When fans pile into the Scottrade Center Thursday night for Game 1 of the St. Louis Blues and Chicago Blackhawks quarterfinal series matchup, they are likely to see a much different team than they did in the last regular season game on Sunday.
We aren’t speaking metaphorically, either: this isn’t just about a team hitting a different gear for the playoff run. It will be a different cast of players.
In the 3-0 loss to the former division-rival Detroit Red Wings, head coach Ken Hitchcock rolled out a group of players that aren’t as recognizable in public as his standard crew. Five of the team’s top-nine forward group, as well as two of its top-four defensemen, were out of the lineup nursing injuries. This included names from captain David Backes to No. 1 defender Alex Pietrangelo. The former-rival Detroit Red Wings skated away with three goals on 21 shots, including a plethora of breakaways and odd-man rushes.
This capped off a dismal end to the season for the injury-riddled Blues, who dropped each of its last six games. It was the franchise’s worst losing streak since January 2006 when the team dropped seven in a row.
The Blues amassed just six goals in eight games during the month of April, being shut out four times (including the 1-0 shootout victory against the Philadelphia Flyers on April 1). The team did not score a goal in each of the last two games, meaning the club heads into the playoffs with a goalless streak of 143 minutes, 59 seconds.
Good news seems to be coming at every turn since the season ended as Blues reporter Jeremy Rutherford’s Twitter account was very active Tuesday afternoon:
Morrow says he can’t worsen his injury, so why not play. #stlblue
— Jeremy Rutherford (@jprutherford) April 15, 2014
Hitch says that every injured #stlblues would play before the first-round series is over.
— Jeremy Rutherford (@jprutherford) April 15, 2014
Even Vladimir Tarasenko, who was ruled out until at least mid-second round in March, has the potential to return to the lineup. The banged-up Blues could easily regain its Stanley Cup-hopeful roster that was the toast of the NHL for most of the season.
Let’s not forget that alarming 143:59 of ice time, though. That is an insurmountable number that is likely to be glaring the Blues skaters in the face until somebody lights the lamp. The Blackhawks are a good defensive team that aren’t strangers to keeping opponents off the scoreboard (allowed just 2.09 goals against per game during the 2013 playoffs with virtually the same roster). The Blues are hoping that the injured stars will rise them above where they have been. However, that task is easier said than done.
Momentum rules the game
There’s a reason that every team suffers highs and lows throughout every season. The NHL-worst Buffalo Sabres stormed out of the Olympic break with a 3-0 record, including wins over the Boston Bruins and San Jose Sharks. The President’s Trophy-winning Bruins even fell on a skid in April with a 2-2-3 record, displaying that momentum can easily dictate the pace of a game or a series of games.
No one knows that better than the Blues.
After going on a two-game losing skid out of the February Olympic break, the Blues posted an impressive 11-3-1 run through the month of March (followed, of course, by the abysmal April showing). Calling the Blues the streakiest team this side of the Olympics would be like telling John Tortorella that he needs to attend anger-management classes.
Add in that the Blues were outscored 22-5 with both Ryan Miller and Brian Elliott recording a combined .850 save percentage and the direction of the momentum swing seems pretty obvious.
I also won’t rehash what has already been said. Check out why I thought the Blues were heading into a disaster before the skid even hit. Just after the aforementioned piece was written, the Blues lost two games in a row to division rivals with the only injured players heading into the weekend being Tarasenko and Alexander Steen.
Star power can bring change
The Blues trotted out one of the most-balanced offenses in the NHL for the better part of the season. Led by Steen’s 33 goals, the team saw five players reach 20 goals — Steen, Backes, Jaden Schwartz, Oshie and Tarasenko — while Steen and Oshie reached 60 points.
When the power-play was going… well, it was fantastic. The high-powered offense tallied 12 goals with the extra man in the first 11 games of the season. Important note: St. Louis won eight of those contests.
After Backes left the Capitals matchup on April 8, the team finished the season with a bleak 1-11 effort on the power play. Needless to say, the addition of Backes on the wing, Oshie on the point and Morrow in front of the net offers a much more terrifying threat than what the Blues have shelled out in the past week.
The insertion of the top forwards also means that, for example, regular fourth-liners Maxim Lapierre and Ryan Reaves can return to their familiar duties. Recent games, these grinders have been used more frequently and in different situations. Once again, crashing and banging for short shifts can be the focus of every shift.
Hitchcock seems to be the biggest believer that his offense will regain its potent form.
“The offense goes when you get the people that have coordinated us all year coming back in,” Hitchcock told Rutherford on Monday. “It’s pretty simple. This (playing with replacements) is a perfect example of ‘Try like crazy, try hard, battle away,’ but you need your best players in the lineup to be going.
“When you start dropping guys out, it’s hard to create. For us, just get the players back in, get the thing coordinated, get guys back playing with people that played with each other all year and see where it goes from there.”
Don’t forget that the team defense will see a vast improvement. Oshie and Backes make up two-thirds of a top-NHL two-way line while Alex Pietrangelo, who sat out on Sunday, received some extra rest to mentally and physically prepare himself for a potentially long-and-grueling playoff run.
That seems like a lifetime for the St. Louis team that needs to find out what they’re made of in a hurry.