Lighting the Lamp with Rick Ackerman
After two long weeks the road weary St. Louis Blues return home tonight to face the depleted, out-of-playoff-contention Vancouver Canucks. After forgetting how to play defense in the first three games in Dallas, Calgary and Edmonton, the Blues found their game and shut out both the Canucks and San Jose Sharks, redeeming themselves and earning six important points towards superior playoff ranking. The Blues found their offense with 17 total goals on the five-game road trip after giving up 17 goals in the first three games and none in the last two, thanks to the stellar play of goaltender Brian Elliott, back from injury playing better than ever, leading the NHL in save percentage, slightly better than Tampa Bay’s Ben Bishop. The Moose was also the most recent #1 star of the week in the NHL.
It has been quite a successful month for St. Louis as the club has won seven of nine contests with only two home games in that span. The Blues are indeed road warriors, now fourth best in the NHL, as they are 22-11-5 away from the TradeStocks Center. Within the Western Conference, only San Jose has more victories on the road (25). And the Note’s record at home is almost as good, 21-11-4. Overall, St. Louis is currently the third best team in the league, only trailing Washington and Dallas.
The Note’s last ten games have been quite enlightening and informative as we approach post-season play. Even though eight of those ten matches were on the road, from east coastal Carolina to west coastal San Jose, the Blues won eight and only lost two, scoring 38 goals and giving up 29, and 13 of those goals against came in the two losses in Alberta. Take away those two sloppy games and the Blues have still scored an average of four goals per game and allowed an average of two goals against in the remaining eight games. That certainly bodes well for the remaining eight games on the regular season schedule, and the imminent return of sparkplug Alexander Steen can only boost the overall team’s performance.
Better yet, five of those Blues’ victories in the last eight games came against playoff bound teams, including Minnesota, Chicago, Anaheim, Dallas, and San Jose. The two losses were to Calgary and Edmonton, both out of playoff contention.
The Central Division race is far from over. Dallas leads second place St. Louis by only a few points; the Blues have a game in hand (tonight). The Note leads third place Chicago by four points; each has eight games left. And the Blackhawks lead fourth place Nashville by only two points; the Predators also have eight games left to play. If the hockey gods will it, it is not out of the question that the Blues could be tied with Dallas on Monday, each with 99 points. That happens if St. Louis wins tonight and tomorrow night in Washington and Dallas loses at San Jose tomorrow. Nashville could accumulate 91 points by Monday if they defeat Columbus tomorrow and catch Chicago at 91 points if the Blackhawks lose in Calgary tomorrow and Vancouver Sunday. Yes, it is entirely possible that the Predators could take third place and relegate Chicago to the first wild card slot.
It is entirely too early to speculate which team the Blues will play in the opening round of the playoffs, nor does it really matter with two weeks to go in the regular season. Winning the Central Division would earn a date with either Minnesota or Colorado, assuming Los Angeles does not finish with more points than the Central Division champion. Finishing second in the division means home advantage against either Chicago or Nashville. And if the Blues somehow tanked and finished fourth in the division, that would most likely mean meeting the Kings in the opening round, assuming they win the Pacific Division championship, that is. There are too many variables now and it is likely we won’t know which team the Blues will face until the last game of the season when T.J. Oshie returns for his first game in St. Louis since being traded to Washington.
So, it behooves Blues Nation to take just one game at a time now, starting tonight with the visiting Canucks. A poor season has devolved into a terribly miserable one as Vancouver slowly drops into the NHL basement, battling with Toronto, Winnipeg and Edmonton for last place and the best odds of winning the Austin Matthews lottery at the Amateur Draft this coming June. Racked by injuries with three veterans out for the season (Radim Vrbata, Brandon Sutter and Alexander Edler), the Canucks could feature up to eight or nine rookies in tonight’s lineup, including four freshman defensemen. Vancouver goaltender Ryan Miller didn’t realize how good he had it while playing in St. Louis and Buffalo, eh?
Nevertheless, this is not a team to be taken too lightly (such as the Blues did in the two games in Alberta on the road trip) and the Canucks will be seeking a measure of revenge for their recent 3-0 loss to St. Louis in Vancouver. The Sedins can still play and all those rookies will be working hard to earn jobs on next season’s roster, so the Blues will still have to play their game and avoid silly mistakes (and penalties). The Blues have had 42 more chances to kill penalties than opportunities to score power play goals so far this season, and it would be wise to reverse that trend for the next two weeks and into the playoffs.