These teams represent two of the five Central Division teams to make the playoffs -- the second straight year the division has sent the maximum number to the postseason. This is one of the most intriguing of the eight first-round matchups, given that they are both seen by experts as built for the playoffs. The St. Louis Blues and Minnesota Wild are not necessarily mirror images of each other, but both boast strong, veteran leadership and play a heavy brand of hockey with lots of size augmented by good skill up and down the lineup. Of course, the division-based playoff system means "built for the playoffs" will result in "built for the summer" for one of these teams in less than two weeks. The Wild are hoping the heroics of netminder Devan Dubnyk continue after his arrival from the Arizona Coyotes sparked a momentous reversal of fortune. Meanwhile, the Blues enter the postseason once again having home-ice advantage and once again shouldering significant expectations. Last year, similar expectations were met with a first-round exit at the hands of the Chicago Blackhawks. This season, questions about goaltending continue to dog the Blues as the presumed starter, Brian Elliott, could not keep the job and gave way to youngster Jake Allen down the stretch. How long is Allen's leash, given that this will be his first taste of NHL playoff life? Will head coach Ken Hitchcock, under not insignificant pressure to coax the Blues into a long playoff run, need to use that leash?
Perhaps the fanciest stat in this series is the Wild's 28-9-3 record since Dubnyk's arrival in mid-January, the top winning percentage over that period of time. The team's goal differential since Jan. 15 was a league-best plus-47 before Saturday's season-ending loss to the Blues. Since Dubnyk's arrival, the Wild have allowed two or fewer goals in 29 of 39 games. Dubnyk, who started a remarkable 38 straight games, ranks first in the NHL in wins and second in shutouts over that period. So, in short, the Wild's goaltending is good and that goaltending saved the Wild's season. Both the Blues and Wild are offensively deep, as reflected by their 5-on-5 scoring. The Wild ranked fifth in 5-on-5 scoring and set a franchise record for goals scored, with 227, while the Blues were seventh. In terms of controlling shot attempts, the Blues held a regular-season edge, ranking 12th to the Wild's 17th. The teams were likewise close (and successful) in 5-on-5 shooting percentage, the Wild finishing sixth and the Blues eighth. What separates the two -- and what might be a crucial difference in this series -- is that the Blues boast the fourth-ranked power play, while the Wild finished 27th. Of late, both teams have managed to find success with the man-advantage, with the Blues scoring a power-play goal in four of their final six games and the Wild getting on the scoreboard with the power play in five of their last eight games. On the other side of the special-teams coin, the Wild were superlative, leading the league on the penalty kill, with the Blues a more than respectable eighth. The Wild, however, have allowed a power-play goal in four of their last six games as they entered the postseason, with just two wins in their last six games. The Blues have allowed just one power-play goal in their last seven games, and it would seem imperative that the Wild will have to solve the riddle to move on.
One of the big questions moving into this series is where each team is at in terms of emotional reservoir. There is something to be said for playing playoff-like hockey as the Wild have been doing pretty much since the calendar turned from 2014 to 2015. But what do they have left in terms of another gear? Winning two of six down the stretch against top opponents suggests a fatigue factor that head coach Mike Yeo will have to monitor. The Blues, meanwhile, have to be feeling pretty good about themselves compared to last season, when they limped into the postseason with top players Vladimir Tarasenko and T.J. Oshie dealing with various injuries and then lost captain David Backes in the second game thanks to a brutal hit by Brent Seabrook of the Blackhawks. This season, the Blues got Tarasenko back from injury in the final week of the regular season as well as Alexander Steen, and Hitchcock told us the team should be healthy heading into Game 1. And a healthy Blues team is a force to be reckoned with.
The easy choice for the Wild is Dubnyk, but we're going with Zach Parise, who was the runaway leader for the Wild in goals (33) and points (62). More than that, Parise is the heart and soul of this team. He was a catalyst last spring, when the Wild upset the Colorado Avalanche in the first round and then gave Chicago a stern test in the second round, collecting 14 points in 13 games. For the Blues, we're going with Tarasenko, who enjoyed a breakout year and, were it not for an injury, might have had an outside shot at a scoring title. The Blues lacked secondary scoring a year ago, but they have it in spades this season. Tarasenko, who finished tied for fifth with 37 goals, is a whole other dimension of offensive talent the Blues have not had, perhaps ever.
How about Jason Zucker for the Wild? The Las Vegas native had a career year going (with 18 goals) when he went down with an injury in early February. But since his return in the last week of the regular season, he hasn't missed a beat, scoring three goals in three games. If this series is going to pit depth against depth, Zucker's presence will be required if the Wild are to prevail. For the Blues, we're curious to see how Jori Lehtera makes out in his first NHL playoff action. Lehtera came over from the KHL this season and found nice chemistry playing mostly with Tarasenko, with whom he'd played in the KHL, and Jaden Schwartz. But the playoffs are a different animal. Lehtera had two goals in the Blues' finale over the Wild on Saturday but before that had one goal in his last 11 games.
Oh, this is tough. And this series will be a tough one. But we're going to give the edge to the Blues and youngster Allen to prevail in a seven-game set that might feature five or six overtime games. Blues in 7.