As luck would have it, teams in the Central Division find themselves matching up against each other in the first round of the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Let’s tackle the most compelling narrative first.
It’s Mike Yeo’s St. Louis Blues against Mike Yeo’s former team the Minnesota Wild.
“I’m sure it’s going to turn into quite a story, said Yeo in his post-game press conference on Saturday. “It’s funny, in sports these types of stories have a way of coming around.”
About a 14 months ago, Yeo was axed by the Wild. He was later hired as an assistant
to the regional manager under Ken Hitchcock in St. Louis before taking over for Hitch when he was given the boot.
“But for me, it’s not me against them, said Yeo, “It’s our group, with a real tough opponent, [who is] in the way of what we’re trying to accomplish. We know we’ve got a lot of work to do.”
“[O]bviously we don’t have home ice, so that will be a challenge, but we believe that we’re contenders in here. It’s going to be quite a challenge, but one we’re looking forward to.”
Following Yeo’s departure, the Wild decided to go with John Torchetti as a placeholder coach. In the offseason, they brought in regular season stud (Games 7 dud), Bruce Boudreau.
As is standard practice with Boudreau, he puts his competition on a high pedestal.
“[The Blues are] very daunting,” said Boudreau in his post-game scrum. “I think they’re very similar to only a couple teams in the league in that they don’t really have a weakness.
“They’ve got six good defensemen. They’ve got four lines that can go, especially with the addition of [Vladimir] Sobotka, and their goalie’s been on fire since the change, so our work’s cut out for us. But I’ve seen our team all year.
“When you need to rise to the challenge, I think we will.”
The Wild had an abysmal month of March that saw them fall out of President’s Trophy contention. However Boudreau feels his team is ‘a better team for it.’ Minnesota finished the regular season on a four game win streak, momentum that can only be seen as a positive in the coach’s eyes.
It also carries some optimism as far as the team’s chances at capturing the Cup that’s eluded Boudreau his entire career.
“I think we’ll be classified as an underdog,” said Boudreau to the Star-Tribune, “But do we have the capabilities [to win the Stanley Cup]?
“I think we do.”
As for the second series, it’s the Nashville Predators versus the Chicago Blackhawks.
The Blackhawks finished the regular season as the top seed in the Western Conference. The team was returning home from Los Angeles when the match-up went final and weren’t reached by reporters.
But based on what the team said to reporters before departing LA, we have a pretty good feeling they’re going into the post-season as confident as ever.
“Finished first in the West, we have home ice — can’t ask for much more than that,” goalie Corey Crawford said to the Chicago Sun-Times. “It was a great, great season by us. We’ve just got to build off that.”
“I think that energy, that ambition, that motivation is back. We have that feeling that every single moment, every single game matters. It’s a lot of fun to play this time of year,” said Jonathan Toews to CSN Chicago. “That’s why we work all year to get to this point. As we’ve said in the past, the real season begins. Everyone wants to get back to playoff hockey.”
Added Toews: “We want to see what we’re made of. And I think we’re all pretty confident in what we’re able to do.”
As for the Predators, they were the preeminent favorite going into the season to win the Stanley Cup. It wasn’t an easy season by any means, but now the slate is wiped clean.
Only problem: the 2010 and 2015 Stanley Cups won by Chicago came at the expense of the Predators in the first round. Also, as Adam Vingan of the Tennessean notes, “In the past three seasons, the Predators have lost 14 of their 20 meetings with the Blackhawks, including their most recent playoff series.”
Yes, the Predators are the underdog in this series, but they were last year, too. They defeated the Anaheim Ducks in seven games only to fall to the eventual Western Conference champs San Jose Sharks in seven games.
Don’t count this team out.