Where has the season gone? It seems like only yesterday, but it was way back when in October that we were carping about how the St. Louis Blues were a much weaker team this year with the departure of David Backes, Troy Brouwer and Brian Elliott. Many negative denizens of Blues Nation thought without a net-front presence, both the offense and power play would suffer greatly. They predicted that Jake Allen was not a number-one net minder and would not stand up to the pressure without Elliott around and cause Doug Armstrong to go looking for a veteran goalie at the trade deadline.
And there was grumbling that the Blues were not physically imposing enough with the off-season subtractions. Who was going to bump and grind effectively up front and force the opposing defense to cough up the puck? Who would be able to screen the opposing goalie and cause mayhem in the slot?
At this writing Backes, age 32, (with a salary cap hit of $6 million) has 17 goals and 38 points and a plus-3 in 73 games with Boston, while David Perron, age 28, (salary cap hit of $3.75million) is 18/46/minus-1 in 80 matches for St. Louis. Brouwer, age 31, (salary cap hit of $4.5 million) is 13/25/minus-11 in 73 games for Calgary. Maybe Armstrong wasn’t so clueless after all.
And Allen’s numbers (2.43 goals against average, .914 save percentage with 32 wins in 60 games played) are better than Elliott’s (2.55 GAA, .910 SP with 26 wins in 48 games played). Allen is also six years younger than Elliott, who is celebrating his 32nd birthday today. Apparently Armstrong knew what he was doing all along.
There were complaints that the Blues still lacked a true number-one center, with Paul Stastny, Patrik Berglund and Jori Lehtera incapable of generating enough offense to keep the club in contention. And losing coaches Brad Shaw and Kirk Mueller (to Columbus and Montreal respectively) would mean special teams would not be as good. On top of all that, there was grousing that Ken Hitchcock was supposedly being ignored by the veteran players, who were tuning him out and keeping the club disjointed and off balance, and that was he was not capable of leading the squad far in the playoffs (despite last season’s unexpected playoff run to the Conference Finals).
Despite everything, the boys got off to a great start, handily winning the season opener in Chicago, 5-2. The rest of October was decent with a 4-2-2 record, albeit being outscored, 19-17. The team won some big games in November against San Jose, Nashville, Boston and Minnesota and had a respectable 13-7-3 record for the month, though outscored again, 63-62. December was decidely average as the club went 6-6-5, scoring 40 goals, but giving up 47.
Then January happened.
The highlight of the month, and perhaps of the season, was an exhilarating 4-1 thrashing of the Blackhawks at the outdoor Winter Classic. Subsequently, however, the Note went 4-8-0 the rest of the month, losing two at home to Ottawa and Washington and then suffering consecutive losses to Minnesota and Winnipeg to slip out of playoff contention. That prompted Armstrong to sack Hitchcock on February 1 and promote Mike Yeo. The club responded by winning seven of its next eight games and it appeared to right the ship.
Not so fast! St. Louis lost the next five in a row (at Florida and Edmonton at home and at Buffalo, Chicago and Winnipeg). And Kevin Shattenkirk was shipped off to Washington just before the trade deadline for next to nothing (as thought at the time by many disappointed fans).
Then, against all odds, the Blues only went on an unbelievable roll, going 11-1-2 the rest of March, clinching a playoff spot and likely finishing third in the Central ahead of Nashville, especially due to a huge win over the Predators last Sunday afternoon to start April. What a thrilling, up-and-down roller-coaster ride this 50th anniversary season has turned out to be!
The visiting Colorado Avalanche will win one thing this season: either the first or second selection in June’s Entry Draft, depending on whether they win the draft lottery. By far the worst team in the league, with 45 points and 33 games under .500, the Avs would just as soon forget this season, trailing the second-worst team, Vancouver, by a whopping 22 points. Colorado has the least-effective offense (just under two goals per game) and worst defense (3.37 goals-against per game) in the NHL. The power play is ranked last (12.7%), while the penalty kill is rated second to last (75.5%). Especially so, with nothing to lose, Colorado is capable of beating St. Louis tonight, as they showed in their recent 2-1 shootout victory over the Note in Denver. The Avs also defeated Chicago Tuesday with former Blue Erik Johnson going coast to coast to score the winning goal in overtime.
So, off we go into postseason play! Washington, Pittsburgh and Chicago are the heavy favorites due to regular season dominance and star-studded rosters. The second tier includes Anaheim (8-0-2 in the last ten games), Montreal (7-2-1), Edmonton (8-2-0), Toronto (7-3-0), Boston (6-3-1) and Minnesota (5-3-2). Due to poor play in the last ten games, next come San Jose (3-7-0), Columbus (3-5-2) and New York (3-3-4). And then there are St. Louis (although 7-1-2, still considered a dark horse), Nashville (6-3-1), Calgary (5-5-0) and Ottawa (4-4-2).
Of course, the axiom by veteran hockey fans is that the playoffs constitute a whole new season, and the regular season, including the last ten matches, is utterly meaningless.
We will soon see, will we not?