I don’t really care about predictions. And I dislike the STL tradition of media pandering to the home audience by picking our beloved team to win.
In these pick ‘em contests the writer or broadcaster: (A) almost always picks the heroic home team to triumph in glorious fashion; and (B) mixes in some fake outrage if national pundits have the gall to go against our noble boys. That’s always good for some bonus pandering points.
I root for the home team because I want to see St. Louis sports fans happy. But my predictions mean nothing; the result of the competition is the only thing that matters. So I’d just rather play it straight when I write and talk about what I think will happen.
Besides … if you are serious about making picks, then back up your choices with an investment of cash money. Predictions have little credibility unless the prognosticator puts some dollars down.
OK, with that grouchy but accurate statement entered into the record, let’s proceed.
If I had to wager on this series – and I’m not – I think Minnesota will defeat the Blues in a lengthy series. Six or seven games. I’m not confident of that choice for an obvious reason, and there’s no reason for me to hedge. The Wild and Blues are outstanding teams, closely matched in many ways. This series could fall either way, so flip a coin. There is nothing bold or brilliant about choosing the Blues, and there is nothing courageous – or an example of slick insider trading – to select the Wild.
The two biggest differences between the teams – based on actual performance, rather than narrative – comes down to this:
1) Both sides have the legitimate capability to score many goals, but the Wild have done a much better job of preventing goals in recent weeks.
2) The St. Louis special teams were so superior during the regular season, it was almost laughable. The bottom line: the Blues scored 31 more power play goals than they allowed when killing penalties, and the Wild gave up 10 more power play goals than they scored themselves. If that +21 advantage carries over into this first-round series, then that’s a big plus for St. Louis. (When I say +21 carrying over, I don’t mean that there literally will be a 21-goal advantage by the Blues special teams … just that the Blues will perform much better on the power play and the PK.)
But does a regular-season special teams showing translate into similar results in the postseason? Hard to say. Much depends on how tightly games are called by the officials. And it depends on the small-sample randomness of any postseason.
This, from the astute analyst Neil Paine at FiveThirtyEight:
“Special teams is a tricky category because — somewhat counterintuitively — penalty calls tend to increase during the playoffs, making the performance of power-play and penalty-kill units more important than during the regular season, though those stats are also not especially reliable because of the sample sizes involved in a typical postseason. That means you could spin the comparative reliance on special teams for the New York Rangers, Edmonton Oilers and Pittsburgh Penguins (and, to a lesser extent, the St. Louis Blues) as a positive … or as a negative, depending on how much you believe that particular strength will come in handy over the next few months. For what it’s worth, only 22 percent of goals in last year’s playoffs were scored by teams with a man advantage.”
In 2019 the Blues survived Boston in a seven-game Stanley Cup Final despite scoring only one power play goal in 18 opportunities during the series.
And a potent Bruins power play suddenly stopped clicking over the final four games against the Blues, netting one PP goal in 10 setups.
Even in a limited series pitting two superb teams the special teams go up and down – and it can happen without much warning. And yes, a hot goaltender has an influence on that.
Unlike Minnesota, St. Louis did an effective job of staying out of the penalty box during the regular season. As for what goes down next, we’ll know a lot more once we have an idea of how this series will be officiated. I just can’t assume anything. If I had a reason to feel confident about the Blues having a lot more power play opportunities than the Wild in the coming days, I’d have a different outlook on the Blues’ chances of advancing to the next round.
But I don’t know what we’re in store for because of the whimsical nature of NHL officiating, so I’ll rely more on five-on-five expectations.
And that’s where I think the Wild has an edge.
I’m basing that on how the teams have played in more recent times, with rosters supplemented at the trade deadline.
By March 28, both the Wild and Blues were operating with the revised rosters that they’ll take into this series. Minnesota went 13-2-3 over that time (.806) and the Blues were slightly better at 14-2-2 (.833.)
