The Central Division had no shortage of drama in the first round with both the Chicago Blackhawks and Minnesota Wild going down in spite of leading the West for much of the season in the top two spots. Which just goes to show how little the regular season can mean when all is said and done. Home ice and high expectations don’t guarantee advancement for anyone.
While the Blues had their struggles early, a new coach in Mike Yeo, the return of Vladimir Sobotka seemed to give the Blues new life just as the Playoffs were within view. Timing is everything, and a fresh face, a new approach, and the return of an old teammate can often flip the script on teams that appear to be out of the hunt.
In the case of the Nashville Predators, losing their Captain could have been catastrophic, and it was certainly an adjustment not having Shea Weber on the point, but P.K. Subban found his way and became an integral part of an already well established heavyweight. While both of these teams came in prepared to go to battle without home ice, with both top seeds out, St. Louis ends up with the benefit of home ice in this seven game series.
— NHL (@NHL) April 24, 2017
St. Louis Blues (46-29-7)
First Round Opponent: Minnesota Wild (4-1-0)
The Blues are a battle tested team that went through wholesale changes this summer. They lost their captain David Backes to free agency, long time netminder Brian Elliott was traded to the Calgary Flames leaving Jake Allen to carry a much heavier load perhaps before he was ready. Certainly after Elliott’s outstanding playoff performance last season, fans were concerned over the choice to cash in that trade chip. This season, Kevin Shattenkirk was finally dealt to the Washington Capitals where he rejoined another former Blue Note, T.J. Oshie. A fan favorite who was the first major casualty after a couple of early playoff exits.
The question on everyone’s mind was whether or not the Blues got enough to justify losing a solid presence on the blue line in the midst of a run to the Playoffs that hadn’t gone as well as they’d hoped early in the season. Mike Yeo took over as longtime bench boss Ken Hitchcock when hefell out of favor with the team, and suddenly the team was rapidly rising back to contention. Was it really wise to trade Shattenkirk, or should they take the risk of getting nothing to retain his services in the hopes of a deep run?
St. Louis has never backed down from a challenge, so they rolled the dice and sent Shattenkirk to Washington just a few weeks after Yeo took over. They received prospect Zachary Sanford and a conditional pick, so essentially they would receive nothing that would greatly impact their Cup run in a positive manner beyond moving a player who they knew they would not be able to sign once he hit free agency. They opted to deal with the situation at the deadline instead of being handcuffed into a deal with the clock winding down or getting nothing at all. Understandable, but if their defensive depth comes into question at all throughout their run, this will be the first thing that comes back to bite them.
Having said that, if Vladimir Tarasenko, Sobotka, Jaden Schwartz, and Paul Stastny are able to produce offensively with regularity it might never come up again. Certainly, young blue liners like Colton Parayko, and Joel Edmundson along with veteran Alex Pietrangelo have given the Blues plenty to be optimistic about but Nashville’s depth on the back end could be their first true test.
Allen took over the crease in his first year as the Blues de facto number one netminder, without Elliott to step in if he should falter. He got a little help from Martin Brodeur who took a little time out of his front office position to mentor the 26-year-old, and it made all the difference once Yeo was at the helm. Allen went from a little inconsistent early to a dominant force in net in their first round against a past Vezina winner, Devan Dubnyk.
Allen has the ability to be a difference-maker in any series, and his current backup, Carter Hutton is uniquely qualified to scout the Blues second round opponent. He was the backup to Pekka Rinne for the past three years before joining the Blues during the offseason and appeared in three playoff games during his time in the Music City.
Nashville Predators (41-21-12)
First Round Opponent: Chicago Blackhawks (4-0-0)
The Predators are one of the deepest defensive teams in the Western Conference, and that didn’t change when they shipped Weber to Montreal for fan favorite P.K. Subban. They got a younger defenseman back in return who excels as an agitator, giving the Preds blue line a little more bite if you will. Their defensemen are extremely active and can often overwhelm teams because they are so effective at moving the puck and getting involved offensively.
This was evident in the first round as they neutralized the Blackhawks best scoring threats by cutting off their ability to move through the neutral zone and forcing them to chase pucks into the offensive zone, a game that the Blackhawks were not accustomed to playing after years spent focusing on their possession game. Dump and chase hockey just isn’t something they were prepared to play, and it made their best players look ineffective and three steps too slow on nearly every play.
If the blue line can repeat that with St. Louis, they may have a winning formula as they have struggled at times to produce offensively with Tarasenko carrying the bulk of the load. However, the addition of Sobotka could be an x-factor for the Blues as he has been in the KHL since 2014 having only returned for one game in the regular season. He added a goal and two assists in the Blues first round against the Wild, if he can get on the board with regularity it will certainly change how the Preds approach the Blues and could take some of the pressure of Tarasenko.
Tarasenko will still be the primary focus for the Preds, and if they can limit his chances, they certainly have the firepower to counter whatever the rest of the Blues can muster offensively.
The Preds have one of their most complete offensive arsenals in recent years with this young group led by Filip Forsberg, Viktor Arvidsson, and Ryan Johansen. Arvidsson and Forsberg have proven they have what it takes to bring the star power to the Music City, and if they are still dealing the hot hand after their first round performance the Blues will certainly have their hands full. Forsberg had a tough go in the playoffs last season, but he has more than made up for it with two goals and three assists in four games thus far. Arvidsson added two goals and two assists, while Johansen tallied a goal and five assists. This is not the Preds from a couple of years ago.
What makes them even harder to slow down is the fact that they can score from the back end as well with Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis adding seven points between them. This team is dangerous all over the ice. And by the way, Rinne is back to his old form in the crease. If that trend continues, this series may wind up tilting in Nashville’s favor quickly.
Prediction: Nashville in six
The Predators have all the hallmarks of a team capable of finding success in this league. They have the depth on the back end to fend off even a good offensive arsenal which St. Louis certainly has. Their blue line depth is also an asset in that the Blues counterparts simply don’t have the same kind of depth and experience as the Preds with Josi, Ellis, Mattias Ekholm, and Subban.
In addition, the Preds have a handful of offensive talent that could easily expose the Blues backend without Shattenkirk, that may be the one move that comes back to haunt them, even if the risk was losing him for nothing he might have come in handy against of high octane offensive team like the Predators. But, it’s too late for the Blues to look back now.
The do have center Paul Stastny back from an injury, but unless he’s exceptional throughout the series he is unlikely to be the difference maker.
The one place where the Blues could really tilt the ice in their favor is in the crease. The Blackhawks failed to really pressure Rinne and back him into his net but if the Blues can throw bodies at the Preds netminder they might be able to remove the glass slipper from Rinne’s Cinderella-like renaissance. While it didn’t have any influence in Chicago, Nashville struggled to win games on the road this season. If Blues fans can rock the house and make their barn uninviting, those two factors could tilt the ice in their favor.
But, that may just take a perfect storm and the Preds will almost certainly be ready for anything. They think this is their year, and they won’t make it easy for the Blues even without home ice.