Playoff previews seem like a fool’s errand - you either come off as too optimistic or too pessimistic. I think history has conditioned Blues fans to be pessimists over the years. I can’t blame them…. but I’ll be damned if I’ll join them. Call it what you will (and I’m sure you will), but I feel good about this team and their chances. Obviously, though, there are some questions that remain about this team. Here’s a sampling of those questions, and how I’d answer them.
What will it take for this team go deep into the playoffs?
If you've listened to the podcast (cheap plug!), you may recall that my keys to Blues success were what I call the Four H’s
Home Ice, Healthy, Humble, Hungry
Home Ice: Check. The Blues had good records both at home (27-12-2) and on the road (24-12-5), so I wouldn't sweat it too much either way. However, there are some key advantages to playing at home. First, there’s that sweet sweet box office revenue. The competitive advantage though, is having the last line change. This allows you the most favorable matchups on the ice. If it ever comes down to a pivotal Game 7, I’d sure like to have that in the back pocket. Also, it sets the table to get up on the Wild early in the series. If the Wild have to come home to a 2-0 deficit, it makes it all the more difficult.
Healthy: Check. The Blues played game 82 with a lot of star power in the pressbox. If they were going to rest some of their players, it would have been prefectly plausible to rest the injured Alexander Steen and Vladimir Tarasenko that last game. The fact that they played despite the relative meaninglessness of that game tells me that they are truly healthy (at least in hockey terms). This is a night-and-day difference from how the Blues entered the 2014 playoffs.
Humble: TBD. This is something that can’t be judged until they come out and skate in Game 1. To borrow from Coach Hitch, I think we've all seen the games where they "put talent ahead of work". If the Blues can avoid that particular trap, I think the Blues will be just fine. The Blues surely have the advantage in talent, but that won’t matter unless the Blues play their game - hard checking and being the first to every puck. If they give the Wild too much space, and depend on just talent alone …. well … that’s when we get in trouble. The lads know this, though.
Hungry: TBD. This is another judgment call that can only be made when the players take the ice. There is absolutely no reason for the Blues to be anything other than hungry. Hungry for the puck, for points, and for the Cup. They have no laurels to rest on - and they know this. If they pursue the wins instead of waiting for it to be delivered into their laps, they’ll be just fine.
But What About The Wild?
Yeah… about those guys... I’m not that concerned about them. A lot of electronic ink has already been spilled to describe the amazing run that the Wild had with Devan Dubnyk in net. He was traded to the Wild on January 14, and that prompted an incredible turnaround of that team’s fortunes. You certainly have to respect your opponent on the ice, but as a fan? Nah, I have an idea about these guys.
In the months of October, November, and December (OND), the Minnesota Wild had a record of 17-14-4, for a win percentage of 54.2%. That’s not horrible, but the best of that was earlier in the year. December’s record was 4-5-3. You might recall the practice that coach Mike Yeo just lost it, and ripped his players a new one in a tirade during practice. Things were trending pretty poorly.
But then along came Dubnyk and the Wild then went on a tear through the National Hockey League. Their win percentage in January, February, March and April (JFMA) was 66.0% on a record of 29-14-4. Winning two-thirds of their games lifted them from near the bottom of the standings to taking a wild card slot in the ultra-competitive Central Division with an even 100 points. The difference was Dubnyk, who started over 30 consecutive games and was the very definition of "hot hand". In the 38 total games that he appeared in, he had an overall Save Percentage of 93.8%.
What kind of examples can we look at that would include that kind of run?
I’m reminded of another team, that you’ll find familiar too. They had a horrible start as well, with an OND record of 14-20-3 (41.9%). Needing a new direction, the team made a change in net and shortly afterward caught fire. Riding a 92.4% save percentage, the team took no prisoners in the JFMA months. During that time, their record was 27-11-7 (67.8%) and they vaulted themselves from cellar dwellers to the sixth seed in the playoffs.
I submit to you, ladies and gentlemen, that this year’s Minnesota Wild are the 2009 Blues.
While I’m not predicting a sweep (though it wouldn't shock me, and I’d feel awfully smug about it), this is a big reason why I’m not worried about this playoff series.
