Lighting the Lamp With Rick Ackerman
On February 1 of this year, the St. Louis Blues had lost five of their last six games and with 53 points were ninth of 14 teams in the Western Conference, out of playoff contention and trailing eighth-place Calgary by two points. The Note trailed division-rivals Nashville by three points, Chicago by 13 points and Minnesota by 18 points. And they were only one point ahead of Winnipeg, Dallas and Vancouver. Any of Jake Allen, Patrik Berglund, Alexander Steen and Jaden Schwartz were simply awful at the time, as Allen couldn’t stop the archetypal beach ball while the forwards could not seem to generate any offense.
Following a horrid 5-3 loss on home ice to Winnipeg on January 31, Ken Hitchcock was summarily dismissed and Mike Yeo took over the head coaching duties, winning his first game in a spiffy 5-1 romp over Toronto. After a tough home loss to Pittsburgh (the game in which Robby Fabbri went down with a season-ending ACL injury), the Blues commenced a surprising streak, defeating Philadelphia, Ottawa, Toronto, Montreal and Detroit on the road, outscoring them by a total of 16 to 3 in the five games. Wow!
After returning home to defeat Vancouver in a tight 4-3 contest, the Blues went on to lose four consecutive games, three by one goal to Buffalo, Florida and Edmonton and a 4-2 setback in Chicago. The loss of Kevin Shattenkirk just before the trade deadline on March 1 dampened any hope St. Louis would improve, especially on the power play. A pathetic 3-0 effort in Winnipeg on March 3 furthered the despair of Blues Nation, as it once again appeared the season was lost. Yikes!
And then all of a sudden things changed.
Jake Allen made 27 saves in a 3-0 victory in Colorado on March 5, ending the Blues’ five-game losing streak. Rookie defenseman Jordan Schmaltz made his NHL debut, playing just over 15 minutes in the Colorado win with a plus-one. Two nights later, Allen made 32 saves in a 2-1 triumph in Minnesota. Vlad Tarasenko netted the game-winner, his 29th goal of the season, midway through the third period. The Note then returned home to defeat the Ducks and Islanders by identical 4-3 scores, with Joel Edmundson scoring the game-winner against Anaheim with 20 seconds left, while Berglund’s 19th goal of the season was the winner against New York.
A five-game road trip resulted in four victories over the Kings, Sharks, Coyotes and Avalanche, with the only blemish a tough 2-1 loss to the Ducks. The Blues outscored their opponents 14 to 6 in that span. Unfortunately, center Paul Stastny was lost in the first period in Denver with a foot injury (toe fungus?), but Berglund scored two goals (Nos. 20 and 21) and a rejuvenated Magnus Paajarvi netted his sixth goal on a neat pass from center Ivan Barbashev. Rookie forward Zach Sanford, acquired from Washington in the Shattenkirk deal, had two assists in his third game, playing a season-high 13:22 minutes. Goaltender Allen also played well, enabling the Blues to tie Nashville for third place in the Central Division. St. Louis returned home to beat Vancouver, gained a point in an overtime loss to Calgary and easily handled Arizona 4-1. Then it was back on the road to Arizona, a 3-1 win, and Denver, a 2-1 shootout loss.
The Blues gained points in 13 of 15 games in March with an almost unimaginable 11-2-2 record, clinching a playoff spot despite the loss to Colorado Friday night. With injuries to Fabbri, Stastny, Dmitrij Jaskin and center Jori Lehtera, several others have stepped up, including Paajarvi (three goals and an assist in the last six games; seven goals and three assists since being recalled from the AHL Chicago Wolves), Barbashev (four goals and four assists), Sanford (one goal, two assists in nine games) and even Nail Yakupov (three goals and six assists). The Blues outscored opponents 41 to 24 in March.
Of the five remaining games in the regular season, today’s match with Nashville is the most important as it will probably decide who finishes third in the division and will face Minnesota in the first round of the playoffs. The schedule favors the Blues, who meet Winnipeg at home, the Panthers in Florida, the Hurricanes in Carolina and Colorado at home. After today’s contest, Nashville has three games left against the Islanders at home, the Stars in Dallas and the Jets at Winnipeg.
Of course, whoever finishes in the final playoff slot will open the postseason in Chicago, assuming Calgary (or possibly San Jose) ends the season with the seventh seed. The Sharks are in a funk, going 2-8 in their last ten games. The Flames, 6-4 in their last ten, have a home-and-home with Anaheim and then finish the season at Los Angeles and San Jose.
Pekka Rinne and the Predators deserve a lot of credit for knocking off Minnesota yesterday afternoon, 3-0. Rinne made 31 saves for his third shutout of the season. The win enabled Nashville to equal the Blues’ total of 91 points, although the Note still holds third place due to two more wins than the Preds, as well as leading the ROW, 41 to 38. Plus, St. Louis has a game in hand. Nashville is now 7-3-0 in their last ten games, slightly behind the Blues 7-1-2 record. The reeling Wild are now 2-6-2 in the last ten.
So, the game today has great importance as to whether the Blues (or Predators) finish third or eighth and play the Wild or first-place Chicago (7-1-2 in the last ten). Whom do you want the Note to face in the opening round?