There's no doubt a mist of worry in the air around St. Louis right now, and it's all been caused by the Blues sliding to their first 3-game losing skid of the season. In all reality 3 games isn't a cause for concern itself, but when you look at how the team has lost over that span, the timing of the slump, and who has been under-performing over that time, fan's heart rates rise. If Ryan Miller can step up and become the stalwart vet they need him to be, he and the rest of the St. Louis Blues leadership will have this slump over in no time and the playoffs will be a joy to watch.
Not to Worry
While the team is experiencing a difficult end of the season, it doesn't discount all they've accomplished so far. They have managed to break the franchise record for wins, something that bad teams simply don't do. They've managed to do so despite facing key injuries throughout the season, having an Olympic break in the middle of it, and despite changing important personnel right after that break. The team has had a rough transition since Sochi, but it doesn't mean they're doomed quite yet.
The team has been under-performing, yes. However, they have been focused on trying every line combination imaginable so they can be prepared for any situation in the playoffs, which would be great if those line combos were clicking, they aren't. The Blues have also been searching for weaknesses in the opponent's game play, so they are ready to expose those throughout the playoffs, which again, would be great if we were currently exposing them.
The Light at the End of the Tunnel
Lately the St. Louis Blues have not been the team we've seen for most of the season, and the aforementioned situations are a big reason why. Don't let the team's current play cause you to lose sight of all they've worked towards this year, as they have been more focused on how to win in the playoffs, than finishing out the regular season strong. The good news is, the team seems to be ready to go when they get back to their systems, and when Coach Ken Hitchcock puts the lines back in order.
The few glimpses of hope fans have seen over the last few games have come when players who are used to playing with one another are back on the same line, grinding out plays in the offensive zone. This shows that the team is ready to get back on their game once the playoffs arrive, and their offensive production should ramp up concurrently. This is a fine and dandy plan by Ken Hitchcock, as long as it doesn't backfire.
Though fans may be able to see light at the end of Coach Hitchcock's plans as of late, this doesn't mean they will work out in the Blues' favor. When the team tries to focus on such a psychological mindset it allows a few things to happen. First, it allows other teams to gain a mental advantage, as most of the team's opponents are treating every game against the Blues as a playoff contest. When they see how easy its been to beat the Notes, they gain more confidence in their own play, as well as in their team when facing the Blues. This is not a good thing to give opponents at season's end.
Secondly, throwing different players into all situations messes with the team's rhythm and cohesiveness. While the end game may be to prepare every Blue for the test the playoffs hold, if the team has no rhythm at its core, the tires fall flat and we see scoring droughts reminiscent of the past several games. This can easily carry over into the playoffs if the team isn't careful.
Thirdly, the Blues have seen this type of playing style cut into their terrific season numbers, not just for scoring, but in all situations, in all zones. They have seen more shot blocks against them and fewer for, more missed chances and over-passing, and even more errant passes as players try and find teammates they aren't used to playing with. This is a worrisome combination at any point in a season, let alone right before the playoffs begin.
Lastly, the team is showing their mental fatigue which is leading to errors in their play, and even to some injuries. Vladimir Tarasenko has been out with a broken hand since March 15, Alexander Steen has been in and out of the lineup, and now David Backes is day-to-day with an undisclosed lower body injury. These physical ailments can all be traced back to the lackluster play by the team as of late, which has left the biggest role players in vulnerable situations and has led to key injuries throughout the roster. The mental fatigue has also caused an increase in goals against, something that has been the Blues' Achilles' heal in playoffs past.
Pipe Dreams, and Nightmares
When you take a look at some of the reasons the Blues are in their biggest season slump right before the playoffs begin, you can't help but glance to the starting goaltender Ryan Miller. Miller was supposed to solidify the back end, and be a calm, collective leader who shut down all opposition game after game. However, over the past 4 games Ryan Miller has shown some real weaknesses in his, and that has caused the fans to worry even more. He has let up 4 goals per game in his last 4 starts, with the exception of the shutout he earned versus his old rivals the Philadelphia Flyers. His save percentage over that time (even with the shutout) is a weak 88.3 percent, something that is unexpected of such a highly touted veteran such as Miller.
His angles seem off, he's still over-committing, and he has a few holes through his body, attributes that all lead back to having confidence issues, and sight-line problems in the crease. If Ryan Miller can't find a way to settle back down the Blues will be in very serious trouble. The good news is Brian Elliott is a more than capable backup, but he has continuously proven to be too inconsistent to carry the Blues to a Cup, so Miller will need to refocus, and be that shut down back-end leader the Blues are hoping for.
Fans Tired of Singing the Blues
Though the St. Louis Blues, and their newest goaltender Ryan Miller may not be in the ideal situation, overall they are still in very good shape. They are comfortably in the playoffs, and seem to be focused on the challenges that will arise throughout a long run. The past several games may bring tears, fears, and worries to fans' eyes, but the team didn't get to a franchise record in wins by random chance. They are an amazing group of players, who know how to play Hitchcock's systems, and who should have a great year in the playoffs. Let's hope all the stars can get and stay healthy, and it should be a great playoff run.
Mike Poepping will be contributing to KSDK Sports throughout the 2013-14 NHL season. Mike is the St. Louis Blues contributing writer at TheHockeyWriters.com, is a hockey player himself, and a life long Blues fan. Follow him on Twitter:@pep30.