The St. Louis Blues are riding the hot hand in goal into the playoffs. There was never a doubt who’d be minding the nets for the Minnesota Wild.
Blues coach Ken Hitchcock ended the intrigue on Wednesday, a day ahead of the opener of the best-of-seven series, choosing rookie Jake Allen over veteran Brian Elliott.
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"It was a week ago I said one guy’s had a great season and one guy’s had a great last six weeks, and we opted to go with the guy that’s had the great six weeks," Hitchcock said. "Either way, it’s a decision that we couldn’t be wrong with, to be honest with you."
The Wild counter with their own rising star. Devan Dubnyk started 39 of the last 40 games and keyed the franchise’s rise from fourth worst in the Western Conference to a wild card spot pitting them against the Central Division champions.
Dubnyk had a 1.78 goals-against average with Minnesota, second-best in the NHL. In mid-January, getting the 28-year-old backup from the Coyotes cost the Wild only a third-round draft pick. Dubnyk had 41 saves in a victory in St. Louis in March during the Wild’s NHL record-tying 12-game road winning streak.
"Yeah, that’s a big game and I think that’s a good one to hold onto, too," Dubnyk said.
Just like Wild coach Mike Yeo, Hitchcock wants to stick with one goalie in the playoffs. But there are no assurances for Allen past the opener.
"Everything’s game to game at this time," the coach said. "Day to day. The whole world. If we’ve got to make a change, we’ll make a change."
The 24-year-old Allen was 5-1-1 with 1.32 goals-against average and .950 save percentage in his last eight games. The deciding factor likely was his stout play in a pair of 2-1 victories over the rival Blackhawks.
"You always want to play. It doesn’t matter if you play five games all year or 75 games, you want to get the net," Allen said. "It’s going to be a fun test for me."
Besides the recent track record, Allen is better handling the puck than Elliott and more proactive about stopping pucks behind the net, which should lead to a better transition game.
"He’s not a Marty Brodeur, who’s kind of getting out of the net any chance he can get," All-Star defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk said. "We can peel off and offer him a good passing option if he needs it."
The Wild finished with 100 points, nine behind the Blues, but took the season series 2-1-1. Things to watch for in the series that begins Thursday in St. Louis:
Rather than go all-out for a record 13th straight road victory in the season finale in St. Louis on Saturday, the Wild dialed it back — just like the Blues — and Dubnyk came out after two periods of a 4-2 loss. During the streak that began on Feb. 18, Dubnyk never allowed more than two goals. He also won twice in Nashville and also in Chicago.
"We’re certainly not worried about the last game of the year; that didn’t count much," Dubnyk said.
The 30-year-old Elliott didn’t appear in the playoffs last year after the Blues acquired Ryan Miller, then flamed out in a first-round loss to Chicago. He was 26-14-3 with a 2.26 goals-against average and five shutouts but played just twice in the last six games, including the finale.
The division was the strongest in the NHL with four 100-point teams, and defending champion Colorado didn’t make the playoffs. The Blues surged past Nashville with a 13-6-3 finish while the Wild was an NHL-best 26-8-2 after the All-Star break.
READY TO ROLL
Shattenkirk was among the regulars rested by the Blues in the finale, in order to get more healing time from abdominal surgery that sidelined him from early February to late March.
"It’s key coming into a time when I’m not going to have any rest," Shattenkirk said.
The Wild are deep at forward since the early return of Jason Zucker from a broken collarbone and the March acquisition of former Blues winger Chris Stewart. Zucker, who was third on the team with 21 goals, missed the playoffs last season with a knee injury.
"It was tough, it was definitely very tough," Zucker said. "It’s part of the business, and that’s behind me and I’m just ready to go this year."