and Marcus Foligno has given up just five goals on the season at 5-on-5 when playing together.
While the Blues might not have a star like Kaprizov, they're a very deep team themselves. They had nine forwards eclipse the 20-goal mark on the season. Vladimir Tarasenko has had a tremendous bounceback season, leading the Blues in goals (34) and points (82). Tarasenko is one of four Blues forwards to play at better than a point-per-game this season, alongside Robert Thomas, Pavel Buchnevich and Jordan Kyrou.
The Blues had eight players eclipse the 50-point barrier this season, while the Wild had just four. Depth matters in the playoffs, and St. Louis certainly has that.
Another issue for the Blues might be the defensive core. As we saw above, they rank bottom-6 in the league in terms of expected goals against. Colton Parayko and Justin Faulk are fine, but neither one is a true No. 1 defenseman. Parayko has to cover up for Marco Scandella's deficiencies. Torey Krug is a point-producing defenseman, but he struggles mightily in his own zone. Robert Bortuzzo is an anchor on Nick Leddy on the third pair, and Leddy is already far from the defenseman he was earlier in his career with the Blackhawks and Islanders.
On the other side, the Wild have the best all-around defenseman in this series in Jared Spurgeon. They also have the best pure defensive-defenseman in the series with Jonas Brodin. While they might not be game-changers offensively, they're solid. There's also no anchor on this defense, while you can argue the Blues have two in Scandella and Bortuzzo.
There were plenty of questions about goaltending in this series, and at least for Game 1, we now have answers.
The Wild acquired Marc-Andre Fleury at the trade deadline in an attempt to bolster their goaltending, which was arguably the weakest link of the team. Fleury is a three-time Cup champion, five time All-Star, likely future Hall of Famer, and he won the Vezina Trophy in Vegas just last year. However, his 2021-22 season hasn't been up to par. He has just a .908 save percentage on the season and a .910 save percentage in 11 starts since joining the Wild.
Fleury was brought in to play with Cam Talbot. Talbot has similar numbers to Fleury, posting a .911 save percentage on the season. However, he's 16-0-3 in his last 19 starts and hasn't lost a game since March 1st.
At least for Game 1, the Wild are going with experience over hot streak, as Fleury will be between the pipes.
The situation in St. Louis was less split, but still intriguing.
In 2019, Jordan Binnington entered as a rookie and back-stopped the Blues as they went from last place to Stanley Cup champion over the course of six months. However, he's been an average goaltender outside of that and has especially struggled in his playoff appearances since then.
Enter Ville Husso, the 27-year-old Finnish netminder with just 17 games of NHL experience entering this season. However, Husso has been tremendous this season and has wrestled the job away from Binnington. Husso has a .919 save percentage on the season, compared to a .901 for Binnington. Husso ranks seventh in the league with a +14.2 goals saved above expectation (GSAx) mark, while Binnington has a -10.0 mark on the year.
Unlike the Wild, the Blues will be leaving their Stanley Cup winning goalie on the bench in Game 1, as Husso will get the start.
On the season, the comparison between the two Game 1 starters isn't close. Husso has a +14.2 GSAx while Fleury has a -12.6 mark (-1.3 with Minnesota). However, one is a three-time Cup champion with over 500 regular-season wins and 90 playoff wins. The other is making his playoff debut. I wouldn't be shocked if we saw all four goalies in this series. Good luck trying to figure out how this will go.
The best bet
The Wild are the deserving favorite here, but I think -165 is a touch too steep. These two teams have met 11 times over the last two seasons, and the Blues have won nine of those games. It's worth noting, four of those wins required overtime, which highlights that these teams are extremely evenly matched.
In order to lay -165, you'd have to think the Wild win this series 63% of the time. I think it's 55-45 at best for the Wild, meaning there's value on the Blues at this price. Would I be shocked if the Wild won? Absolutely not, but from a betting value perspective the slight value appears to be with St. Louis at +135.