Lighting the Lamp with Rick Ackerman
Yes, the Blues ended December the same way they started it, with a rather dreary, lackluster 3-1 home loss to a team below them in the NHL standings. And, yes, they started the new year with another disappointing loss in Toronto to another team lower in the standings, only managing to score one goal (on the power play yet) against a Maple Leafs' goalie with a 3.22 goals against average and a .889 save percentage. Jonathan Bernier, who was sent down to the AHL just a month ago on December 2, made 39 saves. For the second time in less than a month the Blues lost to the team in seventh place in the Atlantic Division and out of a playoff slot.
The Blues have only scored seven goals in regulation time in the last five games and have now been outscored 9-2 in the third periods of those last five games. In the first 36 games of this season, the Blues were first in the NHL with a +16 in the combined third periods.
At the half-way point of the season, make no mistake about it, the St. Louis Blues are a good hockey team. They are still the fifth best overall club in the NHL, third in the tough Central Division, nine games over .500 and occupying a playoff slot. They have arguably the best goaltending tandem in the league and excel at killing penalties (third best in the NHL), as well as having one of the most exciting, top goal-scoring stars in the league. And the Blues are very, very good in close, tight (playoff-like) contests with a record of 13-2-4 in one-goal games. Interestingly enough, almost half of the Blues' 41 games have now been decided by one goal.
St. Louis plays in the best division in the NHL and has done quite well against the other six divisional rivals, winning ten of 15 games. The Blues have defeated Winnipeg and Nashville three times each (outscoring them 21 to 11), taken two of three from Dallas and split two games with Chicago. The blemishes are the loss of two of three to Minnesota, as well as losing the only game so far with Colorado. And St. Louis has a record of 7-1-0 against the Pacific Division teams, only suffering a loss to Los Angeles. The Blues have won games against Edmonton and Calgary (twice each), Vancouver, Anaheim and Arizona. The Blues currently have a 17-6-0 record against the Western Conference teams, outscoring them 66 to 52.
On the other glove, the offense continues to falter and has now dropped to 23rd in the league. Some of the best Blues' players have minus ratings, led by defensemen Kevin Shattenkirk, Alex Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester. Forwards Kyle Brodziak, Ryan Reaves, Magnus Paajarvi, Paul Stastny, Troy Brouwer, Alexander Steen and even Patrik Berglund have also been on the ice for more goals against than for. In 41 games now, the Blues have not scored more than four goals in a game with the exception of that thrilling come-from-behind 6-5 overtime victory in Chicago. In 20 of 41 games (almost half), St. Louis has been unable to score more than two goals, and the Blues have been shut out three times, once each in Montreal by Carey Price, in Los Angeles by Jonas Enroth and in Dallas by Kari Lehtonen.
With the exceptions of goaltenders Jake Allen and Brian Elliott, rookie defenseman Colton Parayko (six goals, 16 points and a team-leading plus-10) and forwards Vlad Tarasenko and Alexander Steen, no one has really distinguished himself with consistent, superior play. Shattenkirk and David Backes would have made the A-list, yet Shattenkirk, despite seven goals and 24 points in 31 games, leads the team with a minus-nine and Backes has a 0 rating for plus/minus and has been in a fog in far too many games this season. Stastny is under-performing with only three goals in 24 games and is a minus-five. He has yet to really find his game and establish himself after an injury earlier this season.
With the loss in Toronto Saturday, the Blues' road record has dropped to 10-7-2, not quite as good as their record at home, 13-7-2. Of course, indifferent and lackadaisical performances recently can not only be attributed to the huge number of matches (20) in the last six weeks, including four back-to-back games, but also to the elephant in the room: the (rather mistaken) belief that nothing really matters until the playoffs start, assuming, of course, that the Blues qualify. Failure to make the playoffs or a first (or second) round loss would most likely mean a new head coach (and most likely an entirely new coaching staff), as well as a brand-new captain for the 2016-17 St. Louis Blues, things that would make a lot of currently disgruntled fans quite happy.
With a victory over Ottawa, the Blues can improve their 6-8-4 record against Eastern Conference teams. St. Louis has been outscored 48 to 35, quite the opposite of last season when the Blues dominated the East, 21-8-3. The Senators are fighting for a playoff slot, just behind Bruins and Red Wings, so it should be quite a good battle tonight as both teams are desperate for points. The Blues trail the Stars by a wide margin, are tied with the Blackhawks (Chicago has a game in hand) and are barely ahead of the Wild (and Minnesota has four games in hand).
It's really about time that the Blues score some goals and rack up some points.