Lighting the Lamp with Rick Ackerman
After two months of the current season, the St. Louis Blues were sitting pretty with a 15-6-3 record and 33 points. With 11 home games, nine against teams with fewer points, it looked good for the Note to ratchet it up and begin to catch up with Dallas in the Central Division. Inexplicably, the Blues wet the bed against Florida, crapped the bed with an embarrassing loss to Toronto, vomited in the bed by losing to Philadelphia and then slept fairly well in bed, yet somehow lost to Colorado, then in last place, even though they out shot the Avs 43-18. That makes eight points squandered, making it difficult to stay even, much less catch up, with the bang-bang Dallas Stars. The boys are 2-4-0 at home in December, outscored 15 to 12 in six games. Ouch!
So, explain how and why the Blues looked like a strong Stanley Cup contender with a brilliant (well, two periods, anyway) performance against the Stars, the best team in the league. And then St. Louis skated into Winnipeg and stole a game, coming from behind to edge the Jets with two third period goals by Vladi Tarasenko (his 19th) and Paul Stastny. Only Dallas' Jamie Benn has scored more goals (20) than the Blues' Russian ace. Actually, Jake Allen was most responsible for the gritty victory, making 34 saves in the game, many of them brilliant. Although a respectable overall 9-6-2 at home, the Blues are now an excellent 9-4-2 total on the road, proving that they are playing better on the road away from the many pressures at home.
Actually, it's a mental problem. For reasons coaches and hockey analysts have been trying to figure out for over a hundred years now, many hockey teams such as the Blues play down to inferior teams and play up to superior teams. So, Coach Hitchcock should emphasize to the players that the visiting Nashville Predators are really a superior hockey team, even though they trail the Blues by four points. Statistically, these divisional rivals are pretty much even. At this point in the season, the Blues have barely outscored the Preds 82 to 81 and allowed fewer goals against, 78 to 81, with Nashville playing one game less then St. Louis. The Predators' power play is identical to the Blues (both at 20.2%), while the Blues' penalty killing is vastly superior, 88.0% (first in the NHL) to 76.5% (third worst in the league). Nashville gets slightly more shots per game, 31.4 to 30.4. Both teams allow few shots against, the Preds at 26.5 (second in the league) and the Blues 28.0 (sixth in the NHL).
It is exhilarating to see Nashville have success both on and off the ice. Many players will tell you it is their favorite NHL city to visit, mostly due to the music and night life readily available close to Bridgestone Arena. Last season was a turning point for the yellow-clad Predators as the team qualified for the playoffs for the first time in three years. Even though they were bounced by the Blackhawks in the first round, Nashville sold out a club record 30 games and Bridgestone was voted America's "Venue of the Year" by Pollstar. The Arena underwent many renovations in 2014, including a new entrance at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Demonbreun, uniting the rink with the Music City Center and new businesses in Nashville's booming SoBro (south of Broadway) district. Management also installed new exterior LED boards, free Wi-Fi arena-wide and opening Tavern '96, the building's first full-time restaurant.
Attendance at Bridgestone jumped 1.5% in 2014-15 to an average of 16, 854, 98.5% of capacity and has pretty much stayed the same this season at an average of 16, 789, only 65 fewer per game. Not shabby at all for a southern city with no previous major league hockey and a metropolitan area population of only $1.8 million. More importantly, however, the team's value according to Forbes is currently $255 million (ranked 26th in the NHL; the Blues are 24th at a value of $270 million), an increase of $81 million since the team was bought by the current owners in 2007. With a manageable debt to value ratio of 33%, the team is in good shape financially, especially since they are not spending to the top of the salary cap. At $61.25 million, the Predators have around $10.15 million left in cap space.
Believe it or not, Nashville's leading point producer is defenseman Roman Josi with seven goals and 22 points and a minus two in plus/minus. The leading goal scorer is ex-Penguin right winger James Neal with 12 goals and 20 points. Franchise defenseman Shea Weber is right behind them with nine goals and 19 points and a surprising minus five. Veteran center Mike Ribeiro and young winger Filip Forsberg have the most assists with 13. The usual backbone of the team is goaltender Pekka Rinne, yet his stats are nothing to crow about. He has allowed a decent 2.41 goals against per game with a save percentage of .907 in 26 games, with a pretty good record of 12-8-6. Rinne made 19 saves in Tuesday's home loss to Calgary, only allowing two goals against. Ex-Blue Kris Russell notched the game winner in overtime.
With Minnesota and Chicago only two points and Nashville only four points behind St. Louis, it behooves the Blues to pretend this is a road game tonight against a stronger team and put two more points in the Central Division bank.