Following a trend that began in the NHL playoff openers Wednesday, the home team struggled in Game 1 Thursday at Scottrade Center.
The visiting team won three of four games the day before and the St. Louis Blues were trending in that direction as well all night, eventually losing 4-2 to the Minnesota Wild in their playoff opener.
The Blues surrendered quick goals near the start of the first and second periods and couldn’t finish off a late comeback. In each of the last two seasons, the Blues won two straight at home to open the playoffs before losing the next four games on the way to a first-round exit.
“After tonight it’s one game and I don’t think even whoever’s going to win tonight is going to feel they’ve gotten anywhere,” Blues captain David Backes said. “Because until you get that fourth game, it’s up for grabs with two great teams here.”
The Wild didn’t score on its first shot against Blues rookie goalie Jake Allen, who was making his first career playoff start, but the second one found the back of the net.
Minnesota’s Jason Zucker showed why he is perhaps the quickest forward on the Wild, skating around Blues defenseman Zbynek Michalek and firing a shot that met resistance on Allen’s leg pads.
However, the shot bounced right back to Zucker and he flew around the back of the net before scoring on a wraparound to put the Wild on top. Zucker had 21 goals in just 51 games this season, recently returning from a broken collarbone.
Allen made two big stops later in the first period, turning away Zucker following a turnover by Blues center David Backes and then making a nice save on Nino Niederreiter.
The Blues had several decent scoring chances early, but Wild defenseman Ryan Suter helped defuse a potential break by Vladimir Tarasenko, with Tarasenko electing to pass on the shot and trying a pass to Alexander Steen instead.
The line of Jori Lehtera centering Tarasenko and Steen failed to register a shot in the first two periods before Steen scored a short-handed goal in the third. Backes did not have a shot through two periods and finished with one on the night, while defenseman Alex Pietrangelo led his team with six shots.
Blues coach Ken Hitchcock cautioned against taking any big-picture views of anything involved with the NHL playoffs.
“You can’t look at anything long-term,” he said. “ You can’t look at anything (like) where are we going to be at Game 3 or Game 4. You look at it every day individually and then you make decisions from there. You’ve got to put guys in you think can make a little bit of a difference, because that’s the little edge you’re looking for every day.
“Once the next day starts, you have to look at things pretty critically.”
What seemed like an encouraging stat for the Blues game before the series began was Wild goaltender Devan Dubnyk’s career stats against St. Louis.
He began the night 2-8 in his career vs. the Blues with a 4.10 goals-against average and .866 save percentage. However, Dubnyk was 2-1 in three games against the Blues this season with a 2.63 goals-against average and .918 save percentage.
He also was the NHL’s hottest goaltender throughout the second half of the season after being traded to Minnesota by Arizona, going 27-9-2 with a 1.78 goals-against average, five shutouts and a 1.78 goals-against average in 39 starts for the Wild.
That included one stretch of 38 starts in a row and four shutouts in a nine-game span.
The last playoff appearance by Dybnyk was in 2007 for the Stockton Thunder of the East Coast Hockey League.
“I was thinking back over the last few days to different playoff experiences I’ve had, there hasn’t been too many …. it’s been a while now,” Dubnyk said. “Those are a long time ago, obviously a different stage to be on. But all things you can draw off of, different experiences that happened.”
Former Blues winger Chris Stewart, traded to Buffalo last season along with goalie Jaroslav Halak as part of the deal that brought goalie Ryan Miller and forward Steve Ott to St. Louis, is back in the playoffs again with the Wild.
Did Stewart, who drew some boos during pregame introductions, see a shot at beating the Blues as extra incentive?
“I wouldn’t say there’s extra motivation,” said Stewart, who came to the Blues along with defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk in the trade that sent former first overall pick Erik Johnson to Colorado. “The goal here is to win the Stanley Cup, that’s plenty of motivation. If we win, it definitely will be sweeter.”
Stewart came to the Wild in a March 2 trade with the Sabres for a second-round pick. He had three goals and 10 points in 20 games with Minnesota.
“It’s been great,” he said. “I had an opportunity to play with some good hockey players here and hit the ground running. I feel comfortable and had a chance to produce too, so it’s been good.”
Outdoor game in St. Louis?
On the occasion of another visit to a Blues playoff game, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman was asked the question Blues fans always want to know. Will there ever be one of the popular “Winter Classic” outdoor hockey games in St. Louis like ones staged at other NHL venues?
Even Wrigley Field has hosted an outdoor game, so why not Busch Stadium in St. Louis?
“I think at some point we should be here with an outdoor game,” Bettman said. “I’m not prepared to make a formal announcement or a prediction as to the date. It would make sense. This is a great sports town and it’s a great town for Blues hockey. At some point when the timing is right and we can work it all out, we should probably bring an outdoor game (here) too.”
Bettman seemed impressed by the Blues current ownership group headed by Tom Stillman.
“There have been lots of different ownership groups here over the years,” Bettman said. “This ownership group has been terrific. Tom and his partners, they’re local, they’re committed, they have strength. The franchise is as stable as it’s ever been and it’s performing very well both on and off the ice.”