Lighting the Lamp, with Rick Ackerman
As little as two seasons ago, goaltender Pekka Rinne and the Nashville Predators appeared to own the St. Louis Blues. During the 2011-12 season, the Blues only won two of six contests against the Predators, outscored 13 to 11, with Rinne stealing games from the Blues with apparent ease. Last year's lockout-shortened season resulted in St. Louis righting the ship by winning three of four matches, the only loss a sloppy, embarrassing 6-1 debacle on home ice. Nevertheless, the Blues could only score nine goals in those four games, again stymied by Rinne, who made a combined total of 112 saves, a save percentage of .926. In comparison, Blues goaltenders Jaro Halak, Brian Elliott and Jake Allen had a combined total of 62 saves, a save percentage of .873. So, it is unfortunate, yet welcome news for Blues Nation that Rinne will not be playing tonight due to a long-term bacterial hip infection that has kept him out of play since last October 24.
Of course, it could easily be argued that Rinne's presence tonight would not make much difference in the outcome of the game since the Blues are clearly a much better hockey team than the Predators, proving it in two previous meetings between the two Central Division rivals this season. The Blues easily won both contests. Rinne was chased from the net after less than ten minutes in the first period of the home-opener, giving up a power play goal to David Backes a little more than two minutes into the game, followed by first period tallies from Vlad Sobotka and T.J. Oshie. Rinne only made three saves. Later that October in Nashville, St. Louis took a 3-0 lead into the third period and easily outlasted Preds' starter Carter Hutton, culminating in a 6-1 victory. Alexander Steen scored two goals, his third against Nashville, with Oshie scoring his second goal and Alex Pietrangelo on the power play with his first. Special teams helped the Blues considerably as the power play units went a combined four for nine, while the penalty killers were a perfect seven for seven. Nashville's Nick Spaling did tally a short-handed goal, though, the only blemish in a strong game for Jaro Halak, who also won the home opener with 28 saves, a total of 50 for the two games. For the math-impaired, that's a goals against average of 1.50 and a save percentage of .943 in the two games against the Predators. Naturally, Brian Elliott is the scheduled starter for tonight's match.
Yes, the Blues are really good this season, one of the best three teams in the league. They are ranked third with 36 wins (not counting last night's game in Carolina) to Anaheim (40) and Pittsburgh (38), with two games in hand on the Penguins and four on the Ducks. The Blues rank second (to Chicago) in goals for per game, and third in goals against per game. The power play is second in the league; the penalty killing fifth. The Blues are also ranked second in shots against per game (26.1). And the team has the best goals differential in the league with a plus-61, nine ahead of second place Anaheim.
All of which begs the question as to why Blues Nation has been so concerned with GM Doug Armstrong possibly "improving" the club via trade this past week. The hockey blogs, talk shows and message boards have been buzzing with the possibility that Sabres' goaltender Ryan Miller is the target of Blues' management as an upgrade in net. The consensus trade is that the Blues would get Miller, a free agent at season's end, and his rather large salary of $6.3M for Halak ($3.8M), a first round amateur draft choice this year and high-scoring rookie winger Ty Rattie, currently with the Chicago Wolves of the AHL. However, this deal would add $1.7M to the Blues salary cap, putting them well over the limit. So, some would have Armstrong deal veteran Derek Roy ($4M) and/or streaky Chris Stewart ($4.2M) to the Sabres for either rookie center Mikhail Grigorenko ($900k) and/or winger Matt Moulson ($3.1M) in order to balance out the difference concerning the salary cap. Another problem with this potential trade is that the Blues are said to be decidedly against letting Rattie go, believing that is a deal-breaker for an expensive goaltender due to be a free agent at season's end.
Nor does it make much sense to disrupt team chemistry or fundamentally change what has been an extremely successful hockey club this season. Remember what impact the Garth Butcher trade with Vancouver had upon an extremely successful Blues team in 1991? St. Louis (105 points in the regular season) lost to Minnesota in six games (68 points) in the Norris Division finals, outscored 17-22. Apparently Butcher left his best defense behind in Vancouver, and Curtis Joseph (injured) wasn't around to help Vincent Riendeau and Pat Jablonski figure it out.
Statistically, both Halak and Elliott have out-performed Miller (except for save percentage) and it is clear Blues' management has confidence in the Blues' current goaltenders, including Jake Allen. Ironically, like Miller, both Halak and Elliott are scheduled free agents at season's end. So, in this case, all that smoke does not mean there is a fire to put out at all and it is unlikely the Blues will make any major changes any time soon, especially in goal. Halak has played extremely well amidst the rumors and Elliott should continue that trend tonight against Nashville.