By Dan Buffa
The Blues reached the 101 point mark earlier this week when they defeated the Winnipeg Jets at home. It was a nice win. Commanding and alert. The home audience loved it and it gave the team 25 wins at Scottrade. That's great. The Blues have a chance to win the President Trophy, which is synonymous with a shiny piece of hardware that means nothing if the team is watching other teams play in the Stanley Cup Finals. When they left Scottrade for Chicago on Thursday, they were flat and beaten to every puck and scoring chance by a resurgent Chicago Blackhawks team who had played the night before. Today, the Blues got outworked and beat 4-1 by the Philadelphia Flyers. In both games, the Blues had good stretches of play but allowed penalties and odd man rushes towards their zone crush a chance to earn points.
Look, I like the idea of having the best record in the NHL. That is something to be proud of and hold high at the end of the night. However, St. Louis hockey fans don't want that accomplishment. They want more and they are entitled to it. Attendance is slightly down from last year but the Scottrade is still packed and the fans have bought into Doug Armstrong and Ken Hitchcock's ideal plan here. The team traded for Ryan Miller and Steve Ott this month, turning a playoff contender into a Stanley Cup Final must. That's right. Unless the Blues go deep into the playoffs, the 2013-14 season will be a bust. Shiny regular season records don't mean anything when someone else is hosting a parade in June.
This is the sound of a patient Blues fan who speaks for an entire city when I say, "Go win something real boys!" If not, what are the Blues doing every year but wasting our damn time. Forget the 4 players with 20 goals or more and the fact Miller put together a 8-0-1 record to start his career in Blues gear. Forget about the stats put up by Steen, Oshie and Backes. Jaden Schwartz is having an amazing season as a second year player but that won't matter if the rest of the team doesn't meet his level of play.
I can pummel you with stats here or I can remind you of the goal. 580 players participate in this league for 82 games with one common goal. Hoist the Stanley Cup and make their city stand at the top of the throne for an offseason. The Blues are one of the few teams in the NHL without a Stanley Cup. They don't give away awards for working hard, making a solid effort or coming close. You win or you go home. The Blues will get solid placement in the playoffs but they must play better hockey against tough teams on the road. The Flyers and Hawks gave this team a dose of their own medicine. Stifling defense, claustrophobic penalty killing and an ability to not hit posts and sink pucks into the net.
Ryan Miller can't play wing, center or rescue his team every time they take a bad penalty. He has proven to be a calming presence in net yet needs help. Steve Ott can agitate all he wants but if it comes at the wrong time it basically gives the other team a man advantage. So far, he hasn't shown me anything the team didn't already have coming in. Then again, his spot may arrive in the playoffs. What happens to this team when the going get's tough? What happens when the refs call a lot of penalties early and forces the Note to decide whether to back off or keep pressing.
Hockey is great because it deftly eliminates the weaker teams by the time the playoffs start. Every team earns their wins in the spring. Teeth are lost. Limbs are broken. Eyes are cut and heads are rattled. Unlike any sport, hockey doesn't let up until the final buzzer sounds. Unlike football, you take this beating 2-3 times a week. Unlike football, hitting and aggressive physical altercations are encouraged in a hockey rink. The sheep are separated from the wolves in the NHL right about this time of the year. The Blues may have been the league's best spenders at the trade deadline, but what does that really mean come playoff time? You have to back up smart business skills with results on the ice or it all means nothing ladies and gents.
Crazies will say Miller should have stopped some of the goals these past two games and they even halfway right. What they miss is the complete team failing to deliver a real effort. Unless Hitch shakes up his lines and puts players where they need to be, the results won't change. A few wins followed by a few crushing losses. Beating the Stars and Jets is great. Losing to the Hawks and Flyers can be revealing. Miller Time may not be so fabulous if the rest of the team can't extend his cool vibe into W's.
A small remedy from me for this team. I am sorry Hitch, but Sobotka doesn't need to play on the second line. What did you bring Derek Roy in here for? Playing the third line for 12-13 minutes a game. Sobe is great, gritty, important and ready to rumble but lacks the game to game finesse and finish to man the second line. Why is Dmitri Jaskin playing the 4th line with Porter and Reaves? He replaced the injured Vladimir Tarasenko, so why not plug him in higher and see what happens for a couple games? Jaskin won't be able to show his skills playing on a line with two bashers and that's no offense to the vital two man wrecking crew of Porter and Reaves. Jaskin, Sobe and Roy need to be switched. Give this team a chance to put as many points on the board as possible so Miller is ready for those defensive breakdowns.
Also, a note to Alex Pietrangelo. For the love of hot coffee at dawn, get a damn shot on goal. You fire 10-12 towards the net every game. Place one of those slappers on net. You are big piece of the puzzle now so back up the ice time with less turnovers and better aim. Thanks.
Well, time will tell who the proud ones are and where the smart minds lie on the St. Louis Blues. Tomorrow, Brian Elliot will step into goal against the mighty Penguins in Pittsburgh. Sure, the Pens played today and beat Tampa Bay 4-3 in OT, so they will be tired. The same ideal was carried into the Chicago game on Thursday. Forget what is normal and just go play hard. I wished Hitch had played Elliot today and saved Miller for tomorrow but it's too late to rethink that.
The Blues need a win tomorrow. Reset the clocks and get back to your style of hockey. Stop dumping halfway down the ice and turning back. Do what Jaden does and attack the damn net every time. Get hungry boys because this time of the year dismisses the weak and promotes the strong. Which side do the Blues fall on this year? They are 47-16-7 right now. That's a great record but where does it stand if the team fails to do anything in the postseason? When will the Blues be more than just a pretty good hockey team?