While we may never know for sure, it seems likely that the Blues’ 3 -0 win in Pittsburgh on Jan. 24 may have salvaged Ken Hitchcock’s job for a week. If that game had gone another direction, we may have been looking at an earlier transition and may have a better idea of how the switch to Mike Yeo is affecting the team.
What’s certain, however, is that the Blues did win that game, and did so with a group effort that probably exceeds any other they’ve displayed over the last month. The team defense stood up for Carter Hutton, and the fourth line made substantial offensive contributions that allowed them to create a mismatch with their Penguins counterparts.
That game was also notable as one where Colton Parayko was able to take charge and display his most impressive talents. As we saw on Thursday night against the Maple Leafs, Parayko is able to seize the puck, skate through traffic and create odd- man rushes and mismatches by using his legs in a way that very few of his peers can emulate.
Both the Blues and Penguins have suffered significant injuries since their last matchup. The Blues, in fact, lost a player in the game in Pittsburgh, as Kyle Brodziak absorbed a shot in the second period which fractured his foot. Brodziak, who doesn’t remove his skates between periods as some players do, managed to finish the game, but was apparently met with a fairly gruesome sight as soon as the boot came off.
The Penguins lost winger Conor Sheary, who has emerged this season as the replacement to Chris Kunitz as Sidney Crosby’s caddy. Sheary has 17 goals and 35 points and came into the game against St. Louis having just been named the NHL’s first star of the week. His last game was on Tuesday against Nashville, and the Penguins have said he’ll miss 4-6 weeks.
While the Penguins haven’t yet played since Sheary’s injury, the leading speculation is that veteran forward Matt Cullen will be taking his place on Crosby’s line. The choice of Cullen is a curious one given that he generally plays a more defensively focused and tough-nosed game. It may be inspired in part by the dismal year that Kunitz is currently having, as he’s scored just six goals in 43 games.
The road game in Pittsburgh created some matchup difficulty for the Blues, though they made it clear that they would like to match up Alexander Steen, Paul Stastny and David Perron against Crosby. It’s likely, then, that Jori Lehtera, Vladimir Tarasenko and Jaden Schwartz will see a great deal of time against Evgeni Malkin, so those shifts may offer glimpses of high powered offense on both sides.
As mentioned above, the Blues fourth line clearly outperformed Pittsburgh’s in the previous matchup. While Ryan Reaves and Scottie Upshall both scored in that game, Kunitz and Eric Fehr were on the ice killing a penalty for Parayko’s first period power play goal. Those two and Scott Wilson were then on the ice for Reaves’s goal in the second period, which was created when the Pittsburgh structure broke down and Reaves was able to break in on goal alone.
The Penguins will be coming in to St. Louis off of a Friday home game against Columbus. That tough divisional test will likely go a long way toward wearing them down and affecting their energy level, and an overnight flight from Pittsburgh to St. Louis is unlikely to help on that front. The Blues, having been comfortably at home for a week, should be able to take advantage of that discrepancy and feed off the energy from a Friday night home crowd to get off to a good start.
Early indications were that the Blues were unlikely to make a lineup change from the win on Thursday night. Though Hutton was in net for the shutout in Pittsburgh, Jake Allen’s strong game against Toronto makes him a prime candidate to start and attempt to string together a series of positive results.
This game will also mark a fairly major turning point for the Blues, as they leave on a long road trip through Philadelphia, Ottawa, Toronto, Montreal and Detroit before coming home to play Vancouver and then heading right back out to Buffalo. Indeed, after tonight’s game, the Blues play seven of their next nine games on the road, setting off a difficult stretch that will perhaps show what effect the coaching change has truly had.
This evening’s game is also the second in a string of seven against Eastern Conference opponents. While this allows the Blues to try to pick up points without worrying about dropping back against fellow contenders for playoff spots, it also means that they can’t directly affect those team’s chances. The Blues will truly have their destiny in their own hands over the next week and a half, and it’s vital that they rise to the challenge.
Earlier in the season, both Ken Hitchcock and David Backes spoke to me about the difference in travel between the east and the west, and both suggested that the constant, slow drip on the east coast can be more difficult than the steady western barrage. As the Blues prepare to face life on the road in the coming weeks, their commitment to playing a sold, stable game will be tested. That resolve must be on display against Pittsburgh if they hope to find another positive outcome.