It has indeed been a great year so far for the St. Louis Blues, who have won four of five games, outscoring opponents by a whopping 22-6 margin. This includes a 5-0 whipping of the previously unbeatable Los Angeles Kings, with team assist leader T.J. Oshie potting two goals and Brian Elliott starring in goal with a shutout.
Of course, it has been an even better 2013-14 season for the Blues, who at this point are one of the top four teams in the NHL with a sparkling, league-leading plus-62 goal differential, 19 better than second ranked Chicago. Only Anaheim (35) and Pittsburgh (33) have more victories than the Blues (31), however Anaheim has played four more games and Pittsburgh three more than St. Louis. Only Anaheim (75), Chicago (70) and Pittsburgh (68) have more points than the Blues (67), and Chicago has also played four more games than St. Louis. The Blues' offense is ranked first in the league, one percentage point ahead of Chicago, with Anaheim and Pittsburgh right behind ranked third and fourth. The Blues' defense is ranked third (to Los Angeles and Boston) with Pittsburgh eighth, Anaheim 11th and Chicago 14th. A potent Blues' power play ranks third in the league (Pittsburgh is second, Chicago fourth and surprisingly Anaheim is far behind, ranked 21st) and the Notes' penalty killing is ranked fifth league-wide, with number two ranked Pittsburgh better. Anaheim's penalty killers rank 16th and Chicago's are ranked 28th in the 30-team league. Yes, it has been a great season so far indeed!
And the Blues have had their share of injured players to contend with, including goal-scoring leader Alexander Steen (nine man-games lost), Jordan Leopold (27), Ryan Reaves (17), Roman Polak (ten), Vlad Sobotka (six) and David Backes (five). Goaltender Jaro Halak has also missed some games with a variety of ailments. And center Maxim Lapierre missed five games due to an unfortunate collision with San Jose defenseman Dan Boyle, which led to Lapierre's subsequent suspension by the NHL's Judge Brendan Shanahan. Of course, the Blues total man-games lost (94) pales in comparison with league-leading Pittsburgh (278) and Anaheim (218). Chicago ranks one behind the Blues at 24th league-wide with 91 man-games lost through January 11.
The Blues now face a spate of 13 games in four weeks before the Olympic games in Russia begin in mid-February, starting tonight with the resurgent Phoenix Coyotes, who are within striking distance of the Minnesota Wild, who currently hold the eighth and last playoff slot in the Western Conference. And the Desert Dogs have four games in hand on the streaky, up-and-down Wild.
Up front, Phoenix is led well by the usual suspects, including wingers Radim Vrbata (11 goals, 34 points), Mikkel Boedker (14 goals, 30 points) and Shane Doan (13 goals) and centers Mike Ribeiro (32 points), Martin Hanzal (32 points) and Antoine Vermette (12 goals), not including statistics from the Coyotes' game last night in Winnipeg. The real secret of the Coyotes' offensive success, however, has been the transition-game of an excellent defense, including Keith Yandle (22 assists), Oliver Ekman-Larsson (19 assists), Derek Morris, often injured Rusty Klesla and rookie Connor Murphy. Unfortunately, team defense has been spotty and at best mediocre, ranking 25th in the league with three goals against per game. Goaltender Mike Smith is having major problems with a goals against average at 2.89, outperformed by former Shark Thomas Greiss, who sports a 2.21 goals against average and .929 save percentage. Overall, Phoenix has a pretty good hockey team, yet the Coyotes will be hard pressed to qualify for the playoffs unless Smith soon reverts to his former superior play in goal.
It would behoove the Blues to start this short three game home stand with a solid victory over Phoenix tonight as tougher teams are coming in Thursday (Kings) and Saturday (Ducks). Every point matters as the Blues play catch-up with division-leading Chicago and surpass the Hawks for home ice advantage in the playoffs.