Blues aim to stay hot in playoff opener vs. Wild

( – The St. Louis Blues hope to carry a strong finish to the
regular season into the playoffs, as they host the Minnesota Wild on Thursday
in Game 1 of the Western Conference quarterfinals.

Unlike last season, the Blues enter the 2015 playoffs on a positive note and
the franchise hopes that translates into success this time around.

The Blues ended the 2013-14 campaign on a six-game losing streak that dropped
them out of first place in the Central Division. Rather than a first-round
meeting with, coincidentally, the Wild enjoyed by the division-champion
Colorado Avalanche, St. Louis drew the Chicago Blackhawks in the quarterfinals
and was eliminated in six games.

This time around, the Blues won five of their final six contests of the season
to edge the Nashville Predators for first place and will try to advance out of
the first round for the first time in three years.

In the Blues’ way will be Minnesota, a team that made the playoffs for a third
straight spring despite being eight points out of a wild card spot on Jan. 14.
However, that was the same day the Wild acquired Devan Dubnyk from the Arizona
Coyotes for a draft pick and saved its season.

Beginning with an 18-save shutout of Buffalo in his Wild debut on Jan. 15,
Dubnyk made 38 straight starts for the Wild and went 27-8-2 in that span with
a 1.73 goals against average, .938 save percentage and five shutouts.

The goaltender infused the Wild with some much-needed confidence to win games
and the club even threatened to move into the top three in the Central
Division before settling for the first wild card spot.

All eyes will now be on Dubnyk to see if he can carry over his excellent
finish to the regular season into what will be his NHL playoff debut.

Jake Allen started four of the final six games for St. Louis, and he’ll get
the call over Brian Elliott for the opener of this best-of-seven series. The
24-year-old netminder was 22-7-4 with a 2.28 GAA, .913 save percentage and
four shutouts in 37 games. Elliott went 26-14-3 with a 2.26 goals against
average, .917 save percentage and five shutouts in 46 games this season. Head
coach Ken Hitchcock could make the switch to Elliott early in this series if
Allen struggles.

“It’s a decision we couldn’t be wrong with, to be honest with you,” Hitchcock
said of choosing Allen over Elliott. “Jake has gotten really hot down the
stretch, which was really good for us because we needed it, but just his
overall development, and then the way he played in the last month, we wanted
to give him a chance to go in the playoffs.”

There is no question who is leading the offense as 23-year-old Vladimir
Tarasenko paced the Blues with 37 goals and 73 points on the season. Fellow
2010 first-round pick Jaden Schwartz was right behind his fellow winger with
28 goals and 63 points.

That young duo compliments a veteran core of captain David Backes (26 goals,
32 assists), winger Alexander Steen (24G, 40A) and American forward T.J. Oshie
(19G, 36A).

The bulk of Minnesota’s offense figures to come from the line of Jason
Pominville, Zach Parise and Mikael Granlund. Parise led the club with 33 goals
and 62 points, while Pominville added 54 points.

If that line can get going as is, it will allow coach Mike Yeo to put 20-goal
scorers Nino Niederreiter and Thomas Vanek on another line with center Charlie
Coyle to spread out the offense.

Captain Mikko Koivu continues to log heavy minutes, nearly 20 a game, at the
age of 32, and while his days as a 60-point producer are gone, the Wild can
count on him making calm and smart plays with the puck. He could center a line
that features Jason Zucker and Chris Stewart, a trade deadline acquisition
from Buffalo.

There to help Dubnyk is workhorse defenseman Ryan Suter, who posted 36
assists, 38 points and a plus-7 rating while leading the NHL with 29 minutes
and three seconds of ice time per game. He’ll be counted on again to log heavy
minutes in this series and he should be both ready and able.

With Suter, and eventually Dubnyk, leading the defense, the Wild ranked
sixth in the league with just 2.42 goals allowed per game and topped the NHL
with an 86.3 percent success rate on the penalty kill.

Jonas Brodin teams with Suter and was a plus-21, while the pairing of Jared
Spurgeon and Marco Scandella combined to contribute 20 goals and 48 points.
Matt Dumba and Nate Prosser should round out the top six.

The Blues and Wild split four meetings this season, with Minnesota going 2-1-1
thanks to a shootout loss back in November.

Parise had three goals in the four-game season series, while Vanek and Koivu
both finished with a pair of goals and an assist. Coyle and winger Justin
Fontaine both had four points in the four games.

Dubnyk allowed four goals in winning his first two meetings with the Blues
this season while with the Wild before getting pulled early in losing the
regular-season finale. He is just 2-8-0 with a 4.10 GAA and .866 save
percentage in 10 all-time meetings.

Allen is 1-0-0 in two games (1 start) against the Wild while allowing four
goals on 50 shots.

Tarasenko led all scorers in the series with five points off three goals and
two assists, with Backes adding a pair of tallies and a helper.

Game 2 of this series is scheduled for Saturday in St. Louis.