By Craig D. Schroepfer
The Stanley Cup Playoffs are set to get underway Wednesday night, and the opponent for the Minnesota Wild will be a familiar one.
Familiar in the team being the St. Louis Blues, who Minnesota eliminated in 2014 and familiar in the head coach of the Blues being Mike Yeo, who was the boss behind the bench for the Wild until February of last season.
For that alone there will be no shortage of story lines going into this series. However coaching is only a small part of deciding who will advance to the second round.
Will Minnesota be able to knock out St. Louis for the second time in three years? Or will the Blues avenge their defeat from two years ago and get revenge on the Wild? Let’s break it down.
Minnesota finally has something here that they have not had in their team history; quality depth at forward that allows them to skate four lines during the entire game.
A big part of the Wild success in this area has been the signing of Eric Staal. He was second on the team this season with 65 points (28 goals, 37 assists).
More importantly, the addition of Staal gave Minnesota the number-one center they needed, allowing Mikko Koivu to settle into the number-two center position where he is better suited to play at this point in his career.
Staal and Koivu, along with Martin Hanzal, gives the Wild three centers capable of playing against any group of forwards in the Western Conference.
Another reason why the forward depth has been so good for Minnesota this year is that their young players finally took that next step.
Mikael Granlund led the team in scoring with 69 points (26 goals, 43 assists) while Nino Niederreiter (25 goals, 32 assists), Jason Zucker (22 goals, 25 assists) and Charlie Coyle (18 goals, 38 assists) all had career highs in points this season.
For St. Louis, any discussion at forward must start with Vladimir Tarasenko.
He led the Blues in scoring this season with 75 points, 20 more than Jaden Schwartz, who was second on the team with 55. Tarasenko’s 39 goals were 13 more than Patrik Berglund, who was second on the Blues with 23 goals.
The offensive potential Tarasenko has is unlimited. He is capable of scoring from anywhere on the ice when the puck is on his stick. What makes Tarasenko more dangerous is that St. Louis isn’t the big physical team they were two years ago.
The Blues are a team that relies more on their skating ability to set the tempo of the game instead of their hitting, very similar to the Wild when Yeo was the head coach.
The defense for Minnesota is led by Ryan Suter. The perennial Norris Trophy candidate averaged 26:55 minutes on the season (third overall in the NHL) and had a plus/minus rating of /+34, tied with teammate Jason Zucker for best overall in the NHL.
I bring this up because there is a good chance that Suter and his defensive partner, Jared Spurgeon (+33 on the year) will be responsible for trying to shut down Tarasenko whenever he is on the ice.
The other defensive pairing looks to be Marco Scandella and Matt Dumba, followed by Jonas Brodin and Christian Folin. Between these six defenseman, Minnesota finished +95 overall in plus/minus ratings.
For St. Louis, their defense isn’t as deep as it was thanks to the Kevin Shattenkirk trade to Washington.
The pairings on defense for the Blues look to be Jay Bouwmeester and Alex Pieterangelo, Joel Edmundson and Colton Parayko, and Carl Gunnarsson and Jordan Schmaltz. As a group, they finished +22 in plus/minus during the year.
The player to watch here for St. Louis is Pieterangelo. He’s had the best offensive season of his career, scoring 14 goals and sets the tempo for the blue line. He should see most of the minutes against the Eric Staal line.
From December through February, Devan Dubnyk looked like a Hart Trophy candidate, going 25-5-1 with a save percentage of .924 and a goals against average of 2.22.
Since March, however, Dubnyk has looked nothing like a Hart Trophy candidate. His record is 6-8-2 with a save percentage of .895 and a GAA of 2.59.
Dubnyk played in 65 games, third most out of any goaltender this season, so exhaustion may have played a factor in his drop off.
Dubnyk was able to get some rest, playing in only three of the last six games of the season with his last action being a week ago Thursday in Colorado.
Dubnyk’s counterpart in goal for St. Louis is Jake Allen. With Brian Elliott going to Calgary in the off-season, the job was handed to Allen, who had some struggles of his own in December and January, going 6-12 with a save percentage of .877 and a GAA of 2.83.
Allen was able to straighten out his game and comes into the playoffs as one of the hottest goalies in the NHL, going 11-3-1 in his last 15 games with a save percentage of .941 and a GAA of 1.73.
Both these teams had good power plays during the season.
St. Louis finished eighth in the NHL with a power play percentage of 21.3, scoring 50 goals on the power play and only giving up five short-handed goals.
Minnesota was right behind them with the ninth-best power play percentage of 21.0, scoring 47 power play goals and only giving up three short-handed goals.
The Blues had the third-best penalty kill during the season at 84.8 percent. St. Louis allowed 40 goals on the penalty kill and scored three times short-handed.
Minnesota was eighth in penalty kill at 82.9 percent. The Wild allowed 37 power play goals on the season and scored five goals short-handed.
Minnesota brought in Bruce Boudreau as head coach to help get the Wild to the next level. In his first season behind the bench, Boudreau led Minnesota to their best win (49) and point (106) total in team history.
Now the real challenge comes for Boudreau in the playoffs where he is 41-39 lifetime with one trip to the conference finals in 2015.
This post-season is just about Boudreau exercising his playoff demons as much as it is the Wild taking that next step.
Across the bench, it will be former Wild head coach Mike Yeo.
Yeo wasn’t supposed to take over as head coach of the Blues until next season, but with St. Louis struggling in January, the move was made to put Yeo in charge and try to straighten the team out going into the post-season.
Now Yeo finds himself facing his former team in the first round, a team he knows very well. That should help St. Louis in preparing to play the Wild.
This should be an evenly-matched series between both teams. However, despite their March swoon, the Wild have too much depth on their roster for the Blues to beat them in a seven-game series. With Yeo behind the bench, St. Louis will be competitive and it shouldn’t be surprising if the Blues take an early lead in the series.
But in the end, expect Minnesota’s young scorers to keep at the pace they’ve played all season and the defense to play well in front of Dubnyk, allowing the Wild to advance to the next round.
MINNESOTA WINS IN SIX GAMES