St. Louis has the depth up front and a great blueline, but the Minnesota Wild are led by the hottest goaltender in hockey. Devan Dubnyk has backstopped Minnesota into the playoffs and could be the difference between an early exit and a deep run for the Wild. Meanwhile, St. Louis has to hope their goaltending holds.
HOW THEY WIN
BLUES: St. Louis is stacked at every skater position. Take a gander at the deep, skilled forward corps. The usual groupings of David Backes between Alexander Steen and T.J. Oshie and Jori Lehtera between Jaden Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko give the Blues two first lines. Paul Stastny had 10 points in seven playoff games last spring – and he centers the third line. The Blues have no weaknesses up front, especially since Tarasenko has become the elite scorer they’ve lacked for years. Assuming Kevin Shattenkirk returns from abdominal surgery on time, St. Louis has tremendous blueline depth, too. He’s the puck-mover of the group, Alex Pietrangelo is the do-it-all Clydesdale, Barret Jackman the veteran muscle and Jay Bouwmeester the smooth-skating minutes eater. The Blues have one of the league’s cloudiest goaltending situations, but Brian Elliott or Jake Allen can steal games when hot.
WILD: Strong drafting and development, coupled with an aggressive slew of signings and trades, have made Minnesota one of the NHL’s deeper teams at forward. The Wild throw offense at opponents via Zach Parise, Jason Pominville, Mikael Granlund and Thomas Vanek. They also have good brawn on the wings thanks to Nino Niederreiter, Charlie Coyle and freshly acquired Chris Stewart. This team won’t be pushed around. The Wild get strong two-way play from a trio of Finns whose games are tailored to the grinding playoff style: Mikko Koivu, Erik Haula and Sean Bergenheim. Ryan Suter gives Minnesota 30 minutes of impeccable blueline play per night. The Wild have also gotten surprising offensive contributions from Marco Scandella and youngster Mathew Dumba. Ultimately, winning comes down to Devan Dubnyk. Minnesota’s climb from outside to inside the playoffs correlates directly to his meteoric rise.
HOW THEY LOSE
BLUES: The Blues have finished at or near the top of the league standings again and again during coach Ken Hitchcock’s tenure but keep choking. They got swept by L.A. in the second round of 2012. They took a 2-0 opening-round series lead to L.A. in 2013 only to lose four straight and did the same thing in the first round against Chicago last year. That’s three consecutive seasons with a four-game losing streak in the playoffs. When a team enters the post-season so loaded with talent every year and still can’t get past Round 2, it’s hard not to look for an intangible problem. How about the zero Cups won by St. Louis’ entire roster? Lastly, while a split netminding load keeps goalies fresh during the season, it also causes playoff uncertainty. Elliott and Allen will start each game knowing even one bad period could give way to the other guy. That doesn’t bode well for their confidence.
WILD: The Wild’s dependence on Dubnyk suggests they’re a house of cards. What happens if he regresses under newfound pressure? He has 0.0 playoff games under his belt. In fact, Dubnyk’s last post-season game was in 2007 with the ECHL’s Stockton Thunder. He only played 10 playoff games in major junior, too. Dubnyk has almost no playoff experience since he hit puberty. Until or unless Dumba and Jonas Brodin mature into stars, Minnesota has a collection of No. 4 and No. 5 types on defense to complement Suter. The Wild have one of the shallowest bluelines among playoff qualifiers. They also lack a deadly offensive weapon after Parise. Vanek’s production has tanked since he arrived last summer as a free agent, and Granlund hasn’t broken out like he was expected to. The Wild are packed with 20-goal types but lack that 40-goal monster to make opponents sweat.
GOALIE ZONE by Jamie McLennan
BLUES: With Brian Elliott and Jake Allen as their net options, the Blues are going to be one of the most interesting teams to watch during the playoffs. Elliott has refined his position. He’s now comfortable using his size and plays some percentage shots. He’s a very good percentage goaltender. And the Blues don’t give up a lot of high-quality scoring chances. Elliott realizes that – for instance, he knows there won’t be a lot of backdoor plays – and uses it to his advantage. He is really good with his positioning and isn’t shy to leave his net and challenge the shooter.
WILD: Devan Dubnyk has played a slightly deeper and more efficient game, and I think that’s a Sean Burke thing from Dubnyk’s time in Arizona. It allows him to get ahead of the play rather than chase the puck. Dubnyk plays a big game now, and that’s changed, too. With the Wild, he plays like his real height (6-foot-6), but with Edmonton, he played like he was 5-foot-10. And Minnesota doesn’t allow a lot of East-West play. It keeps everything to the outside and in front of the goaltender, which allows him to be aggressive.
BLUES: Don’t forget about puck-moving blueliner Kevin Shattenkirk. He lit it up with 40 points in 49 games and earned an All-Star Game invite before abdominal surgery sidelined him. The Blues expect him healthy for the playoffs. He’ll resume power play quarterback duty and will be one of the first five or 10 D-men drafted in pools.
WILD: Mikael Granlund didn’t deliver on his breakout hype this season. He still centers a scoring line in Minnesota, however, and he’s been much better in the second half. He also flashed some scoring ability in the 2013-14 playoffs. The Wild have sneaky potential as a whole, so consider Granlund a sleeper playing for a sleeper.
KEY MATCHUP by Dom Luszczyszyn This series has some extra intrigue as a number of American Olympians, including David Backes and Zach Parise, face off. Both players are crucial to their teams’ success, and while Parise has posted his usual lofty numbers, Backes has seen a bit of a drop-off this season. After a few years of decent possession numbers, this is Backes’ first year posting a negative rate relative to his team. For a center known for his defensive acumen, that decline is worrying and Backes may have a hard time containing Parise in this series, despite his history of outplaying him head-to-head.
THN PREDICTION: St. Louis in six.
READ THN’S OTHER ROUND 1 PREVIEWS IN OUR STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF FEED.