Lighting the Lamp with Rick Ackerman
It’s looking more and more like the hockey gods decided all along that the St. Louis Blues and Chicago Blackhawks were going to meet up in the opening round of the 2016 playoffs. And I, for one, say bring on dem Hawks and let’s just see who has the better club in a best of seven match up.
Not that the Blues don’t have a slim chance to overtake Dallas for the Central Division championship, though. Since the Stars won a tough, brutal game Saturday in Los Angeles, they have a very comfortable lead over the Blues, along with more regulation and overtime wins (the tiebreaker). So, the only way the Note can take first place in the division is to defeat a decent Coyotes team tonight, win in Chicago Thursday and end the season Saturday by beating Washington again. Since it is unlikely Dallas will lose their remaining two home games against Colorado (out of the playoffs now) and Nashville, it is more reasonable to predict the Blues will finish second and face Chicago. Of course, if the Blues do somehow win the division, they would most likely face the Minnesota Wild, who knocked them out last year.
As said, I would rather face Chicago. Let the Wild knock the Stars out this time.
After the New York Rangers, Chicago has had the lowest number of man games lost to injury in the NHL (113) and the least adversity so far this season. However, injuries are starting to catch up with the Hawks as wingers Andrew Shaw and Marian Hossa and goaltender Corey Crawford have all been recently listed as day-to-day (Hossa did play yesterday against Boston) with various ailments. And no one is forgetting that defenseman Duncan Keith will miss the remainder of the regular season and the Hawks’ first playoff game due to suspension for his blatant stick-swinging blow to the head of the Wild’s Charlie Coyle. Blues’ fans can take some measure of cosmic satisfaction, as it was Coyle who deliberately targeted Alex Pietrangelo’s knee and injured him during a game in early February. Pietrangelo missed eight games.
Yes, once again the Department of Player Safety shit the bed with a ridiculously light penalty for Keith. Not only will he get a five game rest before the quest for Lord Stanley’s Cup begins, but he will also only miss one playoff game. The entire hockey community, with the exception of some rather shortsighted Blackhawk fans, is seeing this disposition as a travesty of justice and a not-so-hilarious joke. There is no question Keith was seeking to deliberately injure an opponent. There is no question that Keith knew exactly what he was doing after being punished for doing the exact same thing twice previously in his NHL career. As the DoPS said, "This is an intentional retaliatory act of violence by a player with a history of using his stick as a weapon."
This kind of slap-on-the-wrist suspension does not serve as any kind of deterrent for similar actions in the future. The DoPS did not send a message to the players that this kind of brutality has no place in the game and will have significant consequences for players that choose to cross the line. If Keith wanted to retaliate, all he had to do was go after Coyle and challenge him to a fight, man to man. Instead, he took a vicious, cowardly cheap shot and used his stick to club an unsuspecting Coyle in the face. If Keith had been suspended for all games until next October, perhaps costing his team a better shot at a Stanley Cup, then perhaps he might not be so eager to do something as stupid as slashing another player in the face with his stick again. And then again, maybe Keith would.
The DoP(e)S had a chance to make a bold statement in this case and failed to do so. The NHL failed the game and all who love it.
The Blues’ best-case scenario is to have a completely healthy roster when playoff action begins. The value of injured defensemen Jay Bouwmeester and Carl Gunnarsson was apparent in a sloppy loss to Boston, although rookie Petteri Lindborm and Robert Bortuzzo played well enough in their stead. And a healthy Robby Fabbri will most certainly add more offense when it will be needed the most. Despite his detractors, Steve Ott can also help improve this club for the upcoming playoff wars. It is probable that Dmitrij Jaskin, Magnus Paajarvi, Bortuzzo, Lindbohm and possibly Ryan Reaves will be watching the first playoff game from the press box, along with goaltender Anders Nilsson.
This could very well be the most balanced and competitive hockey team St. Louis has ever seen. Coach Hitchcock and his staff can run four strong lines, the defense is deep with both talent and grit, and the Blues have arguably the best goaltending tandem in the league. If you believe statistics are a viable measure of superior play, Brian Elliott currently leads all NHL net minders who have played a minimum of 20 games in save percentage and is second (to the Lightning’s Ben Bishop) in goals against average. Jake Allen is ranked 20th in save percentage and 19th in goals against average. Jake the Snake has six shutouts, tied with Bishop for second in the entire league. As there are 55 total NHL goalies who have played at least 20 NHL games, both Elliott and Allen are well above average.
Yes, no matter the outcome of the last three games, if healthy, the Blues are primed and ready for playoff hockey.