The St. Louis Blues are a perennial playoff team and are playing extra hockey for a sixth straight season. However, the franchise has never won a Stanley Cup and hasn’t reached the Finals since 1970. The Minnesota Wild are in the playoffs for a fifth consecutive season but have never won the Western Conference. The two Central Division foes open their conference quarter-finals series on Wednesday with the Wild as Sports Interaction NHL betting favourites.
St. Louis Blues at Minnesota Wild, Game 1
St. Louis Blues
St. Louis (46-29-7), which lost to San Jose in last year’s West Finals, finished third in the Central Division with 99 points. The team was scuffling under Coach Ken Hitchcock, who planned to retire at the end of this season regardless. He was given a push out the door Feb. 1 with the team at 24-21-5 and replaced with Mike Yeo. The Blues went 22-8-2 under Yeo, who was fired in February 2016 as coach of the Minnesota Wild. Yeo was hired last June by the Blues to serve as associate coach and head coach in waiting to Hitchcock. The Blues had the league’s best goals-against average (1.87) under Yeo; they were 28th under Hitchcock.
Overall, the Blues finished 12th in GAA this season in allowing 2.6 goals per game. They traded former No. 1 netminder Brian Elliott to Calgary last offseason and turned the job over to Jake Allen, who was 33-20-5 with a 2.42 GAA and .915 save percentage this season after a rough start. The Blues ranked third in penalty killing at 84.8 percent.
The team was also No. 12 in scoring at 2.8 goals per game and eighth on the power play at 21.3 per cent. Vladimir Tarasenko leads the team in points (75), goals (39) and assists (36). Tarasenko’s 286 shots ranked sixth in the NHL. The Blues had 10 players score at least 10 goals but no one else was within 16 of Tarasenko. He clearly will be the focus of the Minnesota defense. Tarasenko has 19 goals and 26 points in 33 career postseason games.
Many didn’t expect St. Louis to be here after dealing top defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk at the trade deadline to Washington. In addition, center Robby Fabbri (11 goals, 18 assists), is done for the season with a torn ACL and center Paul Stastny (18 goals, 22 assists) hasn’t played since March 21 due to a lower-body injury.
The Blues were 3-2 vs. the Wild this season. Jaden Schwartz led St. Louis with four points. Tarasenko had three goals. Allen was 3-1-0 with a 1.83 GAA and .929 save percentage. St. Louis is +1400 to repeat as Western Conference champion.
The Wild (49-25-8) entered March looking like they would easily win the Central Division and battle Washington for the Presidents’ Trophy. However, Minnesota imploded in that month with just four wins, allowing Chicago to overtake it for the Central Division and top seed in the Western Conference. The Wild did regain some confidence with a season-ending four-game winning streak to finish with 106 points, three behind the Blackhawks.
If you had taken a vote for Vezina Trophy entering March, the Wild’s Devan Dubnyk might have been the winner. He really struggled that month (.887 save percentage) but finished with a 40-19-5 record, 2.25 GAA and .923 save percentage. Minnesota finished seventh in goals-against at 2.5 per game and eighth on the penalty kill at 82.9 percent. In last year’s playoffs, Dubnyk allowed 20 goals in a six-game first-round loss to Dallas.
Most casual hockey fans likely couldn’t name three Wild forwards, but they finished second in the NHL in scoring at 3.2 goals per game. Mikael Granlund, just 25, had a career year with a team-best 69 points and 43 assists. Long-time Carolina Hurricane Eric Staal had his best season in years with 28 goals and 37 assists. The Wild had nine players with at least 40 points. They don’t need a ton of shots to score, ranking second to Washington with a shooting percentage of 10.4.
Minnesota’s coach is Bruce Boudreau, truly one of the most successful regular-season coaches in league history. However, his teams have a tendency to flop in the playoffs. His Ducks flamed out last year and that’s what got Boudreau fired.
In the five games vs. the Blues, Nino Niederreiter led the Wild with five points. Granlund had two goals and two assists. Dubnyk was 2-2-1 with a 1.99 GAA and .927 save percentage. The Wild are +300 second-favourites to win the West.
Blues vs. Wild Predictions
Expect Minnesota to ensure that No. 1 defenseman Ryan Suter, one of the league’s best, is on the ice whenever Tarasenko is. The “winner” of that matchup could determine this series. Neither goalie has a stellar playoff history. Take the Wild in six to advance and face Chicago.