ST. PAUL -- Four days after closing out its regular season slate, the Minnesota Wild will face off against the St. Louis Blues in Round 1 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs tonight in St. Paul.
Much has changed for St. Louis over the course of the season: Former Wild coach Mike Yeo took over for Ken Hitchcock behind the bench, Vladimir Tarasenko set his career high in points and the Blues dealt defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk to the Washington Capitals at the trade deadline.
Here are three things (Blues related) to keep an eye on ahead of Game 1 at Xcel Energy Center:
1. Rookie Ivan Barbashev is centering the dangerous Tarasenko and Jaden Schwartz on the Blues' top line.
Tarasenko and Schwartz have spent much of the campaign together, but their centers have ranged from Jori Lehtera to Alexander Steen to Paul Stastny, who's been out with a lower-body injury since March.
Enter Barbashev, who first cracked St. Louis' lineup against Minnesota back on Jan. 26. He recorded a point apiece in his last four games (three spent on the top line), and Yeo has shown enough confidence in the youngster to leave him there to start Game 1.
"He earned the opportunity, and now we get into the playoffs, we all know there's a different level of play and different level of intensity, so we're anxious to see how he can respond to that," Yeo said. "He's a kid that played in the world juniors twice, so it's not like he hasn't been on the big stage before, but this will be a new test for him. For us, we want to see if he can do it, and if he can, we feel it gives us some strength in other areas of our lineup."
"I can't wait for the game to start," Barbashev said. "It's going to be fun and I'm really looking forward to it. I just can't wait, to be honest."
Video: Blues Pregame vs. Wild
2. Blues goaltender Jake Allen is much improved from the beginning of the season, thanks in part to one-on-one work with Assistant GM (and future Hall-of-Fame goalie) Marty Brodeur.
Allen had a rough January. To begin the month, he allowed 13 goals in four starts and was pulled in three of them. But since Yeo has taken over, Allen has been superb, allowing more than three goals in just one start since Feb. 2.
Part of the reason for his turnaround was Brodeur's direct work with Allen to correct problems as soon as they start, Yeo said. As a result, Allen's confidence has grown, and he's been, statistically, the best goaltender in the League since Feb. 2, with a .938 save percentage and a goals-against average of 1.85.
"He's been nothing short of phenomenal for the better part of three months right now," Yeo said. "If something doesn't go right, he knows exactly why it's not going right. And obviously, what that does for him is it helps him prepare going into games. And you can see the confidence in his game. You can see it in the way that he plays the puck, in the way that he challenges shots, the way that he makes difficult saves look easy. And that confidence filters through to the rest of the group."
3. After spending nearly three years overseas in the KHL, Vladimir Sobotka is back in a St. Louis uniform.
The last time Sobotka suited up for St. Louis, he had 33 points in 61 games back in the 2013-14 campaign.
With one year left on his contract with the Blues, Sobotka returned to the United States last week and signed a three-year, $10.5 million extension. He scored against Colorado in his first game back with the club on April 9.
With three forwards out to begin the series against Minnesota, Yeo will have new flexiblity with Sobotka back in the lineup.
"You look at the team we're playing, there's a lot of depth. I think now we're a deeper team," Yeo said. "That depth is going to come into play both defensively and offensively. He helps us at both ends of the ice. He's a guy that factors into our special teams, he's a guy that can help us on faceoffs and he's a guy that's an experienced player and has played at world championships, played at the highest level. It's a great asset to get him at this time of year."