Lighting the Lamp With Rick Ackerman
The famous American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow penned:
“There was a little girl,
And she had a little curl
Right in the middle of her forehead.
When she was good
She was very, very good,
And when she was bad she was horrid.”
Yes, when the St. Louis Blues are good, they are very, very good; and when they are bad, they are simply horrid, even if some of the boys do not have little curls. Just past the one-third mark of the NHL schedule, the Blues have shown they are a pretty good hockey team, seven games over .500 with 38 points, tied with Minnesota for second best in the Central Division (and second best in the Western Conference), trailing only tonight’s visiting Chicago Blackhawks. If it is possible to have a must-win game in December, tonight’s contest might be it.
St. Louis is very, very good on home ice, sporting a 13-1-3 record for 29 points, outscoring opponents 50 to 35. Only the Montreal Canadiens have a better record at home, sporting a 14-1-2 record and 30 points. However, after losing three of four games on their most recent road trip, the Blues are a paltry 4-9-1 away from home, outscored 52 to 37.
The trend this 50th season appears to be a roller coaster ride for the St. Louis squad, which has had many highs and lows to make the ride more exciting. The Note began this season with a bang, thumping the Blackhawks in Chicago and then slipping by the Wild and the Rangers on home ice, off to a 3-0-0 start. Then a three game road trip to western Canada brought the club down to reality as they lost two games, albeit one in overtime in Vancouver, and concluded with a sloppy 6-4 victory over Calgary. During the last week of October, all of a sudden the boys could not score, and they lost home games to Calgary and Detroit (in a shootout) before slipping by Los Angeles, 1-0.
November started with a thud as the Note was blown out in New York (a 5-0 Lundqvist special) and Dallas (a 6-2 Niemi special) before returning home and edging Columbus 2-1 in overtime and thrashing Colorado 5-1. A heart-breaking overtime loss at home to the Blackhawks and two horrible road losses in Nashville and Columbus (St. Louis scored four power play goals in the 8-4 humiliation) had Blues Nation fretting and fuming.
So the Blues promptly went out and beat Buffalo, San Jose and Nashville at home and Boston on the road to lift hopes (and dreams). Woo-hoo! The following night’s loss to a powerful Washington squad by a score of 4-3 was not offset by two subsequent bonus-time victories at home over divisional rivals Minnesota and Dallas. The surge also put St. Louis among the top five or six teams in the NHL.
The trend has continued in December as the Blues won (Tampa Bay), lost (Winnipeg), won (Montreal), lost (Brooklyn), won (New Jersey) and finally lost in both Minnesota and Nashville. The loss to the Predators was particularly disturbing as the Blues held a 3-0 lead and then coughed up six goals against in a row, with goaltender Jake Allen looking a lot less than sensational. On Thursday in St. Louis, New Jersey potted the first two goals, so the Blues came back with five goals in a row to record the victory with Allen playing a game both steady and solid. Jake’s statistics may be somewhat ordinary (2.50 goals against average; .907 save percentage); yet he has recorded 15 wins and only six regulation losses in the 25 games he has appeared in this season.
It is easy to understand the inconsistency shown by the Blues so early in the season as the players adjust to new coaches Mike Yeo, Rick Wilson and Steve Thomas. And with a schedule compacted by the World Cup of Hockey Tournament in September, there is less time, especially on the road, to adjust to new offensive and defensive structuring and techniques that head coach Ken Hitchcock has initiated this year. The only consistent tendencies in the Blues overall game have been the record on home ice and the penalty kill, currently second best (to Carolina) in the entire NHL. It is rather strange that the power play, currently ranked seventh in the league, has been much better on the road (29%) than at home (18%).
Chicago comes calling tonight with the best record in the Western Conference (and the NHL before last night’s game in Pittsburgh) amassing 44 points in 32 games. And lately, this has been without star center Jonathan Toews and goaltender Corey Crawford. Toews is now back after missing the last nine games, which helps bolster the Blackhawks’ offense, now ranked 14th in the league with 2.69 goals for per game. What has carried the Hawks is great goaltending from Scott Darling (2.18 goals against average, .928 save percentage in 14 games played) and Crawford (2.27, .927 in 20 games). Chicago’s total defense is ranked seventh league wide with 2.3 goals against per game. The Blackhawks’ power play is decent (ranked 14th at 19%), while the penalty kill has been atrocious, a worst-in-the-league 73%.
In comparison, the Blues’ offense is ranked 11th in the NHL at 2.77 goals per game, while the overall defense is ranked 18th with 2.77 goals against per game. Yes, the Blues have now scored 87 goals and allowed 87 against.
They say great goaltending wins in the playoffs, and even though tonight’s game is not a playoff contest, the team with better goaltending will nonetheless win.