Zach Parise scored twice and Devan Dubnyk made 30 saves to lead Minnesota to a series-clinching 4–1 victory over St. Louis in Game 6 on Sunday. With the win, the Wild move on to face the Blackhawks in a rematch of 2014's second-round series. With the loss, the Blues face a significant organizational shakeup.
Here are three quick thoughts in the wake of this elimination game:
1. What a wild turnaround.
Back in January, in the midst of a brutal losing skid, Minnesota’s alternate captain Zach Parise let loose with his frustrations. The Wild, he said, were too easy to play against. Their system was failing. The effort was lacking. The team was going nowhere.
Safe to say now that those problems were adequately solved. The Wild proved in this series that their structure is as sound as that of any team in the league. Their speed and surprisingly effective physical game makes them a handful for any opponent. And backed by the spectacular Dubnyk, they now look like a legitimate threat to represent the West in the Stanley Cup finals.
That Dubnyk starred on Sunday afternoon was no surprise. He’s been the story of Minnesota’s season since being acquired right after Parise’s January rant. Although he benefited from another solid defensive effort, he was sharp when he had to be. He may have made his most important stop of the series in the second period, robbing Chris Porter from 10 feet out after a turnover in the corner. That the shot hit him in the crest speaks to how well he played the chance. He could have overcommitted to the side with Steve Ott carrying the puck behind the net but he took away the bottom of the net with his legs and kept his body upright in the middle. Textbook.
Parise, who was the hero with four points to lead Minnesota to a Game 6 win over Colorado last spring, draped himself in glory again. His first goal, an unlikely shorthander that somehow beat Jake Allen to the near post just 7:14 into the game, riled up the crowd and sucked the wind out of St. Louis’s sails. His second, a backhander off a rebound just 1:01 into the third, all but ended whatever hope the Blues had of staging a comeback.
It wasn’t just the Wild’s stars who came through on Sunday. Justin Fontaine clinched it with a soft wrister that beat Allen five-hole in the second, becoming the 11th player to score a goal for Minnesota in the series. That's the sort of spread offense that can power a deep run.
2. Ken Hitchcock's folly.
You have to feel for Hitch. He knew his future with the Blues organization was at stake in this series. Still, he gambled on Allen’s ability to rebound after allowing four goals on 19 shots in Game 5. And he lost.
Allen wasn’t solely to blame for the first Parise goal—Kevin Shattenkirk turned the puck over in the neutral zone, then failed to rub out the attack along the boards or even take the shot away—but it was mostly on him. He has to have that short side covered in any circumstance, and with no back door threat to consider he had the choice to slide over even further to be doubly safe. But he didn’t get it done and the shorthanded goal blunted the Blues early.
It was to Allen’s credit that he recovered nicely, making some big stops on Charlie Coyle and Thomas Vanek in particular to keep the game close. In fact, he looked so sharp that Hitch commented on NBC that he hadn’t entertained the thought of pulling Allen and that the young goalie deserved a chance to work through his problems.
The words were barely out of his mouth before they blew up in his face. On the very next shift, Fontaine slid through two defenders (one of them Shattenkirk again) and beat Allen with a kitten soft wrister through the five-hole. And that was the end of the day for Allen, and all but certainly the end of the line for Hitchcock with the Blues.
His decision not to give veteran Brian Elliott the start opens him up to criticism, but I admire that he gave the kid the chance. In the past, Hitch has taken heat for playing it safe with veterans over higher-upside kids. Not this time. He saw Allen, a player who had allowed two goals or fewer in 12 straight before Game 5, and went with hiim. It didn't work out, but it did demonstrate that he’s still evolving as a coach. With so many opportunities out there, especially with young-leaning teams, he won’t be out of work long if he’s sent packing.
3. What next for the Blues?
Sure, anything can happen in the playoffs, but the consistent inability to meet the challenge of the first round suggests that the core of this team needs to be reworked.
If you happened to notice T.J. Oshie during this series it was probably during one of the Enterprise commercials. Otherwise the veteran winger was an empty sweater, attracting attention only with the bank shot goal he scored with 3.4 seconds remaining in the second period to briefly draw the Blues close. The rest of the time he seemed overwhelmed by how little time Minnesota’s checkers allowed him, and he never managed to raise his intensity level to meet the challenge. He was rumored to be on the trade block earlier this season. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see him dealt over the summer.
Barret Jackman has been a Blue for so long he probably roomed with Barclay Plager, but he looks like he’s done. St. Louis spent more time chasing the puck when he was on the ice than it did with any other defenseman. His character counts for something, but not enough to account for the time the team spends scrambling when he's involved with the play.
And then there}s the captain. David Backes has scored five goals in 28 playoff games, and just one in his past 10. Everything about him and his game screams postseason warrior and yet he was all but invisible in this series, going 1-1-2 while registering 10 shots in six games. The Blues have won just 10 playoff games while he’s been in the lineup. Is he really the player that a team can be built around up front?
On the plus side, there’s Vladimir Tarasenko. The Blues scored 14 goals in this series. He accounted for six of them, tops in the league. He was a possession beast (nearly 60%) and looks like he can be the gamebreaker any contending team needs. He’ll draw some criticism for a lazy backcheck that led to Parise’s second goal, but he proved he can learn from his mistakes by coming back hard to break up a late Minnesota chance. It was ugly on Sunday, but it’s all part of the development process for a player who is on the verge of becoming one of the best in the game.