After their 3-0 loss to the Minnesota Wild earlier this week, many pundits and armchair coaches were rolling their eyes, shaking their heads, quite certain that the St. Louis Blues didn’t have what it takes to get to the next level in their quest for their first Stanley Cup. They were citing dozens of things that the Blues had done wrong, and the fingers were pointed directly at coach Ken Hitchcock for decisions that didn’t seem to make sense. At the top of that list was how he’d played with all the lines — all season long — and how the lines he’d settled on just didn’t work well together.
Before Game 4, in a series where the Blues trailed the Wild 2 games to 1 in the best of seven, Hitchcock announced the lines were changing again. Instead of random changes, the lines went back to being the way they were — before injuries forced Hitchcock to start shifting the team around in the first place.
“These are the lines that have been together the most this season,” Hitchcock said of the lines at a news conference before Game 4. “There’s great chemistry here, there has been all year — especially between the first two lines, so we want to stick with that. Same thing on the first two D-pairs.”
Here’s how the St. Louis Blues now line up:
|Alex Steen #20||David Backes #42||TJ Oshie #74|
|Jaden Schwartz #17||Jori Lehtera #12||Vladimir Tarasenko #91|
|Dmitrij Jaskin #23||Paul Stastny #26||Patrik Berglund #21|
|Chris Porter #32||Steve Ott #9||Ryan Reaves #75|
|Jay Bouwmeester#19||Alex Pietrangelo #27|
|Carl Gunnarsson #4||Kevin Shattenkirk #22|
|Barret Jackman #5||Zbynek Michalek #6|
|G||Jake Allen #34 | Brian Elliott #1|
The line changes worked. Not only did the Blues come out on fire in Game 4, they played hockey the right way. They made quick, determined tape-to-tape passes. They hustled. They anticipated the play, knew where their line mates should be (and were), and skated circles around the Wild. Instead of looking heavy and laboured playing hockey, like they had in Game 3, the Blues looked like they were having fun!
Reunited. And It Feels So Good.
In their 6-1 victory, tying the series at two games apiece, each of the reconstructed Blues lines shone, and, incredibly, each of the offensive lines scored a goal. The STL line of Schwartz, Tarasenko and Lehtara scored twice (the goal scorers are highlighted in bold in the chart above.) One of Tarasenko’s two goals was a brilliant display of his puck-handling skills, where he put the puck into the goal while reaching around the goalie with his stick. The TarasenkoShow, as he’s affectionately called, is now leading the stats in the playoffs with 5 goals. The SOB line, made up of Steen, Oshie and Backes, scored only once — Backes from Shattenkirk and Oshie — but the assist gave Oshie his first playoff point this year.
It was, however, the 4th line that set the tone at 5:34 in the first period, with a goal from Ryan Reaves, assisted by Alex Pietranelo and Chris Porter. Porter was brought into the lineup, replacing Marcel Goc #57.
Quality Scoring Chances
Instead of the lackluster effort the Blues delivered in Game 3 with only 17 shots on goal, the new lines had far more quality scoring chances, with a total of 26 on the two Wild goalies. Devan Dubnyk #40 let in 11 of the 17 shots he faced before being pulled in the second period, and his replacement, Darcy Kuemper #35 saved all 9 shots that he faced. Blues’ goalie Jake Allen #34 stopped 17 of 18 shots on goal.
The Blues spent only two minutes in the penalty box, on a high-sticking charge against Steve Ott (in red in the chart above) in the dying seconds of the first period. The Wild capitalized on that penalty when Jared Spurgeon (#46) scored the Wild’s only goal of the night at 1:41 in the second period.
The reduced number of penalties (especially in comparison to Game 3) shows the Blues might have been able to forget about their former team-mate, Chris Stewart. Stewart, who played for the Blues for 4 years, from 2010 to 2014, has admitted having a chip on his shoulder when it comes to his former team. Now wearing #44 for the Wild, Stewart had been in the Blues’ faces throughout the series — but in Game 4, there was little of the after-whistle pushing and shoving the fans had become accustomed to seeing. Instead, after stoppage of play – especially in the first two periods, it was the Blues coming together in group hugs to celebrate another goal.
Monkey Off Their Backs
The win also put an end to their inability of scoring on the road in the playoffs, a heavy nine-consecutive monkey that had been on their backs since April 19, 2012 when they beat San Jose Sharks 2-1. The win helped the Blues advance to the second round where they met up with, and lost to, the Los Angeles Kings which the Kings won in four straight games.
The Genius of Hitchcock
If these lines continue to work as easily and as effortlessly for the rest of the series as they did in Game 4, then Ken Hitchcock is a genius and may have pulled off one of the most clever coaching strategies ever. Perhaps he was toying with the bubbling frustration coming from his players on purpose, waiting for the precise moment to make the change. Was it at that point, when their anger and desperation was such a high point, that by changing the lines back to the way they used to be acted as a catalyst to re-anchor the team, giving them purpose and heart?
Time will tell as we go deeper in the series. But on April 22, 2015, the Blues certainly looked — not just like a playoff team — but like a Stanley Cup contender.