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Throwin’ Punches Around

One of the strangest things about sports centers on the ever-evolving expectations put on a team, whether by its self, its fan base, or both, and if St. Louis Blues Head Coach Mike Yeo has his club’s mindset centered, they’re looking at both today when they take the Wells Fargo Center ice at noon today to face the Philadelphia Flyers.

A week ago today, the two-fold expectation centered on snapping a two-game losing streak (to division opponents, no less) and kicking off a three-game home stand against one decent opponent, the results of which would set the table for two contests against top National Hockey League teams. The Note knocked off the Carolina Hurricanes in that first game, completed the season series sweep in the second via an overtime over the New Jersey Devils Tuesday, and fought with vigor to edge the Vegas Golden Knights Thursday evening. All three victories came via one-goal margins (a concern in and of itself), but netted the Blues a respectable six total points in what has become a tight Central Division race.

So the expectation shifts. The Blues had to get their game straight. They had to come out of the home stand with at least two points and if they’d done only that the pressure to regroup, to regain their edge would have become the focus. The overall outcome of the home stand would not have warranted critical examination, but it would’ve shaped the perception of the team in a different fashion. Since they not only beat Carolina, but knocked off the Knights and the Devils as well, the scope now looks something more like, You beat two teams no one would’ve crucified you for had you not, so now go out there and beat a team you’re supposed to beat.

Sports never pretended to be fair but in all fairness to Blues fans, St. Louis -- regardless of the fact that the N.H.L. has quietly emerged as the biggest any-given-Sunday league in professional American sports -- should beat Philly. They got blanked by the Flyers at Scottrade Center in early November and Head Coach Dave Hakstol’s club, having gone 5-4-1 in their last 10, sits in last place in the Metropolitan Division. And the only reason that stretch shows a plus-.500 mark is because they beat a New York Islanders club Thursday night that sits two points above them in their same division.

A hockey season resembles the contents of a petri dish. When viewed from above and through a lens it can look like 25 micro campaigns that, clumped together, represent the whole thing. After each chunk of games -- and in certain scenarios after each game -- a team must ask itself who it wants to be, which is what the Blues should be doing today.

With a franchise like St. Louis’ such a question comes with a bit of trickiness. It has, for over 50 years, been associated with greatness. Many are the accolades that merit such a label, but that label will always hover a notch below excellence and the one thing keeping it from advancing to that next level comes in the form of the greatest trophy in professional sports, a trophy that has eluded this team for over a half a century. Thus, the 2017-18 St. Louis Blues, under the leadership of Tom Stillman and Doug Armstrong, and under the guidance of Yeo and his staff, must ask themselves which they want to be.

And every fan knows the answer. Of course they want excellence. Of course they seek a championship. How, though, will they get there? Barring an unforeseen catastrophe, they have already achieved greatness this season. They have maintained superior status within the division, the conference, and the league, but they must top that. They must hit that acme and contend for that trophy, and once they’ve hit a spot of contention, they must earn that highest mark. Then and only then may they, along with the rest of the hockey world, consider themselves excellent.

This of course does not imply that a loss to the Flyers today wrecks the journey. Nor does a loss tomorrow to the Washington Capitals. This little two-game road trip, though a key cluster, bears little impact to the overall regular-season effort. It does matter, though, and winning today (and maybe even tomorrow) adds to one of those intangibles that excellent teams have: character.

The sky would not have fallen had the Blues lost to Vegas Thursday night. Everyone knows that that expansion franchise has all but rewritten history. Everyone knows they’re a solid team and with the leadership it has in place they appear to have set themselves in position to be good for a few years. You don’t want to get swept by the Knights, though. And in fact if you lose to them in their barn, in overtime, early in the season, when they came out of the gates hotter than any team in hockey, and you then beat them on your own home ice, you deserve kudos.

It’s no real feather for the season’s cap, but it’s a nice little historical nugget.

A nice, big historical nugget would be to figure out a way to start scoring goals. Deep defense, a mix of youth and veteran leadership in your forward lines, and a pair of pretty good goaltenders equals greatness, and greatness is something the Blues earned a long, long time ago. What the Blues need is excellence, and the first step in pointing their ship in that direction means creating better scoring chances.

High shot totals has been a nice place to start for St. Louis, but only goals pay the bills, and the Blues are outside of the top 10 in the league in goals. Even though they’re in the top 10 in shots per games played, they’re not converting in either 5-on-5 hockey or on the power play (28th in the league). They’re holding their own in the defensive end, making some good stops in the net, and playing an admirable transition game. They’ve got to figure out a way to light the lamp more often, though, and a great place to start would be today against the Flyers.