The St. Louis Blues were a team on a mission throughout most of the 2013-14 regular season campaign, but things fell apart just before the Stanley Cup playoffs began. It was a combination of tired players, less than gracious scheduling (per the norm), and untimely injuries that cost the team what could have been their first Stanley Cup winning season in franchise history. Here’s a look back at how they could have overcome late regular season obstacles to ride a high wave through the playoffs and into the Finals.
Sochi and Beyond
The Sochi Olympic break was less than ideal for any player who committed to representing their home country for the amazing tournament. It was halfway across the world for most of the participants, and was an abbreviated schedule chock full of intense game-play and lack of rest. The St. Louis Blues had 9 participants in the Olympic Games (10 originally until an injury kept power forward Vladimir Sobotka out of Sochi), not including members of the front office staff such as GM Doug Armstrong and Coach Ken Hitchcock who helped Team Canada win their 2nd consecutive Olympic Gold Medal.
— Casey Nolen KSDK (@CaseyNolen) February 26, 2014
When the faithfully departed had returned to the Gateway to the West they seemed more focused than ever, until the injury and fatigue bugs struck through them unmercifully. Sobotka was in and out of the lineup for a good month, Vladimir Tarasenko and others caught a bad case of the flu, Jordan Leopold went down with a high ankle sprain, and the core group of (still) healthy players seemed to struggle to find their place and their teammates over the first couple of games back.
Though the St. Louis Blues struggled immediately following the Sochi Olympics, they were able to find their stride on the back of RFA Patrik Berglund who helped the team to an 11-4 record in the month of March with some great in-zone play, and timely scoring (Berglund had 6 G, 2 A, 8 points, and a plus-6 rating in March). Maybe the biggest surprise over the great March the team experienced was their 7-2 record on the road over that span. This showed their resiliency and heart, and gave the fans hope that this year would be different than previous others.
However, the excitement was short lived when key players such as Vladimir Tarasenko and Alexander Steen went down with injuries. Add in TJ Oshie missing a few games for various reasons (including one vicious hit from Minnesota Wild tough guy Mike Rupp), and a plethora of others coming in and out of the roster night-to-night and it made for a very rocky finish to the regular season. The team also has a yearly scheduling battle to overcome, due to the Missouri Valley Conference and NCAA Men’s Regional tournaments calling the Scottrade Center home, and the NHL always scheduling the St. Louis Blues with above average game numbers over the last third of the season.
Limping In to, and Then Out of the Stanley Cup Playoffs
Though the St. Louis Blues may have lost the battle to win the Central Division to the Colorado Avalanche by season’s end, they were still able to record the most wins in franchise history (52), and did so in impressive fashion. The team also made blockbuster trades to acquire goaltender Ryan Miller and power forward Steve Ott, which didn’t give the team the added power they thought it may, but did show a welcomed sign that the organization is willing to go to extreme lengths to bring a Cup to the city.
With all of the fatigue and injuries playing heavy factors coming into the playoffs, if nothing else would have changed elsewhere, the Blues could have still been a force to be reckoned with if they had stayed a little more disciplined. Once the first round match-up versus heated rivals the Chicago Blackhawks began, the team came out on top at home in Games 1 and 2, just to repeat the same playoff woes (almost eerily to a “T”) from 2012-13, losing the next 4 straight to end the season. The games were all close, hard fought battles on both sides, but in the end the Blues seemingly lacked the true desire to fight for the series win.
How Close the St. Louis Blues Really Were to a Finals Appearance
As stated earlier, if nothing would have changed this postseason, except for the Blues finding the will and a way to beat Chicago in 7 games, here’s what may have been in store for the club over the next 2 series and possibly into the Stanley Cup Finals. First, the Notes team would have been in a great spot to vie for a place in the Western Conference Finals when playing Minnesota in the second round. The fuel given to the team from the Mike Rupp hit on TJ Oshie (shown above), and a win over long-time rival Chicago could’ve been all the boost the Blues needed to beat the Wild in 6 games. Though you can never underestimate Zach Parise, Miko Koivu, Jason Pominville, and company the Blues handled the Wild really nicely throughout the season (4-1 record against Minnesota in 2013-14), including games later in the season while the Notes team was struggling.
The Blues match up nicely against the quick Minnesota team, and would have generated plenty of scoring chances off of both Josh Harding and Ilya Bryzgalov, which should have led to a series victory. The St. Louis team was simply too big and powerful for the Wild to be able to win the series this season (barring a total collapse and/or a ton of injuries that is), and the Blues team would have probably gained some much needed confidence through those 4 wins. Next up would’ve been the St. Louis Blues Achilles’ heel, the LA Kings. The Kings have had the Blues number over the past few seasons, and have even been the Blues’ demise in 2 of the last 3 playoffs.
Dethroning the Kings
When one looks back at the Chicago-LA series they saw a ton of excellent scoring chances at both ends, some great (and lax) goaltending performances, and an abundance of heavy hits. That all epitomizes true Blues hockey, which means that if the Notes team would have made it to the Conference Finals, they would have been sitting pretty for a Cup Finals berth. The team would have finally been able to take advantage of the tired Kings roster who had been battling through two Game-7 victories already (though it did not slow them against the Blackhawks), and who have shown multiple lapses in coverage throughout the Western Conference Finals series against said Hawks.
Though the biggest battle of this series may have been the St. Louis Blues getting out of their own heads to beat the Kings, it definitely would have been a doable task to accomplish. The way the Blues were built this year was meant for a Kings rematch in the playoffs, and though the season series tipped slightly in LA’s favor (the Blues went 1-2 against the Kings this past season), the resilient Blues offense was able to solve the LA defense and their goalies throughout the contests.
All of this put together shows how close the St. Louis Blues truly were to a Stanley Cup Finals berth, which would have been their first since the 1969-70 season. If their opponent would’ve been the New York Rangers as it is for the LA Kings, the Blues may have even brought home the coveted hardware this very season. Although the year ended on a seemingly endless downhill ride, as a whole it was very successful. They were able to show a lot of growth and determination, something that should give them future playoff success and aid the chase for the Cup. Regardless of how this past year may have ended one thing is certain, the St. Louis Blues will be a legitimate Stanley Cup contender for the next few seasons at least, so be on the lookout.
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.