When the St. Louis Blues stumbled to their third loss in three straight games, bowing out 4-1 to the Anaheim Ducks on Nov. 16, it seemed to signal a course correction was due. Coming on the heels of a shootout loss to the Arizona Coyotes and an overtime come-from-ahead defeat at the hands of the Columbus Blue Jackets, the delayed Stanley Cup hangover had finally arrived.
A quick review of the young season pointed to a sluggish offense as the main culprit. Through 21 games, the Blues had minuscule plus-three goal differential, scoring enough to get by. This isn’t surprising considering the Blues have gone into overtime a whopping 10 times this season. On the positive side, they’ve mined 15 points from those games, with five winners.
On the downside, the Blues have shown a nagging tendency to let opponents back in. Alex Pietrangelo and company have coughed up the lead and forfeited a point in each of their five overtime losses. Playing close, tight games gives little room for error. By not separating from the opponent, puck luck will run out.
This may sound like a lot of hand-wringing over a team that is sitting atop the Western Conference with a Top 4 Power Ranking but there are some troubling bad habits that are undermining this dream start.
Skimming the Bar
The Blues are tied with the Edmonton Oilers with 14 wins, so how bad can it be? Scratch at those wins and the Blues penchant for skimming the bar comes clearer still. When you take away empty net goals, the Blues have two victories with a goal margin of more than one — the 4-2 victory over the Los Angeles Kings and the 5-0 beat down against the Calgary Flames. Sure, empty net goals count, but let’s be realistic, they change the complexion of the game but not the outcome.
Basically, the Blues have won 12 games by one goal. Throw in 18 goals scored on the power play, and it starts to ask questions about this team’s 5-on-5 ability.
(Scoring has) been down and we’ve got to generate more 5-on-5 scoring…. We go over chances all the time and how we mark them and stuff. We’re doing a good job of getting lots of chances, but I think that we have to execute better in a lot of our Grade A chances. We could hit the net more, bear down a little bit more in those areas. It sounds like a little thing, but it becomes a big thing.As reported by Lou Korac, KSDK.com on Nov. 18, 2019
According to Hockey-Reference.com, the Blues are scoring below league average. The offense has sputtered, which was bound to happen when Vladimir Tarasenko and his 214 NHL tallies were shelved with a possibly season-ending shoulder issue. Losing special unit stalwart Alexander Steen to a high-ankle sprain added to the woes. And now, the Blues will also be without Sammy Blais for a minimum of 10 weeks with a wrist injury requiring surgery.
To keep the ship from taking on too much, the Jordan Binnington/Jake Allen goaltending tandem has bailed the team out by outperforming the league in a big way (.924 save percentage versus the .907 league average). They also own a way better expected goals against (xGA). This stat takes into consideration where the shots are coming from and the likelihood of that shot becoming a goal.
The dynamic duo are facing a higher xGA (44.6 to the 40.5 NHL rating), yet have let in eight fewer goals than the league average. Surely, this can’t last, right? Binnington has to return to Earth at some point. His success is based on small sample size.
Except, as his sample size gets bigger, Binnington’s numbers get better. Here is a great stat pulled together by venerable Bernie Miklasz of 101ESPN.com: Among 29 goaltenders that have played at least 1,500 minutes, Binnington ranks second in save percentage (.938), second in goals saved above average (20.3), second in high-danger save percentage (.875), and first in high-danger goals saved above average (14.2.)
Even with the overachieving goaltending, the supporting data, the narrow victories and a sputtering offense should add up to a course correction.
Correcting the Correction
But then the Blues corrected themselves by putting on an expert display of lockdown hockey against the loaded Tampa Bay Lightning. Not even Pat Maroon’s emotional return to the Enterprise Center could knock the Blues off their game as they cruised to a 3-1 win.
Two nights later, Binnington grabbed his first shutout of the season, blanking the feckless Flames 5-0. The offense dazzled, as well. Sporting the blue, yellow, and red third jerseys — the very same one that Wayne Gretzky wore for 18 games with the Note — the newly constructed kid line of Oskar Sundqvist, Robert Thomas and Zach Sanford rang up 3 goals and 9 points.
One of the key ingredients to winning the Cup was the Blues’ ability to move on after a loss. To not let a few bad games change their course of action. Seems like this edition of the Blues is carrying that theme. Blues fans hope they do so all the way to June.
Dyed-in-wool Blues fan living behind enemy lines in Chicago. First-line aspirations, third-line skill.