For the second straight season under the new playoff format, five of the eight Western Conference playoff spots have been captured by Central Division teams. In the first round of the playoffs, as a result of this, we get a match-up between the Central’s best team and arguably the hottest team in the NHL.
The St. Louis Blues have been one of the NHL’s better teams for the past few seasons, finishing near the top of the West in each of the past four seasons. Once again, under the guidance of Ken Hitchcock, the Blues have finished strong. Last season, a strong Blues finish was erased by the Chicago Blackhawks, who beat them in the first round.
And once again, the Blues have drawn a red-hot team to open the post-season. This year it’s the surging Minnesota Wild, who went on an incredible run to even make the playoffs: they went 27-10-2 following the acquisition of Devan Dubnyk from Arizona. Dubnyk started all but one of those games.
The Dubnyk Factor is but one of several things that will decide this series, and whether the playoff legacy of the Blues will again be tarnished.
As divisional rivals, these teams faced each other four times in the regular season.
The teams split their meetings, with the Wild taking away a point more than the Blues – and that’s with Dubnyk skipping the final game of the season to rest up.
The Blues beat the Wild in a shootout on November 29. The Dubnyk trade preceded the next three outings, with Minnesota wins on March 14 (3-1) and March 21 (6-3), with Dubnyk making 41 saves in the former match-up. The Blues beat Minnesota 4-2 on the final day of the regular season.
In terms of shots and chances, the first two games varied wildly – with Minnesota dominating but losing on November 29 and the Blues dominating but losing on March 14 – but the other two games were fairly even in that respect.
With the league’s parity so pronounced nowadays, and particularly between these two teams, special teams are crucially important. The Blues hold the edge.
The Blues are a significantly better power-play team, scoring on 22.3% of their regular season power-plays compared to the Wild’s 15.8% success rate. That translates to 17 more power-play goals for the Blues than the Wild over a season. The Wild are also very reliant on the goal production of Zach Parise, while the Blues have a more balanced power-play attack. Minnesota does boast the NHL’s best regular season power-play, though, which should be enough to make the series close.
How evenly matched are these teams? Minnesota scored six more goals than St. Louis at 5-on-5. That’s it.
The big difference is the composition of the offense. Vladimir Tarasenko of the Blues led that team with 55 even-strength points, but the Blues also had 8 players with 30 points or more (and five with 40 or more). That leads to a pretty tough team to defend against, considering they can hurt opponents in many different manners.
The Wild have a much more top-heavy attack. They have six players with 30 or more even-strength points, but only a pair – Parise and Jason Pominville – with more than 40. That makes it easier for the Blues deep defensive group to target the Wild’s big guns and shut ’em down potentially.
Devan Dubnyk is the best goalie on either team. That’s good, because he’ll keep the Wild in this series, at least. If he falters, it’s a big big big drop-off to the decent Darcy Kuemper.
The Blues have the tandem of Jake Allen and Brian Elliott. Allen is slated to start the first game of the series. Elliott has slightly better underlying numbers (a .925 even-strength save percentage versus Allen’s .917) and has more wins, but Allen’s wins are a product of slightly better “run support” from his team. The differences between the two are close enough that they’re basically a coin-toss.
If Dubnyk stays hot, the Wild have a goaltending advantage. If he cools off at all, give it to the Blues.
I think the St. Louis Blues win in six games.
The Wild have a chance to win and every game should be pretty close, but the Blues are a deeper team, and a lot more needs to go right for the Wild (and wrong for the Blues) for them to win the series.