Lighting the Lamp with Rick Ackerman
Christmas is over now and fans of the St. Louis Blues are hoping their team doesn't hand out too many more generous gifts like they just did earlier this week to the Philadelphia Flyers. Of course, the Blues, led by Jake Allen, compensated for that give-away by gifting Blues Nation with an improbable 2-0 road win over Boston the following night, enabling St. Louis to remain ahead of both Chicago and Minnesota in the Central Division. It has certainly been a strange December for the up-and-down roller coaster Blues, who are currently a mediocre 6-5-1 for the month and a pedestrian 4-4-0 at home.
Nevertheless, the Blues are still the third best team in the NHL, albeit well behind league leading Dallas and Washington. Of course, not far behind are the Rangers, Los Angeles, Chicago, Montreal, the Islanders, Boston and Minnesota. Obviously, this back to back, home and home series with Dallas is extremely important. If the Blues win both games, they would only trail the Stars by four points; if Dallas win both, they would have a 12 point lead. St. Louis has been quite average with the second game in back to back matches, showing a 3-3-0 record, scoring 15 goals while allowing 18. After winning the first two in Vancouver and Chicago, the Blues then lost three one-goal games in a row before redeeming themselves last Tuesday in Boston. That statistic does not bode especially well for the Blues in Dallas tomorrow, so it behooves the boys to play well and earn two points tonight.
Since misery loves company, Blues Nation can take solace in the fact that the same fate has befallen the Montreal Canadiens and New York Rangers. After playing very well for two months, all of a sudden the magic is gone (well, in Montreal, Carey Price is gone) and both teams are struggling to keep up. Montreal is only one point ahead of surging Boston and Florida (yes, Florida) and two points up on Detroit, with Ottawa close behind. Washington is now eight points up on the Rangers with the Islanders one point behind. And of course there is plenty of gnashing of teeth in Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh. Both teams are well out of a playoff slot and floundering, suddenly unable to score goals as their best players are not picking up the slack. And let's not even mention the fans in Columbus. Their best player was benched by new coach Adolph, uh, I mean, John Tortorella, who has not yet found a way to escape the Eastern Conference basement.
And if you are dismayed by the Blues' play this month, how would you like to be an avid Anaheim Ducks' fan? Picked by many to lead the Western Conference and challenge for the Cup, Anaheim is not at all mighty, currently residing in last place in the West and fighting with Columbus for the overall number one selection in the 2016 NHL Amateur Draft. The Ducks are three games under .500, and have allowed 23 more goals against than for. They have the worst offense in the league, less than two goals per game.
Fans in Calgary are also shaking their heads as the Flames are out of playoff contention with a so-so team. Picked to challenge for the division lead, Calgary has not improved on last year's miracle run to the playoffs and has actually regressed despite the addition of several excellent young players including defenseman Dougie Hamilton and rookie Sam Bennett. Vancouver and Winnipeg fans don't have much to be jolly about this time of year either.
Anticipation due to high expectations can be a cruel mistress, as Blues' fans are fully and painfully aware.
On the bright side, the Blues have shown that when games are especially tight, they usually prevail. So far this season, the Blues have been involved in a whopping 17 one-goal games, almost half of the previous 36 matches played. St. Louis has won 11 of those contests and has only lost two in regulation, four in bonus-time. That translates to 26 of a possible 34 points. Wow! Attribute that to very good team defense (the Blues are currently ranked sixth in the NHL), outstanding goaltending and superior penalty killing, ranked second. Of course, that also means the offense has struggled and hence the Blues are an average 20th in the league, despite the presence of Russian sniper Vladi Tarasenko (tied for most goals in the NHL with Dallas' Jamie Benn with 22) and a much-improved power play, now ranked sixth in the NHL.
Also of interest is the rather fascinating statistic which shows that in only two of the Blues 36 games have both teams scored more than seven goals. In early November the Blues won the previously mentioned overtime thriller 6-5 in Chicago and then a week later lost in New York to the Rangers, 6-3. No other game has seen a combined total of more than seven goals, be that due to either a strong defense or weak offense on the part of the Blues.
After tomorrow's tilt in Dallas, there are only two games left this year, both at home against divisional rivals Nashville and Minnesota. The first game of 2016 will be in Toronto and then the Blues return home to play one game against Ottawa before taking off west on a three game road trip. It would be most helpful to break out of the winter doldrums and win four or five of those seven upcoming games.