Lighting the Lamp with Rick Ackerman
This will be the fifth consecutive year the St. Louis Blues have qualified for the Stanley Cup Playoffs. At the end of the 2012 season, the Blues finished first in the Central Division with 109 points. The Note ended up with 60 points in the lockout-shortened season of 2013, second in the division to Chicago. They repeated that feat in 2014, finishing second to Colorado with 111 points and ended up with 109 points in 2015, winning the division championship. And this season St. Louis earned 107 points, only to finish second to Dallas, losing the championship on ROW victories, 44 to 48.
It is not a coincidence that the streak began when the Blues hired head coach Ken Hitchcock in November 2011, and that he won the Jack Adams (coach of the year) Award in June 2012. Hitchcock has amassed an amazing regular season record of 224-103-36 during those five years, a winning percentage of .667 based on points. It is not unreasonable to expect he will be a finalist for the Adams Award once again this season and not all surprising should he win it over any of Barry Trotz, Gerard Gallant, Lindy Ruff, Bruce Boudreau or Mike Sullivan.
It should also be noted that while head coach of the Dallas Stars, Hitchcock’s team finished first in either the Central or Pacific Division five consecutive years, winning the Stanley Cup in 1999 after losing in the Western Conference Finals the year before. The following year, 2000, Dallas lost in the Stanley Cup Finals (to Scott Stevens and Martin Brodeur of the New Jersey Devils). After being swept in four games by the Blues in the second round in 2001, Hitchcock was eventually fired in 2002. He then went on to Philadelphia, where his team finished first or second in the Atlantic Division for three consecutive years, yet when the Flyers got off to a dismal 1-6-1 season in 2006, he was sacked once again. No, his record with a weak Columbus Blue Jackets team for four years will not even be discussed. Overall, in Hitch’s 20-year career, his NHL teams have won seven divisional championships and finished second five times.
Of course, the knock on Hitch is his playoff record. As noted, his name was engraved on Lord Stanley’s Cup in 1999, thanks to Brett Hull’s triple overtime (disputed) goal, and he carried his teams to the Conference Finals and Stanley Cup Finals twice. However, his teams were bounced in the first round six times (three consecutive years in St. Louis) and three times in the second round. Obviously, the pressure is on Hitchcock and the entire coaching staff to get out of the first round by defeating the now archrival Chicago Blackhawks.
Regular season success was quite the accomplishment as the Blues lost just under 300 man-games to injury, including lengthy maladies plaguing quality players including forwards Paul Stastny, Alexander Steen, Jaden Schwartz, Patrik Berglund, Robby Fabbri, David Backes, defensemen Kevin Shattenkirk, Alex Pietrangelo, Jay Bouwmeester and Carl Gunnarsson and goaltenders Brian Elliott and Jake Allen, well over half the team. Pesky veteran Steve Ott is still out with colitis after suffering double hamstring surgeries. Winger Troy Brouwer was the only player to participate in all 82 games this season.
If regular season success translates to playoff success, the Blues match up well with the Hawks. St. Louis finished four points ahead of Chicago in the standings and won the season series, three games to two, with three games going to bonus time, all won by the Blues. Chicago outscored St. Louis 14 to 13. Of course, Hawks’ fans would say their record against the Blues was 2-0-3, worth seven points, one more than the Blues earned in the five games. Blues’ fans would retort that home ice advantage in the playoffs is worth more than one point in the regular season standings.
Chicago had a slightly better offense (2.85 goals per game to the Blues 2.67), yet the Blues had a marginally better team defense (2.40 goals against per game to the Hawks 2.52). The Chicago power play was second in the league at 22.6%; the St. Louis power play was sixth at 21.5%. The Blues had much better penalty killers at 85.1, third best in the league; the Hawks were at 80.3, ranked 22nd in the NHL. On face-offs, St. Louis ranked fifth in the league at 51.3%; Chicago was 22nd at 49.3%. Obviously, these two clubs match up pretty evenly.
One major statistical difference was in penalties assessed. The Blues were ranked ninth in the NHL with 861 penalty minutes (ten and a half per game), including 29 majors and four misconducts, three of which were game misconducts. The Blues were involved in 29 fights. Chicago was ranked 28th in the league with only 611 penalty minutes (seven and a half per game), including 13 majors, one match penalty (Keith) and
only one game misconduct (Rozsival in Winter Classic). Blackhawks’ players were involved in 12 fights. Of playoff qualifying teams, Anaheim ranked first in penalty minutes, followed by Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and St. Louis and Florida. Minnesota was the least penalized of playoff-bound teams, followed by Chicago, Pittsburgh, the Rangers, Islanders and Dallas. Chicago fans would say their team is more disciplined; St. Louis fans would say the referees play favorites and/or are as blind as cave crickets (it is a misconception that bats are blind).
So, bring on dem Hawks and let’s just see who has the better team in this first round Stanley Cup series!