Through 41 games of the 2016-17 NHL campaign, the St. Louis Blues have struggled to maintain their regular season success. With key pieces of last year’s roster like longtime captain David Backes, veteran forward Troy Brouwer and goaltender Brian Elliott playing elsewhere, inconsistencies have arose.
Despite a change of scenery in the locker room, the Blues remain in a playoff spot in the Western Conference. They are third in the Central Division with 47 points, compiling a record of 21-15-5 in the process. Although, sitting 12 points behind the first-place Chicago Blackhawks at the halfway point of the season is far from optimal for St. Louis.
There have been flashes of excellence coming from the Blues this season paired with moments (even stretches) of underperforming play. Head coach Ken Hitchcock’s team has not won consecutive games since late November, providing cause for concern. Coming off of their first Western Conference Final birth in 15 years, you expected the Blues to take one step further towards Lord Stanley. Not one step back.
No matter what you may think of the current state of the Blues moving forward, here are their top five games from the first half of the season:
5. Oct. 12, 2016
St. Louis Blues 5, Chicago Blackhawks 2
After a compelling seven-game playoff series last April, the hockey world was excited for the next chapter of this rivalry between these two Central Division foes on opening night. Richard Panik got the scoring started for Chicago just over four minutes in, which was the only tally of the game through the first 20 minutes.
Kevin Shattenkirk tied the game with a power-play blast early in the second, but Ryan Hartman notched his first NHL goal nine minutes later to restore the Blackhawks lead. Towards the end of the second period, Vladimir Tarasenko punched home his first of the season on a 5-on-3 opportunity.
It was all St. Louis from then on as Paul Stastny’s PPG 55 seconds into the third period broke the tie and made it 3-2 Blues. Tarasenko added an empty-net goal, as did Patrik Berglund, who did so in unusual fashion. The Blues struck three times with the man-advantage in total and outshot Chicago 33-19.
Beating the Blackhawks at home in the United Center hasn’t been an easy task for the Blues in the recent decade, but a regulation win on the road against their most heated opponent was a great way to kickstart the season.
4. Nov. 26, 2016
Minnesota Wild 3, St. Louis Blues 4 (shootout)
Two Central Division teams that are proficient in shot suppression and production battling each other…who wouldn’t enjoy that? The Blues fired 38 shots and allowed 31, with possession times shifting towards both clubs’ liking. Wild captain Mikko Koivu drew first blood when he received a pretty set-up from Jason Zucker 11:36 into the contest. Paul Stastny responded in the second period for St. Louis, but Erik Haula scored 124 seconds later to make it 2-1 Wild.
Now, the Blues aren’t the best at digging themselves out of holes when trailing after the second period, but they overwhelmed Minnesota in the first minutes of the final frame. Jaden Schwartz re-directed a slap-pass from David Perron that went crossbar and in to the tie the game with over 16 minutes left to play. Just 63 seconds later, it was No. 17 in blue and yellow again that would put the Blues in front with a power-play goal.
Devan Dubnyk kept St. Louis from adding an insurance marker, which allowed the Wild one last chance at the end of regulation. Charlie Coyle then cashed in on the doorstep with the 6-on-5 with 1:08 remaining on the clock.
The game then headed to overtime where Dubnyk and Jake Allen stifled shooters in the following five minutes. Stastny was robbed on a clear-cut chance as was Zucker. The 3-on-3 solved nothing; it was on to the shootout. No goals were scored in the first three rounds, but Perron beat Dubnyk five-hole and Allen was perfect to give the Blues the extra point. Schwartz (2 goals) and Perron (2 assists) stood out together, which has become a staple duo for Hitchcock to utilize up front.
3. Nov. 22, 2016
St. Louis Blues 4, Boston Bruins 2
Last July, Blues fans were devastated when captain David Backes moved on to Boston via free agency. Seeing him in a NHL sweater other than one with a blue note on remains an odd sight. When St. Louis rolled into TD Garden against their former leader in late November, several Blues spent dinner at Backes’ house to reminisce. Just 24 hours later, it would be business only on the ice.
Fitting with the developing storyline, Backes opened the scoring in vintage fashion, pounding home a rebound from just outside the crease. Jori Lehtera deflected Colton Parayko’s shot in the second period past Tuukka Rask, but Dominic Moore buried a shorthanded goal to put St. Louis behind again.
