By Dan Buffa
I was at Scottrade Center Sunday afternoon for the St. Louis Blues regular season finale. The mood was dire. The crowd stayed into it as long as they could. With rookies like Ty Rattie, Keith Aucoin and Dmitri Jaskin flying around trying to create something with the veterans, the team look a little disjointed and not completely set.
Power plays were flat and there was restlessness in the seats. Everybody in attendance had forgotten this team had a playoff spot wrapped up and an opponent all but set. That's what a nasty losing streak will do to a fan base and even a few writers. It dulls the senses and temporarily erases hope and takes away the focus. It's important to remember the golden rule and that is...
The Blues will be judged by their playoff performance and not by the regular season record. I can't sit here and tell you the Blues will achieve greatness in the playoffs. I can tell you that fans will receive the team's best shot. In my last column, I was pessimistic about this team and the digestive period of the article didn't sit right with me. This time, I am promoting optimism while it still exists in full view.
Hockey fans, the playoffs are here. Relax, take your medication and get ready for do or die action. The records of the 16 teams competing for Lord Stanley's Cup go blank and the slates are cleared as the real games begin tonight. There's nothing quite like NHL playoff action. It's gritty, blunt, and has endless overtime sessions. This is more than what the players play for; It's what fans wait all season long for.
Thursday night, the St. Louis Blues take on the Chicago Blackhawks in a best of seven series starting at Scottrade. Please forget about the past 2 weeks of uninspired and rather ugly play from the Blues. The team suffered injuries, a lack of scoring and a general lack of solid play in closing the regular season with 6 straight losses. That doesn't mean disregard the games and make a person think Thursday's game one will bring a completely new style of play and turnaround. All I am saying is that it's best at this point to look ahead and not live in the past. It's a practice that takes time and patience.
Before the series begins, I am going to break down this team. What's good, bad and ugly? What do the Blues have to do in order to be able to take on a team like Blackhawks, who have won the Stanley Cup twice in the past 3 seasons. The general rundown of everything Blues starts now.
First off, Blues fans, let's do this.
Give Ryan Miller a break. I am hearing screams for Jaro Halak this past weekend and that is ridiculous. Before the March 1st trade, fans were screaming for Miller. Now it's flipped and those are the kind of comments one hardcore hockey fan must avoid. Miller hasn't played stellar since his amazing Scottrade performance two weeks ago. He has given up four goals here and three goals there. He has given up a few soft goals and given fans that bewildered "how did that get past me" look. It happens to a goalie whose team is struggling to score. Miller will be fine. Ken Hitchcock knows he has two very capable goalies but the starter right now remains Miller. You traded for Ryan Miller to play in these type of games, and that wager comes into the middle of the poker table right about this time of the year. The Los Angeles Kings eliminated the Blues the last two times the team made the playoffs and that is why Miller was brought here. Bad streak or not, Miller is in net to start the series. The goals against average for the Blues went down with Miller in net until the injuries started to pile up. Miller can play better than he has lately and for several reasons. The man is playing for a new contract with a playoff caliber team so he is motivated enough to turn it around. If he shuts out the Blackhawks tomorrow night, all will be forgotten. If he dominates throughout the playoffs and hoists the Stanley Cup, his statue will be unveiled outside Scottrade before the next season begins. With all due precaution, please stay on board the Miller train….for now.
Without going too deep into the past, let's look at why the Blues suffered a severe breakdown in the last two weeks of the season and what can be done to get back to a winning style of play.
This team's woes begin and end with an inability to score goals consistently. In my much ridiculed post last week, I tried to pin it on a lack of shots on goal. A closer look at the stats revealed this team funnels more than enough shots towards the net. We can get it towards the net but there is a lack of finish there. It would be unfair to look at the last two games of the season where the team was shut out for the last 120 minutes because of the amount of starters sidelined. Instead, look at the past month of play from this team and their total goals. In their last 14 games, spanning back to the Chicago 4-0 loss on March 19th, the Blues have scored 18 goals. That is a 1.2 goals per game average. It's a simple piece to write and say the team has problems scoring goals but this team has been inconsistent since early in the year but during the last 3-4 weeks, the goals have dropped off considerably. Why?
