The St. Louis Blues will certainly have their work cut out for them in facing off against the Minnesota Wild. Minnesota is the first wild card from the Western Conference and they got there by going 29-9-3 since January 15. What was so special about January 15? The arrival of goalie Devan Dubnyk, that’s what.
At the time of his arrival, the Wild were eight points out of a playoff spot. They finished the year with 100 points and were first in the Western Conference with 59 points from, you guessed it, January 15 to the end of the regular season. The point here is that Dubnyk has almost singlehandedly changed the fortunes of hockey in Minnesota and now the Wild have to hope for more of the same in the post-season.
The Blues will be hoping to get ahead of Dubnyk in his playoff debut. They’ll also be hoping to escape the first round, something they haven’t done in the past two seasons. They haven’t made it out of the second round since the hiring of Ken Hitchcock in 2011-2012, either.
Like a lot of successful teams, the St. Louis Blues are all about balance. They have four players with at least 20 goals and they’ve been able to hold on to a tough, puck-possession roster. Their balance ensures they put the puck in the net more often than many teams, as they had five or more goals 14 times during the regular season.
Two 2010 NHL Draft picks have been lighting the lamp for the Blues in Vladimir Tarasenko and Jaden Schwartz. Tarasenko has 37 goals in 77 games and has a tally of 73 points. Schwartz has 28 goals in 75 games, with eight goals on the power play. David Backes (26 goals) and Alexander Steen (24 goals) have also found the net with regularity.
For the Wild, Mikko Koivu has really emerged as the man in Minnesota. He became the first 500-point scorer in franchise history, putting up 48 points in 80 games this season. He’s been the stalwart on a productive line with Chris Stewart and Nino Niederreiter. Niederreiter had 24 goals in 80 games, while Stewart came over from the Sabres and has 36 points on the year.
The top line in Minnesota is Mikael Granlund between Zach Parise and Jason Pominville and they’ve been rather effective. Parise was good for 33 goals, his first time reaching 30 goals in three seasons as a member of the Wild. Pominville had 18 goals. There’s also the Thomas Vanek factor, who joined with Parise and Niederreiter to account for 30 percent of the Wild’s goal production.
Once again, the Blues’ defence is balanced. The pairing of Alex Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester found some serious success in the regular season, with Pietrangelo coming up with 46 points in 81 games. This was the four consecutive complete season he hit 40 points or more, plus he leads the Blues in ice time by averaging over 25 minutes a game.
Kevin Shattenkirk is another factor. He missed 25 games due to injury and one wonders what might’ve been, but he still came back in time for the final eight games of the regular season and will be ready for the post-season. In 56 games, Shattenkirk put up 44 points and was a plus-19. He had four goals on the power play and seemed in Norris Trophy form.
The Wild will counter with their own minute-munching defenceman in Ryan Suter. He logs about 31 shifts per game adding up to an average of 29 minutes. In 77 games, he put up 38 points. Suter is typically paired with Jonas Brodin, who managed 17 points.
For Minnesota, their defence has added up to more than points. They’ve contained the opposition, holding the Wild in the top five in shots against and goals against per game. Naturally Dubnyk has been a major factor, but blueliners like Jared Spurgeon and Marco Scandella have also contributed. Matt Dumba managed to make improvements, too, with 16 points in 58 games.
The Blues unfortunately come apart a bit when one looks at goaltending. Jake Allen is slated to get the Game One start on Thursday and that somewhat settles things, but Brian Elliot has to be disappointed. Allen has been 5-1-1 in his last seven starts, putting up a 1.14 goals against average in that time frame. He only has a minute of playoff time, however, and one has to hope the decision to start him pans out.
The Wild have Devan Dubnyk, as has already been outlined extensively. He made 18 saves in his Minnesota debut, leading them to a 7-0 win over the Sabres, and things have been pretty much the same ever since. In 38 straight starts with the Wild, Dubnyk is certainly the hot hand. He has a 2.07 goals against average on the year, good for second overall, and a .929 save percentage – also second overall. And he has six shutouts.
This series will likely come down to goaltending and the Wild will lean on Dubnyk all they can. That’s probably a good thing, as he’s their best player right now and he should be able to hack it. The situation in St. Louis’ goal is less than stable and Minnesota will look to exploit that. Look for lots of shots from the top Wild line and lots of balance from the Blues.