St. Louis Blues vs. Minnesota Wild
Series Recommendation: St. Louis +130
The Minnesota Wild battle the St. Louis Blues in the opening round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs starting Wednesday. These two clubs hooked up back in 2014 with the Wild taking the series in six games under head coach Mike Yeo who is now the bench boss for the Blues.
St. Louis knew they would have to make some changes after losing in the Western Conference finals last May. They brought in Yeo to be the associate coach-in-waiting as longtime leader Ken Hitchcock was planning to call it a career after this season. When the Blues lost 7 of 11 games heading into the All-Star break and suffered a bad loss in their first contest back, management went ahead and fired Hitchcock and promoted Yeo on February 1. This move paid off quickly as St. Louis won 22 of its final 32 games to reach 99 points and clinch a sixth consecutive playoff berth. Yeo's mantra has always been defense and that was a weakness for the Blues prior to his promotion. Since Yeo took over, St. Louis has improved in all areas of backchecking and goaltending with a league-best 1.87 GAA, .936 save pct., and a 88.5% mark in penalty killing. The re-acquisition of forward Vladimir Sobotka helped boost an already talent-rich group of wingers. Led by Vladimir Tarasenko's 39-goal, 75-point season, along with Jaden Schwartz (19 goals, 55 points) and Alex Steen (16 goals, 51 points), St. Louis finished eighth in the NHL in power plays with a 21.3% conversion rate.
The Wild looked to be one of the best clubs in the NHL for most of the first half. With a franchise record 12-game winning streak at the end of the 2016 calendar year and a league-leading 69 points at the All-Star break, it appeared first-year head coach Bruce Boudreau was well on his way to a division title. But things started to get shaky around early February, and looked very bleak in March, when Minnesota went on a 3-10-2 tailspin. They were knocked out of the top spot in the Central Division and Western Conference though did manage to clinch home ice thanks to a four-game winning streak to close out the regular season. The MVP for the club is without question veteran Eric Staal. The 31-year old winger was acquired in the off-season to complement the likes of Zach Parise and Mikael Granlund. Staal led the Wild with 28 goals and ranked second on the team with 65 points; only four back of Granlund. Parise missed some time with a pair of injuries which allowed for other forwards to step up and contribute (Nino Niederreiter 25 goals, 57 points; Charlie Coyle 18 goals, 56 points.
The goaltending battle will be the key to the series. St. Louis’ Jake Allen struggled at times early in the year, but battled back to retain his starting job and finished the season with 33 wins and a 2.42 GAA. Minnesota’s Devan Dubnyk had a very solid year and could be a strong contender for the Vezina Trophy. With 40 wins, five shutouts and a .923 save percentage, "Dubs" carried this club on his pads when the offense faltered. His numbers however against St. Louis aren't promising. The veteran netminder is 10-16 lifetime versus the Blues with a 2.80 GAA and a .884 save percentage. With the strength of St. Louis' special teams, they have a big edge in this series as a strongly balanced club that can certainly pressure Minnesota on both ends of the ice. We've seen a string of talented Wild clubs succeed in the regular season only to unravel in the playoffs. Boudreau’s team have had eight first or second round playoff exits and is 1-7 all-time in Game 7's. This matchup of an underachieving coach leading an underachieving team should prove to be fruitful for the Blues. And one has to think that Yeo would love to lead the charge into sending his old club to an early tee time. At a plus price, I'm backing the St. Louis Blues to beat the Minnesota Wild and advance to Western Conference semifinals.