Lighting the Lamp with Rick Ackerman
Well, the weekend for the St. Louis Blues and Dallas Stars went pretty much as expected as both teams won on home ice. However, the Blues lost ground in their quest to begin catching up with the Stars as they fell one point further behind since the Blues' home ice win was in a shoot out. St. Louis now trails Dallas by nine points.
It was rather disheartening to see the hockey gods reward the Stars' Jamie Benn with his league-leading 23rd goal of the season when he should have been in the penalty box for cross-checking the Blues' Jay Bouwmeester down just seconds before he scored on a rebound. Earlier in the game Benn further distinguished himself by blatantly slashing Vlad Tarasenko on the wrist. Of course, no penalty was called by referee Stevie Wonder. Benn later embarrassed himself and his teammates by doubling over and faking an injury when it was clear he was barely touched by the Blues' Robert Bortuzzo. Yes, naturally referee Wonder, aka Rob Martell, called Bortuzzo for slashing. And when given the chance, Benn refused to fight the Blues' heavyweight champion Ryan Reaves, showing exactly the kind of cowardly puke he really is. Of course, none of the Stars, including the gutless Antoine Roussel, wanted any part of Reaves.
Up and down all month, the Blues are currently up by one game (7-6-1), scoring 30 goals and giving up 32. In comparison, Dallas has been 8-2-3 in December, gaining four points on St. Louis in one less game. So, unless the Blues want to lose more ground, a victory tonight over the visiting Nashville Predators is almost mandatory since Dallas plays the worst team in the NHL tonight in Ohio.
The Predators haven't done all that well in December, either, with a mediocre record of 6-6-1, falling to fifth place in the Central Division, 17 points behind Dallas. However, Nashville has a healthy lead over Colorado for the last wild-card playoff slot as a new year and the half-way point of the season loom on the horizon. And on the bright side for the Blues, since Chicago lost Sunday at home to Carolina, St. Louis maintains a decent lead of four points over Western Conference rivals Chicago and Los Angeles, six over Minnesota and eight ahead of Nashville.
Like the Blues, the Predators do not have an overpowering offense. Ranked 17th in the NHL with 2.56 goals per game, five of Nashville's top 11 scorers are defensemen, led by Roman Josi (9 goals, 26 points), Shea Weber (10 goals, 25 points), Ryan Ellis (3 goals 14 points), Mattias Ekholm (3 goals, 10 points) and Seth Jones (1 goal, 10 points). The leading Predators' goal scorer is winger James Neal with 13. Nor is team defense particularly spectacular for Nashville despite goaltender Pekka Rinne as they are ranked an average 13th in the league allowing 2.51 goals against per game. The Blues are somewhat better, ranked sixth in the NHL, allowing 2.32 goals against per game.
With the exception of Washington and Dallas at the top and Columbus and Anaheim at the bottom, there has been a great of parity and evening up in the NHL standings as the better teams are losing more recently and the lesser teams are winning more lately. Excluding the four top and bottom teams already mentioned, there is only a difference of 15 points between overall third place St. Louis and overall 28th place Edmonton. And 29th place Anaheim is a mere five points from qualifying for the playoffs in the West, while last place Columbus is 13 points from qualifying in the East.
Of course, winning the Presidents' Trophy as the best regular season team in the NHL does not guarantee playoff success. In fact, only seven teams have won both a President's Trophy and Stanley Cup in the same season since 1985 when the Trophy was introduced. Wayne Gretzky's Edmonton Oilers did it the first time in 1987, followed by Lanny McDonald's Calgary Flames two years later. Mark Messier's New York Rangers were next in 1994, followed by Brett Hull's Dallas Stars in 1999. The Colorado Avalanche's Ray Bourque raised his first Cup in 2001 and then Detroit did it twice in 2002 (with Hull earning his second championship ring) and 2008. The Blackhawks were the last club to manage the feat in 2013. So, in 30 years, only 27% of the time did the best regular season team win the Stanley Cup.
That means the Blues have to maintain the pace already established and work to improve offensive consistency by the middle of March, 2016 at the very latest. The eventual additions of Patrik Berglund and Jaden Schwartz from the IR should help, as well as anything the Blues GM Doug Armstrong can leap to and cobble together by the trade deadline (February 29th). Among players not wearing the Note who will be unrestricted free agents at the end of this season and hence possibly tradable are Steven Stamkos, Eric Staal, Anze Kopitar and Dustin Byfuglien. A bottom-dweller such as Columbus might be willing to move recalcitrant center Ryan Johansen or even Brandon Dubinsky, or perhaps winger JamesVan Riemsdyk, center Tyler Bozak and young defenseman Morgan Rielly could be pried out of Toronto for the right price. Past Armstrong trade-deadline deals have not been so great (cough, Ryan Miller, cough, Zbynek Michalek), yet acquiring a Johansen, Dubinsky or Van Riemsdyk could just be the offensive push the Blues need.
In Doug we (still) trust!