Two of the league’s toughest teams to score against meet in a first-round series that some experts feel could lead to a Western Conference championship for the winner.
Indeed, much is at stake for a St. Louis Blues team that has lost three straight playoff series but enters the postseason on a roll with wins in five of their last six games. In each of the last two years, the Blues won the first two games of their first-round series before losing the next four and being eliminated. The Los Angeles Kings turned that trick in 2013 and Chicago did it last year.
Minnesota has been one of the hottest teams in the NHL since the arrival of goaltender Devany Dubnyk on Jan. 14, going 28-9-3 over that span. The Wild are notoriously tough to score against and make teams grind it out, offering few high-quality scoring chances.
Goals Scored: Blues (5th) 2.9; Wild (12th) 2.8.
Goals Against: Blues (4th) 2.4; Wild (6th) 2.4
Power Play: Blues (4th) 22.3 percent; Wild (27th) 15.9 percent
Penalty Kill: Blues (7th) 83.7 percent; Wild (1st) 86.3 percent
Here’s a breakdown of the series looking at key areas for both teams:
The Blues are a bit deeper and more skilled, possessing four 20-goal scorers and seven players with at least 40 points led by Vladimir Tarasenko’s 37 goals and 73 points. An experienced core of playoff veterans should also help the Blues, who can rely on solid two-way center David Backes and versatile Alexander Steen, Paul Stastny and T.J. Oshie along with rising star Jaden Schwartz. Minnesota also boasts some elite skill led by left winger Zach Parise (33 goals, 62 points) and Mikko Koivu (14 goals, 48 points). Minnesota’s top line features Parise, Mikael Granlund and Jason Pominville (18 goals, 54 points). The Wild also have a sniper and proven playoff producer in left winger Thomas Vanek (21 goals, 52 points this season; 20 goals, 30 points in 53 career playoff games). Winger Nino Niederreiter was second on the Wild with 24 goals.
The return of all-star Kevin Shattenkirk from abdominal surgery and additions of Zbynek Michalek and Robert Bortuzzo immediately deepened an already strong Blues defense unit. The minutes are more evenly distributed now, allowing longtime top-pair partners Alex Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester to be split up and used to balance other defense pairs in a highly skilled puck-moving unit. The extremely stingy Wild boast one of the league’s top defensemen in Ryan Suter, who averages nearly 30 minutes a game and is on the ice in all important situations. Minnesota is extremely adept at shot-blocking and its overall system rarely allows many high-quality scoring chances.
The Blues rode the hot hand of Jake Allen down the stretch and he delivered, allowing just one goal in his final four starts with a 1.01 goals-against average and unreal .964 save percentage. It will be interesting to see if the Blues go with Allen, who has one minute of playoff experience, or veteran Brian Elliott. Before this season, Elliott was 6-0 against the Wild in his career, but he was in goal for both Blues’ losses to them this season as well as one win. Dubnyk has been nothing short of amazing for the Wild since a Jan. 15 trade that brought him to the Twin Cities from Arizona. The Wild are 28-9-3 since his arrival and Dubnyk was in goal for nearly every game, going 27-9-2 with a 1.78 goals-against average and .936 save percentage.
Minnesota has the league’s top penalty kill unit while the Blues have one of the league’s top power-play units, which currently ranks fourth. That should provide one of the more interesting matchups of the series. The Blues’ penalty kill unit ranks seventh in the NHL and allowed only one power-play goal in the final seven regular-season games. The Wild bucked their own trend by allowing power-play goals in four of their final six contests.
Tarasenko had four goals in six playoff games against Chicago last spring and is tough to contain, especially on the power play. Another bonus for the Blues is the playoff experience of Stastny, who excels at both ends of the rink and provided five goals and 10 points for Colorado last spring in a seven-game first-round loss to the Wild. Minnesota’s x-factor is Dubnyk, a red-hot goaltender during the regular season who has yet to play a minute in the playoffs. An early win in St. Louis could send Dubnyk and the Wild on a roll, but the Blues are determined to end their first-round failures and make a deep run.
PREDICTION: Blues in seven games.