Unable to sustain much momentum in the offensive zone Thursday against the stingy Minnesota Wild, the St. Louis Blues dug themselves an early hole in their first-round playoff series with a 4-2 defeat.
The Wild built a 2-0 lead, only to watch the Blues fight back on a deflection goal by Jaden Schwartz early in the third period. After that the teams began trading goals at a rapid rate, with the Wild scoring twice in the final 1 minute, 13 seconds on empty-net goals by Mikael Granlund and Jason Pominville.
A short-handed goal by Blues winger Alexander Steen with 58.7 seconds remaining temporarily cut the Wild lead to 3-2, but Pominville tucked in an empty-netter with 20 seconds remaining to clinch a win in the playoff debut of Minnesota goaltender Devan Dubnyk.
Though he didn’t see much in the way of high-quality chances thanks to the Wild’s suffocating defense, Dubnyk stopped 19 of 21 shots. Game 2 is set for 2 p.m. Saturday at Scottrade Center.
Blues rookie goalie Jake Allen stopped 25 of 27 shots in his first NHL playoff start. Blues coach Ken Hitchcock did not hesitate to name Allen the starter for Game 2 on Saturday.
“Jake was great,” Hitchcock said. “He was really good.”
Jason Zucker scored just under three minutes into the game and Matt Dumba added a goal early in the second period to stake the Wild to some early momentum.
The sellout crowd of 19,671 was lulled to sleep much of the night by the Wild, who built a wall in front of Dubnyk and kept slamming the door shut on Blues’ scoring opportunities.
“I think there was traffic, we didn’t get the shots,” Hitchcock said. “They did a really good job in the first and third period of boxing us out. They did a better job of clogging up the middle; they gave us the zone and challenged us to get the pucks through. We didn’t get them through.”
The Blues were outshot 21-10 in the first two periods and 29-21 overall.
“You get down one at home and you hope to pick it up a notch and that it’d be a wake-up call,” Blues captain David Backes said. “It almost took until the third period until we finally got our legs going and played our brand of hockey. I think we got better as the game went along. I don’t know if it was nerves or too much time off or what.
Hitchcock was asked about his team’s tendency to struggle after long layoffs this season. The Blues are 1-7-1 with three-plus days of rest this season.
However, the Blues — like the Wild — had not played since the teams met last Saturday in the regular-season finale.
“We have not played well off of layoffs all year,” Hitchcock said. “This is probably another example of that, but we’ve had a game under our belt and we’re going to have to play better. Killer instinct comes in a number of fashions and one of the fashions is you really have to simplify your game in the playoffs.”
The Blues finally broke through at the 7:12 mark of the third period when a shot by defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk was deflected in by winger Schwartz. That woke up the crowd and seemed to bring a new intensity in the Blues all over the ice.
The Wild grabbed the lead just 2 minutes, 47 seconds into the contest as the speedy Zucker made his way around Blues defenseman Zbynek Michalek and fired a shot on goalie Jake Allen. Zucker quickly grabbed his own rebound, flew around the back of the net and scored on a wraparound.
“That guy’s a speed demon there,” Allen said. “Good play by him. Wish I could have controlled the rebound a little bit better, but it was a good move by him.”
While the shots were even at 7-7, Minnesota stayed true to defensive form by blocking 10 shots in the first period.
Dumba’s power-play goal at 4:10 of the second period put the Blues in a 2-0 hole. Blues defenseman Barret Jackman’s clearing attempt was blocked and Minnesota’s Jared Spurgeon got the puck to Dumba, who beat Allen on a blast from the blue line for his first playoff goal.
One of the Blues’ biggest expected playoff scoring source was the line of Jori Lehtera centering goals-leader Vladimir Tarasenko and versatile winger Alexander Steen. The trio were held without a shot through the first two periods by the suffocating Wild, also blocked 20 shots on the night.
Through two periods, the Blues had been outshot 21-11 including a lopsided 14-4 during the second period. They went just over 8 1/2 minutes at the end of the third period without getting a shot on net.
Allen felt the Blues might have prevailed with a full 60-minute effort, but the Wild had a lot do with the final outcome.
“I think in the second (period) we sort of took our foot off the gas a little bit,” Allen said. “I’m not sure the time, but if we would have kept pushing there ... I think we’re definitely going to learn a lesson from that. They’re a team that grinds, works hard and they’re speedy. So we’re going to have to look at it tomorrow, get back to the drawing board and be ready come Saturday.”
The Blues won the first two games at home in each of the last two seasons before losing four straight on their way out of the playoffs.
Maybe a loss in the opener reverses that trend.
“I don’t think we expected to win four straight,” Allen said. “We’ve got our work cut out for us. We got one out of the way, got the nerves or the playoff jitters or whatever you want to call it out of the way for everyone. Saturday’s a new day. Reflect on it tonight and get back to work tomorrow.”