Lighting the Lamp with Rick Ackerman
Wow! How quickly things change in the NHL. On October 19, St. Louis was in the penthouse atop the Central Division with a 5-1 record, everything going fairly well except for the dented noggin of rookie forward Robby Fabbri on opening night.
Joining Fabbri on the IR was all-star defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, injured on October 13 at Calgary. Then it was announced center Paul Stastny broke his foot on October 16 in Vancouver and would be out until at least mid-December. And finally, winger Jaden Schwartz fractured an ankle in practice on October 23 and will be doing well to be back by the trade deadline on January 29, 2016 when he can leap back into action.
In the meantime, the Blues were Priced out of the game in Montreal and lost a heart-breaker in overtime back on home ice to the Islanders. The boys are not quite in the outhouse, yet the good start has been somewhat neutralized and the club is scrambling to live up to lofty expectations. So, one week later, the Blues find themselves in the middle of a very competitive divisional pack. Even with eleven points after eight games, the Blues are ranked fourth in the division, tied with Winnipeg and Minnesota. Only Colorado has fewer points (five).
The roller coaster should be heading back uphill tonight as the Blues host the 2015 Stanley Cup finalist Tampa Bay Lightning and homeboy Ben Bishop. Both Fabbri and Shattenkirk are expected to be in the lineup, which will relieve some of the pressure on a battered and beleaguered squad. The Bolt comes visiting with a nearly identical record as the Blues, the last game a 1-0 overtime road loss to the Blackhawks on Saturday. With a game in hand, Tampa has four more goals than the Blues, yet has allowed four more goals against. One could not ask for a more even match-up tonight.
As in life, adversity in hockey is not a bad thing. Injuries to key players at the beginning of the season are actually a blessing in disguise, especially for Blues Nation. Those lofty expectations we all (including management and the players) have are actually reserved for next April and it is to be hoped May and June. The focus now has to be on how to turn adversity into a positive, and that is on the players who step up and do the job that was expected of Jaden Schwartz and Paul Stastny. So, it will be up to veteran Scott Gomez and rookies Robby Fabbri and Ty Rattie to turn misfortune into an advantage by picking up the slack and putting some points on the board. Along with the return of Patrik Berglund sometime in December or January, we will know by the trading deadline if the offense (and a currently woeful power play) is up to playoff-run demands.
And that has been the Blues real Achilles' heel over the last couple of seasons, a lackluster, impotent offense and power play that has not made up for the occasional defensive lapses. It was made very clear that the Blues' biggest problem is an inability to score key goals at key times, especially as shown by playoff history dating back to 2012. Winning the first series against the Sharks with 14 tallies in five games, the Blues lost the conference semi-final to the Kings in four straight games, only managing to net six themselves, an average of 2.2 goals per game. In 2013, 2014 and 2015 the Blues lost in the first round and could only score 10 against the Kings (1.7 goals per game) and 14 goals (2.3) in six games against both the Blackhawks and Wild. You can blame shoddy or inconsistent goaltending all you want, yet it is going to take more than 2.3 goals a game to routinely win in the regular season or playoffs.
So, it behooves the coaching staff to put together three effective lines that can boost the offense while not forgetting defensive responsibilities. If they want to keep Steen, Lehtera and Tarasenko together, then the big question for the second line is whether to play Fabbri at left wing with Backes and Brouwer or make him the center for that line with Backes shifting to the wing. That leaves three of the four of Jaskin, Gomez, Upshall and Rattie to battle it for third line status, not including, of course, the checking line of Ott, Brodziak and Reaves.
And there is always the possibility of GM Doug Armstrong trading for a forward (the rumor du jour is Toronto center Tyler Bozak) from the Blues' defensive depth. And does anyone want to include reversing the Roman Polak-Carl Gunnarsson trade as part of a deal with the Maple Leafs' Lou Lamoriello? With Barret Jackman gone, it appears from radio talk shows and online hockey forums that Gunnarsson is the new favorite whipping-boy on defense now.
It would certainly help if the Blues could have a really good first period tonight. So far, it is their worst period, outscored three to seven, even though they have had eight more shots than their combined opponents (84-76). And the power play (a dismal 4 for 28 with one shorty against) has to improve if the Blues expect to defeat a good Lightning team. Now is a good time to git 'er done!