An old adage claims home is where the heart is. For the St. Louis Blues this season, home has been where a loss is.
The Blues are a frustrating 0-5-2 in their last seven games. At home, they are 4-8-4, and while they have been playing hard by their own admission, the recent box scores do not reflect the effort, only goals. And for the Blues’ potent line of scorers, they’ve left the rink empty-handed more often than not.
“There are no excuses, we have to fix the home games,” Vladimir Tarasenko told reporters following a 3-2 overtime loss to the Anaheim Ducks. “This is unacceptable.”
At Enterprise Center, the Blues have just been dismal. Returning from a recent road trip in California, St. Louis came home to the emotional news that longtime St. Louis hockey ambassador Bobby Plager, one of the original Blues’ players, had died suddenly in a car accident.
Tributes were heavy for the former Blue, with current and former players asked to offer memories of the man they called “Mr. Blue.” Assuming this would inspire the team, Coach Craig Berube’s team played hard against the Ducks and had a decided edge in shots. Nothing would go in.
Players are feeling the pressure, said Brayden Schenn of the team’s slump. The Blues have been one of the top teams in the league in time in the offensive zone but have little to show for it.
Streaky is the operative word. On St. Patrick’s Day, the unluck of the Irish shined on the Blues as they fell 4-1 to the Los Angles Kings for their fifth straight loss for the first time.
They’ve put together two four-game win streaks at the beginning of February and March, but for every step forward, they’ve seemingly taken two steps back.
How the West Will Be Won
Meanwhile, the Colorado Avalanche and Vegas Golden Knights are keeping in lock-step with each other as they continue to dominate the Honda West Division. Minnesota seems to be a solid lock to make the playoffs, which leaves the Blues left to fend off the pesky Kings and Ducks in between big games against the Wild, Golden Knights and Avs.
All this has been taking place against a backdrop of frustration, gossip, and finger-pointing. Coach Craig Berube has been handed this share of odd injuries to the team, but he has twice in the past two weeks complained about the team’s efforts. In one press conference, he said the team “was not pulling on the same rope.”
In the weekend finale against the Ducks, Berube left fans and critics scratching their heads and keyboards by making star Mike Hoffman a healthy scratch. The Blues made a concerted effort to sign Hoffman in the preseason to offer a scoring punch in place of the then-injured Tarasenko. They signed the former Florida Panthers star to a professional tryout, then signed him days before the season opened. He has scored eight goals and added 12 assists for 20 points, fifth on the team.
But as the Blues have lamented their inability to find the net, it has not been for lack of trying. Against Minnesota earlier this month, they lost 2-0 despite out-shooting the Wild 38-11. In the 3-2 overtime loss to Anaheim, a game in which the Blues led 2-0 at one point, they put 37 shots on goal but lost the game.
“We just kind of let them hang around,” captain Ryan O’Reilly said on ESPN.com. “I think we had a good first and kind of thought we had it going and we just took our foot off the gas a little bit and we let them hang around in the game.”
Slump Feeds Desperate Measures
Even Ducks Coach Dallas Eakins sensed that St. Louis was getting desperate for any sign of offense.
Tarasenko scored his second goal of the season against the Ducks on a first-period power play that put St. Louis up 2-0. It was Tarasenko’s first goal since March 12 when he scored against Vegas. This snapped a personal seven-game scoring drought.
O’Reilly scored his 12th goal of the season 2:27 minutes into the game on a feed from Tarasenko. It marked the first time St. Louis had scored first in its last nine games.
“We didn’t score enough goals,” Berube told ESPN.com. “That’s the bottom line, but I think that second goal has got to be defended. Maybe we win the game 2-1. Right now, a mistake is going in, too much into our net and it’s’ hard to play mistake-free hockey.”
“I know how good we can be, and our personnel, how good it is, but this happens,” O’Reilly told reporters after the overtime loss to the Ducks. “Nobody expected it to happen, but there’s definitely growth to be had. We have to find a way out and the only way we’re going to do this is together.”
A sobering statistic for Berube is the Blues record when trailing after the first and second periods. At Enterprise Center, they are a dismal 1-5-1 when they trail after the first period and 1-7-1 when they trail after the second period. They are 3-6-1 at home when they outshoot their opponent.
Facing World-Beating Goalies
The Blues have made pedestrian goaltenders look like Hall of Famers. The Wild’s backup Cam Talbot owned the Blues en route to the 2-0 win, then the Ducks’ Gibson stood tall in a 4-1 win that featured two third-period empty-net goals. With Gibson down for the weekend finale, the Ducks started goaltender Anthony Stolarz who made 37 saves in his season debut. He hadn’t started a game since March 11, 2020, ESPN.com reported.
St. Louis earned 12 points this year against the San Jose Sharks, going 5-1-0 with two shootout wins in the final regular-season meeting between these teams. Similarly, the Blues have had their hands full with the Ducks but managed to post a 4-1-1 record against them. The Kings’ defensive schemes have stymied the Blues as well.
St. Louis has only played a total of seven games against division-leading Vegas, Minnesota and Colorado so far. This means they will see plenty of these three teams in April as they vie for the fourth and final playoff spot in the division. The Arizona Coyotes are nipping at the Blues’ heels in the standings, too.
The Blues will get four days to rest and heal as their next game is Friday in Colorado. The Avalanche (21-8-4) are led by Nathan MacKinnon and currently sit in second place in the West with 46 points. Vegas leads the division with 47 points. MacKinnon returned from an early-season injury to score 10 goals with 26 assists for 36 points. Mikko Rantanen leads the Avs with 39 points (19 goals, 20 assists).
The Blues will get time for plenty of band-aids and therapy. There is some hope that defensemen Colton Parayko could return soon. He started skating on March 18, having suffered a back injury on February 15. (‘Parayko begins skating in first steps back from injury,’ St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 3/18/2021).
Getting Parayko back on the ice will shore up St. Louis’ beleaguered defense, which lost Stanley Cup champion, Carl Gunnarsson, to a season-ending injury earlier this year. They’ve also been without Ivan Barbashev (lower body) since February 18 and Oskar Sundqvist, both important playmakers and forecheckers. Sundvist (knee) was lost for the season on March 19. The extended break of four days will help the Blues recover from other nagging injuries they face, O’Reilly said following the 3-2 loss to the Ducks.
“It’s important to get our rest here,” O’Reilly told ESPN.com. “We don’t get these breaks too often, so we have to take advantage of it. We haven’t been home much. That will be nice to be with families and maybe get away from the game. Just get that recharge not only mentally, but physically. … This will be a good reset for us. We know how tough this playoff hunt is going to be, so this is a good opportunity to completely reset for us.”
With the rest of the schedule heavy on home games for the Blues, they will need to find their scoring touch to claw their way into the Honda West Division playoffs – not a sure bet by any means.
In the NHL, moral victories and effort do not show up in the standings.