The longer a Stanley Cup Playoffs series goes, the tenser things get. There’s less time to react and no room for error. So, with the series even, two games apiece, the Minnesota Wild and St. Louis Blues are expecting the vice grip to be clamped down even tighter in Game 5.
Of course, Minnesota wants to bounce back from its Game 4 effort, a 6-1 loss on home ice on Wednesday. After winning the third game of the series, the Wild didn’t have a good start and the Blues took advantage, scoring three times in the opening period.
Through four games, the team that has scored first has gone on to win. Both clubs play a structured, tight checking game, so they make it difficult to create offense because there’s not much ice or space.
“You have to have a very workman-like approach,” Wild Head Coach Mike Yeo said. “[St. Louis is] always going play with structure, but they’re hard in their structure, they’re tight in their structure.
“To think that you’re going to get some freebies out there, it’s not going to happen.”
Wild forward Matt Cooke has the most playoff experience on the roster. He knows how difficult it is to generate anything in a seven game series. He’ll be back on the wing tonight replacing Sean Bergenheim on the fourth line. That will be the team’s only change.
“It’s two great defensive teams. It doesn’t get easy. As series wear on, there becomes less space and it becomes harder,” Cooke said. “I think that you have to fight for your space, you have to earn everything that you get.”
With less space than a phone booth, players have to fight through checks. Minnesota forward Zach Parise is known for his dogged tenacity. He believes that players have to find new ways to create holes against an opponent that is familiar with their tactics.
“You try and find different areas, you try to find different ways to get the puck more and create space for yourself, try to make two-on-ones in the offensive zone,” Parise said. That’s the challenge of the playoffs. All the video and everything. You have to be creative. You have to find different ways around it.”
On the backend, goaltender Devan Dubnyk is looking to have a bounce back game. The netminder allowed six goals on 17 shots, his worst performance with the Wild. He’s not focused on the last outcome and is excited get back between the pipes.
“It’s just one of those games, bounces,” Dubnyk said. “They worked hard and got opportunities, but as for myself, I know what it was and it’s easy to throw away.”
Dubnyk is in his first Stanley Cup Playoffs, but knows the lesson from players like Cooke.
“Playoffs are a time that potentially you’re going to play seven times against the same opponent. The best teams have a short memory in playoffs,” Cooke said. “At the end of the day [Game 4 was] one loss and we need to be able to move forward and come out and get back to the way that we play, the way that our game is and impose our will on them from the get-go.”
Dubnyk believes the Wild can learn a lesson from Wednesday’s loss and take it into tonight’s pivotal Game 5.
“I think we need to take a page out of their book,” Dubnyk said. “Do what they did in our building and come out and try to do the same here.”
Blues Head Coach Ken Hitchcock believes that the tight checking and defensive structure is taking a toll on both teams. He said the shift lengths of the series have been the shortest he’s seen in all his years as an NHL coach. According to him, both teams are keeping changes around 30 seconds.
“That’s how much players are putting into it,” Hitchcock said. “Every puck is contested.
“There’s no room, no space.”
The Blues bench boss said that’s what happens between two structured teams, who are going after it every night, are rolling four lines rather than playing the mix and match game.
Yeo agreed saying there’s “recognition on both sides, you need your energy up at its highest level — not only to defend, but try to create.”
Hitchcock added that the reason it’s been a back-and-forth series is because the winning team gets a little breathing room, while the loser comes back harder the next night. So he’s expecting that kind of bounce back from the Wild.
“You take your foot off the accelerator a little bit,” Hitchcock said. “The other team is ready to pounce.”
He thinks that Game 5 has the potential to be the best of the series because both clubs know what’s at stake.