As is often the case in the Stanley Cup playoffs, the first round can be the most scintillating, the most competitive … and the most daunting.
The Wild arguably drew its toughest matchup by procuring the big, bad St. Louis Blues in an opening-round playoff series that coach Mike Yeo expects to be “an all-out battle.”
Not that the other option, the Anaheim Ducks, would have been a cakewalk considering the game-breakers they have in Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry. But the Ducks were surprisingly average to below average in almost every statistical category this season.
The Blues were not.
Near the top of the league in goals (fifth), goals against (fifth), goal differential (third), power play (fourth), penalty kill (eighth), 5-on-5 goals (seventh), faceoff prowess (second), home record (fifth) and away record (third), the Blues will offer the Wild quite a challenge.
“Year after year they’re a top team in the league,” Yeo said. “They’ve got talent, they’ve got structure, they’ve got depth and they play hard. It’s a great challenge every time you go out and play against them, let alone the idea of playing against them in a seven-game series.”
The Blues are led by captain and power forward David Backes, the Minnesotan who loves to irritate Wild fans with his hard-nosed, very mean style. He also seems to continually get under the skin of Wild players, especially his former Olympic teammates Zach Parise and Ryan Suter.
The Blues have top skilled forwards in budding young star Vladimir Tarasenko, T.J. Oshie, Jaden Schwartz, Paul Stastny and Alex Steen. They have a tremendous blue line led by Alex Pietrangelo, Kevin Shattenkirk and Jay Bouwmeester, some X factors Wild fans may become all too familiar with in Jori Lehtera and Dmitrij Jaskin and some brutality in hard-hitting intimidator Ryan Reaves and superpest Steve Ott.
“It’s a tough group over there,” Wild goalie Devan Dubnyk said. “They’re highly skilled and they play hard and they hit real hard. They’ll be running around for sure and taking the body a lot. It’ll be a tough series. That’s the way the West is. There’s no team available that’s any sort of free ride.”
The Blues’ biggest question is in net. Jake Allen, 24, is expected to be the starter for the first time in the playoffs. As erratic as he was this season, Allen has allowed four goals in his past four starts. Veteran Brian Elliott is the Blues’ other goalie.
The Wild enters the playoffs confident, thanks to the most points (59) in the NHL since Jan. 15 and Dubnyk in net. He’ll be making his playoff debut after going 27-9-2 with a 1.78 goals-against average, .936 save percentage and five shutouts.
“The way the second half of the season has gone, we feel like we can beat anybody,” Dubnyk said.
As good as the Wild has been in the second half, it all starts over Thursday and Saturday with Games 1 and 2 in unfriendly confines. The Wild is 3-8-2 in its past 13 games at St. Louis, having been outscored 43-24 in that span. It has won once in regulation in the past 14 visits since Oct. 20, 2007.
The common theory has always been that the Wild’s size doesn’t match up with the Blues’ size. The Blues have long tried to bully the Wild’s more diminutive players, but this year’s Wild team went 2-1-1 against St. Louis, never cowered to bigger teams and has offset many of those teams with impressive speed and structure up and down its lineup.
If the Blues do become undisciplined, it’s imperative the Wild’s power play, so abysmal during the regular season at 15.8 percent (27th in the NHL), comes through.
“We’ve played against lots of teams like that and have been effective,” Yeo said. “I think we have more size than people realize, too. We’re capable of playing a hard game, too. We do it in our own way, but without question we have to make sure we use our speed. That’s our greatest strength, and that’s what we’ve got to be ready to bring.”
Parise and Suter said the Blues can beat a team in many ways.
“They’re a big team, they’re fast, they play a pretty simple game,” Parise said. “It’s up the wall, chip it in deep and get in on the forecheck. They move the puck up well, so you’ve got to find a way to break their forecheck. The quicker we can get out of our zone, the better off we’ll be.
“You can’t turn the puck over in the neutral zone. Their strength is how good they are in the neutral zone. You have to make sure you’re not playing on two-thirds of the rink. You’ve got to get below their D and make them defend.”
The Blues won Games 1 and 2 in each of the past two postseasons and lost both series. The Wild went 15-2-2 on the road since the arrival of Dubnyk, winning an NHL-record-tying 12 in a row on the road before the Blues won the regular-season finale Saturday.
“We’ve beaten some good teams along the way, and that’s important,” Yeo said. “Confidencewise, there’s no doubt that makes a difference. Part of it is we’re a deeper team, which should help us in the playoffs and definitely on the road.
“But when the playoffs start, it starts all over again. We can’t just hang our hats on that and expect it to continue. We’re going to have to remember why we had that success and be ready to bring it.”
In the past two postseasons, the Wild is 1-9 on the road.
“That’s one area that’s killed us the last couple years,” Parise said. “You put yourself in a hole when you can’t win on the road. We know we’ve got the ability to do it. We’ve proven it, but now we have to prove it again in the playoffs.”