As the Blues get ready to take on the Minnesota Wild in the first round of the NHL’s Stanley Cup playoffs, there are some reasonable ways to compare the teams and pick a winner. The second and seventh seeded teams in the NHL’s Western Conference were separated in the regular season by nine points. The Blues are heavier and more experienced, but the Wild are one of the hottest teams in the league and have one of the hottest goalies in Devan Dubnyk.
Last year, in spending time with Edmonton and Nashville, Dubnyk had a goals against average of 3.43 with a save percentage of .891…both NHL worsts.
This year, he’s been a revelation, turning in a career best (six years) .936 save percentage with a 1.78 GAA since joining the Wild in mid-January. So we must separate the pre- and post-Dubnyk Wild.
Why? Because before the Wild acquired Dubnyk, they were 18-19-5, including 2-8-4 in the fourteen games before he was acquired from Arizona. After he started playing for them, the team was an NHL best 28-9-3 and he went 27-9-2.
The Blues actually match up pretty well with Minnesota. The Wild’s top line of Mikael Granlund between Zach Parise and Jason Pominville has combined for 59 goals.
The Blues top line of David Backes, Alexander Steen and T.J. Oshie has combined for 69, with the trio of Jori Lehtera, Jaden Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko totaling 79. Overall, the Blues were fifth in the league at 2.92 goals per game, while the Wild were twelfth at 2.77.
There are some other threats for Minnesota. Nino Niederreiter, Tomas Vanek and Jason Zucker all scored more than twenty goals, but they aren’t as consistent as the Blues forwards.
The Blues did a great job of keeping the puck out of their net, finishing fifth in goals-against per game (2.40) and second in shots against per game (27.2). Minnesota was thirteenth in shots this season, averaging nearly 31 per game. They wouldn’t seem to be a team that’s going to light up the scoreboard. The Blues appear to have an advantage with their defense against the Wild offense.
The problem for the Blues will come in trying to get the puck into the Wild net. You already know how prolific Dubnyk has been. Against the Blues, he was 2-1 with a .918 save percentage and a 2.62 GAA. He’s 6’6” and 210 pounds, and is quick and athletic. After developing some bad habits in his final year in Edmonton, Dubnyk’s fundamentals were straightened out during his stint in Arizona. Sean Burke, the former NHL goalie who is now the Coyotes goaltending coach, played at about the same size as Dubnyk, and was able to relate to his game. So fundamentally, he’s back to being sound.
Where the Blues can have success is where they succeed most. If there is a deficiency in Dubnyk’s game, it’s his movement in the crease. If the Blues can get a big body into the crease or get the puck in deep, he has some difficulty in making the lateral move to make a save. That’s where the Blues can score. They MUST get to the net to score goals.
The Wild defense isn’t flashy, but they have one of the best all-around players in the game in Ryan Suter. Jared Spurgeon, Jonas Brodin, Matt Dumba and Marco Scandella are nice players, and former Blues Nate Prosser and Jordan Leopold provide depth and experience.
But the Blues group of Alex Pietrangelo, Jay Bouwmeester, Kevin Shattenkirk, Carl Gunnarson, Zybnyk Michalek, Rob Bortuzzo and Barret Jackman certainly holds the upper hand.
The play of the Blues goaltenders, while not up to the spectacular standards set by Dubnyk, has been outstanding.
There’s no question that if the Blues want to play their game…to get a lead and smother the opposition…Jake Allen and/or Brian Elliott are more than up to the task of protecting the lead.
Special teams should be quite interesting. The Blues were fourth in the NHL in power play success at 22.3% despite spending much of the second half without Shattenkirk, Tarasenko and Steen. The Wild’s penalty killing unit was first overall at 86.3%. Meanwhile, Minnesota’s power play was 27th in the league at 15.8%, while the Blues penalty kill…at times spectacular…was eighth at 83.7%.
Each team has an extraordinary pest, although Steve Ott of the Blues isn’t a dirty player like Matt Cooke of the Wild has been. In last year’s playoffs, Cooke took out Colorado’s Tyson Barrie with a knee-on-knee hit that caused an MCL injury and knocked Barrie out for the playoffs. Including being banned for that hit, Cooke has been fined or suspended on NINE different occasions for illegal hits with apparent intent to injure.
The Wild have taken out T.J. Oshie with hits to the head on two different occasions. A year ago, Mike Rupp elbowed Oshie to cause a concussion and was suspended four games. Then this season, Scandella was penalized and fined when he knocked Oshie out of a game in November with an illegal shoulder to the head, so he, and the team, must be wary of the tactics employed by Minnesota.
Ken Hitchcock is a seasoned, creative coach that won’t be overwhelmed by the pressures of a playoff series. Mike Yeo, the Minnesota coach who helped the Penguins win the 2009 Stanley Cup as an assistant, is hard driving, intense, and has missed time in the past because of high blood pressure. Obviously, he isn’t a guy that’s worried about his players injuring the opposition. If one of these coaches is prepared to handle the pressures inherent with playoff hockey, it’s Hitchcock.
Both teams will have five days off before playing at 8:30 Thursday night. It’s possible the Blues found the key to scoring against Dubnyk on Saturday, when they tallied on three of the final seven shots they had against him. Either way, it’ll be a hard fought series. Logic tells me Blues in seven.