The Chicago Blackhawks were Central Division champions and led the Western Conference with 109 points in the regular season. The Minnesota Wild were second to the Hawks in both with 106 points. So of course the Hawks and Wild were upset in lopsided fashion in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs by Nashville and St. Louis, respectively. Because everyone saw that coming! The Predators and Blues open their conference semifinal Wednesday in St. Louis, which is a slight Sports Interaction underdog for the series.
Nashville Predators at St. Louis Blues, Game 1
If I’m being honest, I predicted the Predators to lose to the Blackhawks in five games. I gave no credence to the fact that Chicago dropped its final four games of the regular season because the Hawks had clinched the West’s top seed and rested some key players in that stretch. However, sometimes when you take your foot off the gas, it can be tough to flip the switch back on – to mix metaphors.
Nashville swept Chicago, the first-ever sweep of a No. 8 seed over a No. 1 under the current playoff format (since 1994). This after the Blackhawks had won the final four regular-season meetings between the two. Pekka Rinne was magnificent in allowing just three total goals. He finished with a 0.70 goals-against-average and a .976 save percentage. Ryan Johansen led the Predators with six points (1G, 5 A), Filip Forsberg adding two goals and three assists and Viktor Arvidsson two goals and two assists. The veteran Blackhawks really couldn’t handle the speed of those young Predators forwards. Nashville was simply the better team.
The Predators have never advanced past the conference semifinals. They lost in this round last year in seven games to eventual Western Conference champion San Jose. Nashville played the Blackhawks without forward Colin Wilson. He hasn’t played since April 4 due to a lower-body injury but has returned to practice and thus could be available. Wilson had 35 points (12 goals, 23 assists) in 70 regular-season games. He also has 18 points (10 goals, eight assists) in his past 20 playoff games.
In the regular-season series, Nashville was 3-2 vs. St. Louis. Mike Ribiero (2G, 3A) and Forsberg (2G, 3 A) led the Preds with five points apiece. Mike Fisher, otherwise known as Mr. Carrie Underwood, had two goals and two assists. Rinne played in three of the games and was 2-1-0 with a 2.37 GAA and .917 save percentage. Nashville is +300 on NHL futures to win the West.
St. Louis Blues
While I didn’t pick the Blues to beat the Wild in the first round, it wasn’t all that surprising. St. Louis has been the NHL’s best team since Mike Yeo replaced the fired Ken Hitchcock behind the bench, with the Blues going 22-8-2 under Yeo.
That said, the Blues winning in five was easier than expected. Three of those wins were by one goal and two in overtime, including the clincher on Saturday at Minnesota, 4-3. Magnus Paajarvi scored at the 9:42 mark in OT to eliminate the Wild following the best season in franchise history. Jaden Schwartz led the Blues with five points (2G, 3A) assists in the series and Alexander Steen had four (2G, 2A). The Blues scored first in four of the five games.
Jake Allen played every minute in net and had a 1.47 GAA and .956 save percentage. Minnesota outshot St. Louis 182-134 in the series. Allen has looked like a totally different player since Yeo took over and installed a more defensive scheme. Also, future Hall of Famer Martin Brodeur was named goaltending coach under Yeo.
The Blues got a boost from the return of an injured player in the series finale vs. the Wild as center Paul Stastny played for the first time since March 21 due to a foot injury. He had a goal in 22:42 minutes. Stastny had 18 goals and 22 assists in 66 regular-season games.
It’s probably smart to somewhat disregard Nashville winning the season series vs. the Blues as just one game took place with Yeo in charge. That was April 12, a 4-1 Blues home win. Vladimir Tarasenko led St. Louis (2G, 3A) with five points vs. Predators in the series. Allen was 2-2 with a 2.85 GAA and .912 save percentage.
The Blues are +333 to win the Western Conference.
Predators vs. Blues Predictions
These teams are very similar: one stellar scoring line and a red-hot goaltender. You have to give the edge to the Blues because they have home-ice advantage and experience winning in this round. They did last year over the West’s best regular-season team, Dallas, before falling to San Jose in the West Finals. Also, St. Louis is 12-1-1 in its past 14 road games overall and 7-2 in its past nine postseason away games. Blues in seven.