Lighting the Lamp with Rick Ackerman
When Alexander Steen scored the winning goal in overtime against Nashville two nights ago, the capacity crowd of 19, 319 went into a frenzy. However as they celebrated the Blues 23rd victory of the season and 50th point, some fans could only sit in stunned
silence, still fretting about how the game got to overtime in the first place. Yes, a win is a win, and coupled with the Dallas Stars' 6-3 loss to the worst team in the NHL in Columbus, the Stars' lead over the Blues has now been cut to seven points. Nevertheless, it was a disturbing performance by the home team as they coughed up a 3-1 lead with around four minutes remaining in the third period and let the Preds take them to overtime.
Simply put, if the Blues are truly a solid Stanley Cup contender this season, they have to start showing it. What they showed against the Predators Tuesday was a team in a state of disarray too many times, all too often lacking control and unable to maintain consistency, unable to play a full 60-minute game. And unfortunately the Blues have shown this inconsistency all month long.
St. Louis came out of the gate in October with a rush, winning eight of 11 games and earning 17 out of a possible 22 points. There was a slight drop-off in November, yet the Blues still managed to garner 16 of a possible 26 points. They lost the first three games in December, looking truly listless and pathetic in a home loss to the lowly Maple Leafs, yet rebounded with strong performances against Arizona, Dallas (twice), Winnipeg and Boston. Unfortunately, though, those victories were interlaced with poor, indifferent play and losses to Philadelphia (twice), Colorado and Dallas.
Of course, the boys can redeem themselves with a win tonight against the rough, tough Minnesota Wild and finish the month earning a respectable 19 of a possible 32 points. A Blues' win coupled with a Predators' victory tonight in Texas would further cut the Stars' lead to five points as 2015 comes to an end. It would also mean St. Louis starts 2016 with the third best record in the NHL only trailing Washington and Dallas.
The Blues cannot take Minnesota lightly or think of the Wild as a weaker team even though the Blues have six more points than the Wild. Minnesota has played four fewer games than St. Louis and has a better offense, ranked tenth in the league, scoring 2.7 goals per game. The Wild also has a decent defense, ranked ninth, allowing 2.4 goals against per game, slightly behind the Blues, ranked sixth allowing 2.36 goals against
per game. The two teams' power play statistics are almost identical (the Blues are slightly better, 20.4% to 20.2%), while the Blues penalty killing, ranked third in the league, is vastly superior to Minnesota's penalty killers, ranked 27th in the NHL.
So, what's the problem with the third best team in the entire league?
It is basically a mental problem, one which affects all good teams as the long, tedious NHL season grinds on, along with seemingly unending travel, including long waits in airports and different hotels. It becomes increasingly difficult to maintain consistency and play that 60-minute game, especially when a compact schedule calls for back-to-back games or three games in five days, some which require flying coast to coast.
It becomes increasingly easier to become comfortable, especially when a hot start to a game produces a big lead, exactly what happened to the Blues in Philadelphia just last week. The Blues stormed out in the first period, totally in control, out shooting the Flyers 15-8 and taking a 2-0 lead on goals by Rob Fabbri and Kevin Shattenkirk. Magnus Paajarvi scored on a breakaway almost halfway through the second period, and five seconds later, Philadelphia's Claude Giroux was called for hooking Paajarvi down. The Blues became over-confident and comfortable and started to get fancy, passing the puck around too much, leading to a broken play as defenseman Pierre-Edouard Bellemare intercepted a sloppy pass and rushed down the ice on a breakaway. Jake Allen made a sensational toe-save on his shot, yet Chris VandeVelde out-muscled Alexander Steen and tucked the puck into the net past a sprawling Allen. Two minutes later, Wayne Simmonds scored on another breakaway. Simmonds tallied again on the power play in the third period to tie the game and Evgeny Medvedev got the game-winner with around three minutes left in the contest. St. Louis was out shot 23 to 14 in the second and third periods.
The Blues lose control of games when they get too comfortable and stop checking. They become defensively vulnerable as they fail to fully engage their opponents, missing assignments, failing to clear the defensive zone and forgetting how to play the body instead of the puck. The solution, of course, is the time-honored bromide that all NHL coaches eventually bring out, the canon known as back-to-basics. This means simplicity and adherence to hockey's fundamental principles. If players are to execute coaches' systems and strategies, they must be prepared to fore check and back check with superior skating skills. That means using triangulation of players for puck support, transitioning quickly up ice with speed and control, using the body to recover the puck, especially in the corners and behind the net.
Above all, it means consistency, something the Blues desperately need to find if they are to seriously challenge for Lord Stanley's Cup this spring.