(photo: Bridget Samuels)

Beginning Thursday, April 15, the number one Western conference seeded St. Louis Blues and the number four seeded Minnesota Wild take each other on in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Although the Wild edged into the playoffs with a wildcard spot and the Blues were a division winner, the series should be exciting, and it will not be an easy series sweep for the Blues.

The Blues are a very talented team, which is made pretty clear when Team USA star, TJ Oshie, isn’t even considered their best player. Young gun, Vladimir Tarasenko, leads the team with 73 points on the season, and he is only 23 years old. Tarasenko is widely noted as having crazy talent when it comes to his ability to score, as he made it on the NHL highlight reel multiple times this season with jaw-dropping goals. For example, just watch this sick goal.

Another highly underrated player on the Blues roster is Alexander Steen. Steen finished the season with 64 points, and is a player who is known for his gritty play. His goals aren’t always pretty, but he still manages to net many and is a very skilled player.

The Wild’s biggest challenge of the series could be the physical play the Blues will bring to the ice. Enter third line center David Backes. Backes is not afraid to generate some heat when it comes down to playing physical. Despite being a Minnesota native, Backes has always been an agitator when playing the Wild — even getting in physical confrontations with the Wild’s goaltenders. Backes will be looking to rebound last year’s Stanley Cup playoffs when Blackhawk’s defenseman Brent Seabrook boarded him into a concussion (… and of course Duncan Keith uttered the controversial chirp, “Wakey, wakey Backes”). Backes will definitely do his best to get into the Wild players’ heads and mess with their games.

In addition to his ability to mentally distract his opponents, Backes, along with many of his Blues teammates, are big and talented. As a forward group, they are known to be physical, yet possess the talent to put the puck in the net, as well. The Wild will need to find a way to counterattack this style of play if they want to finish the series on top.

The Minnesota Wild, though not as big, are still an extremely talented team. The Wild seem to have overcome their early season goal scoring slump. With that said, their success is predicated upon sound defensive play and strong goaltending. A key to the series will be the Wild’s ability to maintain their success as the top rated penalty killing team in the league.

The Wild came back from a tough start to the season that had them looking like they would miss the playoffs, and though it took 80 games of grit before they clinched a playoff spot, they most certainly did not back in to the playoffs like the Pittsburgh Penguins did. They worked exceptionally hard to earn their spot, in what many consider the best playoff field to ever come out of the Western Conference.

Despite being a very young squad, the Wild have veteran leadership in the locker room. Obviously, their leaders on and off the ice are Zach Parise and Ryan Suter. Parise is the type of player who, while not being of the greatest stature, never cowers to an opponent and works as hard as he can every second of every shift, which will be exactly what the Wild need against the bigger, stronger Blues team. Suter is one of the most defensively reliable blue-liners in the league. Both players are natural born leaders who will be guide the Wild’s younger stars in this tough, physical series.

Jason Zucker, Nino Niederreiter and Mikael Granlund are all young players to watch for the Wild. Zucker is three games returned from a shoulder injury and has made an immediate impact by scoring 3 goals in 3 games. Zucker will help deliver the scoring punch the Wild will need to contend in this series. Nino Niederreiter is another emerging Wild player. At only 22 years old, Niederreiter is the team’s second leading goal-scorer, only trailing Zach Parise. With his game 7 overtime, series clinching goal over Colorado last year, Neiderreiter is quite a fan favorite in Minnesota. Granlund is another of the team’s young stars that will need to step up to help the Wild advance. This young group of up and coming stars, along with Charlie Coyle and Justin Fontaine, will be helpful in the series vs. St. Louis, and will be influential in whether the Wild come out on top.

Perhaps most critical to the Wild’s chance to advance past the Blues will be the play of Devan Dubnyk. Dubnyk is the number one reason the Wild turned their season around. The January 15th trade for Dubnyk turned the Wild’s season from spiraling out of control, to a 9-to-1 odds team to win the Stanley Cup. While Montreal’s Carey Price is a shoe-in to win the Vezina Award, Dubynk should be a finalist for the honorable award. If Dubnyk is on his game, he could be the difference maker for the Wild. If he is not, it could be a long series for the Wild.

This series will be extremely intense and the winner could very likely make a deep playoff run. This series is sure to ignite a rivalry between the two teams, as it is destined to get physical. Most “experts” are picking the Blues to win the series easily because they are the Division winner, but it would not be surprising to see a long series, with the Wild ultimately coming out on top. Both teams are yearning for their first Stanley Cup championship. Let the games begin!

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