Wild Chase for the Cup: 5 Keys for Game 5

Minnesota Wild's Martin Hanzal, of the Czech Republic, is congratulated by Ryan White (21) after scoring during the second period in Game 4 of an NHL hockey first-round playoff series against the St. Louis Blues on Wednesday, April 19, 2017, in St. Louis. Photo: AP Photo/Jeff Roberson
Minnesota Wild's Martin Hanzal, of the Czech Republic, is congratulated by Ryan White (21) after scoring during the second period in Game 4 of an NHL hockey first-round playoff series against the St. Louis Blues on Wednesday, April 19, 2017, in St. Louis.

April 21, 2017 10:54 PM

Wild Chase for the Cup: 5 Keys for victory in Game 5

"We're All in this Boat Together... Everybody Grab an Oar" No, this isn't the latest rallying cry from new Gopher football coach P.J. Fleck. It's actually an old '87/'91 World Series-era quite from then-Twins manager Tom Kelly that's now stenciled into the ceiling for motivation in the clubhouse at Target Field.  


While the Wild have done a terrific job of rowing in unison defensively throughout this series against the Blues, the offense still has fallen upon a select few. It's not that only three Wild players have scored in the four games of the series so far (Parise 2, Coyle 2, Hanzal 1) - it's that many of the others just haven't been present at all on offense.

Sure, some among the goalless have been paddling away. Eric Staal, as an example, caught a post or two and generated a breakaway that could really have iced Game 4. There are others, but as a group, the Wild offense has been underwhelming and needs to get to rowing on Saturday afternoon. 

Don't Get Cocky / Comfortable Charlie Coyle was caught on camera shipping a big ol' smirk at Jake Allen in the waning moments of Game 4. It can be taken one of two ways - one good, one bad. It's either A) "Ok, we finally got to you ... sure feels like we ought to be able to climb back into this series. We'll see you fellas in St. Paul on Saturday." or B) "Ha! See ... we were one of the best teams in hockey all year long and everything's now back to normal. Now we'll be able to score whenever we want to. Just wait until we get you on our home ice on Saturday."  

The difference between the two could be the key to where the Wild's heads are entering Game 5 ... and fans would hope it's more option "A" than "B."

It goes without saying, but the Wild need to see their Game 4 win as a building block, not as the basis of a belief they've found some kind of solution. After all, they still only scored two goals. That said, the home crowd will be electric Saturday afternoon (although, not as electric as it would've been had the game landed on Saturday night), and the Wild need to surf atop that energy to sustained - but level-headed - intensity and pressure.

They can't allow themselves to look at seeding or regular season standings and think they have some sort of grace or right to stride out onto the sheet Saturday and just push the Blues over. We'll know if the Wild come out flat and wind up trailing 3-0 on Saturday that Coyle's smirk meant the Wild thought they'd turned a corner way before they actually had. Unless they...

Score First. Again. Every Game 5 preview column, article, sports-talk segment and talking head has included this angle, so we may as well fall in line here.

Everything changes for the St. Louis Blues game plan if they fall behind in a game. Games 1, 2 and 3 are their perfect scenario: sit back, play airtight D, counterpunch when there's an opening to take a lead, then really pack it in and sit back on D.

The Wild are the better team and have been in all four games of the series. But that margin closes a bit when the hulking Blues backline can sit back, clog passing lanes and clear pucks instead of having to make an effort to push forward to erase a deficit. The Wild finally exposed the Blues as punchless in Game 4 when they have to push forward and score. (Although there's one dangerous and obvious exception, which we'll get to shortly.) So how to take that early lead, you ask???

Attack the Middle of the Ice and Crease Martin Hanzal's insurance goal late in Game 4 was the first goal the Wild have scored all series in which someone launched a direct attack at Jake Allen by coming straight down Route 1. By the time Hanzal hit the offensive zone and coiled to shoot, he had all 24 square feet of the net to shoot at, and hit the one square foot Allen couldn't get to.

In generating an average of 76 shot attempts in the first three games, the Wild were way too satisfied to let Blues defenders steer their rushes toward the wings, firing low-threat shots from above and outside the faceoff dots.  Hanzal finally showed what can happen if somebody cuts in.  

The Blues helped Jake Allen be superman in Games 1-2-3 by keeping the high-risk area in front of him clean. The Wild need to attack it ... and clog it up.  

That's the other part of things the Wild need more of up front - traffic. I could probably count on one hand the number of times Allen has had to shift on his skates to peer around a screen - and they might all have been known crease-lover Zach Parise. I'd actually like to see Hanzal plant his 6 foot 5 inch body in Allen's kitchen and see what happens.  

So ... clog up the crease and send attacks down Main Street. That's what the Wild can do up front. Of course, it wouldn't hurt to...

Hope Jake Allen has Fallen Back to Earth ... and Stays There There's a measurement called CORSI (forgive my explanation, hockey nerds) that quantifies how many offensive threats and chances a team generates. The Wild's CORSI in the first three games was on par with teams that have won the Stanley Cup in recent years, and yet they trailed the series 0-3.

The difference, as you well know if you watched the games, was Blues goalie Jake Allen. His 97 percent save clip in the first three games was amazing. It was also not sustainable. His career save percentage is 91.5 percent this year, and 91.6 percent over the course of his career. He simply wasn't going to carry on with the superhuman effort he turned in during the first three games against the Wild.

But, there was certainly no reason he couldn't have kept it going for a few more games. Luckily for the Wild, Allen came back down to Earth in Game 4. Now, they just have to hope he remains grounded.


Chris Long

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