Lighting the Lamp With Rick Ackerman
December 2016 has indeed been a dismal, dour, depressing month for the presumably playoff-bound St. Louis Blues, who performed like an elite NHL team in October and November. The Blues have been merely mediocre this holiday month, incapable of defending leads and bowing to inferior teams due to listlessness and apathetic play. It was embarrassing to watch home-ice losses to Winnipeg, Chicago and Edmonton. Losses away from home to the Islanders, Minnesota, Nashville and Tampa Bay were not offset by wins in New Jersey and Dallas.
So, what’s wrong with this supposedly elite, ostensibly Cup-contending hockey club?
Before that can be answered, let’s revisit the St. Louis Blues of 2015-16, a team that finished second in the Central Division and Western Conference, 25 games over .500, with a good playoff run to the conference finals, only to lose a tough series to San Jose in six games. Overall, it was a pretty fair season, wouldn’t you say?
The Backes/Elliott Blues were an excellent 8-2-1 out of the gate in October 2015 and 7-4-2 in November, a total of 15-6-3 for 33 points. The Pietrangelo/Allen Blues were also very good, going 5-2-2 in this season’s October and 8-5-1 in November, a total of 13-7-3 for 29 points. See the similarity?
December 2015 saw a letdown as the season ground on: St. Louis was a paltry 8-7-1 that month, very much like this season’s 6-5-2 December. If this pattern holds, the Blues will have a mediocre January 2017 (5-3-4 in January 2016), followed by a return to greatness in February and March. Last season’s boys picked it up in February with an outstanding 8-4-1 record, followed by an even better March at 10-2-0.
In the for-what-it’s-worth department, last season’s Blues were 4-1-0 against tonight’s visitors; so far this season, the Predators have won 2 of 3 games, both victories coming in Nashville. It would be nice to even up the series and end 2016 with a win over a division rival.
So, will this season’s edition of the Blues come back with strong numbers in February and March and make another deep playoff run? There are plenty of problems to work out if that is to happen.
First and foremost is the Note’s inability to play a 60-minute game. There have been far too many contests in which the Blues play a great first period and then stop skating and working and end up losing. And there have been too many matches in which they start out slowly and it takes a period or two for the boys to find their legs, and then come back skating and working hard in the third period, only to fall short and end up losing.
Worse, the Blues have coughed up leads in several games now and appear to lack any semblance of the killer instinct to seal the deal in the third period. Before the game Wednesday against the Flyers, St. Louis scored 30 third-period goals in 35 games, a statistic negated by 34 goals scored against, resulting in a unfavorable outcome too many times. And there have been too many critical defensive-zone mistakes, especially plays in which opposing forwards are allowed to camp in front of the goal, screening the Blues’ goaltender and/or deflecting shots into the net. Clearing the crease is apparently a lost art for the Blues’ defensemen. If the number of hits dished out is truly indicative of overall team toughness and defensive ability, St. Louis is currently ranked a lowly 23rd in the NHL with 668 hits, an average of 19 per game. Los Angeles leads the league with 1014 hits, an average of just under 31 per game.
St. Louis has been pretty good offensively, ranked eighth in the league with 2.77 goals per game. Pittsburgh is ranked first with 3.43 goals per game. However, the Blues have had a tendency to sit on leads, taking their collective foot off the gas at exactly the wrong time. Also noticeable has been the hesitancy of the shooters and inability to get off shots quickly. They wait too long, or insist on passing. So, too many times the boys pass when they should shoot and shoot when they should pass. How many power play blasts from the point have missed the net? If you said too many to count, you just may be right.
Many would argue the Note needs a true No. 1 center to play with Vlad Tarasenko, relegating Jori Lehtera and his exorbitant salary to the third line where he belongs. Speaking of an exorbitant salary, what’s wrong with Alexander Steen? Is he playing hurt?
Are his arms and legs too tired from carrying bags of money to the bank? Jay Bouwmeester (seven points, minus-4) is another overpaid performer tired out from trips to the bank. And while we’re at it, if to a lesser degree, Carl Gunnarsson (two assists, minus-4) can catch a ride with Steen and Bouwmeester when they go.
Yes, the boys in blue have their work cut out for them, though, if history does indeed repeat itself, then they will work out the kinks and get hot in February and March as they did last year. To do so, they’ll need to drastically improve their road record (now a dismal 5-10-1) and step up their power play a bit, as well as learn to hold a lead, especially in the last 20 minutes. The game against the Flyers was a step in the right direction.
Happy New Year! And may your dreams of a dominant St. Louis Blues on the way to a parade down Market Street this June come true, starting with a win tonight and a Winter Classic encore on January 2.