The NHL's playoff format really did a disservice to the St. Louis Blues and Minnesota Wild as they open their Western Conference first-round series tonight in the Twin Cities. They are playing because they are stuck in the same division yet the Wild had the second-most points in the West and the Blues the fourth-most. Minnesota will be getting back forwards Mats Zuccarello and Marcus Foligno from injury for Game 1, and the Wild are -140 at Caesars Sportsbook.
Zuccarello is third on the Wild with 79 points despite being limited to 70 of 82 games. He missed the final four of the season with a lower-body injury but skated alongside Kirill Kaprizov and Ryan Hartman on Sunday and will play. Foligno has 42 points in 74 games and is dealing with a knee injury suffered in the regular-season finale (looked quite bad initially) but will be out there as well: "It's the playoffs. It'd feel wrong sitting out."
Three-time Cup winner Marc-Andre Fleury was acquired by Minnesota from Chicago at the trade deadline because of his postseason history and gets the Game 1 start in net over Cam Talbot. Fleury wasn't all that sharp in nine April games with a 3.01 GAA, but Minnesota won seven of them. He is 0-3 with a 3.36 GAA this season vs. the Blues including his time in Chicago.
Goaltender Ville Husso has assumed the No. 1 job in St. Louis over Jordan Binnington, who helped carry the Blues to their first Cup title in 2019. Really, that was the last "regular" postseason as 2020 was in the bubble and last year had the unusual divisional alignment. Husso is 2-0 vs. the Wild this year despite a 3.92 GAA.
It's the third all-time playoff meeting between the franchises and the underdog won the first two (Wild in 2015 and Blues in 2017). St. Louis was 3-0 in the regular-season series but two went to overtime. The Blues have yet to play this season at Xcel Energy Center, where the Wild are 31-8-2, because the one Minnesota home game in the series was the Winter Classic at Target Field. The Blues have won 12 of the past 14 meetings between the clubs since the start of the 2019-20 season.
On the series line, the Wild are -160 and Blues +140. To win the West, Minnesota is +750 and St. Louis +1000.
NHL free pick: Blues puckline at -198
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