Pekka Rinne had two shutouts and allowed only three goals in the Predators' first-round series sweep of the Blackhawks. (Bill Greenblatt/UPI)

By Nicholas Hand

The Blues begin the Central Division Final series against the Nashville Predators on Wednesday night at Scottrade Center. It will mark the first playoff series between the Blues and Predators in Nashville’s 10th Stanley Cup Playoffs appearance since joining the NHL as an expansion franchise in the 1998-1999 season.

The Predators are looking to reach the Western Conference Final for the first time in franchise history after suffering a seven-game series lost to the San Jose Sharks last year in the Divisional Final round. The Sharks went on the defeat the Blues in the Western Conference Final, St. Louis’ first trip to the third round of the postseason since 2001.

Both teams enter this series red-hot. The Predators pulled off the unlikely four-game sweep of the powerhouse Chicago Blackhawks in the opening round while the Blues dispatched the second-seeded Minnesota Wild in five-games to lift the geographical rivalry with the Predators to the next level in the postseason.

The Predators and Blues share a similar blueprint with four balanced forward lines, two of the top bluelines in the league and two of the best goaltenders during the first round of the playoffs.

The Predators’ top line features Filip Forsberg, Ryan Johansen and Victor Arvidsson, who torched the Blackhawks with 15 points in the four-game sweep. Forsberg and Arvidsson are snipers on the wings with number-one center Johansen’s playmaking ability producing the way general manager David Polie envisioned when he made the blockbuster trade with Columbus to acquire the now 24-year old center.

The Blues possess a lethal top-line strengthened by the return of center Paul Stastny, who was limited to only game five of the series versus Minnesota but scored a critical goal in his first game since March 21. Jaden Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko produced eight points in the opening series against the Wild and will be called upon for a similar performance against the stingy Nashville defense.

The Predators are also getting good news on the injury front as power forward Colin Wilson is likely to return after missing the first round with a lower-body injury that has nagged Wilson since the second half of the regular season. Wilson is a key storyline in this series as he will slide in to either the second or third line, adding another potent scoring threat to an already dangerous lineup.

Currently, Nashville’s second line consists of game three overtime hero Kevin Fiala with center Calle Jarnkrok and James Neal. Fiala had two goals in the first round series as Jarnkrok and Neal were limited to just one assist each. The Blues must look to contain Neal and Wilson in this series in order to have a chance to extend their season.

Nashville rounds out their forwards highlighted by veteran captain Mike Fisher and Colton Sissons centering the bottom-six lines.

A key for the Blues up front will be the second line of Alexander Steen, Patrik Berglund, and David Perron. Their two-way play will be responsible for serving in a shutdown role on one of the Predators top lines will also being asked to contribute offensively. Perron and Berglund did not score against the Wild and will need to bury chances in this series. Perron has previously had success against Nashville and should continue getting under the skin of the Predators.

The Blues received a terrific first round series from Vladimir Sobotka and Magnus Paajarvi with key secondary scoring. When Jori Lehtera was inserted into the lineup for two games of the series, he centered Sobotka and Paajarvi and contributed a couple of key assists. If Lehtera falters early in this series, expect head coach Mike Yeo to insert rookie center Ivan Barbashev into the lineup to split the centering of the third line with Lehtera.

The Blues fourth line of Scottie Upshall, Kyle Brodziak, and Ryan Reaves will need better discipline in this series, specifically from Upshall, who struggled with careless penalties against the Wild. When that line is firing, it provides Yeo the ability to play it against any forward line, often flipping momentum and punishing the opposition’s offensive talent with a heavy forecheck and bruising play.

This series will showcase two of the best defenses in the league with Nashville having a top-four defense of Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis, Mattias Ekholm and P.K. Subban, who are offensive threats and not afraid to join the rush in head coach Peter Laviolette’s system. Ellis was the key offensive contributor for the Predators with a goal and three assists in the opening round with Josi scoring two goals.

Matt Irwin and Yannick Weber round out the bottom pairing with consistent and steady defense for the Predators.

The Blues answer with a big and physical top-four in Jay Bouwmeester, Alex Pietrangelo, Joel Edmundson and Colton Parayko. Edmundson, known for his solid stay-at-home and rugged style, was the offensive surprise in the first round for the Blues with the overtime game-winner in game one and another goal in game two. Parayko scored in game three and the Blues will need him and Pietrangelo to produce more on the power play in this series.

Carl Gunnarsson, Robert Bortuzzo and Jordan Schmaltz complete the Blues defensive squad with Bortuzzo’s physical play needed in an effort to punish the Predators through the series.

The story of this series will likely be goaltending with Nashville’s Pekka Rinne and St. Louis’ Jake Allen. Both were sensational in the opening round and each stole multiple games with their play.

Rinne posted a .976 save percentage allowing less than a goal a game average with a 0.70 goals against average with two shutouts and just three goals against in four games.
Allen allowed eight goals in five games with a .956 save percentage and a 1.47 goals against average.

It is unrealistic to expect similar performances, but if either Rinne or Allen come close to duplicating their first round success it will likely be the difference in the series.

Series Prediction:
Nashville’s success against the Blackhawks was impressive and exploited Chicago’s lack of depth and speed in feeding the Predators transition game. The Blues have depth, speed, and size capable of slowing down that strategy. This will be a stalemate of a series with Nashville and St. Louis each other’s equal at five-on-five play. Special teams will be the deciding factor along with which goaltender can turn the series with mesmerizing saves. If neither goaltender steals the series, it is going seven games.