Lighting the Lamp With Rick Ackerman
The St. Louis Blues are off to a surprising 3-0 first-round Stanley Cup run thanks in large part to the excellent play of goaltender Jake Allen. The 26-year old from Fredericton, New Brunswick, has made an astonishing 114 saves in three playoff games, almost 40 per game, allowing only three goals against. His save percentage is a spectacular 97.4% and his goals-against average is an off-the-charts 0.91. Allen has been the first star of the game twice and second star once. What more needs to be said about why the Blues have been so successful so far in postseason play?
Well, it takes goals to win games, so it should be noted that Jaden Schwartz is the scoring leader with two goals (both game-winners) and an assist, followed by Alexander Steen, with one goal and two assists, and Patrik Berglund with three assists. Defenseman Joel Edmundson has two goals (one a game-winner) and former KHL winger Vlad Sobotka has a goal and an assist. The “other ”Vlad” on the club is without a goal so far, but No. 91 has chipped in two assists. The plus/minus leaders are Berglund and Alex Pietrangelo at plus-3. The only minus player is Kyle Brodziak with a minus-1.
Last year, the Blues also went up against two offensive juggernauts, Chicago and Dallas, allowing the Blackhawks 20 goals in seven games, but holding Chicago to scoring only more than four goals in one game (a 6-3 loss at the United Center). The Note did better against Dallas, allowing only 14 goals against in seven games. The Stars did not score more than three goals in any single game. If, in golf, one drives for show and putts for dough, then in hockey, offense is for show and defense is for dough. For those who may have forgotten, Minnesota had the second-most-potent offense in the NHL during the regular season. Only Pittsburgh scored more goals.
The Blues have been outshot by the Wild by a total of 117 to 79. It is a good thing games are decided by goals rather then shots on goal, right? Obviously, it behooves St. Louis to find a way to prevent so many Wild shots and take a little pressure off Allen, not that he seems bothered by the workload. Actually, it seems the more saves Jake makes, the better he plays. Apparently, GM Doug Armstrong knew what he was doing when he signed Allen to a four-year extension at $4.35 million per year.
Although important, it is also a good thing that faceoffs are not crucial in winning hockey games. Minnesota has won 133 of 222 total faceoffs, meaning St. Louis has won only 40%. Crucial or not, it would help take some of the pressure off the defense, especially in the defensive zone, if the Blues’ centers could improve their prowess on getting possession of the puck first.
Both teams have had excellent penalty killing as St. Louis is nine for ten (the lone Wild power play goal by Charlie Coyle coming on a five-on-three) and Minnesota is eight for nine. One can only imagine how much better the Blues’ power play unit would be with a healthy Paul Stastny (and/or Robby Fabbri, lost for the season with a torn ACL on February 4 during a 4-1 defeat to Pittsburgh) in the lineup. Stastny’s status remains uncertain after suffering an apparent broken foot on March 21 during a 4-2 victory over Colorado.
Even more amazing is that of the eight games played in April so far, the Blues have won seven, outscoring opponents 27 to 18. Since the trade deadline on March 1, the Note has amassed an incredible 18-3-2 record, including credible victories over good teams including Minnesota, Anaheim, San Jose and Nashville. The only regulation losses were to the Jets (twice) and the Ducks.
In comparison, Minnesota has gone 8-15-1 since March 1, saved from total humiliation by a four-game winning steak at the end of the season. After being shutout by the Predators in Nashville, 3-0, the Wild won two games against Colorado and one each against Carolina and Arizona, all teams out of playoff contention. And then, of course, they ran into Jake and the Blues (the name of my new band if I could only write or play music or even sing), resulting in a so-so April record of 4-4.
And now for something completely different: clichés. It ain’t over ‘til it’s over (thank you, Yogi Berra) and an elimination game is always the hardest one to win (thank you, Kelly Chase after Sunday’s victory, Brad Marchand of the Bruins in 2013 and a host of other hockey analysts throughout history). Yogi was spot on, yet statistics show the hardest game to win is actually game four of a series for the team that has a 2-1 lead.
The winning percentage for such a team is around 47% in NHL history, while a team leading a series 3-0 has a 63% chance of winning the series. And teams that historically had a 3-0 lead and then let their opponent force a game seven still have a 52% winning percentage, better than teams in game four up 2-1.
The belief that an elimination game is the hardest comes from the memorable occasions when desperate clubs rallied to stave off elimination. Much more often, teams able to win the first three games of a series have already shown their ability to come prepared and willing to win, and doing it one more time usually results in a fourth win and a handshake line.
Let’s not go back to Minnesota. Please?