The St. Louis Blues are hungry to prove they can get past the introductory dance in the NHL playoffs.
After being bounced out in the first round in each of the last two seasons by a pair of highly talented teams, Chicago and Los Angeles, the Blues have an opportunity for redemption beginning Thursday against the Minnesota Wild at Scottrade Center.
“I think it really is the best team we’ve had at this point of the season in my four years going into the playoffs now,” Blues defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk said. “We’re healthy and we’re playing well, which is key. We’re equipped, we’ve put the right pieces of the puzzle in place. Now it’s a matter of proving it to ourselves that we can do it. We have that hunger and that drive to be a killer-instinct type team.”
And one with a rookie goalie making his first NHL playoff start after former Blues backup Jake Allen got the word Wednesday.
Blues coach Ken Hitchcock was asked about finding a sign that Allen is comfortable once the playoffs begin.
“There’s a black disc that gets put on the ice and if you stop it, you’re doing good,” he said. “The goalie’s just part off this mix right now. We’ve got a lot of guys looking forward to this who are excited, it’s going to be a lot of fun. He’s just one of many that’s going to have a first-hand experience at the playoffs, which is good for us.”
Ironically, Allen will have a slight edge in playoff experience compared to Minnesota Wild goalie Devany Dubnyk, who is making his NHL postseason debut. Allen’s edge? He played a little over one minute of relief in a 2012 playoff game against Los Angeles.
However, the 6-foot-6 Dubnyk has been one of the league’s hottest goaltenders since mid-January. Starting 38 straight games, he backstopped the Wild to a 27-9-2 record with a 1.78 goals-against average and .936 save percentage.
“He’s really carried them a long way,” Blues defenseman Barret Jackman said. “Ever since getting traded there he’s stood on his head and been probably the best second-best goalie in the league compared to the ‘Hamburglar’ (Andrew Hammond) in Ottawa. He’s really ignited their team and put them in a position for success.”
Obtained from Arizona for a third-round pick on Jan. 14, Dubynk blanked Buffalo 7-0 in his first start to snap Minnesota’s six-game losing streak. The wins began piling up and a Wild team that had been languishing in 12th place in the Western Conference now finds itself with a shot at the Stanley Cup.
Only 28, Dubynk has already played for Edmonton, Nashville, Arizona and now Minnesota.
“They’re the hottest team in the league the last half of the season. They’re playing great,” Blues captain David Backes said of the Wild, who split four games with the Blues this season. “Their goaltender’s been phenomenal for them and they’ve beat us two out of the last three that we’ve played them, so we’ve got our work cut out for us.”
The Blues have three balanced forward lines that has spread the offensive wealth like few Blues teams in recent memory. There’s a potentially strong mix of scoring punch, grit, playmakers, veteran presence and size.
Focus on slowing down Vladimir Tarasenko and Alexander Steen’s line with Jori Lehtera and you risk being burned by the highly effective recently placed together trio of Paul Stastny with T.J. Oshie and Jaden Schwartz. Backes’ big and brawny line includes Patrik Berglund and Dmitrij Jaskin.
Stastny had five goals and 10 points against the Wild last season while playing for Colorado in a first-round playoff defeat.
The Wild have a pair of solid and proven veterans in forward Zach Parise and defenseman Ryan Suter. They also own the league’s top penalty kill unit while the Blues’ power play ranks fourth with a 22.3 percent success rate.
This is a far different Wild team than the ones of not-too-distant past known for trying to smother opponents defensively to stay in games. This squad has talent and speed up front led by Parise (33 goals, 62 points), Jason Pominville (18 goals, 54 points), Thomas Vanek (21 goals, 52 points) and the elusive Jason Zucker (21 goals in 51 games). Nino Niederreiter adds another 24 goals.
Have the Blues learned their playoff lessons well after such bitter opening-round defeats in 2013 and 2014? They are about to find out.
“I think the teams that have players that have gone through that experience, have had success in that experience, they have a benefit,” Hitchcock said. “You’ve got a lot of players who know what the price is to pay, how to move on daily and not get absorbed or overwhelmed knowing it takes four games to win a series.
“You’re going to go through lots of emotional upheaval and you’re just going to have to be able to deal with it.”