The Blues turned to their back-end for offense in the form of Robert Bortuzzo, who scored from a bad angle with Rask out of position.
This game proved to be a coming-out party for the 27-year-old defenseman. He went on to play increased minutes for the Blues before suffering an injury in early December. Stastny scored three minutes after Bortuzzo’s tying goal, giving his team their first lead of the game.
A lackluster third period from St. Louis followed, but they held the one-goal lead thanks to a terrific outing from Allen. He ended up making 39 saves and hammered the notion that he has the potential to be the guy in St. Louis (keyword: potential). Lehtera’s empty-net goal sealed the deal after Allen denied Ryan Spooner, who was alone in front.
Obviously, Backes’ return to St. Louis would prove to be more emotional, but the Blues’ depth scoring on the road (where they have struggled all year long) was remarkable. Their win over Boston was their fourth straight, the longest winning streak all season to date.
2. Dec. 28, 2016
Philadelphia Flyers 3, St. Louis Blues 6
As previously mentioned, the Blues have been horrible away from Scottrade Center this season, but terrific at home. When the Flyers rolled into town in late December, the visitors weren’t fazed. Wayne Simmonds was the recipient of a pretty passing play to put Philadelphia ahead just minutes in. The Blues’ power-play unit was able to get one through Steve Mason as a result of quick puck movement and a Shattenkirk howitzer. Just before the first period ended, it would be the second man-advantage grouping for St. Louis to capitalize on the Flyers’ lack of discipline.
Robby Fabbri would register his ninth goal of the year as Parayko threaded a pass to him at the high slot. A moment like this one was significant for the second-year forward, who had been a healthy scratch for the first time in his NHL career a month earlier. Fabbri had been working his way back into the lineup as a regular and Hitchcock acknowledged his eagerness to produce.
However, the Flyers would score the next two goals of the hockey game. The Blues had squandered a one-goal lead in their building and were now trailing with 15 minutes left in the third period. But, they wouldn’t deviate from the game-plan.
Perron evened the score just 100 seconds later while floating through the circles. In the ensuing two minutes, Scottie Upshall re-directed a point shot into the back of the net.
Scottrade Center erupted.
Fabbri’s second goal of the night would serve as the dagger with under five minutes to play, which was a beauty of an individual move off of the wall. When the Flyers pulled Mason for the extra attacker, No. 15 recorded his first NHL hat trick. This was another come-from-behind victory from St. Louis, which included four straight goals to delight the Blues faithful.
1. Jan. 2, 2017
Chicago Blackhawks 1, St. Louis Blues 4
But what could have delighted Blues fans more than the first outdoor NHL game in St. Louis? Over 40,000 fans filled the seats in Busch Stadium and that was just for the alumni game on New Year’s Eve. Not even rain could damper hockey fans’ excitement on Jan. 2 as the Blues and Blackhawks faced off in unfamiliar territory for the Winter Classic.
What wasn’t unfamiliar is that the Blues allowed the first goal of the game soon after puck drop. Michal Kempny’s shot skipped off the ice and past Allen’s glove just 62 seconds in. The mood was tense in the ballpark as well as the rink constructed inside it, with physicality playing a major role early on in the game. Crawford put up a perfect frame through 20 minutes, despite an aggressive St. Louis response.
Berglund’s tying goal in the second period brought the capacity crowd to its collective feet as the traditional goal horn echoed around the field.
It would remain 1-1 until 12:05 into the third period when a fortuitous bounce careened off of Nicklas Hjalmarsson’s skate and by Crawford after Tarasenko attempted to pass cross-crease to Lehtera. Quite an unconventional way to score for the Russian sniper, but he’ll take it each and every time.
Then, Tarasenko resorted to more traditional measures and snapped one under the arm of Crawford just under two minutes later.
The Hawks could not match the Blues’ forecheck and had trouble generating offense following Kempny’s goal. Allen was poised and determined, elevating his play on a grand stage as did Tarasenko. The 2017 Winter Classic was a celebration of hockey at its finest and a reward to the city of St. Louis after 50 years of involvement in the NHL. It will remain a great memory in Blues fans’ minds for years to come.
Now, if that could only get their hands on that elusive Stanley Cup.
Cristiano Simonetta is in his third year studying broadcast journalism at the University in Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is also the executive producer and lead play-by-play broadcaster for Illini Hockey’s ACHA DI club. Follow him on Twitter at @CMS_74_.