Lighting the Lamp With Rick Ackerman
The longest home stand of the season continues tonight as another divisional rival visits St. Louis for some post-holiday hockey action. The Blues clobbered Philadelphia to open the first of six games in St. Louis with a spectacular 6-3 victory, lost to Nashville in a listless, pathetic 4-0 shutout by rookie goalie Juuse Saros, came back strong to win the Winter Classic at Busch Stadium with a 4-1 victory over arch-rival Chicago, then was once again lethargic and lifeless, losing to Carolina and new Hurricane Ty Rattie in an embarrassing loss Thursday. After Dallas tonight, the Blues host the Boston Bruins (without the injured David Backes, out indefinitely with a concussion) next week before taking off for three games on the west coast.
The Dallas Stars have been somewhat of an enigma this season after finishing the 2015-16 season with a Central Division championship, accumulating 109 points, two ahead of the Blues. The Stars led the Western Conference with 267 goals, an average of 3.25 per game. Overall team defense was adequate, if not spectacular, as Dallas allowed 230 goals against, an average of 2.8 per game, ranking eighth in the conference. In contrast, the Blues were third in the conference, allowing 201 goals against, 2.45 per game, while scoring 224 goals, an average of 2.73, seventh in the conference.
Like last season, goaltending is still an issue for Dallas. In 2015-16, Antti Niemi (cap hit $4.5 million) posted a goals against average of 2.67 with a save percentage of .905 in 48 games. Kari Lehtonen (cap hit $5.9 million) was not much better at 2.76 and .906 in 43 games. This season has seem similar results: Niemi is up to 3.00 goals against with a .908 save percentage in 20 games while Lehtonen’s numbers are 2.74 goals against per game and a .902 save percentage in 24 contests. That translates to the Stars allowing three goals against per game, 26th in the league, while only scoring 97 goals so far, 2.56 per game, 18th in the NHL, far below last season’s mark. With a total goaltending cap hit of $10.4 million (compared to $3.48 million total for the Blues’ Jake Allen and Carter Hutton), it will be difficult for GM Jim Nill to upgrade and even harder for head coach Lindy Ruff to choose a starting netminder.
Dallas has qualified for the playoffs 14 times since the franchise was relocated from Minnesota, missing postseason play only eight times since 1993. One of their playoff runs included a Stanley Cup championship in 1999 thanks to Brett Hull’s triple overtime game-winner against Dom Hasek and the Buffalo Sabres. However, since 2008, the Stars have participated in postseason play only twice, losing the opening round to Anaheim in six games in 2014 and falling to the Blues in seven games in the second round last season. And it doesn’t appear that the Stars will qualify this season, as they are mired in 12th place (of 14 clubs) in the Western Conference with 40 points, currently two points behind Los Angeles for the eighth playoff slot and ranked sixth (of seven teams) in the Central Division, five points behind St. Louis.
Of course, we are not quite at the half-way point of the season, so it is entirely possible Dallas can solve their defensive maladies while augmenting their offensive prowess and climb back into the playoff hunt. For that matter, the same could be said of the Nashville Predators, who now have 41 points, only one behind the eighth-seeded Los Angeles Kings and four points behind the third-seeded Blues. The Winnipeg Jets also have 41 points, with the last place Colorado Avalanche seemingly out of contention with only 25 points in 37 games. This ranking does not include last night’s games involving Nashville and Colorado.
Attendance bears watching as we approach the league’s midseason mark. Chicago leads the league with an average of 21, 627 per game, 109.7% of capacity. However, if you measure the best attendance by the actual percent of capacity at each arena, then Toronto leads the league at 114.4%, closely followed by Winnipeg at 114.2%. Twelve other teams over or at 100% of capacity include (in order) Minnesota, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, the Rangers, Nashville, Montreal, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Tampa Bay, Washington, Boston and Detroit. That means half the teams in the NHL are operating at or over 100% capacity. Another eight teams are above 90%: San Jose, Dallas, Edmonton, Vancouver, Buffalo, Calgary, Anaheim and New Jersey. It is utterly incredible that so many teams are doing so well, especially with the economy still struggling. Carolina has the league’s worst attendance (an average of 11, 557, 62%), with the Islanders, Arizona, Florida, Columbus, New Jersey, Colorado and Ottawa also near the bottom. While Ottawa’s relatively low attendance is somewhat of a surprise in hockey-crazed Canada, it is even stranger that the Blue Jackets, after an amazing 16-game winning streak, aren’t drawing more fans to Nationwide Arena.
Yes, the Blues are ranked fifth in the NHL, averaging 19,740, 107.8% capacity through 23 games in St. Louis. And, yes, surely the attendance at the Winter Classic (46, 556) helped skew the numbers upward; nevertheless, that kind of response from Blues Nation clearly demonstrates that this is a major league city and there is much love for our hockey team in arguably the best baseball city in the land. True-blue fans deserve more effort, determination and hard work than the boys in blue showed in their recent games against Nashville and Carolina, no more so than tonight against the Stars.