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Enkindling Animosity: Blues Come to St. Paul

Varied threats await Wild in first-round series against Central Division foe

by Dan Myers @1DanMyers /

When the NHL underwent realignment four seasons ago, it also changed the way it conducted its postseason, adopting a divisional format that, once upon a time, helped nurture some of the game's most heated rivalries.

The thought behind it?

A rivalry isn't true until it spends time under the bright light of a postseason incubator. Only then is the animosity and bitterness allowed to grow.

Since adoption, the Wild has played the Chicago Blackhawks three times in the postseason. It's no surprise that Minnesota's rivalry with Chicago has only grown during that span.

This year, the Wild will renew its budding rivalry with the St. Louis Blues, this time with the home-ice advantage residing in the State of Hockey. The series begins Wednesday with a 8:30 p.m. faceoff at Xcel Energy Center.

Led by coach Mike Yeo, Minnesota ousted the then-Central Division champions from the Stanley Cup Playoffs in 2014-15. With Yeo now behind the Blues bench, the Wild will aim for a similar result and a potential second-round encounter with the Blackhawks.

Scouting the Blues

If you subscribe to the theory that how a team finishes the regular season is an indicator of how things go in the playoffs, St. Louis will be one of the toughest outs in the NHL.

Over their final 10 games in January, the Blues went 3-7, leading to the dismissal of Ken Hitchcock as coach and the early promotion of Yeo, who was named the team's "head coach in waiting" last summer. Yeo made some subtle tweaks to how the Blues operate in their own zone, and the results have been palpable: St. Louis went 7-1-0 in Yeo's first eight games behind the bench to get its season back on track. 

A five-game losing streak followed and threatened to derail the season, but the Blues rebounded once again, going 10-1-2 over the final 13 games of March and leapfrogging the Nashville Predators in the Central Division standings.

One of the main changes made by Yeo was switching from a man-to-man defense in St. Louis' own end to more of a zone approach.

While playing man, the Blues were regularly surrendering grade-A scoring chances to opponents, making life especially difficult for goaltenders Jake Allen and Carter Hutton.

Look no further than Allen's numbers: Prior to Feb. 1, Allen was 17-13-3 with a 2.87 goals-against average and a .895 save percentage. In 25 games played after Feb. 1, Allen was 16-7-2 with a 1.85 goals-against and .938 save percentage.

"It's gonna be fun," said Wild forward Eric Staal. "They had a tough start, but they've been better lately. They're a pretty balanced team. It should be a good series."

"They're very daunting. I think they're very similar to only a couple teams in the League in that they don't have, really, a weakness," said Wild coach Bruce Boudreau. "They've got six good defensemen, they've got four lines that can go, especially with the addition of [Vladimir] Sobotka, and their goalie's been on fire since the change. So our work's cut out for us."

Up front

Minnesota has relied on its balance all season long, highlighted by 13 different players reaching double digits in goal scoring. 

Several different Wild forwards had career regular seasons, including Mikael Granlund (26 goals, 43 assists and 69 points), Nino Niederreiter (25-32=57), Jason Zucker (22-25=47), Charlie Coyle (18-38=56) and Erik Haula (15-11=26). 

In addition, Eric Staal rebounded to lead the Wild in goal scoring, finding the back of the net 28 times. Mikko Koivu posted his highest point total (18-40=58) since 2010-11. Zach Parise struggled through a season plagued with illness, but finished the season playing his best hockey of the year.  

Video: NYR@MIN: Staal wires in quick wrister from slot

Martin Hanzal, acquired before the trade deadline from the Arizona Coyotes, has been fantastic down the stretch, posting points and contributing on all special teams units. He scored his 20th goal in the regular season finale against his former team the first time in his 10-year career he's reached the 20-goal plateau.

"It's nice. I've never scored 20 goals. I'm glad I reached that," Hanzal said. "Now it's playoff time. All the stats go away and we have to prepare for Wednesday because that's when the real season starts.  

"It's great. I'm pumped. This is why we played hockey, we want to compete in the playoffs, we want to win the Stanley Cup. I have a great opportunity on a good team. I think when we play well we are really hard to beat. I'm really excited. I can't wait."

Video: Wild Talks About Facing Blues in Playoffs

While the line of Zucker, Koivu and Granlund carried the Wild through a bulk of the regular season, other groups have shown signs of life heading into the postseason.

The line of Parise, Staal and Niederreiter was Minnesota's best over the final handful of games in the regular season and boasts three players capable of playing a solid two-way game.

Hanzal and Coyle are Minnesota's two biggest forwards and have the potential to be a line that can grind away on an opponent. A series against the physical Blues could be exactly what the doctor ordered for each.

While St. Louis doesn't boast nearly the depth the Wild does up front, it does have perhaps the most dangerous individual forward in the series: Vladimir Tarasenko.

