Lighting the Lamp, with Rick Ackerman
The last extended road trip of the regular season almost became the road trip to Hell after the Blues were listless and uninspired in a loss to the Central Division rival Blackhawks in Chicago and were outworked and outmatched by the Flyers in another loss in Philadelphia. However, the boys in blue (actually road-white) gutted it out with a masterful defensive 1-0 victory in Pittsburgh and a classy, inspiring win in Toronto, highlighted by David Backes' hat-trick. Brian Elliott earned the shutout and stole the game from the Penguins making 33 saves, while Ryan Miller was merely adequate against the Maple Leafs, allowing three goals on only 25 shots against. Of course, that is not to say Miller was shaky or played poorly, yet it is clear Elliott was making a statement to his team-mates and management that he is just as vital to the Blues as Miller is if the Blues, guaranteed a spot and now fighting for home-ice advantage, are to advance in the upcoming playoffs.
The visiting Minnesota Wild come to town somewhat desperate for points as they seek to maintain qualification for post-season play. Currently in seventh place in the Western Conference, holding the first wild-card and seventh slot (Phoenix has the second wild-card and eighth slot), the Wild are a comfortable six points ahead of Dallas, the only real challenger to realistically hope to pass Minnesota in the standings as the season comes to a close in three weeks. Vancouver has not lived up to expectations at all this season and is a mess, having traded goaltender Roberto Luongo back to Florida, trailing Minnesota by seven points with only eight games left to play. Nonetheless, Minnesota has a solid team, highlighted by an overall excellent team defense, ranked fifth in the NHL with only 2.38 goals against per game. Rookie goaltender Darcy Kuemper has stepped in for number-one Josh Harding, currently on IR (1.65 goals against average, 93.3 save percentage) and number-two Niklas Backstrom, shutdown with an undisclosed status.
Kuemper has played quite well, winning 12 and only losing six of 22 games, posting a 2.26 GAA and 92.2 SP. And that has been with two regular defensemen, Clayton Stoner and Keith Ballard, out with injuries.
Despite a plethora of good scorers, including right-winger Jason Pominville (who leads the club with 27 goals and 51 points), left-winger Zach Parise (24 goals) and centers Mikko Koivu (43 points) and Mikael Granlund, the Wild offense is near the bottom of the league, ranking 26th with only 2.4 goals for per game. Only Los Angeles, Vancouver, Florida and Buffalo are worse.
With much higher expectations, the Blues are more desperate for points as they actively seek to win the Presidents' Trophy and home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs. The Note leads Eastern Conference Boston by a point and Pittsburgh by eight points, while ahead of Western Conference San Jose by two points (with two games in hand), Anaheim by four points and Chicago by six points (with one game in hand). Fortunately, the Blues' schedule is user-friendly with six of the remaining nine games at home after tonight's contest and six against division rivals, against whom the Blues have won an amazing 20 out of 23 games, garnering 42 of a possible 46 points. The only regulation loss was in Chicago just a week ago last Wednesday. The bonus-time losses were to Dallas at home in overtime two weeks ago and a shootout loss in Winnipeg last October. In those 23 divisional games, the Blues have outscored opponents 78-46, only allowing two goals against per game.
Six victories in the last ten games (a reasonable expectation) would give the Blues a total of 117 points. To surpass that, Boston would have to win at least seven of their remaining ten games, San Jose would need 15 points in eight remaining games and Anaheim would need 17 points in ten remaining games. Within the Central Division, only Chicago has a chance to pass the Blues, yet the Blackhawks would have to win all nine remaining contests to reach 117 points, and the Blues would win the tie-breaker with more total victories, as well as winning the regular season series. So, it would appear that it is only a matter of time until the Note clinches both divisional and conference championships, and most likely a Presidents' Trophy, the second in franchise history.
St. Louis has now surpassed 100 points in a season six times in club history. The first was in 1980-81 (107 points), followed by 1990-91 (105), 1999-2000 (114), 2000-01 (103), 2011-12 (109) and this season (currently 105). It is a safe bet to wager that the Blues will set a franchise record for points, only needing five wins in the remaining ten games to do so. Of course, earning more than 100 points in the regular season is no guarantee of post-season success, nor is winning the Presidents' Trophy any kind of guarantee either. In fact, only 40 times in the 96 year history of the NHL has the team with the most regular season points gone on to win the Stanley Cup. Montreal turned the trick 13 times, followed by Detroit with nine. No other team has accomplished the feat more than three times.
The Blues have won all three games so far against the Wild (one in a shootout), two in Minnesota, by a combined score of 8-4. There is no reason to think the outcome tonight will be any different.