Lighting the Lamp With Rick Ackerman
Here we are at approximately the quarter mark of the NHL season, and there have already been some surprises. However, it’s been no real surprise in the Metropolitan Division as the Rangers, Penguins and Capitals continue to dominate. Nor has the Atlantic Division been much different as the Canadiens and Lightning are off to expected good starts. The surprises in the Eastern Conference are the much-improved Blue Jackets, Devils, and Senators; as well as the deteriorating Red Wings and Islanders, who have both crashed down near or into last place in their respective divisions.
Out in the Western Conference, the Blackhawks are off to the best start, followed by the Blues and Oilers. With the exception of the pitiful Coyotes, woeful Canucks and lethargic Flames, all eight of the other teams in the conference are within four points of each other. The biggest surprise is the high-scoring Edmonton club, while the biggest disappointment has to be the Brian Elliott-led Calgary team.
Apparently the decision to make Jake Allen (16 games, 2.33 goals against average, .914 save percentage) the Blues’ number-one goaltender and letting Elliott (12, 3.42, .882) go to the Flames was the right move by Blues GM Doug Armstrong. Currently, Chad Johnson (10, 2.08, .922) has taken over as the number-one net minder in Calgary. Yes, there is still a long way to go, and it can only be hoped that Elliott finds his game and gets the Flames into the playoffs at the end of the regular season. Blues Nation still has a whole lotta love for the Moose, unless, of course, it is a regular season game against the Blues or there is a St. Louis-Calgary meeting in the postseason.
It’s been a weird November for the Blues, a real roller-coaster ride. The Note was blown out in two road games in New York and Dallas, scoring only two goals and allowing 11 against, and then returned home for two victories over Columbus and Colorado. St. Louis then proceeded to lose three in a row, including a tough overtime loss at home to Chicago and another blowout loss in Columbus, allowing eight goals against despite scoring four power play goals on five attempts. And then the Blues won four in a row over Buffalo, San Jose and Nashville at home and Boston on the road before falling in Washington by a 4-3 loss. Alex Ovechkin scored another hat trick against the Blues, the 16th of his 12-year NHL career.
And now the boys face the visiting Minnesota Wild tonight in another epic Central Division rivalry. It is a real oddity that the Blues and Wild have never completed a trade since Minnesota was granted a franchise in 1997. The two rivals have met once in the playoffs. We will not discuss that opening-round series in 2015.
Although the Blues are comfortably in second place in the division, three points behind Chicago and three points ahead of Minnesota (as well as second in the Western Conference, two points ahead of Pacific Division leader Edmonton), it is patently clear the Note has a lot of work to do to. Only eight of 22 players on the roster are plus-players. Defenseman Robert Bortuzzo is the team leader with a plus-six despite only playing seven games. Tied for second are Dmitrij Jaskin and Jaden Schwartz with a plus-four. At the other end, captain Alex Pietrangelo is a minus-ten, followed by the disabled Alexander Steen, minus-eight, and David Perron, minus-seven. Overall the team has scored three less goals than it has allowed, averaging 2.6 goals for and 2.7 goals against. Obviously, the team needs to score more goals and tighten up the defense.
Special teams have been very good. The power play is ranked 12th in the NHL at 20.5%, while the penalty kill is second best in the league at 88.1%. It does not help at all that the Blues have had the most penalty kills in the entire league this season, 84 times shorthanded. Calgary is second with 81 times shorthanded, followed by Winnipeg with 78 and Montreal with 77. On the other hand, Dallas and Tampa Bay have had the most power plays with 82. The Blues are sixth with 73. The team with the fewest power play opportunities is Columbus with 49, followed by Arizona with 51. Overall, the Blues have been shorthanded 11 more times than with the man advantage.
Minnesota has been shorthanded 56 times and has had the man advantage 57 times. The Wild’s power play is ranked 19th in the NHL at 15.8%; the penalty killing is 8th league-wide at 85.7%. The Wild offense is ranked 16th at 2.58; the defense is 1.89, best in the NHL, thanks to Devan Dubnyk, second in the league with a 1.55 goals against average and third best in the NHL with a .948 save percentage. Dubynk also leads the league with four shutouts.
Three games over .500, the Wild are currently slotted third in the Central Division with 22 points, one point ahead of Nashville and Dallas, two points ahead of Winnipeg and only four points ahead of last place Colorado. It is so tight that Colorado only trails division leader Chicago by ten points with two games in hand.
In the previous meeting, the Blues edged the Wild 3-2 in the home opener in St. Louis. Bonus points to those who remember who scored the winning goal for the Note. He is currently playing for the AHL Chicago Wolves, with four goals and eight points in 12 games. Nail Yakupov and Patrik Berglund set up Magnus Paajarvi for that game-winning goal against Minnesota on October 13.