But look at the closer details contained in the five-on-five play.
– Since March 28th the Blues led the NHL with an average of 3.73 goals per 60 minutes at five on five. But … the Wild were a close second at 3.61 goals per 60. Yes, we have all celebrated the Blues’ firepower and goals that are popped in by a large cast of scorers. Nine Blues had 20 or more goals this season. But since March 28, with the Wild and Blues each playing 18 games, both teams had similar goal distribution among players. Both teams had nine players score 3+ goals. Both teams got at least one goal from 16 players.
– But what about the Blues’ blazing shooting percentage? Since March 28, a sizzling 13.5 percent of their shots at five on five have resulted in goals. But there’s Minnesota, a close second with a shooting percentage of 12%.
– Here’s the main difference between the teams: from March 28 until the end of the regular season, Minnesota gave up only 1.98 goals per 60 minutes at five on five. That low yield of 1.98 ranked No. 1 in the league over that time. And the Blues gave up 3.13 goals per 60 minutes at five on five – which ranked 24th in the NHL over that time.
– The difference was even more pronounced if we go back to March 24, with Minnesota allowing the fewest goals in the NHL (1.88) per 60 minutes at five on five. During the same stretch the Blues ranked 27th in the NHL with an average yield of 3.43 goals per 60 at five on five. That’s a huge difference in goal prevention between the teams. And again, these stats came from the same cast of players that both teams will take into this series.
Those goals-against totals since March 28 are supported by other relevant categories:
– The Blues allowed the third-highest number of scoring chances in the league (458) at five on five since March 28. The Wild allowed 105 fewer scoring chances than the Blues over the same 18-game sample size.
– Along the same lines the Blues allowed the fifth-highest total of high-danger shots (180) at five on five over 18 games; the Wild gave up the fifth fewest HD shots (134) in the same number of games. If you have two high-scoring teams going at it, then the number of prime scoring opportunities become even more crucial in determining the outcome.
– In the 18 games since March 28, Minnesota ranks second in the NHL with a five-on-five save percentage of .931. The Blues are 21st with a .907 save rate at five on five during the same stretch of competition.
I’d be surprised if Minnesota’s home-ice advantage means much. I’d be even more surprised if the Blues’ success against the Wild in recent seasons is an actual factor in this showdown of division rivals. If the Minnesota players are that mentally soft just because the Blues have handled them during regular-season matches, then the team from the Twin Cities doesn’t deserve to win.
Here’s what I think: when two teams with high-caliber offenses go against each other, I give the edge to the side that figures to get more opportunities to score … and the side that has done a more effective job of limiting dangerous shots … and the team that has been more dependable in keeping the puck out of its own net.
And it’s important to base the conclusions on recent form – and not something that happened during earlier months, before the March 21 trade deadline. There’s a reason why the Wild acquired three-time Stanley Cup winning goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, and 6-3, 220-pound defenseman Jacob Middleton.
The Blues have more postseason overall experience than Minnesota — and it isn’t close — but not in goal. Not with Fleury hunting for a fourth Stanley Cup. Blues starting goaltender Ville Husso must be spectacular in this series — especially if his teammates give up too many juicy scoring chances. The same applies to Jordan Binnington if he’s inserted into action.
Unless the STL special teams dominate in a way that wipes out the Wild’s seeming advantage at five on five, Minnesota should prevail and get by the Blues in a tight one.
Enjoy the series.
Thanks for reading …
Bernie invites you to listen to his opinionated and analytical sports-talk show on 590-AM The Fan, KFNS. It airs Monday through Thursday from 3-6 p.m. and Friday from 4-6 p.m. You can listen by streaming online or by downloading the “Bernie Show” podcast at 590thefan.com — the 590 app works great and is available in your preferred app store.
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All stats used here were sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Stathead, Bill James Online, Fielding Bible, Baseball Savant and Brooks Baseball Net unless otherwise noted.