If there is anything that illustrates this topsy-turvy hockey season, it’s the St. Louis Blues.
Just two years removed from hoisting Lord Stanley’s Cup, head coach Craig Berube’s squad floundered in the playoff bubble last season. This season has been a series of ups and downs, as the streaky Blues have been white-hot at times, only to cool down to an icy freeze during lengthy losing streaks. At one point, the Blues lost eight straight games when nearly all the Honda West Division teams were jockeying for playoff position.
Where their road leads is anybody’s guess. Weeks ago, fans packed onto the panic bus as it barrelled down a hill toward a jagged-edged cliff. Now, with impressive wins over the Colorado Avalanche and Minnesota Wild, the Blues have riled us into believing what could (again) be possible.
There are important questions that need to be answered: Are the Blues just pretending to be contenders? As inconsistent as the team has played this season, that question has been nearly impossible to answer. Also, do the Blues have enough defensively to make a run, and can they solve their second-period struggles this postseason? That’s where the pretending part comes in.
On the positive side: the Blues have big wins against the lightning-fast Avalanche with their Hart Trophy candidate Nathan MacKinnon, as well as a regulation win on Apr. 24 and an overtime win (on Apr. 29) and an overtime loss (on May 1) against the Wild, who sit above the Blues in third place in the division. The Vegas Golden Knights lead the West.
The bad side creeps up and makes itself known often: In almost every game, the Blues show their vulnerabilities. No matter how hot their start, opponents know St. Louis’ second-period woes will emerge. They have been outscored 61-43. Entering Monday’s game against the Ducks, a 3-1 win, St. Louis had been out-shot 509-478 in the second period alone.
This fickle group has tested everyone’s patience this season. When faced with an opportunity to improve the team at the recent NHL Trade Deadline, general manager Doug Armstrong stood pat. This was a vote of confidence in the team he has compiled.
In a week’s time, the Blues’ fortunes have changed. With inspired play and new, cohesive offensive line combinations, Berube’s team has fought the Arizona Coyotes for the fourth and final playoff spot.
“You get in, and anything can happen” has been a familiar mantra for Armstrong, Berube and ownership.
However, the Blues have hovered around the .500 mark all season and remarkably are still in the hunt for the final playoff spot in the highly competitive Honda West Division. Early season games against the San Jose Sharks, Anaheim Ducks and Los Angeles Kings helped St. Louis pad their record. But they have dropped crucial games against the division leaders in the past month.
The road to the Stanley Cup inevitably has to go through Las Vegas or Colorado, where the division-leading Golden Knights are already receiving “Best in Show” awards. Social media pundits have already declared the Cup theirs to lose.
The Blues could be sneaky good if they get into the postseason. That is a big “if” because the Coyotes have yet to claim the spot, losing 10 of 13 games during an important stretch in April. The Blues are confident, but Berube’s crew is not cocky. Many of their victories were struggles, and even Robert Thomas’ game-winner with just 28 seconds left against the Wild on Apr. 28 came after the Blues were down by two goals in the second period.
Are the Blues Legitimate Contenders?
While many tossed St. Louis into the “Probably Not This Year” barrel, they, if no one else, believe in themselves. Chief among the rally-criers is captain Ryan O’Reilly, who willed his way to a goal in a three-goal performance against the Avs (on Apr. 24). He earned the game’s first star.
But when teams bottle up O’Reilly, there are plenty of other potent scorers who can take over a game. Mike Hoffman, the sniper, has been on fire. He’s scored 16 goals, second on the team, and has 16 assists. Vladimir Tarasenko, while struggling to find the net consistently, is always a force from any spot on the ice.
Berube has encouraged him to play in front of the net more often, hoping this will help him (four goals, 10 assists) pick up more “dirty” goals. And don’t forget Thomas, the speedy youngster who battled nagging injuries for most of the season. His highlight-reel goal in overtime helped the Blues down the Wild 5-4 in the series opener on Apr. 28.
Toss old friend David Perron, who leads the team in points with 49 — including 34 assists. Brayden Schenn had been on the most horrific scoreless streak of his career (18 games), but his goals against the Wild and later, the Ducks, hopefully will open up those floodgates, Berube has told the media. Jordan Kyrou is a legitimate threat, as are Tyler Bozak, Sammy Blais, Vince Dunn, and Jaden Schwartz. Ivan Barbeshev has become an offensive threat, but this season he’s scored just four goals and nine points in another injury-riddled season.
Think You Can Stop the Blues? Pick Your Poison
Another huge intangible is momentum, and St. Louis has some. Can the Blues’ recent hot streak bode well for the team as they enter the playoffs, albeit as the lowest seed available in the division? Earlier this season, goalie Jordan Binnington famously told the Blues’ color analyst not to count St. Louis out, despite the team’s streakiness.
“We’re coming,” he told Pang on Bally’s Sports Midwest.
The quote made its way around the NHL, and the cocky/confident goalie’s words are now immortalized in countless hockey memes forever.
Binnington has to return to his 2019 Cup-winning form. The truth is, he emerged basically out of nowhere that season and played himself and the Blues to the Stanley Cup. And, in the process, he netted himself a lucrative, six-year, $36 million deal with St. Louis. If there is one player who can help maintain momentum or kill it in an instant, it is Binnington, and to a lesser extent, backup Ville Husso. Both played spectacularly against Colorado, winning two of three games last weekend and against Minnesota, with the win and the overtime splits.
This season, Binnington is a pedestrian 16-14-6. Husso is 8-5-1 in the 15 games he has played.