What’s different about this year's Blues team?
Offense: For a few years now, a lot of the fans have claimed that The One Thing that the Blues were missing was that "pure goal scorer", that one guy that you can count on to score that big goal. All along, the bulk of our offense has been "scoring by committee". That has gotten us this far and worked out well in the regular season last year, but failed us in the playoffs. What about now? Enter one Vladimir Tarasenko. It’s no secret that he’s That Guy for us this year. With the supporting cast already accustomed to carrying their weight from previous years, this is a major addition to the team. Sure, we had Vova last year, but he was still fairly green and pretty banged up. With the Central already clenched, there was no overwhelming reason to play Vladdy in the final regular season game unless he was healthy and ready to join the team. With the bonus of this break between Game 82 and the playoffs, I fully expect him to be good to go when the puck drops. The rest of the team just needs to carry their weight, and the goals will come. This is a team that led all Western Conference playoff teams in goals scored this year. Better yet, it was spread out over several players. There were 9 players with 40 points or more, and 5 over 50. Shut down one guy, and the others will still beat ya. In contrast, the Wild only had 4 players break the 40-point mark. That should make the Wild easier to defend.
Defense: Speaking of that… the Blues have one of the deepest defensive corps in the league. There are a few different concerns about pairings or individual performances, but collectively they are a damn strong group. Amongst the playoff teams in the West, only Chicago has allowed fewer goals than the Blues. Oddly, St Louis and Minnesota ended up tied at 201 goals allowed. If you were to look at shots on goal, the Blues defense come out ahead. While both teams rank highly, the Blues ranked second in the league at 2233 shots allowed. Minnesota pulled in at fourth with 2265 shots allowed. These are two tough defenses to crack in this series, and that’s why the majority of pundits are calling for a low-scoring series. There’s certainly reason to think that, but I’m not totally sold on that call. Of course, the last line of defense is goaltending
Goaltending: Devan Dubnyk is the obvious starter for the Wild. He comes in riding a 93.6% save percentage this season with Minnesota. Narrow it down to just 5-on-5 play, and it is an amazing 93.97%. There is no way that is sustainable, and it’s only a matter of time before Dubie falls back to earth. Nobody can promise us that it’ll happen in the next 4 or so games, but it certainly wouldn’t be unexpected. Allowing 3 goals on 14 shots in Game 82 *might* suggest that there are cracks showing. It’s worth noting that Dubnyk has 0 minutes of NHL playoff experience. You’d have to go back past his AHL years to the 2006-2007 season, where Dubnyk played in 6 playoff games for the ECHL’s Stockton Thunder. How much pressure will it take for a small crack to burst wide open? I can’t say for sure, but I bet the Stanley Cup playoffs and the fanbase from The State Of Hockey (™) can provide it.
But who starts for St Louis? Do you go with the experienced hand who has had another excellent year? Or do you roll with the goalie of the future, who has looked sharp and supremely confident at the end of the season? You really can’t go wrong with either, in my opinion. With the team in front of them playing at their best, either choice would be perfectly capable of leading the team deep into the playoffs.
On Wednesday, we learned that Jake Allen will start in net for Game 1. There’s no doubt in my mind that Jake is a better goaltender than the one across the ice in the other net. First off, he’s more experienced. Where Dubnyk has no NHL playoff experience, Jake surpasses that with a whole minute spent in a postseason game. Above that though, Jake has been on playoff teams in the AHL (12 games) and before that in the QMJHL (30 games). Add to that his Gold in the 2008 IIHF Under-18 Championship and a Silver in the 2010 World Junior Championship, and it’s safe to say Jake knows pressure. If you need further proof:
There’s no denying that toughness. Ever eat a leathery steak?
What about the #FancyStats?
There are better minds than mine out there that can explain all of these numbers. The bottom line is that St Louis comes off better (marginally, in some cases) in almost all categories. More importantly, I believe, the Blues have been doing it all year long.
There you have it folks. Nothing is guaranteed in life, but there's a lot going for us in this playoff series. Approaching this from several angles, the advantages are in St Louis' favor. So, to quote the noted hockey pundit Alfred E Neuman,
What, me worry?