The battle for the Stanley Cup begins. The Minnesota Wild and the St. Louis Blues open their first-round playoff series Wednesday in a showdown between a pair of Central Division rivals. And while the two teams have met in the playoffs before, the rivalry has a few new wrinkles this year. Former Wild head coach Mike Yeo returns to Xcel Energy Center behind the other bench, while his replacement, Bruce Boudreau, has Minnesota primed for a deep playoff run following the best regular season in franchise history. FOX Sports North presents a few things to keep an eye on in this playoff-opening series.
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Head coach Mike Yeo
Yeo landed on his feet after being dismissed by the Wild last season. He signed on as an assistant coach with the Blues and was pegged as their eventual heir apparent to Ken Hitchcock, but some early-season struggles accelerated St. Louis' plans. Hitchcock was fired on Feb. 1 with the Blues sitting at 24-21-5, fourth in division. The Blues are 21-8-2 under Yeo as their defense and goaltending have buckled down, allowing a league-best 1.87 goals per game over that span.
USA TODAY SportsJames Guillory
Head coach Bruce Boudreau
Boudreau's struggles in Game 7s are well documented, but so is his winning pedigree. In nine full seasons as an NHL head coach Boudreau has been to the playoffs nine times, and at .658 has the best points percentage of any head coach in league history (minimum three seasons). It's hard to pin a streak like Boudreau's on the coach himself, and with a deep roster as well as strong goaltending, this could be the team that gets him over the hump.
USA TODAY SportsMarilyn Indahl
G Jake Allen
No player has contributed more to the Blues' turnaround than Allen. After logging a miserable .895 save percentage in 36 games under Hitchcock, Allen has turned things around under Yeo, his save percentage improving to .938.
USA TODAY SportsJeff Curry
G Devan Dubnyk
Once the unquestioned frontrunner for the Vezina Trophy, Dubnyk's play has slipped recently, but his resume speaks for itself: A .923 save percentage, a 2.25 goals-against average and five shutouts. Dubnyk racked up 40 wins while carrying the Wild through significant stretches of the regular season, and has played more minutes than all but three other goaltenders. The Wild called up AHL starter Alex Stalock late in the season to spell Dubnyk, giving their top goalie time to rest up ahead of the playoffs.
USA TODAY SportsIsaiah J. Downing
RW Vladimir Tarasenko
St. Louis' leading scorer notched 39 goals during the regular season, falling just one short of the 40-goal plateau after breaking through for the first time last year. And while the sharp-shooting Russian hasn't piled up awards and recognition this season, he remains among the league's top scorers. He has eight goals and 15 points in 18 career meetings with the Wild, and has maintained a similar pace in the playoffs, with 15 points in 20 games.
USA TODAY SportsBilly Hurst
LW Mikael Granlund
One of the NHL's top scorers from December on, Granlund broke out in his fifth season, racking up career highs with 69 points, 43 assists and 26 goals. He finished 22nd in points, tied with Auston Matthews, Alexander Ovechkin and Jamie Benn. The creative force behind one of the league's best lines for much of the season, Granlund hooked up with captain Mikko Koivu and speedy winger Jason Zucker to form one of the league's most lethal units.
USA TODAY SportsJames Guillory
C Paul Stastny
The Blues No. 1 center is just as notable at this stage for his absence than his accomplishments. Stastny was on pace for his best season since 2014, before suffering a lower-body injury in late March. He's been week-to-week ever since. Yeo has played coy when questioned about Stastny's status for the playoffs, dropping a casual "we'll see" when questioned by NHL.com. After scoring 18 goals (40 points) in 66 games prior to the injury, Stastny's return would be huge for the Blues.
USA TODAY SportsAndrew Villa
C Eric Staal
A veteran of 13 NHL seasons, three playoff campaigns and a Stanley Cup-winning squad, Staal has plenty of experience on the sport's biggest stage. Staal has rediscovered his scoring touch following a disastrous experiment with the New York Rangers last season, achieving his highest scoring totals since the 2010-11 seasons with 28 goals and 65 points.