ST. LOUIS - For the first time in nearly 20 years of being division rivals, the St. Louis Blues and the Nashville Predators will meet in the Stanley Cup Playoffs when the puck drops on their Western Conference semifinal series on Wednesday (7 p.m., NBCSN, Y98 FM).
The Blues defeated the No. 2 seeded Minnesota Wild in just five games in the first round, with three of those games being decided by one goal. The Predators swept the top-seeded Chicago Blackhawks in the first round, outscoring Chicago 13-3 in four games.
Nashville won the regular-season series against the Blues 3-2, but St. Louis took a convincing 4-1 win at home against Nashville on April 2 in the final meeting of the season. That win helped catapult the Blues to a third place finish in the Western Conference, which bumped the Predators to the final Wild Card position.
"They were a handful for us, and we weren't on the right side of things," Blues Head Coach Mike Yeo said. "We're looking at the video and some areas we have to get better… They're a team with a lot of skill, a lot of speed, and they obviously checked well against Chicago and made it very, very difficult on them. They're very competitive. That's one thing that really shows up. It's going to be another great test for us."
The Blues scored 11 goals in their five-game first-round matchup with the Minnesota Wild, which was enough thanks to a brilliant performance from goalie Jake Allen. Blues forwards were responsible for eight of those goals - one of them an empty-netter - so the Blues would likely prefer more scoring up front if they hope to succeed against the Predators.
Paul Stastny gave the team a boost in Game 5 after returning from a lower-body injury, contributing a crucial goal in the third period in his first game back. Vladimir Tarasenko also lit the lamp for the first time in Game 5, and now would be a great time for him to heat up again in the postseason - he has 20 goals in 38 career playoff appearances.
Jaden Schwartz and Alexander Steen are tied for the team-lead in goals in the playoffs, while Schwartz paces the entire club with five points (two goals, three assists).
For Nashville, the top line of Ryan Johansen, Filip Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson combined for 15 points (five goals, 10 assists) in the first round against Chicago. The Predators scored 13 goals in their four first-round playoff games, 10 of which came from their forward group.
In addition, the Predators could get power forward Colin Wilson back from a lower-body injury that kept him out of the entire first round. Wilson led all Predators players in the 2016 postseason with five goals and eight assists (13 points).
Colton Sissons, Kevin Fiala, Forsberg and Arvidsson each scored twice in Round 1. Johansen leads the club with six points overall.
The Blues defenseman were awfully stingy in their first-round series against the Wild, giving up just eight total goals. They gave up plenty of shots to the Wild - Allen had to face 182 shots in just five games, including a whopping 51 in Game 1 - but the Blues seem to be happy with how few high-percentage scoring opportunities were given up.
Alex Pietrangelo led all Blues defenseman with an average ice time of 29 minutes and 51 seconds in Round 1, which ranks second only to Ottawa's Erik Karlsson among all defensemen in the playoffs (30:30).
Offensively, Joel Edmundson (2) and Colton Parayko (1) each contributed goals for the Blues in the first round.
The Predators, meanwhile, boast one of the best defense corps in the League with a top-four that includes Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis, P.K. Subban and Mattias Ekholm. Holding the Chicago Blackhawks to just three goals in the first round is no small feat - certainly not with the likes of Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Artemi Panarin and Marian Hossa on the club - but that's exactly what the Predators defensemen did.
Nashville's blueliners like to contribute offensively as well - Josi and Ellis each scored in the first round. Overall, Predators defensemen contributed three goals and seven assists (10 points) in their first-round matchup with Chicago.
In the regular season, both Josi and Subban finished with more than 40 points.
Jake Allen's performance in Round 1 deserves a way bigger spotlight than just a paragraph or two in this series preview. He stopped 174 of the 182 shots he faced, going 4-1 in the first round with a 1.47 goals-against average and a .956 save-percentage. He was the story of Game 1, stopping 51 of 52 shots in the Blues' 2-1 overtime victory at Xcel Energy Center, and he never faltered after that, delivering key saves at key times to keep the Blues in the lead for the majority of the series.
But Pekka Rinne's performance in Round 1 might have been even more impressive. Rinne gave up just three goals in the entire series, stopping 123 of 126 shots from the Blackhawks, who were the fourth-highest scoring team in the Western Conference in the regular season. Rinne went 4-0 in Round 1 with a minuscule 0.70 goals-against average, an impressive .976 save-percentage and two shutouts.
"He's always been a top-notch goalie and when he's got confidence, he plays the puck a lot and has a good glove hand," said Stastny. "Chicago didn't get much in four games, which is very impressive. Goals these days, we have to get second- and third-chance opportunities. Try to get in front of him so he doesn't see the puck."
Expect plenty of low-scoring games in this series. There's no reason to believe Allen or Rinne will be anything less than stellar again in Round 2.
The Blues will want their power play to be better in Round 2 for sure. They scored just once in 15 chances on the power play against Minnesota. The lone goal belonged to Schwartz, who scored the game-winner with the man-advantage in Game 3.
On the penalty kill, the Blues killed 83.3 percent of Minnesota's opportunities - including all six they faced at Scottrade Center. On the road, the Blues gave up three power-play goals on 12 chances.
Nashville's power play also struggled in the first-round, scoring just once in eight tries against Chicago. The Predators gave up two power-play goals in nine chances to the Blackhawks, which translates to 77.8 percent success rate in Round 1.
Expect a tight, tense and long series between these two division rivals. While both the Blues and the Predators might have shocked some hockey analysts with quick upset victories over their opponents in the first round, this doesn't feel like it will be a quick series at all.
But the Blues know there is certainly room for improvement.
"I think we get credit for what we did in the first series," Yeo said. "When you win 4 games to 1, you're doing a lot of things well… I feel the one thing we did quite often when we got up in games is we had the tendency to sit back a little bit. I'd like to see us stay on the hunt, stay aggressive and keep attacking. We'll have to be more disciplined than we were in Round 1. We've talked about a couple areas we know we have to improve on, and that's part of the process for us.
"We believe and they believe," Yeo added. "We have to start chipping away at their belief."
Video: Preview the Blues-Predators second round series