Minnesota Wild (49-25-8, second in Central Division) vs. St. Louis Blues (45-29-7, third in Central Division)
Why you have to watch: It's tempting to write this compelling first-round encounter off as a clash between two teams headed in startlingly different directions. And there's something to that after the Wild let a sure-thing Central Division title slip away with a March swoon of just four wins in 16 games. ... The Blues, trying to build off a trip to the Western Conference finals last spring, fired veteran coach Ken Hitchcock on Feb. 1 while languishing in fourth place in the division. Hitchcock had announced he was retiring at the end of the season to be replaced by assistant coach Mike Yeo, who got the call a little earlier than expected. Messy? Yes. ... The Blues have been a different team under Yeo, going 21-8-2 and from 28th to first in goals against per game. ... Still, the Wild, behind breakout W Mikael Granlund, who led the team with 69 points, and C Eric Staal, who enjoyed a renaissance with a team-best 28 goals, hit the postseason on a four-game winning streak.
Head to head: The Blues won the season series 3-2, including their last matchup in Minnesota. But the teams have not played in more than a month, so those results are basically meaningless. These are different teams now.
Injury fallout: The Blues are missing up-and-coming W Robby Fabbri, gone for the season with an ACL injury, and veteran C Paul Stastny hasn't played since suffering a lower-body injury on March 21. Those losses coupled with the trade of D Kevin Shattenkirk to the Washington Capitals will test the Blues' depth against the much deeper Wild.
Goalie advantage: Quite a season for both No. 1 goalies, as Minnesota's Devan Dubnyk looked like he had locked up the Vezina Trophy until he turned in an .889 save percentage in 14 games in March. Still, Dubnyk rebounded after a lighter workload down the stretch and should still be a Vezina finalist with his 40 wins (fourth in the league) and .923 save percentage (third among goalies with 55 appearances or more). ... As for Jake Allen, the 26-year-old Blues goalie suffered through a crisis of confidence under Hitchcock but has been a rock for Yeo, going 10-2-2. Still, Allen must prove he can handle the playoff spotlight after having failed previously with a pedestrian 3-5 record and .902 save percentage in postseason action for the Blues. The Wild win this matchup.
Coaching advantage: Yeo gets a chance to stick it to the team that fired him a little more than a year ago. He has found a nice groove with a young Blues team that will start this series on the road with very little pressure, given many people expected them to slide out of the playoff picture altogether after Shattenkirk was traded. ... Bruce Boudreau, who took the Wild job in the offseason, is one of the most successful regular-season coaches of all time (he reached 400 wins faster than any coach in NHL history and boasts the top winning percentage of any active NHL coach). But he has his own playoff demons to exorcise as his talented teams with the Capitals and Anaheim Ducks advanced beyond the second round just once.
Prediction: A scout told me recently he still loves the Wild in spite of their recent slide. They've got great goaltending, a deep and talented blue line, and with the acquisition of big C Martin Hanzal before the trade deadline, they are as big and gritty down the middle as they've ever been. It all adds up to a Minnesota victory. Wild in 6.