The St. Louis Blues are your 2014-15 Central Division Champions, which brings a brief sigh of relief to the team and its fans. However, the celebration on Thursday night after a 2-1 win over the rival Chicago Blackhawks was short lived, as each team that could affect the Blues’ 1st round playoff opponent has 1 game left to play, all which will occur on Saturday.
Playoff Match-Up Roulette
The Blues are now the champions of the Central Division, the toughest in hockey, just ask Blues coach Ken Hitchcock his thoughts about it,
“It’s one of the best divisions in the game, and it looks like it’s going to be one of the toughest divisions in hockey for a lot of years now.”
He certainly has a point because when you breakdown the numbers by total point accumulation averages for each of the 4 NHL divisions, the Central reigns supreme. The 8 Atlantic division teams averaged 81.6 points this season (which was brought down by the poor Toronto and Buffalo seasons), the 7 Pacific teams fared slightly better with an average of 86 points, the Metropolitan was able to average 90.5 points per team in their 8 team division, and finally the 7 Central division teams were able to average a whopping 98.3 points this year, what a difference. This shows the dominance the Central has had over the league this year, and why so many serious playoff teams are coming from it. But what does winning the Central mean for the Blues’ playoff picture?
3 First Round Possibilities Still Exist
It means that for the first 2 rounds of the playoffs at least (if the Blues can make it there, which they should be able to do this season) the Blues will enjoy a home ice advantage over their opponents, a big boost to the team who usually plays very well in front of their own fans (25-12-2 at home this season, which is actually a drop from prior years). That still leaves the question, who will the Blues play in the first round? There are still 3 possibilities that could change the opponent, all of which will play out on Saturday including a game that gives the Blues some control over their fate.
The Minnesota Wild will be the Blues final opponent of the 2014-15 regular season and if the Blues can defeat them, with an Anaheim Ducks loss, they will also become the Western Conference Champions as well, and will secure home ice through the Western Conference Finals, if they can continue to play well and make it there of course. That scenario would also mean that the Wild would finish the season with 100 points and stay ahead of the Winnipeg Jets for the top Wild Card spot, meaning the Blues would actually end up playing the heavy-hitting, hard working Jets in round 1.
The next scenario gets a little hairier, but is probably more realistic as the Ducks are slated to play the last place (in the conference, and by season’s end, possibly the league) Coyotes, so they will probably hold on to the Conference title. That means the Note will play the Wild in the first round right? Not exactly. If the Wild beat the Blues, and Chicago loses to Colorado (in Denver), who are spoiling teams late this season and riding a 2 game winning streak, then the Wild will actually leap frog the Blackhawks due to the regulation and overtime wins (ROW) tie-breaker, and the Blues will play Chicago in round 1. If Chicago can pull out a victory as they should it won’t matter if the Blues win or lose against the Wild (as far as playoff seeding goes) as they will be locked in to a playoff match-up against Minnesota regardless. However setting the tone for round 1 will be paramount. Premier set up man and ‘SOS’ line member Paul Stastny had this to say about the playoff picture:
“We went through ups and downs, but now we’re playing good hockey and that’s what we want to do, continue that into Saturday. We’ll probably end up playing Minnesota again, or maybe Winnipeg, we don’t know but as long as we’re peaking at the right time that’s the most important thing…You always want to start at home, and it’s (the atmosphere at Scottrade Center) at another level right now, we really feed off the crowd early on and that’s always huge (to win games).”
Blues vs. potential playoff foes: Winnipeg 4-0-1, Chicago 3-2, Minnesota 1-2 with one game to go.
— Tom Timmermann (@tomtimm) April 10, 2015
Best Case Scenario
The best case scenario for the Blues going in to Saturday is for the Blackhawks to win (was that just typed?) over the Avalanche, and for the Blues to beat Minnesota to set the previously mentioned tone for their playoff battle. That way the Blues can face a team who gives them good, close games, but who seem to be at the brink of fatigue after sitting Vanek, Niederreiter, Parise, and Dubnyk against the Predators on Thursday night. As Coach Hitchcock said in his post game interview, there are no easy teams in the West, so whoever you play is going to give you a battle. If the Blues were to play Winnipeg they would be facing a dynamic team with a really hot goalie (Pavelec just set a franchise record for longest shutout streak, which is technically still ongoing since the only goal scored on him was in the shootout last night), and a team who has always played them very tight. It would be a bigger physical battle than a series against the swift Wild squad, and would have the potential to partially derail the team’s Cup hopes if they get too banged up.
Luckily this year’s Blues team is the deepest it’s been in a very long time, which was put on display over the last few games where the Blues battled hard and clinched the Central Division without leading scorers Vladimir Tarasenko and Alexander Steen in the lineup. They have plenty of role players itching for a chance to help the team reach it’s ultimate goal this season, so regardless of who they play it will be that battle Hitchcock spoke about, should favor the Blues team, and should make for some amazing hockey along the way. This year’s squad is primed and ready for a deep run and the players seem truly focused on that end goal which is a good sign. If the goalie tandem of Elliott and Allen can continue to dominate regardless of who’s in net each night, and the team plays the North/South game fans have heard so much about this season, they will surely go deep into the playoffs which is exciting for any St. Louis faithful.
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Mike has covered the St. Louis Blues and Tampa Bay Lightning in depth for The Hockey Writers since 2013. He is also a contributing writer for KSDK News Channel 5, the St. Louis area NBC affiliate, and has been a credentialed media member of the Blues since 2014. Follow him on Twitter @pep30.