By DAVE TURNER
(1) St. Louis Blues vs. (4) Minnesota Wild
Season Series: Wild win series 2-1-1, Blues 2-2 (2-3 SO, 3-1, 6-3, 2-4)
This has the feeling of a long, physical series between two teams that are playing great hockey coming into the playoffs. The Blues won 4-2 over the Wild in what wasn't a completely meaningless game for the Wild, as they could have taken the three seed in the Central with the win. That might be alarming only for the fact that Devan Dubnyk looked beatable for the first time in a long while.
Dubnyk is the key for the Minnesota. Before his arrival, they were on the outside looking in. Once Dubnyk stepped between the pipes, the Wild have been one of the best teams in hockey. For St. Louis, they're firing on all cylinders with a roster that is stacked all the way through. They have speedy scorers in Jaden Schwartz and Vlad Tarasenko, but can grind it out with the likes of David Backes down the middle. Defensively, the Blues have the edge as well.
Brian Elliot will be a key in net, as he'll have to outplay Dubnyk for the Blues to win. He had a strong regular season, but he has to show that he can get it done in the playoffs. The Blues come in to the playoffs with a lot of pressure to win, following series meltdowns against the Kings and Blackhawks in the last two seasons.
These teams know each other well and this has all the makings of a tight series that may even feature a few overtime tilts.
Sizing up the Blues: It's hard to find a weakness on this team. They can score at evens and on the power play. The offseason acquisition of Paul Stastny from Colorado makes them that much more formidable down the middle, a key to playoff success in the rough and tumble Western Conference. Defensively, the Blues really shine. Kevin Shattenkirk is back from injury and it's no surprise that the team got on a roll once he returned. Shattenkirk is a wizard on the power play and his two-way game at evens is among the best in the entire league. He can score, distribute and shut down any team's best line. Throw Alex Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester into the mix and St. Louis is a great defensive team. The Key for the Blues will be Brian Elliot. He has to be strong between the pipes. Goaltending has doomed this team in the past and if they expect to make a deep run, they'll need to do it from the net out.
What to expect from the Wild: The story of Devan Dubnyk is the reason why they got themselves turned around, but this is a sound team as well. With a first line of Zach Parise, Mikael Granlund and Jason Pominville, they'll be dangerous. Considering that they can roll three legitimate scoring lines, even the Blues fantastic defensive depth will be tested. Defensively, it will be a lot of Ryan Suter, who plays both special teams and will most likely log close to 30 minutes every night. Jared Spurgeon and Marco Scandella are also viable two-way defenders for Minnesota who will have their hands full with the Blues offense as well. The question mark is if Dubnyk can keep up his level of play. He started 39 straight games for the Wild, which will certainly test just how much he has left in the tank for a long, grueling series. If he's able to give the Wild good play in net, they should be able to score enough to make this a highly contested series.
Series X-Factor: Kevin Shattenkirk- His return to the lineup is huge for St. Louis. Not that the Blues have a shortage of elite blue liners or a void at forward, but what Shattenkirk brings to the table is unique. He can log major minutes while being a huge factor at both ends of the ice. If he stays healthy and is able to chip in offensively, he will be the piece that puts the Blues over the top.
The Pick: Blues in 7
This is perhaps the hardest series to pick St. Louis's playoff failures have to be accounted, but this is just such a deep team this season. Minnesota won a playoff series last year against the Avalanche in seven games before falling to the Blackhawks in round two. They know what it takes to win a long series and if St. Louis lets them stick around, it could be another long offseason for the Blues. That being said, the overall talent of the Blues should put them over the top in a long series, as they have the edge in just about every category, except if Dubnyk is spectacular. It wouldn't be surprising if this goes the other way, but the Blues will outlast the Wild in seven games.
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