Lighting the Lamp With Rick Ackerman
If the spiritual theme of this glorious April afternoon is resurrection, then surely the St. Louis Blues qualify as an apt metaphor for what it means to return from the dead. On January 31, the Blues dropped a home game to the Winnipeg Jets, the fifth loss in their last six games. The 5-3 defeat dropped the Note to ninth place in the Western Conference as the Calgary Flames passed them in the standings for the second wild-card slot, the last for playoff contention. And Vancouver, Dallas and Winnipeg were all only one point behind at the time. It appeared the Blues were indeed dead.
In desperation, Ken Hitchcock was relieved of his duties as head coach and Mike Yeo took over the on-ice management of the club on February 1. And then St. Louis went on to an unanticipated 22-8-2 record the rest of the way, securing third place in the Central Division and earning former Wild coach Yeo a homecoming in Minnesota in the first round of the playoffs.
For those concerned with the Wild having home ice advantage in this series, Yeo’s regular season record with the Blues since February 1 includes a 14-4-1 record on the road, outscoring opponents 54-30. Nor did the Blues have major problems during the regular season versus Minnesota, winning three of five games against the Wild, including a 2-1 victory in St. Paul on March 7, Vlad Tarasenko with the game-winner. However, Minnesota outscored the Blues in the five games of the series, 14 to 11. The Note, led by Jake Allen, won both games in St. Louis, both by one goal and one in a shootout. Bonus points to those who can remember who got the winning goals in those two games.
So, even though these two divisional rivals are pretty evenly matched, the Blues have prevailed in both games in the North Star State by identical 2-1 scores, albeit one in overtime. Special kudos to Jake Allen with 74 combined saves in games one and two.
This parity was also apparent in the regular season statistics. Minnesota finished with 49 victories and 106 points, while St. Louis had 46 wins and 99 points. The Wild outscored the Blues 266 (3.21 goals per game, second in the NHL) to 235 (2.84, 12th in the league) and had a slightly better defense, allowing 208 goals against (2.51 per game, seventh in the league) to the Blues’ 218 (2.63 per game, 13th in the league). The Note had a better finish, going 7-1-2 in the last ten games with a three-game winning streak to end the season. Minnesota went 5-3-2 and ended the season with a four-game winning streak.
During the regular season, the Blues had a slightly better power play, ranked eighth in the NHL at 21.3% to the Wild’s ninth-ranked man advantage at 21.0%. St. Louis also had a better penalty kill, ranked third in the league at 84.8%. Minnesota had the eighth-best penalty kill at 82.9%.
The Blues have qualified for postseason play 41 times in their NHL history, failing to make it eight times. (One season was lost due to the lockout of 2004-05.) This marks the sixth consecutive year St. Louis has made the playoffs. Overall, the franchise has a 26-40 series record, winning 159 out of 356 games.
In comparison, since 2001, the Wild has qualified for the playoffs eight times out of 16, making it to the Conference Finals in 2003, the deepest into the playoffs the team has gone in franchise history. Unfortunately, Minnesota was swept by the Mighty Ducks in four games in that series. Overall, the Wild playoff record is four series wins and seven losses, with 25 victories in 65 games. This season marks the fifth consecutive year that the club has qualified for postseason play.
The Blues and Wild previously met for the only time in the postseason in 2015. A powerful St. Louis squad won the Central Division and had the same number of points as the Western Conference champion Anaheim Ducks, who had 43 ROWs to the Blues’ 42. What a difference one point makes! The Note would have played the Jets (who were swept in four games by the Ducks) instead of the Wild, if St. Louis had won just one more point during the regular season. Minnesota won game one, defeating the heavily favored Blues, 4-2. The Note evened the series, winning game two, 4-1, as Tarasenko netted a hat trick. Minnesota took game three in St. Paul, shutting the Blues out, 3-0, but St. Louis buried the Wild, 6-1, in game four, once again evening the series. Despite outshooting Minnesota 37 to 19, the Blues lost game five, 4-1, as goaltender Devan Dubynk put on quite the show. The Wild also took game six, 4-1, in St. Paul to win the series, four games to two. However, the eventual Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks swept Minnesota in the second round.
After this afternoon’s match, game four will be Wednesday, April 19, instead of April 18, as scheduling difficulties due to television coverage necessitate that the league pass over Tuesday night, which is when the Jewish holiday ends.
And for those with faulty memories, Magnus Paajarvi got the game winner (on a nifty pass from Nail Yakupov, who earlier scored his first goal as a Blue in that game) in St. Louis on October 13 in a 3-2 victory over Minnesota. Patrik Berglund assisted on both goals. David Perron won the shootout against the Wild in the fourth round on November 26 as the Blues won at home, 4-3.