The Blues will need to put pressure on Wild goalie Devan Dubnyk early in the series to try to shake his confidence. (Bill Greenblatt/UPI)
By Nicholas Hand
In a rematch from the first round of the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Blues and Wild again face off in the opening round starting Wednesday night in Minnesota.
The Central Division’s second seeded Wild finished the season with 106 points with a 49-25-8 record. Minnesota led the division for most of the season before a rough March pushed the Chicago Blackhawks to the number one seed with 109 points.
The Blues are looking to avenge their 2015 playoff exit to the wildcard Wild, who were led by current Blues head coach Mike Yeo.
Yeo was dismissed as the Wild head coach last season and before joining the Blues this season and being elevated to the head coach position on Feb. 1 when Ken Hitchcock was fired.
Since the Wild’s first season in 2000-2001, the franchise has been built on a foundation of defense. The Wild continue to have a solid blueline but this year’s team also has an under the radar group of forwards who ranked first in the Western Conference in scoring and second in the NHL with 266 team goals.
The Wild had five forwards reach 55 or more points in the regular season - Mikael Granlund (69), Eric Staal (65), Mikko Koivu (58), Nino Niederreiter (57) and Charlie Coyle (56).
The Wild’s strong offense is balanced throughout three lines and despite leading the Western Conference in goals, did not have a 30-goal scorer.
Staal led the Wild with 28 goals in a resurgent year for the center, who was signed by Minnesota to a three-year contact last July. The signing has proved so far to be the market’s best free-agent acquisition.
Staal will center veteran wingers Zach Parise and Nino Niederreiter on the Wild’s top line. The 32-year old Parise is on the downside of his career and has regressed offensively but carries valuable postseason experience with a knack for clutch scoring. The 24-year old Niederreiter is a consistent producer and rounds out a top line that will be a challenge for the Blues to shut down.
The Wild’s second line of Granlund-Koivu-Jason Zucker is built on speed and more speed. For the Blues to have success in this series, this line has to be contained or the Wild can and will control the play. The Blues will have to decide on a line combination which they think will best counter that line and the late addition of Vladimir Sobotka gives them some flexibility.
In practice on Tuesday, the Blues dropped Alexander Steen to the third line, increasing the balance on the lines. Magnus Paajarvi was skating with Patrik Berglund and David Perron, while Sobotka and Steen’s line was centered by Jori Lehtera.
Which team’s second line outplays the other will likely be a major factor in determining the outcome of the series.
Trade deadline acquisition Martin Hanzal centers a third line with wingers including Erik Haula, Charlie Coyle, and Jason Pominville. Former Blues forward Chris Stewart can also play on Hanzal’s line for additional size if Wild head coach Bruce Boudrau elects to go that route.
The Blues’ defense figures to see a heavy workload for the top pair of Alex Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester, with Pietrangelo also having picked up many of the offensive responsibilities which opened up with the late February trade of Kevin Shattenkirk to Washington. A late-season injury to Robert Bortuzzo has thrust rookie Jordan Schmaltz into the lineup, paired with Carl Gunnarsson, behind the second unit of Joel Edmundson and Colton Parayko.
On their blueline, the Wild are led by minute-eater Ryan Suter, who will likely approach 30 minutes of ice-time in each game. Along with Suter, defensemen Jared Spurgeon and Matt Dumba are solid in each area of the game with all three producing more than 30 points coupled with solid defense.
Veteran goaltender Devan Dubnyk will look to bounce back from a rough ending to the regular season. After being a Vezina-favorite in the first half of the year, Dubnyk struggled in March with an .889 save percentage. For the Blues to win the series, it will be crucial that they jump on Dubnyk early in the series and jolt his confidence.
Jake Allen’s season was the opposite of Dubnyk’s. After a career-low first half, Allen rebounded with terrific netminding the final three months after Yeo became the head coach. Allen struggled against the Wild as the number one goaltender in the 2015 playoff series and now has a chance at redemption while showing the Blues his growth on the most important stage.
The biggest question mark entering the series for the Blues is the health of number one center Paul Stastny. Stastny, who suffered a lower-body injury after taking a Vladimir Tarasenko shot to his skate on March 21, is questionable to start the series. He did not skate during Tuesday’s practice.
Without Stastny throughout the series, it will be difficult for the Blues to match the Wild down the middle of the ice. The potential return of Stastny along with Sobotka’s return will dramatically change Yeo’s options at forward and the Blues depth at wing.
Without Stastny, the Blues are likely to keep young rookie Ivan Barbashev as the center on the top line between Tarasenko and Jaden Schwartz.
Series Prediction: If Stastny is unable to return early in the series, the Wild’s offensive depth will prove too much for the Blues to contain over seven games. The Blues will push Minnesota to the brink, but barring a goaltending letdown the Wild will take an entertaining series in seven games.
If Stastny can return, and the Blues earn a split in Minnesota to start the series, the Blues can carry that momentum into a six-game upset.
Follow Nick Hand on Twitter @Nick_Hand