Monday, April 10, 2017

Blues confident heading into series with Wild

Team went 15-2-2 down the stretch to lock up third in 
Central Division, doesn't mind opening series on road

ST. LOUIS -- The Blues are entering the Stanley Cup Playoffs as one of the hottest teams, going 15-2-2 in their final 19 games.

And since Mike Yeo took over for Ken Hitchcock on Feb. 1, the Blues, who finished the regular season 46-29-7 and 22-8-2 since Yeo took the reigns, have some of the top numbers in the NHL.

But with the slate wiped clean, it's a new chapter, and first up in the Western Conference First Round is the Minnesota Wild in a matchup of Nos. 2 and 3 seeds in the Central Division.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Blues right wing Vladimir Tarasenko (right) led the Blues in scoring with
39 goals and 75 points. Tarasenko said Blues are confident heading into
their first round playoff series with Minnesota.

The winner in the best-of-7 series gets the winner of the Chicago-Nashville series.

For the Blues, it's a chance at redemption when they lost to the Wild in six games in 2015, the same Wild then coached by Yeo. 

But considering how the season started for the Blues, with Ken Hitchcock at the helm and a coach in waiting (Yeo) to begin the season, the Blues floundering at the end of January at 24-21-5 and teetering on the edge of the playoff cutoff, to get to where they are, it is a confident group heading into Game 1 Wednesday night in St. Paul.

"Yeah, especially after tough start and tough midseason," said Blues right wing Vladimir Tarasenko, who led the team in goals (39) and points (75) and tied for assists (36) with Jaden Schwartz. "We build a lot of confidence in this group and we believe in each other. We believe in our power to go all the way up."

The Blues, who made it to the Western Conference Final a season ago for the first time in 15 years, come into the postseason this year a different group, one void of savvy veterans (David Backes, Troy Brouwer, Steve Ott and Brian Elliott). But it's one that employed a number of younger players (Ivan Barbashev, Zach Sanford and Jordan Schmaltz) to help fill voids left by injured veterans (Paul Stastny, Robert Bortuzzo and the long-term injury to Robby Fabbri).

"We're going to have good players that aren't in the lineup for Game 1," Yeo said. "We know it's not going to be an easy task, but our goal is to have a long run here and if that's the case, then you need depth and you need options and we believe we have that. What we've seen is the attitude and the character of the group and you look at the injuries that we've had, some of the adversity that we've had to overcome and the way that the leaders have stepped up, the way that players that we've needed to perform at a high level have delivered for us. And guys coming into the lineup, it's not just about what they've done in a short period of time, these guys have grown. If you look at what they've done, and the list can go on, you look at a guy like Barbashev or (Magnus) Paajarvi and I can speak to a lot more individuals than that, but their game has grown and it's so it's huge for their development, it's huge for us and it's helped prepare them."

The Blues aren't void of veteran players with experience. From Alexander Steen to Patrik Berglund, Schwartz, Alex Pierangelo, Jay Bouwmeester and Jake Allen, who started his first playoff series against the Wild two years ago, and David Perron, brought back for his second stint with the Blues to others like young defensemen Colton Parayko and Joel Edmundson, there's plenty of experience and confidence.

"For me, it all starts over again anyway," Yeo said. "What we've done in the past two weeks is we've tried to prepare ourselves and we've tried to get a game that we feel confident going into the playoffs with. ... We're coming in and we're playing a team that for most of the year was probably the best team in the league. What we have to do is prove to ourselves first that we're good enough to beat those guys. We think that we are, but it's one thing to think it, it's another thing to get out there and do it. It's up to us to put it into action now."
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Blues left wing Jaden Schwartz (right) will be counted upon to provide a
heavy presence at both ends of the ice in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The Blues will begin this series on the road for just the second time since 2009 (Western Conference semifinal vs. Dallas last season), and with their recent strong of road wins (17-6-1) after starting 5-11-1, the Blues don't mind being road warriors.

"Yeah, I think that definitely is great," Perron said. "We didn't start the year good on the road, but it's great recently. We've been playing unreal on the road. I think for us not having to go in the other division like playing Anaheim or Edmonton, I think it's another key as we work towards our goal to win the Cup. A little bit less travel early on. 

"We're not thinking too far. Right now, just thinking about Game 1."

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