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Minnesota Seeks to Build on Home Ice Advantage

Seeded higher than ever before, Wild eager to open Round 1 in St. Paul

by Devin Lowe /

ST. PAUL -- Since 2013, the Minnesota Wild has made five straight postseason appearances. But you'd have to go back a little further to stumble upon the last time the Wild opened at Xcel Energy Center, thanks to one of the only statistical remnants of the regular season that follows each team into the playoffs: home ice advantage.

Back in 2007-08 -- when Minnesota won the Northwest Division and Marian Gaborik scored 42 goals, the still-standing franchise record for most tallies in a single season -- the Wild opened at home against the sixth-seeded Colorado Avalanche. 

It didn't get to host a Game 7: Colorado jumped out to a 2-0 series lead with two back-to-back overtime wins, and the Avs downed the Wild in Denver.

The upcoming series against the St. Louis Blues will be just the second time in franchise history that the Wild has opened the Stanley Cup Playoffs with home ice advantage. And with such a small sample size, it's impossible to predict what the effects of home ice advantage might be this time around in a season where Minnesota has rewritten its own record books.

One thing is certain, though: Playoff hockey engenders a special atmosphere inside each rink that's a step or two up from the regular season. The stakes are higher, fans are louder and players take notice.

"It's pretty cool to play here. Just the atmosphere, it's up a couple notches," said Wild forward Charlie Coyle. "The fans really bring a lot of energy, and we feed off of that. It gets so loud. Sometimes you can't even hear the whistle out there, the guys yelling, the coach yelling. It makes for an exciting atmosphere and a fun game. We're really looking forward to playing here."

Video: Wild on Excitement for Playoffs to Begin

The Wild has already enjoyed the comforts of home ice advantage as it awaits the arrival of its rival Blues to St. Paul. Minnesota spent its last two practice days drilling at Xcel Energy Center, while the Blues flew in after practice in St. Louis Tuesday afternoon.

In addition to the energy the home fans bring, the Wild also gets to stay anchored to its home routines while the visitors spend a couple nights in a hotel.

"It's always nice to be at your house in your own little comfort zone," Wild forward Zach Parise said. "Everything about home ice is just better. That you do get to stay at your house and in your own bed is a perk for sure."

Parise is one of two in the Wild locker room who has enjoyed home ice advantage in a Stanley Cup Final. The other, of course, is Eric Staal, whose Carolina Hurricanes rode the wave of home ice advantage all the way to a Stanley Cup Championship in 2006, beating the eighth-seeded Edmonton Oilers in Game 7 at the RBC Center (now PNC Arena) in Raleigh. 

"For us that year, it was beneficial because for me, I feel like if you can have Game 7 at home, you'd like that," Staal said. "But every series is different and every chance you have is different. We're glad we have it here to start, but we've got to take advantage of it, get off to a good start and be excited about Game 1."

With the Wild holding its highest ever playoff seed, expectations are high. In 2008, Minnesota couldn't take advantage of home ice and won just one game in St. Paul that postseason. 

It's yet another record on the books that Minnesota wants to rewrite this year.

"It's about taking deep breaths, I think," Staal said. "There's a lot of excitement for playoffs, so I think it's important to stay focused on your job and what you do and not do anything out of character, because it's gonna take everybody. It's about playing our game and doing what we do and doing it at a higher level. But you need to be calm and excited all at once."

A big challenge

Perhaps the most imposing obstacle Wild forwards will face against the Blues is the sheer size of St. Louis' defensemen.

Of the seven blueliners on the Blues roster, five of the seven stand at least 6-foot-3 or taller. Captain Alex Pietrangelo is the shortest of that bunch. Joel Edmundson, Jay Bouwmeester and Robert Bortuzzo are each 6-foot-4 while Colton Parayko towers at 6-foot-6.

"They box out well. They've got big, mobile D, so I think as a whole team, like against any team, you always want to get to the net and get rebounds, but these guys box out really well and they block shots well so that's something we're really going to have to pay attention to if we want to score goals in this series," Parise said. "You've got to get inside, you gotta get around the crease and inside the hashmarks if you want to get rebounds. That's going to be a really important part for us."

The size and mobility of the Blues D-core was on display in the final meeting of the regular season between the teams in early March, when St. Louis jumped ahead 2-0, then held on for a 2-1 win. The group essentially formed a wall around goaltender Jake Allen, allowing little in the way of quality scoring chances.

Wild coach Bruce Boudreau said he expects a similar effort from St. Louis in Game 1 and beyond.

"I would think that's where their strength is. That's what they're going to do. They shut us down really good the last time here," Boudreau said. "We got very few opportunities, and it wouldn't surprise me at all if that's a template for what they're going to do tomorrow."

Video: Boudreau Gears Up for Postseason

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