Lighting the Lamp, with Rick Ackerman
Make no mistake about it. St. Louis is first and foremost a baseball town. As the Cardinals prepared for the World Series, the front page of the daily newspaper was devoted to the minutia of that preparation, along with special sections highlighting previous Cardinals Series in which the Redbirds have appeared (18). Of course, the Blues had the entire week off, so it comes as no surprise that they were relegated to the second or third page of the sports section, just as it is no surprise that when in public, one sees five Cardinal hats or jerseys to one Blues hat or jersey. Such is life when one bleeds blue in a city clad in red.
So, it is also not at all surprising that the Blues have not yet sold out a home game this season, and with upcoming baseball games tomorrow and Sunday, it is unlikely the visiting Vancouver Canucks will play to a full house tonight at the TradeStocks Center, despite the Blues' successful start this season. No matter the inflated cost of a World Series ticket, Busch Stadium will be jam-packed with red-clad St. Louisans for every game while Blues' games tonight and next Tuesday against Winnipeg will be fortunate to draw over 15,000, even if there is no direct conflict with Cardinals' games on television. Such is life when a hockey fan lives in the best baseball town in the nation.
Compared to last season, attendance in St. Louis is down around 1,000 fans a game. The home opener against Nashville played to 98.4% capacity (18,851), however arch-rival Chicago only drew 86.5% (16,565) and San Jose only 75.7% (14,503). Apparently people in the Arch City would rather save their money for baseball games (and World Series hats and merchandise) in October rather than attend Blues' games, despite the relatively low cost of a hockey ticket in St. Louis and the incredibly high cost of a baseball ticket for the World Series. Such is life, eh?
Vancouver comes-a-calling tonight, weary at the end of a two week, seven game road trip. The Canucks have already played five more games than the Blues during the first four weeks of the NHL schedule, including a hard-fought contest last night in New Jersey. The Blues had the entire week off, spending most of it on a team-bonding excursion to Charleston, South Carolina, including deep-sea fishing and many rounds of golf, as well as the annual rookie dinner, even though there are no actual rookies on the club. The Note should be well rested and eager for battle, especially prepared by the many teaching practices during the week conducted by a coaching staff unfettered by the rigors of travel or actual games.
Through seven games, the Blues have only two clunkers, a humiliating defeat at home against the Sharks and a sloppy shootout loss in Winnipeg, in which the Blues squandered a two-goal lead in the third period. Otherwise, the Blues have performed admirably, defeating the Blackhawks in St. Louis and in Chicago. The offense, 3.71 goals per game, ranked second in the entire league, is humming and the power play is effective at 26.9%, fourth in the league. Team defense is not quite where the coaching staff would like it, though. The Blues are giving up an average of 2.57 goals per game, ranked in the middle of the pack at 18th, and the penalty killing has been woeful at 77.4%, ranked 25th. Assistant coach Brad Shaw has plenty of work ahead as the Blues must improve those numbers in order to establish a defensive foundation to build upon, including limiting shots against. St. Louis has allowed an average of 29 shots against per game, despite an average of 14 blocked shots per game (99 total in seven games). Roman Polak leads the Blues in blocked shots with 20, followed by Alex Pietrangelo with 16 and Barret Jackman with 15 (in six games). Shaw would clearly like to see the shots against down to an average of at least 22 per game.
Another area of concern is the Blues' propensity so far to take too many penalties. St. Louis leads the league with 22.3 penalty minutes per game, well ahead of Philadelphia, second highest with 17.2 minutes per game. The Blues have had 31 opportunities to kill penalties, 4.4 per game, ranking fourth in the league behind Ottawa (5.5), Philadelphia (4.7) and Winnipeg (4.6). Until the Blues can improve the ability to kill penalties, this high number of times being shorthanded will haunt them, as shown by the debacle against the Sharks last week, the only regulation loss so far this season. Some of this is related to the high number of hits the Blues are dishing out to opponents. As a team, the Blues are averaging 20 hits per game (141 total), with David Backes and Ryan Reaves leading the team with 21, followed by Vlad Sobotka with 17 and Chris Stewart with 14.
Vancouver has had a decent enough offense, ranked 12th in the league, but is hampered by a poor power play, 27th in the league, despite the leadership provided by the Sedin twins. Team defense has been mediocre, ranked 22nd with an average of 2.91 goals against per game, aided by an excellent penalty kill, third best in the league. The Canucks have only taken around 10 penalty minutes per game so far; however, a tired, road-weary team is likely to take more, giving the Blues a decided advantage. A solid, hard-fought victory tonight means a happy flight to Nashville tomorrow.