NASHVILLE — The Nashville Predators finally get a new opponent in the post-season after their surprising sweep of the Western Conference's No. 1 seed.
The St. Louis Blues, fresh off downing the West's second-best team with a 4-1 series victory over the Minnesota Wild that was as stunning as Nashville's sweep. St. Louis coach Mike Yeo said he is well aware of the Blues' next challenge.
"It's pretty easy for us to look at what happened in the last series and not underestimate that opponent," Yeo said after St. Louis clinched its opening-round series over Minnesota. "So they're a great team and that's life in the Central Division for you, and the Western Conference for you. You get to advance from one good team and you get to go play another."
Minnesota finished the regular season with the second-highest point total, 106, just three fewer than Chicago.
The Predators are hoping for one benefit to playing a second straight Central Division team after last season, when Nashville defeated Anaheim in the first round in seven games, a series that required three flights to California. They had just one off day between Game 7 and the first game of their semifinal series against San Jose, a series that the Sharks won in seven games.
"That was tough with all that travel last year, I remember it pretty clearly," centre Ryan Johansen said Sunday. "Getting off and on those flights all the time and bodies being sore and guys being beat up, it was difficult. We definitely have a different situation with Chicago and St. Louis being close and only having to play four games the first series."
Nashville coach Peter Laviolette gave his team Friday and Saturday off, a precious commodity this time of year, after finishing its sweep of Chicago on Thursday night. The Predators returned to the ice Sunday morning for a high-tempo practice.
"The first priority was just a couple of days of rest and get back out here and just start getting at things," Laviolette said.
Nashville won three of its five regular-season matchups against the Blues. The Blues won two of three games played in St. Louis, and they will have home-ice advantage in this semifinal after edging out Nashville for third in the Central. That left Nashville with the second wild card as the No. 8 seed.
This semifinal ensures one Central Division team will be playing for a spot in the Stanley Cup Finals, just not the teams expected in the first post-season series between these franchises.
"They are physical, they play fast, they play the right way," Predators defenceman Ryan Ellis said of the Blues. "They are much like us. We try to do the right things at the right time."
The Blues and Predators will feature this playoff season's top two goaltenders. Entering Sunday's action, Nashville's Pekka Rinne leads the NHL with a .976 save percentage, with Jake Allen a close second at .956. Rinne allowed just three goals — two on the power play and one at even strength — in four games played against Chicago in the first round. Two of his wins, both in Chicago, were shutouts.
"You saw what they did to Chicago," Allen said. "Obviously they're playing their best games of the year, and they'll be ready."
Nashville forward Colin Wilson, who missed the entire first round because of a lower-body injury, was a full participant in Sunday's practice. He's hopeful to return against the Blues.
"That first playoff game, I was just dying to get out there, and sure enough, Game 3, our first game at home, it was an even bigger itch," Wilson said. "It was nice to see the boys do real well and get me the opportunity to get back in."
AP Sports Writer Dave Campbell in Minnesota contributed to this report.
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Jim Diamond, The Associated Press