Now that each team has a win under its belt, the St. Louis Blues and Minnesota Wild have settled into the type of intense playoff battle that creates lasting hostilities on both sides.
“Everyone knows what’s on the line,” said Blues defenseman Alex Pietrangelo, whose team takes on the Wild in Game 3 at 7 p.m. Monday at the Xcel Energy Center. “Now with the way divisions are aligned you’re certainly creating that animosity more so than ever. It started throughout the year when we played Minnesota and it’s just continuing on now, but it makes for fun hockey.”
A Blues team that has lost eight straight playoff road games will look to get that trend remedied with the best-of-seven series tied 1-1. The Blues won their final three regular-season road games and were almost as good away from home (24-12-5) this season as they were at Scottrade Center (27-12-2).
“We’ve been a good road team,” Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said. “Sometimes it’s because you’re a little bit nervous or you don’t want to get beat, and so you have a real edge to your game and your focus. And I think we’ve played good on the road because our focus has been narrow and simple. When we play a simple game, it’s effective.”
Blues center Paul Stastny faced Minnesota in the playoffs last season as a member of the Colorado Avalanche, so he knows exactly what to expect from the raucous crowd at the Wild’s home arena. Minnesota is 5-1 in its last six home playoff contests, a point of pride in a hockey-crazed state, but lost its final three regular-season home games.
Stastny knows it’s important to bring a physically and mentally tough game early when the Wild feeds off the crowd’s energy and will try to run the Blues out of the building.
“You have to play that simple game and get those chances, take it to the net, weather that storm and if they do score a goal, that’s fine,” Stastny said. “It’s going to be a loud building, it always is, but that’s the fun of it. It’s basically 25 of us and the coaching staff against 20,000 fans and their team. Every team plays well at home. But I think come playoff time, we have to do everything we can to kind of take the emotion out of it, because we know they’re going to be emotional and kind of do what they did to us in Game 1.”
Wild forward Jason Zucker is looking forward to a chance to play before the home fans that went crazy during the team’s strong second-half run.
“It’s huge,” Zucker said. “It helps us a ton hearing those fans go crazy. The building is going to be going nuts. We’re really excited about that.”
Wild coach Mike Yeo is looking forward to a pivotal Game 3 after two rollicking games that ramped up each club’s dislike for the other.
“The intensity keeps picking up, the pace of play keeps getting faster,” Yeo said. “I’m excited to get back home. I know that our crowd in the playoffs ... it’s something special. Our guys feed off that. the energy in the building is outstanding. We have to make sure we’re sharp and we’re on top of our game - and we can’t expect any kind of results just to come forward just because we’re back home.”
The Blues would do well to follow the script that served them well in their 4-2 win Saturday at Scottrade Center —jump on top early, remain on the attack and continuing to play physical as often as possible.
Blues forward Vladimir Tarasenko jumped into the spotlight Saturday with a hat trick that gave him four points in the playoffs, tying him with teammate Kevin Shattenkirk (four assists) and others for the NHL playoff scoring lead.
Yeo was asked about possibly using a defender to track Tarasenko, who has three goals on five shots this series.
“He’s going to find ways to make plays and he’s a challenge no matter who is on the ice,” Yeo said. “You can’t just put one guy and shadow him because he’s got other guys out there that would take you out of your system.”
Hitchcock knows Tarasenko carries a special talent. It’s the way he sees plays developing, the way he finds open ice and the incredible way he squeezes off shots in the tightest of areas.
“He’s a big part of our team,” Hitchcock said. “We need him to rise up. For us to have success, our best players have to be significant and that was a big step (Saturday). To me, that’s the step that we needed to see. Our top players needed to have a bigger impact in the game and we saw that. We needed more of that and we got it.”
Blues rookie goalie Jake Allen has been solid in the series, stopping 49 of 52 shots for a .942 save percentage and 1.51 goals-against average.
“He’s got a lot of confidence, that’s for sure,” Blues winger Jaden Schwartz said. “He’s playing a lot more than he did earlier in the year and he’s a great goalie. He’s feeling it and we love having him back there.
“He’s still the same guy. He’s calm in there, never panics and the only thing that’s different is he’s playing a lot more than he was.”