The top line's exposure and deconstruction. The trio of David Backes, T.J. Oshie and Alexander Steen was being zeroed in on by other teams because the other two lines were so ineffective after the loss of Vladimir Tarasenko. Ten days ago, Alex Steen went down and missed three games. T.J. Oshie caught a Matt Rupp elbow and missed the last 3 games of the season. David Backes missed the last three games of the season as well. Without it's top line, the team's scoring started to dwindle. Blues beat writer Jeremy Rutherford has stated these three players could be reunited for Thursday's playoff round opener. That is good news for the idea of this team scoring at a high level again. Get your top line together and rolling again, and the rest of the lines will follow.
Scoring first helps. Sure, it's obvious but the stats back this statement up. When leading after the 1st period, the team had a .848 winning percentage. When trailing after one period, the percentage went to .250. When trailing after 2 periods, the percentage dipped to .125. The Blues need to strike first in order to give themselves the best chance to win.
If the Blues are getting shots on goal, what gives? The Blues have the ability to sustain pressure in the offensive zone and get shots on net, but need more efficient rebounds. For example, Friday against the Stars, there were 22 total shots on goal but most of them were straight slap shots from the point and no real juicy second chances. Getting more second looks means goals and that could be the key during this series. Get Backes down below for the shot and let him punch a rebound in. Oshie is very efficient at sinking his own rebounds. The opposing goaltender isn't fazed by a shot he can see the whole way. Putting bodies in front of him creates good rebounds and increases the scoring chances. Can the Blues create the required traffic? Healthiness will help there.
They spend a lot of time in the penalty box. The Blues took a lot of penalties in the last month of the season and didn't fare well as a group all season long. A team can have the best penalty killing crew in the land and it's still not a smart play to stack them against other team's power play units too often. The Blues were second to last(29th in the league) in total penalty minutes with 1,162 total penalty minutes. They averaged 14.2 minutes a game in the box. In the playoffs, opposing teams will exploit that. If anything, the Blues need to be more disciplined heading into a series with their bitter rivals.
Let's face the facts. Lots of injuries derailed this team late. Sure, the scoring woes go back longer, yet disregarding a list of injuries to key players would be illogical. Folks, this team got banged up in the last month big time. Tarsenko went down with a hand injury and suddenly the dominos fell and the team was missing 6 forwards on the last weekend of the season. Patrik Berglund may not be ready for Games 1 and 2. Oshie avoided a concussion but dealt with severe soreness in his head and neck area. The upper body injury count was high with this team and that isn't something that will be cured by Thursday. As Hitchcock told the media today, at some point in the Chicago series the team will be whole again but there is no real timetable. There wasn't a more unlucky team in hockey this past month than the St. Louis Blues.
A lot of fans were bitter on Twitter and on the radio about the end of the season and that's understandable. It's important to remember the context of the last stretch. The six game losing streak was badly timed and the last two games were tough but that's ancient history now. On Thursday, every answer a fan desires about this team will be given abruptly. They will find out if the injuries made a real difference or if this team basically ran out of tricks too early. A team like the Hawks will force that answer out of a team quickly. In short, don't sweat the small stuff and right now the regular season finish is quite small.
Barry Melrose and several other NHL pundits are picking the Blackhawks to win the Stanley Cup for the third time in the last 5 seasons. That's perfectly fine for the Blues. If you asked Hitchcock or any Blues player who they want to face first, the answer would be the best team out there. Bring on the Hawks! This series will show the fans where the Blues are truly at and who they can compete against.
Nothing comes easy in the playoffs and if the tall and mighty Blackhawks stand in the way first, that's best. They will be confident and try to knock the Note off their game early. They will punch the Blues in the mouth and dare them to take bad penalties. When you face the best, your systems have to be operating at full bore. If the Blues aren't ready for this clash, the series will be short and brutal. Maybe, with the help of some luck and tough resilience, the Blues could stand up and fight back against the proposed champs. The best thing about the playoffs and sports in general is ANYTHING is possible. If they find a way to take down Chicago, nothing else will scare them on their road to the Cup. Somewhere along the way during the past 2 months, the Blues went from heavy favorites to underdogs. That's not a bad place to be if you plan on sneaking up on the champs and proving people wrong.
Tomorrow night, the Blues will throw everything but the kitchen sink at the Chicago Blackhawks. Will that be enough to win the series and move on? Only time will tell. Strap in for a wild ride readers because the NHL playoffs are going to test your patience, rock your soul and reveal the truth about your favorite team.
Dan Buffa is an sports writer for Sports Rants. He is also a contributor to KSDK.com and Arch City Sports while writing for his own website, Dose Of Buffa. Contact him at email@example.com or on Twitter at @buffa82.