For all the fine players the Blues have boasted in recent years, they lacked a true star. Enter Tarasenko, a supreme talent who could push them over the top in his third NHL season. The 23-year-old Russian came into full bloom this season, scoring a career-high 73 points (tied for 10th in the NHL) and 37 goals (tied for fifth). He contributed four goals in six playoff games last year. Tarasenko has been effective against the Wild this season, too, with three goals and two assists in four games.
The former Warroad High School star will long be remembered for scoring four shootout goals against Russia at the 2014 Olympics. Blues fans would love to see the dynamic forward put on a similar show in the playoffs. Oshie finished the regular season with 55 points, the second-highest total of his seven NHL seasons, and 19 goals. He has clicked well with new linemates Paul Stastny and Jaden Schwartz, and his energy and enthusiasm are tailor-made for the big stage of the postseason.
David Backes Ø
The Blues captain is known primarily for what coach Ken Hitchcock calls “big-body hockey,’’ setting the tone for his team by dishing out hits and dishing up goals. The Blaine native centers a line with rookie Dmitrij Jaskin and Patrik Berglund, anchoring a trio that can score while it wears down opponents with its muscle. Backes is the team’s fourth-leading scorer with 26 goals and 32 assists, including a team-high 10 power-play goals. He’s also a stout-hearted leader eager to claim playoff success after a string of postseason letdowns.
MUST STEP UP
Before they chose Tarasenko with the 16th overall pick in the 2010 draft, the Blues took Schwartz with the 14th pick. The third-year winger continued to progress this season, with a career-high 28 goals — second only to Tarasenko — and 63 points. Known for his toughness and tenacity, Schwartz hopes to take another step forward in the playoffs; in 12 career postseason games, the Colorado College product has one goal and three assists.
The Wild had its hands full with him last spring, when he played for Colorado. Stastny chipped in with five goals and five assists in seven games as the Avalanche lost a first-round playoff series to the Wild. Now centering Oshie and Schwartz, he has continued his timely production; he has seven game-winning goals in 74 games, tied for eighth-most in the NHL. “His game has continued to rise to a new level,” teammate Steve Ott said. “When you have that, it’s an extra lethal weapon.’’
BY THE NUMBERS
Career playoff minutes for goalie Jake Allen, the Game 1 starter.
Goals per game for the Blues over their past three playoff series, including first-round losses in 2013 and 2014 and a second-round loss in 2012.
Faceoff win percentage for St. Louis, second-best in the NHL.
Stanley Cup championships for the Blues, who have made 39 playoff appearances in 47 seasons.
BREAKING IT DOWN
Tarasenko might get much of the attention, but the Blues are no one-note melody. Their deep, well-balanced forward corps boasts four 20-goal scorers and seven players with 40 or more points. The Blues get scoring from three lines, topped by the “STL’’ trio of Tarasenko, Alexander Steen (24 goals, 40 assists) and Jori Lehtera (14 goals, 30 assists). Jaskin has 13 goals, tied for seventh-most among NHL rookies, in 54 games. Steen and Tarasenko were slowed by lower-body injuries late in the season but appear to be back in top form for a team whose 248 goals were second-most in the Western Conference.
The Blues possess just as much depth on defense, with a versatile group that blends toughness, size and skill. Alex Pietrangelo averages a team-high 25 minutes, 24 seconds of ice time per game and is tied for 14th among NHL defensemen with 46 points. Kevin Shattenkirk missed 25 games because of an abdominal injury but finished the regular season with eight goals and 36 assists. The Blues are among the NHL’s best teams at limiting scoring chances, allowing 27.2 shots on goal per game — second-fewest in the league — and they are fifth in goals against per game (2.40).
After much speculation, Hitchcock announced Wednesday that young Jake Allen will start in goal over veteran Brian Elliott. Allen (22-7-4) has had the hot hand recently; in his past four starts, he has surrendered a total of four goals and compiled a .964 save percentage. But Allen has only one minute of NHL playoff experience. Elliott ranks 10th in the NHL with a 2.26 goals-against average but is 6-10 in the postseason. He is 26-14-3 this season and is 7-2 in 11 career games against the Wild.
Hitchcock has a Stanley Cup on his résumé, having led Dallas to the championship in 1999. He has had tougher luck in St. Louis despite reaching the playoffs in each of his four seasons. The Blues are 8-13 in postseason play under Hitchcock and have won only one playoff series during his tenure. They entered the postseason with high expectations in 2013 and 2014; in both years, they were knocked out in the first round after winning the first two games of the series. Those disappointments mean there is pressure this year to deliver, and with the Blues healthy, Hitchcock has no excuses.
The Blues shine on both the power play and the penalty kill, ranking among the NHL’s top 10 in both categories. The power play is fourth in the league with a conversion rate of 22.3 percent; on the road, it tops the charts, with 31 goals on 122 chances (25.4 percent). The penalty kill grew stronger as the season progressed and has a success rate of 83.7 percent. In four games against the Wild this season, the Blues scored on three of 10 power-play opportunities and killed 12 of 15 penalties.