After a regular season of highs and lows, the St. Louis Blues are heading back to the Stanley Cup Playoffs. St. Louis finished in third place in the Central Division with 99 points and is set to begin its series against head coach Mike Yeo’s old team, the Minnesota Wild, on Wednesday in the opening round. This will be only the second time these teams have faced each other in the playoffs. The first meeting came in the first round of the 2015 playoffs, when the Wild took the series 4-2.
The Blues have been among the NHL’s hottest teams over the second half of the season. The club found its spark after head coach Ken Hitchcock was fired, and it jumped from a team fighting for a wild card spot to a serious postseason threat. Under Yeo, the Blues have gone 21-8-2 and closed out their final 10 games with a 7-1-2 record.
This series will feature a battle between two netminders, Blues goalie Jake Allen and Wild goalie Devan Dubnyk, who have experienced similar struggles this season. Allen found his footing in the middle of the season and has become the club’s No. 1 starter. After a poor start in which both he and backup Carter Hutton ranked near the bottom of the league in both goals against average and save percentage, Allen has separated himself and now ranks 11th in GAA with a 2.42 among goalies who have played at least 50 games, better than Chicago’s Corey Crawford and New York’s Henrik Lundqvist.
For Dubnyk, the second half of the season has looked similar to the beginning of Allen’s. After looking like he had the Vezina Trophy, given to the best goalie, in the bag through much of the season, Dubnyk and the Wild fell off. In seven of the last 12 games he’s started, Dubnyk has finished either at or below a .900 save percentage. Jake Allen has finished at or below that just twice in his last 12 games.
While goaltending will play a major role in this series, depth appears to be the real factor. The Blues have six players with 40 points or more, while the Wild have nine players over that mark. Looking at the regular season stats, the Wild hold a clear edge in terms of skaters who have the ability to find the score sheet with consistency. Players like Eric Staal and Martin Hanzal have stepped up their games considerably since joining Minnesota and have played a big role in their success.
The Blues will be countering those offensive stars with some of their own. Once again, forward Vladimir Tarasenko has had a strong campaign, finishing with 75 points with 39 goals. Jaden Schwartz and Alexander Steen also had productive years, contributing 55 and 51 points, respectively. Like last season, they will be looking to light the lamp quite a bit in the playoffs. In the 20 games the team played in the 2016 playoffs, Tarasenko had 15 points, Schwartz had 14 and Paul Stastny 13.
The Blues will likely need these three and more to step up in order to match Minnesota's firepower. The bottom six forwards will also to need to pressure the Wild and force mistakes or find the back of the net.
Injury-wise, the Wild are in a good spot. The club is healthy and should have all of its players ready to go come Wednesday. The Blues will be without center Robby Fabbri for the playoffs as a result of a torn ACL he suffered in February. Fabbri was a key contributor in last year’s postseason, chipping in 15 points.
Paul Stastny, who has been dealing with a nagging lower body injury, may be available on Wednesday. Lou Korac of NHL.com tweeted that Stastny was in the locker room and didn’t appear to be walking with a limp.
Stastny was in the locker room afterwards, no walking boot on and walking normally, no limp. #stlblues— Lou Korac (@lkorac10) April 10, 2017
Stastny would be a welcomed addition as he would provide St. Louis with more depth at forward. Throughout his and Fabbris’ injuries, players such as Ivan Barbashev and Magnus Paajarvi have been able to step up and improve the team, but they will need all hands on deck to counter Minnesota’s scoring depth.
Game one will be held Wednesday at the Xcel Energy Center in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Puck drop is set for 8:30 p.m., and the game will be broadcast on NBCSN. The rest of the schedule can be found below and is also available on NHL.com.
Friday, April 14, 7 p.m.: Blues @ Wild | NBCSN, SN 360, TVA Sports Sunday, April 16, 2 p.m.: Wild @ Blues | NBC, Sportsnet, TVA Sports Wednesday, April 19, 8:30 p.m.: Wild @ Blues | NBCSN, SN 360, TVA Sports Saturday, April 22, TBD: Blues @ Wild | TBD Monday, April 24, TBD: Wild @ Blues | TBD *Wednesday, April 26, TBD: Blues @ Wild | TBD