For the St. Louis Blues, the road to the Winter Classic has begun to feel a bit more like the Bataan Death March to the Winter Classic. As the team struggles to score goals, prevent goals, and generally remain interesting, the team is likely relying on hopes that the rivalry with the Chicago Blackhawks will keep enthusiasm high for the big game.
In full disclosure, however, I never harbored the animus toward the Blackhawks that so many did. I came of hockey awareness in the late 90s, and the Blackhawks took an extreme back seat to the pain and suffering inflicted by the Detroit Red Wings. With the Buffalo Sabres in St. Louis this evening, tonight’s Life on the Road profile will cover the once (Blues) and current (Sabres) division rival from Motown, home of the only NHL arena I’ve been to that’s actually worse than the TBD Center. Until next year. When they open a better one.
I watched the Red Wings play on a Wednesday night in Philadelphia. That night will go down in the annals of history for Cubs fans, but I did my best to pretend it didn’t exist by catching some thrilling Eastern Conference hockey. It was an NBCSN game, which meant that it started an hour later than is typical (thus delaying my already-not-that-short drive back to DC) and featured some real luminaries banging around the press box. While I didn’t spot Pierre, I did have the wonderful experience of peeing next to Mike Emrick. I’m sure he’s a wonderful man. There was absolutely no talking.
Also of note was the presence of heavy hitting St. Louis Blues front office personnel. The Blues had played the previous night in New York and flew on to Dallas that night, but both GM Doug Armstrong and Director of Pro Scouting Kevin McDonald were on hand to watch the Flyers and Red Wings. Both teams feature some forward talent that would be intriguing as a return for the Blues’ most obvious trade chip, so watch this space and feel free to lavish me with praise if something ends up happening.
The Red Wings are the new team of former Sabres captain and St. Louis stalwart Steve Ott. He has one goal in his first 13 games with Detroit, good for .077 goals per game. This represents a massive acceleration of his scoring pace with the Blues, which was a blistering .021 GPG. He scores more than three times as often for Detroit! To hell with your small sample size.
For comparison’s sake, the following players scored more goals for the Blues than Steve Ott: Vladimir Orszagh, Rob Pearson, and Chris McAlpine. He scored exactly as many as Eric Weinrich and Timofei Shishkanov.
As his proponents will tell you, however, Steve Ott’s job is not to score goals. One would think that a player who took his team’s longest average shift in this particular game would have a positive offense effect, but that’s plain naivety. His job is to get under the skin of opponents, and boy oh boy, he sure does that effectively. In warmups, he could be seen yapping at Roman Lyubimov, a Russian rookie who has never taken a penalty in the NHL, has never played in North America before this season, and is fairly unlikely to speak particularly fluent English. In the second period, he managed to goad Flyers defenseman Brandon Manning into a fight, thus achieving the important goal of getting a depth player off the ice. Imagine the Blues losing Joel Edmundson for five whole minutes of a game. It’s almost too terrible to contemplate.
Some Red Wings, however, did express interest in such trivial hockey matters as shooting the puck and skating around the ice. Dylan Larkin remains a dangerous offensive force, even if his numbers have dropped off some since last year’s scorching start to his rookie season. In this game, Detroit often started in a cycle in the offensive zone only to have Larkin be the player to break out and drive hard toward the net.
Vladimir Tarasenko, when he’s playing poorly, has some noticeable bad habits. He often hangs out around the top of the circles. He passes up shots in favor of setting up teammates. He hesitates. Dylan Larkin may display some of those characteristics when playing poorly, but he did not play poorly on this night, and the contrast was particularly striking.
Lineup construction seemed to also create some issues for the Red Wings. The line of Tomas Tatar, Justin Abdelkader, and Henrik Zetterberg is a solid concentration of offensive talent, but it lacks a true sniper. Zetterberg’s best skills remain centered around his vision on the ice and his ability to setup his line mates, but Abdelkader is best used as a crasher and Tatar has never been much more than a complimentary perimeter piece.
Similarly, they may be too focused on offense from the back end. The pairing of Danny DeKeyser and Mike Green is dangerous from a breakout and transition perspective, but the heavier Philadelphia forwards had a great deal of success at pinning them in deep and creating quality scoring chances throughout the game. If that pairing is held in their own end, their effectiveness will quickly dissipate.
Today’s Red Wings are not the Red Wings of the 90s, but today’s Blues may not be the Blues of even this past April. The Blues need to return to their roots and grind out physical victories against the smaller and faster teams of the Eastern Conference, and tonight’s game against Buffalo will be no exception to that rule.