“But things began to change when the calendar flipped to April,” according to a story on The Hockey Writers. “He had two good starts, then put down one of the best performances of his career in an April 7 win against the Vegas Golden Knights. He made a career-high 50 saves, allowing just one goal, ending the Blues’ losing streak. Since then, he’s been a much-improved goaltender, and his season numbers show it. Binnington is now 15-14-5, with a .909 SV% and a 2.69 GAA, along with 0.9 GSAA. Those aren’t world-beating numbers, but they’re a serious improvement from where he was in March. And that kind of steady goaltending has helped steady the entire team.”
If the Blues end up getting into the playoffs and making any postseason run, they will know they worked for everything they achieved. They’ve played in an amazing league-leading 28 one-goal games. They have had 15 come-from-behind victories this season, and they have gone into overtime 14 times, going 7-7. It’s not the easiest way to secure wins, and the Blues are 6-8 in those one-goal games.
“The Blues look to be getting hot at exactly the right time,” The Hockey Writers reported. “Just over a week ago, the playoffs seemed like a long shot. Now, they are all but assured. And with veterans returning to form, youngsters hitting their stride, and a starting goaltender that has his swagger back again, St. Louis may be looking to turn some heads in the West Division in the postseason.”
This Blues Team Is Nothing but Pretenders
While it is easy to drink the Kool-Aid and go all-in on the Blues, keep in mind that this is a troubled group. For as many spectacular individual and team performances this season, there are twice as many stinkers in the mix. The things you cannot ignore about the Blues’ playoff hopes are pretty evident.
There are some things that cannot be overlooked about St. Louis this season, and chief among those concerns has been the second-period play. In short, the team has been terrible in the second period. The second frame has been a subject of Berube’s postgame press gatherings, and he usually does not speak of the period in a positive light (from ‘Will Blues coach Craig Berube finally scratch Zach Sanford after his latest costly mistake? (‘He’s got to learn’, The Athletic, 4/23/21). He knows the Blues frequently come out flat and let teams back into games in that crucial swing period.
Defense Is Suspect
The Blues’ defense was a big question mark coming into the season. Free agency took captain Alex Pietrangelo, Carl Gunnarsson was lost to injury, Colton Parayko has been nicked up all season, and Jay Bouwmeester’s sudden retirement shook the Blues’ defensive score. The loss of Alex Steen to long-term injury also proved to be a missing piece for them this season. Steen’s play was an important part of the Blues’ 2019 Stanley Cup win.
Armstrong signed Torey Krug to replace Pietrangelo, but their styles and effectiveness in different situations couldn’t be more different. Pietrangelo, now with Vegas, has a long reach and is a disruptive defensive player. Krug is more of a playmaker from the back end, some might say.
Krug has been more than adequate, but fans and local media often remind Armstrong he is no Pietrangelo. Krug has only one goal this season but has assisted on 28 goals for 29 points — sixth on the team. He has logged 22:42 of ice time this season, second behind fellow defenseman Justin Faulk.
Faulk has also played admirably and been a solid, calming force on defense. He has a stoic approach to the game and seems largely unfazed by offensive shenanigans. He provided a sense of quiet leadership on the backline with mates Marco Scandella, Niko Mikkola, Jake Walman and Dunn rounding out the Blues defense.
They are all solid players, but … are they good enough to face the postseason buzzsaw of Vegas, Minnesota, and Colorado? They’ve gone 9-8-0 against those three teams so far this season. Games against Vegas, Minnesota, Anaheim and the Los Angeles Kings round out their schedule.
Faulk, a veteran, has put up a solid season and leads the team with 24:23 minutes per game. He also leads the Blues in hits (114). Heading into Monday’s game against the Anaheim Ducks, Faulk had contributed 17 points (six goals, 11 assists). Last season, after Faulk came to St.Louis from Carolina, he appeared to be completely lost in the Blues’ system. Cries of expansion draft were associated with Faulk’s name. But this season, he has come into his own and has become one of the more reliable of the Blues’ top defenseman.
But beyond that, there are big questions about the Blues’ defensive depth. With Parayko going out twice with injuries this season, Berube has had to rely on his youngsters. For players like Mikkola, Walman, Steven Santini and Dunn, they are gaining valuable NHL game experience. However, costly mistakes in big games have plagued Walman, for instance. In the playoffs, where the top scorers in the league await, the young Blues’ defense could be seriously exploited, as teams like Vegas and Colorado have done this year.
The schedule has been brutal. The Honda West Division has seen some of the best hockey in the league. With 74 points, Vegas was the first team to secure a playoff spot, followed quickly by the Avs, who clinched their spot with a 5-3 win against the Blues on Apr. 24. Minnesota, with general manager Bill Guerin and coach Dean Evason’s names mentioned as award candidates, has been strong all season and boasts the spectacular play of their dazzling young Russian superstar, Kirill Kaprizov.
‘Anything Can Happen’
Conventional wisdom in the NHL is that once you get into the playoffs, it’s anybody’s ballgame. The parity in the league has been nothing short of exceptional, with all but two teams (Buffalo and Anaheim) posting seasons of 40-points or better. Anaheim is currently at 39 points. Three of the four divisions this year feature teams that are within just four points of each other. The fourth playoff spot in each division will probably be settled this week as the Nashville Predators hope to outlast the Dallas Stars, and the Blues hope to punch their ticket to the postseason as well this week.
If everything goes according to plans, the Blues will surely be disruptive in the upcoming playoffs. While many may not pick them to make any type of serious run, others aren’t so sure.
The St. Louis Blues are a very tough date right now.
Rob Staggenborg covers the St. Louis Blues for TheHockeyWriters.com, as well as hosting several NHL podcasts. He enjoys St. Louis style pizza with gooey cheese, and sitting for hours on end in metro St. Louis traffic listening to sports podcasts. He is a proud U.S. veteran. Visit his website at brockbanner.com
Follow his Blues coverage at STLFanReport.com and on Twitter @RealBrockBanne1