The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, by Rick Ackerman
As we approach the half-way point of this shortened season, now is a good time to take a breath, take stock of the St. Louis Blues and see how they have performed so far. It has been a season of inconsistencies. In some games (especially on the road), the Blues appear to be very, very good, serious contenders for Lord Stanley's Cup. In other games (especially at home), the Note looks perplexed and confused, chasing the puck and lacking any structure to their play. Overall, though, the boys are piling up points and providing some thrills for their devoted fans. They look good to qualify for the playoffs and then perhaps make some noise in post season play.
After 18 games, the Blues have used a high-octane offense (currently ranked 6th in the league) to rack up 22 points, good for second in the Central Division behind the record-setting Chicago Blackhawks and fourth in the Western Conference. Scoring has been pretty evenly balanced between the top three lines with Patrik Berglund and Chris Stewart leading the way with 16 goals between them. Alexander ("don't call me Alex") Steen's line has 13 goals (including injured Vlad Tarasenko) and David Backes' trio has potted 13 as well. The defense has also contributed eight goals, however, the combined 23 assists of Kevin Shattenkirk and Alex ("don't call me Alexander") Pietrangelo show a vastly improved transition system out of the defensive zone necessary for a quick offensive attack. And, of course, the Blues' number one power play (30.6%) in the entire league has contributed to this potent offense.
Overall team defense has been good in the sense that the Blues have only allowed 413 shots against, second best in the NHL (although the leader, Boston with 405, has played three fewer games). Sometimes spectacular goaltending from Jaro Halak and rookie Jake Allen has kept the Blues in some games and allowed them to win others. Allen's possible save of the year in Calgary and Halak's supine grab against Columbus last Saturday are just two examples. The Blues' defense has been more impressive on the road as illustrated by a 6-2-1 record away from home, fifth best in the league.
Last year, the Blues had the best defense and goaltending in the NHL as Halak and Brian Elliott won the William M. Jennings Trophy for combining to allow the fewest goals against. This year they have lost their way and plummeted to 18th in the league with a 2.83 goals against average. Considering the low shots against allowed, this translates to a poor save percentage for Blues netminders. Elliott is ranked 69th in the league with a .849 percentage (out of 71 listed goalies). Allen was an average .895 in his limited appearance. Only Halak at .911 (ranked 36th in the league) is above average.
And as good as the power play is, the penalty killing is below the league average (82.5) with the Blues ranked 22nd at 78.8. Scoring two short-handed goals has been balanced out by allowing two. At times the penalty-killers fall into the same general malaise the entire team does, falling back and waiting to see what happens instead of aggressively challenging opponents and skating hard at them, checking and using the body to force play to the boards. This has been particularly true for home games, where the Blues have a disappointing record of 4-4-1, outscored 24 to 28. There have been just too many stretches when the entire team has been listless and lethargic, both unable to score and prevent goals against. The TradeStocks Center is certainly not a rink opposing teams fear coming to. It is clear the Blues need to find last year's magic to dominate at home and improve the overall team defense, limiting goals against to last year's level.
One word: officiating. It is simply not clear if veteran NHL referees are losing their judgment (and sight) or if rookie refs just don't know the rules. Of course, the rules seem to change with every controversial hit as evidenced by the league's wildly inconsistent rulings lately. Although loathe to use expletives, this is just a fucking mess. Blues Nation is still fuming over the lack of even a two-minute minor called against Colorado's Mark Olver when he blasted Tarasenko into oblivion with a vicious blow to the head. Despite a facial laceration and unconsciousness, no penalty was called, nor was the league interested in supplementary discipline. Judge Brendan (no relation to Judge Judy) deemed the head-hit was within the rules this time, simply because Olver did not target the head or intend to deliberately injure the Blues' rookie. Okay, Shanahan, whatever you say. Of course, that means some hits to the head are now perfectly legal, at least this week until they deem all blows to the head illegal after somebody gets killed next week. If it happens to be Sydney Crosby (or Pavel Datsyuk), it is extremely likely the NHL will outlaw all body-checking and hitting of any kind. The star players must be protected. Sorry, Tarasenko, you're not a star (yet).
Another fascinating development is the NHL's new power to "rescind" penalties. Ask David Backes. He was assessed a major penalty and game misconduct in a game in Detroit when he laid out former Blue Kent Huskins with a perfectly executed check to the defenseman's sternum. With no deliberations on the part of the four on-ice officials, referee Ian Walsh deemed it a hit to the head and the Blues were shorthanded five minutes, losing their captain for the rest of the game. St. Louis had fought back from a two goal deficit and was forcing play and dominating when Backes was ejected roughly half-way through the third period. Of course, Datsyuk scored a power play goal and Zetterberg would score into the empty net for a Red Wings' victory. Upon review, after the game, Backes penalty was changed to that of a major for "deliberate injury", with no additional disciplinary measures needed. If "deliberate injury" was really meant, then why don't fighting majors also get a game misconduct since the intent of a fight is to deliberately injure an opponent? In reality, Backes should not have even received a two-minute minor for roughing, unless ALL hard, smashing hits are to be interpreted as "roughing." Anyone want to totally take hitting out of the game?
Not to be redundant or too vulgar, but what a fucking mess!