Christmas is past and the short holiday break is over as the division-leading Chicago Blackhawks invade the TradeStocks Center tonight to once again attempt to keep the St. Louis Blues in their place, which is second place in the Central Division. The Blues currently trail the Hawks in the standings, however they have played four less games than Chicago and a regulation victory would narrow the gap considerably. The Blackhawks played at home against Colorado last night, normally a huge disadvantage. Yet, that should turn out to be a big advantage in this case since they will have already found their legs in last night's game, something it might take the Blues at least the first period to accomplish, especially after the Christmas break.
To be sure, Blues Nation faces this game with a certain amount of trepidation. A major concern is the current crop of injuries that have suddenly popped up, including the loss of leading scorer Alexander Steen, feisty Vlad Sobotka, ankle-impaired Roman Polak and ongoing injuries to rough, tough Ryan Reaves and steady defenseman Jordan Leopold. And it's fair to say that several others beaten up lately needed the holiday break, including David Backes, Jaden Schwartz, Brendan Morrow and Barret Jackman. Yes, every team has to deal with injuries, yet losing Steen and Sobotka at the same time is particularly troublesome and disruptive.
Another cause for worry is the Blues' propensity lately for poor first period play. In the 11 games played so far in December, the Blues were outscored 10-11 and out shot 89-106 in combined first periods. In 25 previous games, the Blues outscored opponents 28-24 and out shot them 249-214 in the first period. The second period is the Blues' best, as they have outscored opponents 43-22 (+21) and out shot them 366-290 (+76). And that continues into combined third periods, outscoring opponents 43-23 and out shooting them 356-298. For whatever reason, the Blues are having problems starting games and that is likely to continue to happen tonight, especially after five days without a game.
Of course, many will lament the Blues' third period collapse last Monday in Calgary in which the Flames scored twice to tie the game with 12 shots on a beleaguered Jaro Halak. Patrik Berglund was assessed a rather weak roughing penalty (for tugging on Jiri Hudler's shoulder, resulting in a spectacular dive by Hudler that both referees Brad Meier and Trevor Hanson bought) and the Flames' Mark Giordano rocketed a shot past Halak on the power play. It didn't help that David Backes took a rather flagrantly stupid penalty in overtime, yet the Blues strong penalty kill (ranked ninth in the league) took care of that four-on-three disadvantage only to lose the shootout. And don't forget that overall the Blues record is an outstanding 16-0-3 in games in which they are leading after two periods. Yes, St. Louis has not yet lost a game in regulation when leading after two periods.
Especially at this time of year, it is far better to give thanks and be joyful for what we do have, and that certainly is a valid consideration as it concerns the Blues' play. St. Louis is arguably one of the three best teams in the entire league as we approach a Happy New Year! Only Anaheim, Chicago, Pittsburgh and Los Angeles have more points, and the Blues have games in hand on all of them. Only Anaheim (+20) and Chicago (+19) have a higher games-won/lost ratio than St. Louis (+17), not including last night's games. The Blues are number one in goals-for/against differential (+43), well ahead of number two Chicago (+38) and number three Pittsburgh (+33). The Blues are ranked second in goals scored (to Chicago) and sixth in goals against. Although it has slipped somewhat lately, the power play is nevertheless ranked sixth in the league at 22.0% and the penalty killing is currently ranked ninth at 84.5%. Not too many other teams can claim to be in the top ten in the league in all those categories. Chicago, for example, may have a potent number one offense, yet the Hawks' goals against average is ranked 14th and the Chicago penalty kill is an awful 28th. The same holds true for Anaheim's defense, ranked 11th, and penalty kill, ranked 21st. Los Angeles has a strong, league-best defense and good penalty kill, ranked seventh, yet falter on overall offense, ranked an average 15th, and power play, ranked 22nd. San Jose fares well statistically, ranking fourth in offense and tenth in defense, yet the Sharks' special teams are not all that special, the power play ranking 14th and penalty kill 11th. Only Boston and Pittsburgh can claim to be in the top ten in those categories, and both play a lot more games against overall weaker Eastern Division opponents.
Yes, Blues' fans have quite a lot to be thankful for. Nine players have at least 20 points and five players have scored at least 10 goals. Nine players have a plus/minus rating of at least plus-10, and there is only one player on the entire team with a minus rating, and Magnus Paajarvi isn't even a regular starter. A healthy and hard-working Halak has 17 wins and two shutouts in 26 starts, while a capable and confident Brian Elliott has only one loss and two shutouts in ten starts and a 2.01 goals against average.
And remember, "Be thankful for what you have; you'll end up having more. If you concentrate on what you don't have, you will never, ever have enough."
[ed. note: hopefully the Blues will find lots of goals under their seats and in the Blackhawks' net tonight. "And you get a goal! And you get a goal! AND YOU GET A GOAL."]