(photo courtesy NHL.com)
A Tale of Two Teams
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Ours was a team of checking and physicality, it was a team of softness and turnovers. This season was the beginning of a new belief, it was the beginning of new doubt. It was the season of light and celebration, it was the season of darkness and disappointment. It was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair. We had everything before us, we had nothing before us. We were all going directly to hockey heaven, we were all going direct the other way.
Those words were written 159 years ago about the cities of London and Paris in Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities”, but you don’t have to change many words for them to be a fitting description to the St. Louis Blues season thus far. To say things have been an up-and-down would definitely be an understatement.
First Quarter of the Season
As we have just passed the quarter pole it’s time to take a look back and try to make some sense of what we’ve seen from our boys in blue. Let’s look at the good and the bad.
The Blues have played 22 games and are now 8-11-3. They sit dead last in the central division. Their 19 points leave them 7 points out of a wild-card spot with 5 other teams between them and the final wild-card position. Granted, the Blues have a few games in hand over some of the teams in front of them but at some point, you have to start stringing together some wins.
The best they’ve been able to manage at this point is to have won 2 in a row. They have done so twice. On the other hand, they’ve lost 3 in a row twice as well. You don’t gain ground when you are playing .500 hockey and the Blues aren’t even doing that yet.
In the teams’ 8 wins, the Blues have looked like a good team. They’ve scored 39 goals and allowed only 14. St. Louis’+25 goal differential in just 8 games means they are beating people by an average of more than 3 goals per game. They have scored no less than 4 goals in any of those wins, and have scored 6 goals twice and 7 goals once.
Most every win has been decisive and many have come on the backs of poorly played games, leading every fan to believe that the team has found their stride. But then the next game comes.
With 14 losses, 3 of those coming in overtime, the Blues have scored 28 goals. Their opponents have scored 59 goals. That’s a goal differential of -31. So in those losses, they are being outscored by an average of 2.2 goals per game. They have been shutout 3 times and only scored 1 goal in two other games.
There haven’t been that many close games. When they get beat, they get beat. And we fall right back into the despair of ‘will this team ever get it together?’
True or False? When the Blues are playing a physical game they win. Answer: False.
If you wanted to look at the stats that are kept in the area of physicality, you would look at “hits”. You would expect to see, that when the Blues are checking hard they win. But the stats don’t support that theory. Take a look.
In the team’s 8 wins they have averaged a little more than 20 hits per game to their opponents 19. In their 14 losses, they’ve averaged 22 hits per game to their opponents 18. So they’ve outhit the other team more in the losses than in the wins.
Surprisingly, in the most recent loss to Winnipeg, they had 34 hits to the Jets’ 13. When they were shutout by Los Angeles on Nov. 19th, they led with 28 hits to LA’s 17.
Physicality is part of their game, but it also has to be coupled with an aggressive fore-check, a 200-foot game. The Blues have to be menacing, quick to pucks, supporting one another.
Jake Allen has been in net for 6 of the teams’ wins. In those games, he has a save percentage of .924 and goals allowed average of around 2.2. Overall for the season, his numbers are .896 and 3.27. Not great numbers for the season thus far, but they’ve been climbing as of late. Backup, Chad Johnson is at .895 and 3.12. Johnson has the only shutout for the team this season.
Many of the goals allowed have come off of turnovers in the defensive zone or turnovers that led to breakaways. The team has left the goalies on an island too many times so far this season.
Ryan O’Reilly leads the offense with 26 points on 12 goals and 14 assists. Vladimir Tarasenko has 7 goals and 10 assists. Brayden Schenn and David Perron each have 13 points. Tyler Bozak has 11. Alexander Steen and Alex Pietrangelo are the only other Blues in double figures with 10 points each.
The offense has been amazing at times. Last year’s problems of not being able to score goals were corrected for the most part. Although the Blues went through a stretch where they were shutout 3 of 4 games, they’re averaging more than 3 goals per game. In fact, if you take out the shutouts they’ve averaged 3.52 goals per game. That’s near the top in the league.
But you can’t take the shutouts off the board. They happened.
The Power Play
Last year’s Achilles heel looked like it was fixed early on. The Blues were top 5 in the league on the power play early on thanks to the addition of people like O’Reilly, Bozak, and Pat Maroon. As the season has gone on, the storyline has changed with the team now 1 for 24 in the last 9 games on the power play.
With all of the moves that were made to bring in offensive players in the offseason, why were no moves made on the defensive side of things? Most people felt like we were pretty solid at the blue line. This apparently included the Blues management and coaching staff, as no changes were made to the defense.
But the defense seems to be where the team has struggled the most. Too many turnovers in our own end have led to goals. They’ve led to game-winning goals. The goal in Montreal with 8 seconds left is burnt into our memory banks.
Normally a sound defensive team, so far this season the defensive play has been inconsistent at best. The teams top defensemen have not been exempt from mistakes either. It’s been everyone at some point or another.
The Penalty Kill
If there is one area that doesn’t fit the “Two Teams” theme, I guess it would be the penalty kill. The team has killed off 81.2% of all penalties, good for 12th in the league.
Unfortunately, the teams’ lack of consistency and failure to live up to expectations led to the firing of Mike Yeo. Craig Berube now leads the team and is shouldered with the burden of motivating these guys. He is in familiar territory. He’s done this before.
It is also possible that the other coaching staff changes made prior to the season have led to some of the ups and downs. Mike Van Ryn took over for Darryl Sydor running the defense. With the defensive issues, some could be due to system changes that the players have yet to fully adapt to.
Along with Berube, 9-time Stanley Cup champion Larry Robinson has joined the staff behind the bench. He is a hall of fame defenseman who should be able to help right the defensive ship.
Blues alum, Steve Ott has also moved down from the press box and joined the staff behind the bench.
Currently, the Blues are missing Steen, Carl Gunnarsson, Jaden Schwartz, and Robert Bortuzzo. Other players who have missed games with injury are Joel Edmundson, Schenn, and Maroon. Robby Fabbri also missed some games to start the season while rehabbing in San Antonio.
The team has some depth at the forward position but not a lot of choices for defense when more than one man goes down.
Is the season lost? If not yet, it’s teetering on the brink. Last year at this time the team was 16-5-1 and ended up missing the playoffs. It seems easier to fall out of a playoff spot than to climb up into one.
However, there is always a chance as long as there are games to be played. But, miracle comebacks require something extra, something special to take place. There has to be something inside you that you can summon that will pull your team together. You’ve got to fight every single night and leave everything you have out on that ice.
You can’t look too far ahead. This team has to focus on not just the game or even the period they are playing. They must focus every bit of energy they have on the shift at hand. They’ve got to try to win every puck battle on every shift. Looking ahead is not the answer. The answer lies in the present.
Even then, you may still not have enough inside you to achieve the result that you desire, that goal that you pursue. Let’s hope this team does find that spark. Let’s go Blues!