Lighting the Lamp With Rick Ackerman
The St. Louis Blues return home after almost two weeks on the road, winning four of five games, the only loss a 2-1 setback in Anaheim. During the first two weeks of March, the Blues also went 4-1, winning both games at home after taking two of three on the road, including a spectacular, hard-fought 2-1 victory over the Wild in St. Paul. The Blues’ strong defense and goaltenders Jake Allen and Carter Hutton have allowed only 16 goals against in the ten games so far this month, an accomplishment that has translated to 16 points to date in March, enough to keep pace with Nashville for third place in the Central Division and remain well ahead of Los Angeles for the last playoff slot.
Although both St. Louis and Nashville have 83 points, the Blues have three more victories than the Predators and thus own sole possession of third place. If the playoffs started tomorrow, the Note would face the second place Wild. Minnesota trails Chicago by six points with a game in hand.
There are now only ten games left in the regular season, six at home, four on the road and eight against clubs out of contention at this writing for postseason play. Nashville has only four games (out of ten remaining) against non-contenders. Los Angeles also has ten games left. However, the Kings have only three games against teams that are below the playoff line and are currently eight points behind the Blues and Preds, making it extremely difficult for L.A. to catch St. Louis or Nashville. The Calgary Flames have 86 points and hold the first wild-card slot, but they trail Anaheim and Edmonton by only one point (not including last night’s game between the Oilers and Ducks). And first-place San Jose, with 91 points, is not out of reach.
St. Louis has a record of 15-7-0 since Mike Yeo took over as coach and the Blues have allowed only38 goals against in those 22 games, an average of 1.73 per match. At the same time, the club has tallied 57 goals, an average of 2.59 per contest. The goal differential has vastly improved from minus-16 on February 1 to plus-6 today. And even without Kevin Shattenkirk, the power play has improved to 22.3%, now fourth best in the league. The penalty kill has remained very, very good at 84.6%, sixth best in the league. Obviously, if the Note can maintain this pace through the end of the regular season, it is possible (and even likely) they can finish with 95-97 points, good enough for third place and a date with the Wild for the first round of postseason play.
And once in the playoffs, anything can happen, especially with good team defense and goaltending and superior special teams. With the steady improvement of Jake Allen over the last two months and the capable play of backup Carter Hutton, the Blues have been on quite a roll, gaining momentum at exactly the right time. And, as noted, the schedule favors continuing success for St. Louis over the last three weeks of the regular season.
So, someone has to ask: Was Ken Hitchcock that terrible of a coach, and is Mike Yeo the next coming of Scotty Bowman?
It would be difficult to declare that Hitchcock, behind only Bowman, Joel Quenneville and Al Arbour as the coaches with the most wins in NHL history, is a bad coach. Hitch also brandishes a Stanley Cup ring (from 1999, with Dallas) and has a Jack Adams Award (2012) to his credit. The Blues amassed an impressive 248-124-41 record under Hitchcock, who led the organization to the playoffs in each of his five full campaigns, including a trip to the Conference Finals last year.
It came as no surprise that a change had to be made after the Blues lost 5-3 to the Winnipeg Jets on January 31. A sloppy, effort from the players, complete with shoddy goaltending and a lack of timely scoring, led to a fourth straight home loss. A major shakeup was needed and since no NHL team was interested in trading with the Blues and the GM can’t fire the players, Hitchcock was the one made to take the fall. Nobody said it was fair.
Perhaps Doug Armstrong created a problem with the unusual move last summer of announcing Hitch would be a lame-duck coach this season with Yeo as his replacement-in-waiting. That may have had a negative effect on the players, now fully aware it would be Hitchcock’s last hurrah.
One thing’s for sure: the coaching change, along with Martin Brodeur (and development coach Ty Conklin) replacing Jim Corsi as goaltending coach, transformed the dynamics of the team, the same thing that happened on Long Island (or Brooklyn if you prefer) when Doug Weight replaced Jack Capuano as interim head coach of the Islanders. Yeo has tightened up the defense, which has helped the goaltenders and has allowed the players more freedom in puck choices, which in turn has led to positives on offense, resulting in more goals scored.
Less structure, more freedom in letting players play their game, and fewer practices (Yeo opts for eliminating some practices and morning skates when necessary) have invigorated the players and taken away some of the wear-and-tear of a long, compacted schedule. That rejuvenation was clearly evident in the Blues’ game Tuesday in Denver, in which they got stronger, instead of wilting and eventually losing, as the game went on, which can often happen in the last game of a long road trip.
Optimism is in the air. Quite a change from two short months ago, no?