The St. Louis Blues haven’t had the easiest road to end their 2014-15 NHL season, playing 8 out of their last 10 against teams in the playoff hunt. The last 3 games of this year don’t give the Blues any reprieve either, as they are all against teams already in the playoffs, or on the cusp, and will certainly be very heavy hitting affairs.
All 3 games will also be potential 1st round playoff previews for the Blues, as they face the Winnipeg Jets on Tuesday, the rival Chicago Blackhawks on Thursday, and the Minnesota Wild in a matinee affair on Saturday afternoon, all at home. The Blues will have their hometown crowd cheering them on over these last 3 games, but the focus will be on staying healthy while still gaining points to set themselves up for that deep playoff run so many inside and outside of the organization expect this season.
While Staying Healthy Is So Important Come Playoffs
As was made very clear last year when the Blues fizzled out in the first round against those pesky Blackhawks in just 6 games, health aids depth and allows a team to stay balanced, which gives them that competitive edge in close games. With stars and role players like David Backes, TJ Oshie, Patrik Berglund, and Jay Bouwmeester not feeling 100% last postseason the Blues simply couldn’t keep up with the powerful and crafty Blackhawks team that knows exactly what it takes to win in the postseason.
This year has a different feel as the Note may be the deepest team in the league (and if not, they are certainly one of the deepest in the NHL), but they will need their stars firing on all cylinders to have a chance at the coveted prize come early June, and possibly also to avoid a ‘fire-sale’ situation in St. Louis this summer. If the Blues come into the playoffs healthy they will be able to adapt to any situation in game, as most of the team has some chemistry with one another thanks to coach Ken Hitchcock’s never ending lineup ballet, which is actually great news for the club heading into the big dance.
With the newly formed ‘SOS’ line (Schwartz, Oshie, Stastny) looking as dynamic as any line has this season, and with Alexander Steen and Vladimir Tarasenko set to return at some point in or before the 1st round begins, coach Hitchcock has plenty of options to match up against any opposition, which creates favorable match-ups for the Blues team. This also creates a lot of time and space options for the players on the ice, which should allow them to find the back of the net more frequently than in recent playoffs past. That will be a desperately needed (and welcomed) change as the club tries to improve upon their 2.05 goals per game average in the playoffs since 2011-12.
The Tough Road Ahead
Before the Blues can even begin to think about making that deep playoff run, they need to stay focused on each game, beginning with Winnipeg on Tuesday night, to make sure they stay atop the division to gain home ice advantage and to create the most favorable 1st round match up possible (though the West is tough top to bottom this season, so that’s kind of a hyperbole). Tuesday evening against the Jets, who will be without standout monster Dustin Byfuglien due to suspension, the Blues will need to focus on keeping their feet moving to make it harder for the heavy-hitting Winnipeg team to dial in and crush Blues players with and without the puck.
If they can manage to do that while still driving the net to create chances in front off of quick transitions, they should come out on the favorable end of the game, and without too many scratches. However, Thursday night will be the true test against Chicago, who on Sunday, made sure the Blues knew it would be a battle royale when (if) these 2 teams meet this postseason. Ice bags made their rounds in both locker rooms after Sunday’s affair, and with the Blues gaining 2 points and the Central Division lead (105 points) fans can expect to see the hungry Blackhawks try to return the favor by any means necessary. This means more intensity, crushing hits, and powerful plays to try and out work and out muscle the opposition for playoff positioning in the Central. The Blues came out on top in Chicago, and if they play North/South hockey as Hitchcock has harped on all season, they should end up healthy at the least, and hopefully winners as well.
— St. Louis Blues (@StLouisBlues) April 3, 2015
Minnesota Offers No Reprieve
When looking ahead to Saturday’s game against the Wild that seems to have the most realistic chance at being the first round playoff match-up for the Blues, it may also be the biggest concern for the Blues’ team health. It could very well be the Wild’s last chance at cracking into the postseason come Saturday, so they will be pulling out all the stops to gain those invaluable 2 points. The Blues may also need those final 2 points to stay atop the Central Division themselves, so it’s sure to be a true playoff atmosphere, just a few days before the true test begins. If the Note can stay focused on playing their game and can manage to stay out of the extracurricular activities as much as possible (which will be especially difficult in this game), they should find themselves healthy and facing a Minnesota team that is starting to become fatigued from clawing their way from the bottom of the division to the playoff picture in just under 3 months.
All in all the Blues have set themselves up for a postseason unlike their recently troubled ones, and they are finding that chemistry and surging at the right time. That’s why staying healthy is the final piece of the puzzle for the squad, and why it’s so important to stay focused on each game and each shift, to make sure all the right things are being done to ensure that deep run come playoffs. It’s certainly an exciting time to be a fan, and it appears as if fans will have a lot more to cheer about in the coming months.
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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.