In Bruce Boudreau’s eyes, the St. Louis Blues — the Wild’s first-round playoff opponent — don’t really have any weaknesses.
They have one of the best groups of defensemen in the NHL, they have balance on all four lines, a true superstar in Vladimir Tarasenko and a goalie in Jake Allen who has been better than anybody in the league since Mike Yeo, the former Wild coach, took over Feb. 1.
“Even the addition of [Vladimir] Sobotka — he was a great player when he was here last time, that’s like a really good trade deadline acquisition or free-agent signing for them,” Boudreau said of the scrappy center who scored in his first game back from Russia on Sunday. “It wouldn’t surprise me if a lot of pundits pick them over us.
“So our work’s cut out for us. But I’ve seen our team all year and when [we] need to rise to the challenge, I think we will.”
After Yeo, who coached the Wild to the playoffs three consecutive years (and into the final eight twice), assumed the head-coaching duties for Ken Hitchcock nine weeks ago, the Blues allowed a league-low 1.88 goals per game (1.53 at even strength), had a league-best .937 save percentage, a league-best 88.8 percent penalty kill and a league-best plus-33 goal differential.
Allen, who had the worst save percentage of any NHL starter under Hitchcock, had a league-best 1.85 goals-against average and .938 save percentage under Yeo and won 11 of his final 15 games (26 goals allowed). He allowed two goals or fewer in 17 of his final 25 starts.
The Blues went 22-8-2 under Yeo (tied with Washington for most points in the NHL), 15-2-2 in their final 19 games.
The world-class Tarasenko tied for fourth in the NHL with 39 goals and tied for ninth with 75 points to become the first Blue since Brett Hull (1995-98) to record 70 points three consecutive seasons.
Since 2014-15, including the playoffs, Tarasenko is second in the NHL with 131 goals and first with 99 even-strength goals. In a playoff series loss to the Wild in six games in 2015, Tarasenko scored six times.
“He can shoot it 100 miles per hour from here. It’s insane,” said Wild goalie Devan Dubnyk, tucking his arms into his body. “If you watch some of his releases, he’s stick-handling out in front of him, and somehow he just leans on his stick and it’s like 90 mph.
“He’s not one of those guys that tricks you with his release. It’s just accurate, quick and it’s heavy.”
Added Zach Parise: “The Russians, for whatever reason, they’ve got that ability to shoot from anywhere and through screens and around defensemen. They’re all really good at that, and he’s one of the better ones. It’s crazy how many times he shoots around a D-man and it’s in. That’s something we have to pay attention to.”
Frighteningly, Tarasenko seems motivated.
“I think it will be important for our coach and important for us too because we lost to them a couple years ago,” Tarasenko said after Saturday’s victory at Carolina. “It’s still in our memories, and now we want to pay back.”
Still, while Dubnyk said Tarasenko will be “challenge No. 1, for sure, a team doesn’t get as many points as they have either with just one player.”
The Wild has to figure out a way to get to Allen. While the Blues have a different look than the last time the Wild beat St. Louis without David Backes and T.J. Oshie, their blue line, led by Alex Pietrangelo, Jay Bouwmeester and Colton Parayko, is as legit as it gets.
In a March 7 victory over the Wild that actually triggered the swoon, St. Louis did a terrific job keeping the Wild from getting anywhere near the middle of the offensive zone.
“That was the start of our demise there for the month,” Boudreau said. “Determination is going to be the key. If we can get the pucks at the right spots, I think we’re going to have to try to get to the net because they did a great job that night of not allowing us to do that.”
First things first, there’s no doubt Yeo will be the chief story line heading into the series.
“It’s funny in sports that these types of stories seem to have a way of coming around,” Yeo said Saturday night. “But for me, it’s not me against them. It’s our group with a real tough opponent in the way of what we’re trying to accomplish.”