Three takeaways from the Wild's 4-2 win over the Blues in Game 1 of their Western Conference quarterfinal series...
1. There's nothing more exciting than first-round playoff hockey. Nothing.
Tonight's game just happened to be the exception that proves the rule.
Outside of a frantic finish that saw three goals, including a pair of Wild empty-netters, scored in a span of 57 seconds, this contest was as dull as anything from the Dead Puck Era. Despite the stakes, the game was played with limited physical contact, nearly bereft of emotion and with infrequent spurts of creativity. This was hockey at its over-coached worst, with players acting like drones following programs rather than their guts. If you changed channels to watch the Ducks and Jets, you made a solid call.
It was a surprising limp opener to a series that quite legitimately could feature the eventual Stanley Cup champion. The Wild weren't bad in collecting their 13th road win in 14 tries. In fact, they did a nice job controlling the flow of the game, frustrating the Blues with their speed, establishing their cycle down low and getting pucks to the net. But it was a joyless effort. The style might win them games but it won't win them many fans.
After a solid first few minutes, the Blues spent most of the night trying to counter punch rather than dictate the game. They couldn't quite match the pace of the Wild and that prevented them from playing the heavy style they wanted until it was way too late. If they can't figure out a way to exact a physical toll from the visitors in Game 2, they could find themselves in a deep hole.
Devan Dubnyk was solid for the Wild in his playoff debut, stopping 19 of 21 shots, but was rarely tested until late in the game. Hard to find any fault at all in his effort. Jake Allen looked brutal on Jason Zucker's goal in the opening minutes, somehow failing to read that the winger was going for the wraparound when he swung behind the St. Louis net. That was one of several times he looked jittery in the early going, but he settled down enough as the game went on to earn another start in Game 2 from Ken Hitchcock.
2. It was another rough night for trade deadline acquisitions.
The veteran defenseman, acquired at the deadline from the Coyotes in exchange for prospect Maxim Letunov and a conditional third-round pick in the 2015 NHL draft, was brought on board for the stabilizing presence he provides in his own zone. He was anything but that tonight. Michalek was badly burned by the speed of Zucker on Minnesota's opening goal just 2:47 into the contest. He was caught flat-footed again by Zucker in the second and forced to take a penalty. Late in the third, he was turned inside out on a dynamic one-on-one rush by Zach Parise. There were other, less spectacular failures but they all centered around the same problem: Michalek struggled to meet the pace set by the Wild.
Against other teams—the Ducks, for example or maybe the Blackhawks—his positioning and smarts would have prevented him from being exposed like he was. Michalek just might not be up for this particular matchup. Keep an eye on him as the series progresses. It's a good bet the Wild will be doing the same.
3. Alex Steen's shorthanded snapper in the dying seconds was a nasty piece of work, but the real highlight for Blues fans might have taken place far from the Scottrade Center ice.
Meeting with the media prior to the game, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman suggested that St. Louis might be ready to host one of the league's premier events.
“I think at some point we should be here with an outdoor game,” the commissioner said. “I'm not prepared to make a formal announcement or a prediction as far as the date. At some point, when the timing is right and we can work it all out, we should probably bring an outdoor game here.”
Yeah, they should. Busch Stadium, the home of baseball's St. Louis Cardinals, would be an ideal site for the contest. What it lacks in seating capacity it makes up for with a great downtown location, and the iconic Gateway Arch over the centerfield wall would provide a scenic backdrop. The league's been hesitant to host a Winter Classic outside of major Eastern markets to this point, but there's no reason to think St. Louis couldn't handle it. This city deserves a shot.