Lighting the Lamp With Rick Ackerman
Make no mistake, the visiting Calgary Flames are a pretty good hockey team. Despite a hard-fought loss to the Predators in Nashville Thursday, the Flames are still in playoff contention occupying the first wild-card slot in the Western Conference with 86 points. They have slipping down to fourth in the Pacific Division behind third-place Edmonton and second-place Anaheim, trailing both by three points, while division-leading San Jose has 91 points, not including Friday’s results.
Like the Blues, Calgary has advanced to playoff contention in March with stellar defensive play, due in large part to the efforts of goaltender Brian Elliott. The Flames record in March is 7-3-0, with impressive victories over Montreal (5-0), Winnipeg (3-0), Pittsburgh (4-3 shootout) and Los Angeles (5-2). Elliott earned both shutouts and was instrumental in the wins against Pittsburgh and Los Angeles, tying Mike Vernon for the Flames franchise record of 11 straight wins in the game against the Kings. That streak ended in the Flames’ 4-2 loss to Washington Tuesday night. The Capitals fired 40 shots at Elliott (Alexander Ovechkin alone had 11), and Elliott kept Calgary in the game until Ovechkin’s third period power play goal with less than three minutes left sealed the Caps’ victory.
Ex-Blue Elliott has improved to a respectable 2.50 goals-against average and save percentage of 91.1%, with 23 wins in 39 games started. That compares to Jake Allen’s 2.44 goals GAA and 91.3% SP, with 28 victories in 52 games started. Both goaltenders have rebounded from shaky starts, playing supremely well and leading their teams to success over the better part of two months.
Since February 1, the Flames have amassed an impressive 16-5-1 record, slightly better than the Blues run of 16-7-0 in February and March. And in a rather strange oddity, St. Louis has scored 205 goals and allowed 196 against in 72 games, while Calgary has scored 204 goals and allowed 200 against in 74 games. In the last ten games the Blues are 9-1-0 with a plus-18 goal differential, while the Flames are 7-3-0 with a plus-11 goal differential.
Suddenly this is becoming a very interesting edition of the Note in their 50th-year anniversary year. With two regular centers in the infirmary due to injury, the Blues nonetheless continue to surprise with unanticipated players stepping up with timely goals to win games. Magnus Paajarvi potted two goals (Nos. 7 and 8) and fourth-liner Kyle Brodziak got the game-winner (No. 8) in Thursday’s win over Vancouver. Paajarvi also scored a goal in Tuesday’s victory over the Avs in Denver. Rookie Zach Sanford, acquired from Washington in the Shattenkirk deal, has a goal and two assists in five games. Recently extended Patrik Berglund scored two goals against Colorado (Nos. 20 and 21), approaching a personal record for goals scored. Berglund had a career best 22 goals in the 2010-11 season. He also scored 21 in his rookie year, 2008-09. Last season the lanky Swede had a mere 10 goals, albeit in only 42 games.
And did I mention that Jake Allen has been doing a good job?
The Blues are on a quite a roll with only two weeks and eight games left in the regular season. And it is a favorable schedule indeed with seven matches against teams not in playoff contention, including two each with Arizona and Colorado, both in last place in their respective divisions.
St. Louis, 9-1 in its last ten, is currently in third place in the Central Division with 85 points, nine behind second-place Minnesota, 2-8 in the last ten. The Wild also have a favorable schedule with six of eight games against non-playoff teams, including two with the Avs and one with the Coyotes. It is unlikely, although not impossible, that the Blues can catch Minnesota; just as it is equally just as unlikely that the Wild can catch the Blackhawks, who are now eight points ahead, enjoying the view from the division penthouse.
Nashville also has 85 points, but holds the second wild-card slot with three fewer victories than the Note. After tonight’s home game against the Sharks, the Predators face non-playoff teams four times, including tough opponents Boston and Toronto, and more important, Minnesota at home and the Blues on the road, with the last on April 2 a game that may turn out to be the most decisive of the season with regard to who finishes third and who gets the second wild card (or who faces Minnesota and who opens in Chicago in the playoffs).
Realistically, Los Angeles is the only team capable of displacing anyone in the Western Conference from the playoffs, and that just isn’t going to happen barring a miracle. The Kings have 77 points, eight behind the Blues and Wild and nine behind the Flames), but six of L.A.’s eight remaining games after tonight are against good teams who will qualify for the playoffs. Los Angeles will be hard pressed to attain more than 90 points, and that should not be too difficult a task for any of Nashville, St. Louis or Calgary.
Blues Nation can only hope that Paul Stastny is back for the last five games of the season, starting with the crucial match-up with Nashville a week from tomorrow. Mostly due to the improved play of rookie center Ivan Barbashev, (one goal and three assists in the last five games), the absence of Jori Lehtera has not been noticeable. Perhaps Stastny’s return will help pep up leading scorer Vlad Tarasenko, (two goals in his last six games). The Russian sniper is six short of the coveted 40-goal mark with nine matches remaining in the regular season.