Lighting the Lamp With Rick Ackerman
Two series down, two to go, starting tonight with game one of the Western Conference Finals. Players for the Blackhawks, Kings, Ducks, Stars, Predators and Wild are all playing golf as members of the St. Louis Blues and San Jose Sharks pair off for a chance to be conference champions and advance to the Stanley Cup Finals.
San Jose has never been to the Stanley Cup Finals in their 25-year history, losing three times in the Conference Finals. The Sharks lost in 2004 to Calgary in six games, were swept by Chicago in 2010 and fell in five games to Vancouver in 2011. Since 1970 when there were two divisions instead of conferences in the NHL, St. Louis has been to two Conference Finals, losing in seven games to Calgary in 1986 and failing against Colorado in five games in 2001.
Both rounds this year won by the Blues were nail-biters as it took a full complement of seven games (and four overtimes) to vanquish both the Hawks and Stars. Goaltender Brian Elliott was unquestionably the star of both series, winning all eight games with 419 total saves (and only 32 goals against), the most saves by any goaltender in the history of the franchise. The Moose passed his idol, Curtis Joseph, who had previously held the record with 411 saves during the 1993 campaign in which the Blues swept Chicago and then lost to the Maple Leafs in seven games. Elliott will undoubtedly add to his total, although it is likely back-up Jake Allen might get into a game or two at some point.
Vlad Tarasenko leads the club with seven goals and 13 points, yet mention of the top scorers would have to include rookie Robby Fabbri, three goals and 13 points, winger David Backes with six goals and 12 points and solid veteran Troy Brouwer, who has potted five goals and ten points. The key, however, has been balanced scoring from all three offensive lines. Alexander Steen’s line has accounted for a total of 14 goals while Paul Stastny and Jori Lehtera’s lines have had 11 goals each. The seven defensemen have chipped in six tallies and Kyle Brodziak’s checking line has added two.
Special teams have also helped spur St. Louis to eight playoff victories. The power play units have come to life as the Blues have scored 11 goals with the man advantage, 27.5% of 40 opportunities, while the penalty killing units have only allowed eight goals against on 39 chances for a 79.5 success rate. The Blues have also been hitting and checking with abandon with a league leading 492 hits, an average of 35 per game, and 111 more than the Hawks and Stars combined. And even though out shot 460 to 418, Elliott (and Allen for 41 minutes) has been spectacular with a .929 save percentage, making the disparity concerning shots on goal a rather moot point.
Also of interest is the fact that the Blues have been road warriors in both series, winning five of seven games on the road, outscoring Chicago and Dallas 25 to 18,while at the same time only winning three of seven at home, outscoring their Central Division opponents 19 to 16. What happened to home ice advantage? For St. Louis, better puck management on the road was the key. The anticipated fear factor of playing in the enemy rink led the Blues to play a more simple game, not taking any major risks unless late in the game trailing by a goal or two. On home ice at the TradeStocks Center there was more pressure to put on a show in front of the ever-so-loyal fans and make the big play, as well as distractions from family and friends. That different kind of fear factor leads to taking more risks, which usually translates to making bigger mistakes, as evidenced in games two and five of the Hawks’ series and games four and six of the Stars’ series.
And if you wanted to rant a little bit about T.J. Oshie’s scoring exploits for Washington and how the Blues made a stupid deal to acquire Troy Brouwer, you might be pardoned for this transgression; yet you would also be called shortsighted and ignorant concerning this veteran’s value to a team in the playoffs. Brouwer, along with David Backes and Paul Stastny, has been one of the key leaders in the locker room, a veteran of eight consecutive playoff game sevens during his career, a NHL record. And this is exactly why GM Doug Armstrong made the trade with the Capitals. Adding rookie goaltender Pheonix Copley and a third round draft choice was icing on the axiomatic cake.
There has been no finger pointing or panic in the St. Louis locker room as veterans such as Brouwer lead by example, employing old-school tactics to play a heavy, grinding game. In previous seasons when faced with adversity, the boys were quiet and pensive, passively accepting their fate with heads down and slumped shoulders, leading to hesitancy and insecurity on the ice, sticks clutched too tightly because of the pressure. Now, thanks to this veteran leadership, the boys are creating energy with positive thinking in the locker room, taking charge on the ice with decisive certainty, confident in their skill and eagerness to perform. With Backes on the wing instead of center, Alexander Steen and Patrik Berglund (both with four goals and eight points) are more effective on the attack, hunting down the puck with strong fore-checking and making strong passes to the open man in the triangle the Blues set up so well.
Leading 1-0 at the time, St. Louis could have folded when a Lindy Ruff challenge negated a Tarasenko goal due to our Russian sharp-shooting savior being slightly offside just prior to the tally; yet the Blues responded with a goal from Stastny instead of sulking on the bench with heads down, overcome by frustration. No, they kept their heads up and showed their displeasure at the call by working harder to produce a timely goal of their own to take a lead they never lost.
And younger guys such as Fabbri, Jaden Schwartz (three goals, 11 points) and Colton Parayko (two goals, five points) have all fit in quite nicely, not afraid at all of being on the big stage of the NHL playoffs, using their speed and savvy to make big plays or score bigger goals. Parayko especially has the foot-speed to move the puck through the neutral zone or the hockey sense to know when to effectively pass and then await a return pass and blast the puck on net. Yes, he skates like Chris Pronger and shoots like Al MacInnis.
Earlier adversity, especially to the goaltending duo of Elliott and Allen, along with the many injuries to key personnel, has made this team stronger and hence better. Goals being negated due to coaches’ challenges or discrepancy in penalty calls against them (cough, Corey Crawford, cough) have only made St. Louis more resolute and determined. The Blues have gone through an incredible amount of drama and hard knocks during the regular season and now have the experience to deal with and overcome any and all misfortunes and hardships. And they have done so, proving this is definitely not the "same old Blues" we have witnessed during five or so previous seasons.
So, how about some shark sushi tomorrow for lunch?