Lighting the Lamp with Rick Ackerman
And what a glorious month March has turned out to be as the St. Louis Blues have now won four games in a row, all shutouts. Brian "Moose" Elliott and Jake "the Snake" Allen (a worthy tribute to legendary goaltender Jacques Plante) have combined to play 261 minutes and 51 seconds without a goal being scored against either of them. The last goal scored against Allen was Ryan Nugent Hopkins’ power play goal at 19:51 of the second period in a 4-6 loss in Edmonton on March 16, almost two weeks ago. However, Mark Letestu added an empty-net goal at 19:42 of that game, so the Blues’ team shutout streak is 240 minutes and 18 seconds. Prior to the two losses in Alberta, the other a sloppy 4-7 debacle against Calgary, the Blues had won six in a row. St. Louis has now won 10 of the last 12 games, outscoring opponents 46 to 29 during that span, including impressive wins against playoff-bound Minnesota, Chicago, Anaheim, Dallas, San Jose and Washington.
Elliott has been nothing short of sensational since returning from injury, making 71 saves in his three shutouts. The last time anyone scored against the Moose was over five weeks ago back on February 20. Who was it that scored? If you are in the zone and able to recall, it was Max Domi, who was able to light the lamp late in the third period of the Blues 6-4 victory over the Coyotes in Arizona. So, Elliott’s personal shutout streak is now 240 minutes and 34 seconds.
The Colorado Avalanche come calling tonight after playing last night in Nashville, desperate for points as they trail Minnesota for the last wild card slot with only five games left, all against tough, playoff-bound teams. The Avs will face Washington, St. Louis and Anaheim in Denver and visit Nashville and Dallas. What really killed their hopes for post-season play was a horrid 0-4 loss at home to the Wild last Saturday. Even with five power play opportunities the Avs could only muster 29 shots on Devan Dubynk, while allowing four goals, two by Zach Parise, on 35 shots against. Colorado is now 17-17-4 at the Pepsi Center. Not counting last night’s contest in Nashville, the Avs are better on the road with a 21-16-0 record.
It doesn’t look good for Colorado to catch the Wild, either. Minnesota hosts Chicago tonight and Ottawa on Thursday, then travels to Detroit and Winnipeg before returning to St. Paul to play San Jose and Calgary. The Wild will most likely win at least three of those six contests, giving them a total of 91 points. The Avalanche would need to win five of their last six games, including the game tonight with the Blues, to qualify for the playoffs and knock Minnesota out.
Who will become the Central Division champions? Who will take the Western Conference championship and gain home-ice advantage throughout conference games?
It would appear the Stars have the edge, with four games at the American Airlines Center in Dallas, including Nashville tonight, Arizona, Colorado and the Predators again at the end of the regular season. The Stars have two games on the road in Anaheim and Los Angeles. St. Louis also has four home games left, including the Avs tonight, Boston, Arizona and Washington. The two remaining road games are in Denver and Chicago.
A weary and somewhat discombobulated Chicago team travels to Minnesota tonight, and then plays at Winnipeg Friday. The Blackhawks barely defeated a depleted, woeful Canucks team Sunday night, 3-2. Then three home games at the United Center feature Boston, Arizona and the Blues, and finally the Hawks end their season at Columbus. If Chicago were to somehow win five of their remaining six games, they would end up with 105 points. With 99 points, both Dallas and St. Louis only need seven points in their remaining six games to relegate Chicago to third place in the division. Of course, Nashville, with six games remaining, could easily surpass Chicago’s point total and put them in the first wild card slot. The Predators play in Dallas tonight, then at Pittsburgh Thursday before returning to Music City for matches with San Jose, Colorado and Arizona. They finish on the road in Dallas. You can make your own prognostications about the most likely rankings at the conclusion of the regular season.
As well as it is going for the Blues, nevertheless, there is a great deal of anticipation about the return of Alexander Steen to the lineup. The apparent plan is to use him at center, most likely on a line with Patrik Berglund and David Backes. That leaves Dmitrij Jaskin and Magnus Paajarvi as the odd men out. If Steve Ott were also able to return, he would most likely replace Reaves on the fourth line.
The defense has been so good that it is most likely Petteri Lindbohm and Robert Bortuzzo will be watching the first game of the opening round of the playoffs from the press box. Both have played well in place of veterans Jay Bouwmeester and Carl Gunnarsson; Lindbohm looked quite at home after his recall from the AHL Chicago Wolves. And although it appears that Elliott has the starting goalie job for the playoffs all wrapped up, it would not be a major surprise to see Allen alternate games with him. In all likelihood, Hitchcock will play the hot hand in April.
It is to be hoped that both have hot hands in April.