Lighting the Lamp with Rick Ackerman
And so the up-and-down roller coaster season continues as the red-hot St. Louis Blues have now won five in a row and seven of their last ten games. The always dangerous San Jose Sharks come calling tonight in a rare Monday match-up at the TradeStocks Center, yet it certainly would have been a lot more fun for the Blues to have played the Sharks yesterday on Hockey Day in America at Busch Stadium. That means we will just have to wait until next year to see an outdoor game in St. Louis, reportedly with the Chicago Blackhawks, on January 2. Yes, it appears that this long-awaited fantasy is going to finally come true; the formal announcement from the NHL is expected sometime during the next three weeks.
What a nice gift from the NHL for Blues Nation on the 50th anniversary of the franchise, eh?
As the Blues coast up in points, earning 15 of a possible 18 so far this month, the number of man-games lost also is on the rise. The latest casualty is Alexander Steen, who left Saturday’s game in the desert with an apparent shoulder, arm or wrist injury after being legally checked into the boards by Coyotes defenseman Kevin Cannauton. The Blues currently rank seventh in injuries (220 man-games lost in 61 games); only New Jersey, Edmonton, Buffalo, Detroit, Colorado and Toronto have had more man-games lost. However, the quality of those players lost impacts the Blues far more; those walking wounded has included forwards Paul Stastny, Jaden Schwartz, Patrik Berglund, Steve Ott and Robby Fabbri; defensemen Kevin Shattenkirk and Alex Pietrangelo and goaltender Jake Allen. And it has been quite obvious that Captain David Backes has been playing hurt for quite a while now. Including Steen, that’s half the roster!
At the other end of the spectrum, the least injured teams include (in order) the Rangers, Blackhawks, Sharks, Capitals, Wild and Stars. That makes the Blues’ accomplishments this season compared to other top teams much more significant, especially in divisional play. St. Louis is 13-5-4 against Central Division opponents
Despite these many causalities to highly rated players, the Blues are currently the fourth best team in points in the entire league. And this is due to the stellar play of goaltender Brian Elliott and an overall improved team defense. Elliott leads NHL net minders with a 2.06 goals against average and a .931 save percentage, maintaining a 12-3-3 record since taking over for the injured Jake Allen. Those who called for a trade involving the Moose when Allen took over the number one goalie status earlier in the season have surely learned why trading Elliott would have been a major mistake by GM Doug Armstrong.
Although strong forechecking has been instrumental in the Blues’ improved team defense (now ranked fourth in the NHL with 2.30 goals against per game), more credit has to be given to the St. Louis defensemen, especially Robert Bortuzzo, Carl Gunnarsson (plus-11, second on the team) and rookies Colton Parayko and Joel Edmundson. Parayko has been particularly outstanding with a team-high plus-22 (sixth overall in the league), contributing to the offense as well with seven goals and 26 points in 58 games. Edmundson and Bortuzzo have effectively become the team’s shutdown defense pairing, limiting shots on goals and clearing the crease. There was concern the defense would suffer greatly when Pietrangelo went down with a knee injury on February 6 in a 4-1 Blues victory over Minnesota (thanks a lot, Charlie Coyle), yet the rookies (and Bortuzzo) have stepped it up and the Note has only allowed 11 goals against in regulation play in the six games since then.
After a terrible start, the resurgent San Jose Sharks have found themselves and currently hold third place in the Pacific Division. A high-octane offense (2.89 goals per game, fourth in the NHL) is led by the usual Sharks suspects, Joe Pavelski (26 goals, 54 points in 57 games), Jumbo Joe Thornton, cave-man defenseman Brent Burns (19 goals, 49 points) and Patrick Marleau. Overall team defense is in the middle of the NHL pack (ranked 18th with 2.67 goals against per game), although the team is ranked fourth in shots against, only allowing 27.8 per game. In comparison, the Blues are ranked 16th with 29.7 shots against per game.
Goaltender Martin Jones has been spectacular in goal for the Sharks at times, stealing several games with timely saves and boosting San Jose into a playoff slot. Jones was obtained from the Boston Bruins in a June 2015 trade for a 2016 first round draft choice and Miami University prospect, center Sean Kuraly. Earlier, the Bruins had acquired Jones and a first round pick from Los Angeles for Milan Lucic. Backup Alex Stalock, a former Peoria Riverman, has not fared well this season, allowing nearly three goals against per game with a .884 save percentage.
The Blues don’t play again until Thursday when the Rangers visit. Then it’s off on a four game road trip to Nashville Saturday, Carolina Sunday, Ottawa Tuesday and finally Minnesota the following Sunday. Thanks to the sadistic NHL schedule makers, the Blues will play the first three games in four days, and then they don’t skate for five days until the March 6 contest in St. Paul. At the least, that means both more time to practice and more time for injuries to heal. Jake Allen could be back in action any time now, although it appears Ott, Pietrangelo and now Steen will not be back any time soon.