Tarasenko had a career year, approaching the 40-goal plateau for the second consecutive season. He surpassed 70 points for the third-straight year and has killed the Wild over the years.

Two years ago, Tarasenko scored six goals in the teams' six-game series. 

Others, like Jaden Schwartz and Patrik Berglund, struggled early in the season and finished red hot. Berglund established a new career high in goals while Schwartz dished more assists than in any previous year.

St. Louis got some reinforcements during the last week of the regular season when it re-signed Vladimir Sobotka after a three-year hiatus spent playing in the KHL. Sobotka scored nine goals and had 24 assists in 61 games in 2013-14, his last season in the NHL.

Since their last postseason meeting, the Blues have shed David Backes, T.J. Oshie, Steve Ott and Troy Brouwer; a process that has dramatically altered the way St. Louis plays. While they're still willing to play a physical game -- especially on the back end -- the Blues are more capable of focusing more on speed if need be.

"They defend well. They have a lot of skill up front. They are well coached. It's the whole package that we're going to face," Koivu said. "Both teams are familiar with each other. When we play a division rival, that's what it is. We have some history with them in the playoffs as well. It should be a good matchup."

On the blue line

Like its forward group, a number of Wild defensemen have had career offensive seasons.

Ryan Suter had scored eight goals three times in his NHL career, but surpassed that total for the first time this year with nine markers. Jared Spurgeon reached double digit goals for the second-straight season but set career highs in both assists (28) and points (38). 

Both Suter and Spurgeon were at or near the top of the NHL's plus/minus virtually all season. Suter and Zucker each finished a plus-34, tops in the League, while Spurgeon was right behind at plus-33.

Video: MIN@WPG: Spurgeon dives to sweep puck out of trouble

How the Wild's defensive core fares in the series -- and in the postseason -- will likely come down to how Matt Dumba and Marco Scandella play. Both possess skill sets capable of taking over games, but each has failed to find marked consistency.

Dumba has been a force offensively, especially during the second half, establishing career bests in goals (11), assists (23) and points (34). Scandella has had a tough offensive season, but the Wild would like to have him play a sound, physical defensive game anyway.

Jonas Brodin has career bests in assists (22) and points (25) despite battling injury at a couple different points during the season. He's seen increased time on the power play as well, with seven of his 18 career points with the man advantage coming this season alone.

Christian Folin has also dealt with injuries but gives the Wild its most physical defensive-defenseman.

Nate Prosser has played well as a seventh defenseman all season and brings value as a right-handed shot that can play on both sides.

The Blues, meanwhile, have dealt with the loss of Kevin Shattenkirk at the trade deadline, actually becoming a more effective group since the deal that sent him to the Washington Capitals.

With Shattenkirk, one of the League's best power-play quarterbacks, out of town, Blues captain Alex Pietrangelo has stepped up his game offensively. His five power-play goals are the most he's had in five years, and his overall goal scoring is up as well.

The presence of Colton Parayko was one of the reasons the Blues felt comfortable enough to deal Shattenkirk at the deadline, despite not receiving anything tangible (for now) in return. The 6-foot-6, 223-pound former Alaska Nanook was on St. Louis' third pairing, but was ready to assume a larger role. 

Jay Bouwmeester is 33 years old but just completed his 14th season in the NHL. He's not the offensive catalyst he was early in his career, but at 6-foot-4 and 221 pounds, he provides an imposing shadow.

Robert Bortuzzo, Joel Edmundson and Carl Gunnarsson round out St. Louis' defensive core. Edmundson is in the midst of a career offensive season, but he and Bortuzzo provide far more value in the defensive end. 

In goal

As is often the case this time of year, the goaltenders will play perhaps the biggest role in deciding who moves on and who heads home.

Devan Dubnyk -- surprise, surprise -- wrapped a career year that saw him win 40 games, the first Wild goaltender to ever reach that lofty plateau. 

And despite a six-week stretch that saw his goals-against number rise and his save percentage fall, Dubnyk still finished among the best goaltenders in the NHL in both categories. He also posted five shutouts, which equaled his total from last season. 

Dubnyk won each of his last three starts to finish the season, ending the regular campaign on a high note.

Minnesota's backup spot will be a question mark heading into the playoffs. Darcy Kuemper has struggled to find his game, largely because he hasn't had consistent playing or practice time down the stretch.

Alex Stalock even made two starts late in the season and looked the part, going 1-1-0 and allowing a total of three goals in those two starts. He could be summoned from Iowa to serve as Dubnyk's backup.

With Brian Elliott now in Calgary, Allen has assumed a much larger work load, posting career highs in games, starts and wins.

Carter Hutton has proven himself a capable backstop should something befall Allen. He reached double digits in victories this season, his first with the Blues, for the first time since he won 20 games with Nashville in 2013-14.

Video: MIN@STL: Dubnyk denies Tarasenko in front

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