Lighting the Lamp, with Rick Ackerman
The last time the Dallas Stars came to do NHL-style battle with the Blues in St. Louis just over two weeks ago, they were firmly ensconced in eighth place in the Western Conference, holding the second of two wild card slots to qualify for the playoffs. Led by the high-scoring line of center Tyler Seguin (32 goals, 75 points) and wingers Jamie Benn (30 goals) and rookie Valerie Nichushkin, the Stars had only lost two of the last ten games, earning 15 points. They were slightly ahead of Phoenix and had a comfortable lead over Vancouver.
How things have changed in two weeks. The Stars find themselves on the outside of the playoff-qualification line looking in as Phoenix has now won seven of ten (including an overtime loss) for a total of 84 points, five ahead of Dallas. Even Vancouver has caught up to the Stars in points, with Winnipeg and Nashville only four points behind Dallas now (not including the Stars' game last night in Nashville). Yes, since taking an overtime point away from Ryan Miller and the Blues, Dallas has largely faltered, losing to Calgary (in a shootout), Winnipeg (in a shockingly sloppy 2-7 loss), Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. Home victories over Ottawa and Winnipeg were tempered by another loss in Chicago. That's only five points in the Stars' last seven games, not enough to keep up with Phoenix or catch up to Minnesota. And after tonight's match, Dallas only has eight games left, so expect a desperate effort from the green and white clad team from Texas against the Blues.
Brian Elliott was the winning goaltender in the first two games between St. Louis and Dallas earlier this season, the Blues black-holing the Stars 6-1 and then winning in overtime 3-2 in Dallas (bonus points to those who can remember Kevin Shattenkirk scored the winning goal). Tim Thomas stopped 28 of 30 shots for Dallas' overtime victory in St. Louis, with Benn netting his 26th goal for the win. So, tonight's game is important to both teams, as the Blues seek to maintain their overall NHL point lead and home-ice advantage in the playoffs, while the Stars seek to qualify for the playoffs.
Just so you know, the Blues are a really good club. The Note is first in points, slightly ahead of Boston, and first in win-loss differential (+ 34), just ahead of Boston (+33). St. Louis is ranked fourth on team offense (marginally behind Chicago, Anaheim and Boston), third on team defense (narrowly behind Boston and Los Angeles), fifth on the power play (Boston is seventh) and second league-wide on the penalty kill (Boston is eighth). Goaltending is spectacular as both Elliott (1.97 GAA, 92.1 SP in 28 games) and Miller (2.03 GAA, 91.8 SP in 12 games) provide both stability and perhaps more importantly, confidence and trust.
The Blues are on pace to set a franchise record for points, needing four victories in the remaining nine games (not including tonight) to reach 115, eclipsing the 114 points earned by the team in the 1999-2000 season. However, for those wondering, they will not be mathematically able to surpass the NHL record for points in a season. That honor belongs to the best team in NHL history, the 1976-77 Montreal Canadiens, who garnered 132 points in an 80 game schedule, only losing eight games the entire season. GM Sam Pollock assembled a mighty club, coached by Scotty Bowman. The mighty Habs scored 387 goals and only allowed 171 behind goaltenders Ken Dryden (HHoF 1983) and Bunny Larocque. An unbelievable defense featured Larry Robinson (HHoF 1995), Serge Savard (HHoF 1986), former Blues Guy Lapointe (HHoF 1993), Jimmy Roberts and Rick Chartraw, Pierre Bouchard and Brian Engblom. The offense was spear-headed by Guy Lafleur (HHoF 1988) with 56 goals, Steve Shutt (HHoF 1993) with 60 goals, Jacques Lemaire (HHoF 1984), Yvan Cournoyer (HHoF 1982), Bob Gainey (HHoF 1992) and many other notables, including Pete Mahovlich, Doug Risebrough, Yvon Lambert and Rejean Houle. Finishing 26 points ahead of Prince of Wales Conference rival Boston and 49 points ahead of Norris Division rival Los Angeles, the Canadiens made short work of the Smythe Division champion Blues in the playoffs, sweeping them 4-0. It took six games to dispose of the Islanders (who had finished with 106 points) before Montreal swept Boston 4-0 to win the Stanley Cup. Guy Lafleur won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP with 26 points in 14 games, including a team-leading nine goals. Dryden played all 14 games, only allowing 22 goals against for a 1.55 GAA with four shutouts.
The Winnipeg Jets did the Blues a major favor by knocking off San Jose last Thursday night. With only seven games left, the Sharks will be hard pressed to catch the Blues for the Conference championship, trailing by four points. That cannot be said for the Anaheim Ducks, though, as they have a better chance to catch the Blues with a much easier schedule the rest of the way. Six of the Ducks' final nine games are against non-qualifying playoff teams and five are at home in Anaheim. And Boston can possibly wrest the Presidents' Trophy away from the Blues with five of their remaining nine games against non-playoff teams, although seven of those games are on the road and only two at home in Boston.
It will be a very exciting final two weeks, with the eventual Presidents' Trophy winner possibly decided on the last day of the regular season.