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NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs Preview: Minnesota Wild vs St. Louis Blues
- Updated: April 12, 2017
Both sides of this matchup have become synonymous with Stanley Cup Playoffs action, reaching the postseason a combined 11 times over the last six seasons. Despite that success in reaching this point, just once in their combined previous 11 appearances has either side found their way to the conference finals. The St. Louis Blues and Minnesota Wild meet in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2015, where the Wild dispatched St. Louis 4-2, and just the second time ever.
The Blues oversaw a flurry of roster moves over the last season and a half that drastically changed the way this team looked and operated. Many expected them to take a bigger step back than what we saw, as they rounded out the year with a 46-29-7 record and 99 points.
Despite the change in personnel, the Blues actually saw an uptick in scoring, potting 2.84 goals per game this season in comparison to a 2.67 average in 2015-16 that saw them make a run to the Western Conference Finals.
Vladimir Tarasenko remains the biggest X-factor this offense possesses, contributing 39 goals and 36 assists on the season, but a well-balanced offense that operates alongside him will keep the defense in check all throughout the series. They waved farewell to yet another big name at the deadline when facilitator Kevin Shattenkirk joined former teammate TJ Oshie in DC, but the offense continued to get the job done.
St. Louis has some injuries to monitor as things move forward as Paul Stastny and Nail Yakupov are expected to miss little to significant amounts of this series.
Minnesota features a balanced attack offensively, featuring five 20-goal scorers and 11 players with 35 points or more this season. The Wild were the 2nd best offense behind just the high-powered Pittsburgh Penguins, averaging 3.21 goals per game.
Eric Staal looks to be the signing of the year as the 32-year-old has tacked on 28 goals and 37 assists in his first year with the Wild. Mid-season acquisition Martin Hanzal also looking like quite the grab, adding 4 goals and 9 assists in 20 games since joining the team.
Buckle up and watch for a great individual matchup as Mikko Koivu and Tarasenko will likely clash on the ice more than a few times. Don’t be surprised to see Koivu sent to the ice any time Tarasenko makes a shift, regardless of his rest time.
Anchored by Ryan Suter, the Wild defense showcased a spectacular season; allowing just 2.51 goals per game, the 7th best mark in the league. They’re a blueline group that’s heavily involved in scoring as well as three defenders contributed 30 points or more and a pair added 10 goals.
The Blues took a big gamble sending Shattenkirk to DC this season, but have still seen solid defensive showings from the blueliners who remain, staples like Alex Pietrangelo, Colton Parayko, and Jay Bouwmeester. The Blues gave up just 2.63 goals per game this season, and with an improved netminder behind them, they can operate a little bit more aggressively than they might have earlier in the season.
Where Suter will spend 30 minutes or more on the ice each night, the Blues won’t need to ask that of any of their players, a catch-22 positive/negative depending on how you look at each implementation. Pietrangelo averaged 25 per game during the regular season, so if anybody gets close it’ll be him, but the Blues have shown solid enough confidence in their pairings to not overstretch him. Pietrangelo saw just 26 minutes the last time the two met.
Following the dismissal of Hitchcock and goaltending coach Jim Corsi, Jake Allen seemed to find rejuvenated play. Allen picked up 16 of his 33 wins after February 1. A big contributor to the second half turnaround, Allen needs to continue to play at the level he closed the season at, and not what had the Blues staring at missing the playoffs for the first time in six years by the deadline.
Inverse to Allen, Devan Dubnyk had himself a Vezina Trophy-worthy campaign going for most of the season, but crumbled along with his team in a March full of struggles. He still put forth very respectable .923 save percentage and 2.25 GAA for the year.
Both sides are pretty even when it comes to the man advantage as the Wild have converted on 21.0% of power plays to the Blues’ 21.3%.
The penalty kill is where the separation is created just ever so slightly; St. Louis killing off 84.8% this season to Minnesota’s 82.9%.
Mike Yeo will be making his return to Minnesota in playoff action after being dismissed midway through last season. He joined the Blues with the expectation to eventually overtake Ken Hitchcock, who was relieved of coaching duties in February.
Bruce Boudreau, meanwhile, returns to the playoffs after having taken the Anaheim Ducks to four consecutive playoffs amid top finishes in the Pacific Division. Despite coming into the playoffs as regular favorites, Boudreau’s teams were notorious disappointments, specifically in Game 7s, where he has gone just 1-7 in his career as a coach. Can he get that monkey off his back with a talented Wild roster?
Blues win if…
St. Louis can capitalize on the fact that Minnesota’s gotta be feeling some self-induced pressure after a disappointing March. Finishing 2nd in the always tough Central Division is no chump change, but the downwards trend can eat away at players. Meanwhile, St. Louis enters the playoffs quite warm having closed the season 15-2-2. Unleash Tarasenko and try to get on the board first. Dubnyk allowed fewer than three goals just once in the Wild’s only playoff series last year, and the pressure to put that behind will no doubt be evident.
Wild win if…
Shake a rough March and find some steady ground. The Wild had a three-point lead over the Chicago Blackhawks in March and watched that lead evaporate into a nine-point deficit in April before clawing that down to three as the Blackhawks rested players in the dying days. Dubnyk needs to find the former glory he had at one point this season, and it starts with the play in front of him. Getting out early should be the big priority, Minnesota had 75 first period goals this season, going 27-4-2 when leading after the first frame. In 16 games in March, Minnesota scored first seven times, had first period goals eight times, but led after the first period just twice en route to a 4-10-2 month.
If you’d have looked at this series a month ago things would have been talked about much more differently. A hot team meeting a cold team rarely bodes well for the struggling side. Minnesota put an end to the bleeding winning the final four games on their schedule, but might not have treated the infection that grew from that wound. The Blues are scorching, and that momentum likely feeds into this matchup.
Blues in 6
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