The focus of this column should include the words “Montreal” and “Canadiens” with some degree of repetition, but the fact remains that the St. Louis Blues have bigger concerns at hand than tonight’s opponent. They are the Central Division’s own Winnipeg Jets, who have won back-to-back contests, 13 of their last 18, and find themselves with a sudden seven-point lead over the second-place Nashville Predators. That’s one; the other being the Blues themselves, who have now lost four out of five and perhaps find themselves with a touch of shellshock here in early December.
The oft-recycled one-game-at-a-time mantra still carries limitless importance and so the Note must not overlook either the Canadiens or tonight’s contest. To snap the funk, however, they must hone their play and have a big-picture perspective regarding what’s happening elsewhere in the Central. Their time atop the ranks was enjoyable, but now it’s time for them to dig in and figure out what the newest version of their game looks like.
For this team, that starts with the guys up front, and having them build off of what they accomplished Saturday on the road against the Minnesota Wild: points from both Vladimir Tarasenko, Vladimir Sobotka, consecutive-game goals from Patrik Berglund, a tight enough contest to warrant overtime, and a Corsi-For percentage double that of their opponent. While the overall effort got an improved mark over the two prior contests versus California-team foes, it still wound up a loss to a team that the Blues have been better than and had just beat 6-3 the week before.
What’s more, the Blues have averaged over 30 shots per game across their last five contests, often doubling that of their opponent. So they’re generating offense and opportunity; they’re just not finishing.
That has to change and change fast with guys like Brayden Schenn, Jaden Schwartz, and Vladimir Tarasenko. These guys lead their teammates in both goals and assists, but the effort of late has not generated the necessary results. St. Louis would not be where they are in the standings without their one-time top-line numbers, but this division is shaping up to be competitive enough that droughts will not suffice. And beyond those guys, the Blues need to get more goals-scored productivity out of Alexander Steen and Colton Parayko. The two of them are hovering in the 20-minutes-per-game ice-time average so the conclusion could be drawn that their opportunities are there, but not being closed.
Perhaps the recent line shuffle -- Sobotka/Stastny/Tarasenko on line one, Schwartz/Schenn/Steen on line two -- will begin to reveal a production payoff for Head Coach Mike Yeo. The third line as well -- Magnus Paajarvi/Berglund/Samuel Blais -- may begin to see improved results out of its wingers with Berglund’s semi-hot hand centering the trio. While all four lines -- Scottie Upshall/Kyle Brodziak/Dmitrij Jaskin on the fourth -- remain a question mark for the moment, this last combination may face the largest challenge, typical as that may be for a fourth-line unit.
Including tonight’s game, 11 contests remain before the holiday break, so Yeo’s tinkering (or lack thereof) will be something to monitor, dependent upon what kind of production the offense can generate. Their list of opponents in that stretch is a stalwart one, too, and it includes a home/home bout with none other than the aforementioned Winnipeg Jets.
The Canadiens, though, present a huge challenge this evening as they’ll host the struggling Blues and will do so riding a five-game win streak that just saw a home/home of their own. This one featured the Detroit Red Wings and an impressive outscoring mark of 16-4 in favor of Montreal. Safe to assume, then, that the Habs will not struggle to display their own firepower, plus always-solid pipe presence of Carey Price.
This contest would be a fascinating one for the Blues to be able to watch outside of themselves were that possible. This Canadiens club has demonstrated a ton of recent success but hasn’t produced at a significant level through a quarter-plus of the hockey season, the virtual opposite of what St. Louis has done. It’s a crossroads, if you will, of two teams transitioning, curious what the other side looks like.
For St. Louis, the issue centers on confidence.
The Blues have a great mix of established and upcoming talent. They possess some of the league’s top offensive weapons, have a solid defensive core, and pretty good goaltending. On paper, there’s no reason for them to struggle the way they have in recent games, save for either unknown injuries or adjustments made to the lines.
Yeo knows his club and knows it well. He appears to possess the hockey smarts necessary to foresee what line changes will look like, just as he appears to be wired in a way that could (and should) motivate his skaters to snap out of their perspective and try a different one on for size.
The Blues have to earn the edge tonight and take advantage of the huge confidence-building opportunity in front of them by beating one of the hottest clubs in the league right now and doing it in Montreal’s own barn. This win will send them home with a day of rest and the chance to prepare for their second meeting of the season with the Dallas Stars, who, as of puck drop tonight, nip at the Blues’ heels and the two-point edge they hold over them in the Central.
Beyond that St. Louis will face nothing beyond a stretch of games against opponents that have tended to cause the Blues troubles in recent seasons. They need to show themselves that they can hang with the hot hand and put demons of the past to sleep. They need to find a way to maximize the best of their offensive chances instead of raining shots on goal down upon the opposing netminder. They have the size, strength, and speed, to play at a level much higher than what they’ve demonstrated over the past 10 days. The way to become opportunistic may just be to weave a fourth ‘s’ into that mix: smarts.