A healthy Blues roster has Hitchcock excited heading into series with Wild
ST. LOUIS — Much like last year’s first-round playoff series against Chicago, the St. Louis Blues have their work cut out for them as they go into Game 1 of the postseason against the Minnesota Wild.
The Blues are 2-2 against the Wild this season, their first victory coming on Nov. 29 with goaltender Jake Allen in net and Vladimir Tarasenko winning the game in a shootout. The second win occurred this past Saturday, an impressive 4-2 performance despite the Blues sitting several starters. But even coach Ken Hitchcock admitted that game was something of an outlier.
"This was not a normal hockey game," Hitchcock said when asked about Saturday’s top line of Alexander Steen, Jori Lehtera and Tarasenko, whose individual point totals from the game, when added together, hit six. "This was fun. It’s not fun in a normal game for those guys. They’re gonna see a whole other level."
Going into the series, it’s more likely Tarasenko and David Backes are the shooters to watch for the Blues. Until Saturday’s "outlier" game, they had the most points against the Wild this season, and they have a skill set that holds up well in the playoffs as defenses tighten and it becomes difficult to create space on the ice. Tarasenko’s elite shot makes him a threat any time the puck leaves his stick. Backes, meanwhile, works the front of the net, and the Blues’ one goal in their 3-1 loss to the Wild on March 14 came when he tipped the puck in after Steen sent a shot whipping toward the net from the blue line during a sustained offensive-zone shift.
"(Paul) Stastny takes a lot of ice time away from Backes defensively, which helps a lot, so David is going to be able to be turned loose in this series a little bit more," Hitchcock predicted.
In fact, that goal from March 14 can be a blueprint for the Blues entering the playoffs. That tally was their only one in 42 shots on goal that game, which meant Wild goaltender Devan Dubnyk finished with a .976 save percentage on the evening. If you’re going to beat teams in the playoffs — especially teams with hot goaltending — net traffic is essential. The NHL playoffs become a graveyard of teams buried by hot goaltending, but even elite netminders can be beat by an unpredictable redirect off a skate or stick as players hover near the net. Dubnyk had enjoyed a .944 save percentage against the Blues the two times he’d faced them prior to last Saturday, of which he played 40 minutes and gave up three goals on 14 shots. But when Dubnyk’s hot, as he’s been the second half of the season, he will be the Blues’ biggest problem.
It’s fortuitous for the Blues that they’ll head into the series with a healthy lineup, an advantage they didn’t have last year in the playoffs.
"The evaluation on the players at the end of the year was really unfair because they were just so banged up," Hitchcock said. "This is a fresher group, a healthier group to start, which is the thing I feel good about. I’m excited to see them play."
The Wild, meanwhile, accomplished something the Blues didn’t last postseason — they made it to the second round, and they did it with only two guys scoring 20-plus goals in the regular season. Hitchcock has identified them as a "rush attack" team this year, with a predominant amount of their scoring chances against the Blues this season coming off the rush. That playing style might affect who Hitchcock puts in net Thursday, though he’s yet to publicly declare either Allen or Brian Elliott the starter.
"Ells has had a heck of a year defending the rush," Hitchcock said, though he also qualified the statement. "Some goalies are set up for different type of opposition. We like ’em both right now."
In the special teams battles, meanwhile, penalty killing may prove the difference. The Wild have the top penalty kill in the league, though their record against the Blues before Saturday was two for eight, not quite as good as the Blues’ penalty kill performed against them in the same time frame (two for 11). The Blues enjoyed a stretch of shorthanded success going into Saturday’s game — they’d gone six games without giving up a goal on the penalty kill, which was a season high, and killed off a six-on-three against the Wild before giving up a six-on-four goal. In the Blues, the Wild penalty killers face one of the best power plays in the league; their own is one of the worst, ranked 27th.
"Nothing more unravels your team than if you can’t kill a penalty," Hitchcock said.