As the Wild and Blues began their playoff series on Wednesday night, Minnesotans wanted to take encouragement in owning the higher seed and the better team, but there was a sense of underlying unease.
There was the feeling that a first-round playoff loss to a coach the Wild had fired 14 months earlier would represent the quintessential Minnesota sports experience.
After Game 1, the unease was justified. The Wild has reason to worry. The Blues won 2-1 in overtime at Xcel Energy Center early Thursday morning, as the Wild got shut down by Jake Allen and Zach Parise.
Allen made 51 saves. Parise inadvertently kept the Wild’s best chance out of the goal in the third period when his stick stopped a sliding puck on the goal line. The Wild outshot St. Louis a ridiculous 52-26 but misfired on its best chances.
Allen stopped more shots than James Caan in “The Godfather.”
The Wild will head back to the X for practice Thursday wondering how it could dominate play and yet lose, and to what extent it may have dominated if a handful of key players had played the way Jared Spurgeon and Jason Zucker did.
Charlie Coyle was either shooting the puck into Allen’s chest or glove, or watching his stick splinter on what could have been the winning goal. Christian Folin looked overmatched and Nino Niederreiter and Matt Dumba were ineffective.
The Wild played almost four periods and managed only one goal — when it sent its goalie to the bench for an extra attacker. It was a beautiful goal, a tic-tac-toe from Mikael Granlund to Mikko Koivu to Zach Parise, but when the Wild was even strength most of its shots seemed designed only to maximize frustration.
The Wild entered the series with the better goalie, but St. Louis brought the hotter goalie.
The Wild’s Devan Dubnyk ranked as one of the most dominant goalies in the league for much of the season. Allen got a coach fired, then played well down the stretch.
Since Feb. 1, Allen had saved 94.1 percent of the even-strength shots he had faced; Dubnyk had saved 90.6. Allen ranked sixth, Dubnyk 42nd during that span.
In Game 1, Dubnyk gave up the first goal, on a deflection. Through two periods Allen was sometimes spectacular and sometimes the beneficiary of Wild shots into his chest or glove, fighting off the Wild’s bursts at the beginning of the game and the end of the second period. Allen faced the tougher challenges and handled them better than did Dubnyk.
The Wild should have an advantage in forward depth and team speed, but neither will matter if Dubnyk doesn’t give them an advantage, or at least a draw, between the pipes.
Dubnyk was a big reason for the Wild’s rise to the top of the Western Conference standings, and he was a prime reason for its slide. Since Feb. 1, he has a GAA of 2.82. That is the worst of any starting goalie in the playoffs. His save percentage of .904 ranks second-worst in that time.
Dubnyk can be brilliant. He can also look worn down by this time of the season.
Allen remains more of a mystery. He is not as strong statistically, but he outplayed Dubnyk over the last two months of the season. He went from getting Ken Hitchcock fired to offering Mike Yeo hope.
“First off, we knew it was in there,’’ Yeo said. “He went through a very bad spell in the middle of the season and we knew he could get back to the level that he was playing at the start of the year. I felt there were many games that he flat-out won for us.’’
When these teams played in the playoffs in 2015, Allen allowed four goals on just 19 shots in Game 5. In Game 6, he allowed two goals on mediocre shots as the Wild finished the series.
“One player is not going to win or lose this series,’’ Yeo said.
He said that almost as if it’s true.