Central

St. Louis Blues Have Playoff Demons to Slay

St. Louis Blues Have Playoff Demons to Slay
Andy Dudones

Sometimes a team needs to remind themselves of who they are. The St. Louis Blues are a perfect example of this mental exercise. But with the playoffs looming, who will they see when they look in the mirror? Will it be the team that bulldozed to 99 points through 76 games? Or will it be the reflection of a team that still can’t get it done when it matters most?

 

Weathering the Storm

Losers in five of their last six games, the Blues are reeling as they enter the season’s final month. It’s not as if they’re in uncharted territory, however. Despite going 11-3-1 in the month of March a season ago, St. Louis limped into the playoffs, going 2-6-0, with all six losses dealt consecutively to end the season.

This year, Ken Hitchcock’s team visits the final stretch with a 6-5-3 record in March, with two matchups against the Chicago Blackhawks, their most despised rival, and one against the Minnesota Wild, who’ve gone 8-2-0 in their last 10 outings.

“This time of year, things are dialed up,” Hitchcock told the Associated Press. “If you don’t match it, then any information you’re getting is too much because you’re overwhelmed.

“It’s not like we’re giving up a million chances, but if we increase our competitive level we’ll increase our alertness.”

Since riding back-to-back shutouts against Dallas and Calgary on Mar. 15 and 17, the Note has now surrendered four or more goals in three of their last seven games, yielding four goals apiece in their previous two-game skid against Columbus and Vancouver.

It’s not as if there’s a leak between the pipes, since starting goalie Brian Elliott’s 2.20 goals against average ranks fourth among netminders in the league. But even with Elliott’s 24-14-3 mark to date, the 29-year-old backstop has now lost four consecutive outings while allowing three or more goals in all four appearances.

“Despite a knee injury sustained in November that sidelined Elliott for over a month, the 29-year-old has delivered a strong season thus far. He ranks fifth in the league with a 2.16 goals-against average and has posted a 24-12-3 record with a .921 save percentage. And though he was yanked in a loss to Minnesota over the weekend, Blues goaltending coach Jim Corsi said it was due mostly to uncanny deflections for which Elliott deserved little blame.” — Katie Strang, ESPN 

If Elliott isn’t necessarily to blame, then who or what is?

While injuries have taken a seismic toll, losing key components in Kevin Shattenkirk, Alexander Steen, and most recently Vladimir Tarasenko, this is a team that’s prided themselves on depth and veteran leadership. And even with Shattenkirk fresh off the IR, St. Louis’ play on the back end has recently come into question.

“The lackluster play of Jay Bouwmeester and Carl Gunnarsson overshadow the important return of Norris candidate Kevin Shattenkirk,” said Blues contributor for Along the Boards, Art Lippo. “They haven’t looked the same since returning from their injuries. They look a step slower, and have been the culprits in the big games when a breakdown has occurred, resulting in an goal against. That goes along with barely contributing anything offensively.”

The visible struggles of Bouwmeester and Gunnarsson may be a result of regaining chemistry, or even a flat-out slump. After all, every player experiences their own up’s and down’s throughout their career. But if it’s strictly the latter, it’s a streak of bad luck for a team that feels as if they’re cursed with it heading into the playoffs.

“The Blues dealt with a plethora of injuries at the end of last season that saw them lose the final six games in the regular season and ultimately cost them the Central Division title. The lost momentum carried over into their Western Conference First Round series of the Stanley Cup Playoffs against the Chicago Blackhawks. They’re hoping a repeat isn’t in order.” — Louie Korac, NHL.com

With five different skaters posting 50 or more points, a pair of top tier defensemen in Alex Pietrangelo and Shattenkirk, and a competent goalie in Elliott, the Blues are too talented of a group to be dealing with confidence issues. Especially around this time of the year.

 

Cashing In

Entering their fourth consecutive post-season appearance, St. Louis’ play of late has reflected the doubt that past playoff efforts have construed. Even with a 700-win coach on the bench, and a squad that’s perfectly balanced on paper, it’s as if their third straight 100-point season in a full 82-game schedule is the prelude to another classic early exit.

Since the 2002-03 season, the Blues have been bounced from the playoffs four times in their last five appearances, making it difficult to shake the reputation of a post-season choke team.

“The Blues have lost eight straight road playoff games, and their one win in seven road games against the West’s top six teams this season came in a shootout at Minnesota. A year ago, Western Conference teams went 34-15 at home in the playoffs, including Los Angeles’ perfect 3-0 record at Staples Center in the Stanley Cup Finals.” — Luke Thompson, Fox Sports Midwest

Whatever funk St. Louis heads into the playoffs with, it’ll have to find a way to shake it. To be fair, the current roster has nothing to do with the one of 2003.

If they don’t, there may not be another chance – not with the combined talent this team possesses that is.

The Blues could easily be compared to the San Jose Sharks – from a playoff performance perspective, that is. Both teams have made a habit of running through the regular season, only to collapse when the race for the Cup is on. The only difference, of course, is St. Louis’ home run swing this season.

Not only did GM Doug Armstrong acquire talent in the form of Paul Stastny in the offseason, the 50-year-old executive stocked up on ammunition at the trade deadline, acquiring Zbynek Michalek, along with Robert Bortuzzo.

As it stands, St. Louis’ salary cap shows an opening of just over $2.783 million. And while the upcoming offseason doesn’t offer a wide range of free agents to re-sign, it’s Tarasenko who’ll be due a substantial pay raise.

“The 16th overall pick at the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, it’s conceivable Tarasenko could get a contract similar to what fellow draft mates Taylor Hall got from Edmonton (seven years, $42 million) or Jeff Skinner got from Carolina (six years, $34.35 million). The rub there, of course, is that both those deals were signed shortly before the old collective bargaining agreement expired; under the new CBA, we’ve seen more bridge deals given to RFAs, including a contentious one hammered out between Columbus and the fourth overall pick in Tarasenko’s draft year — Ryan Johansen.

It’s also worth noting that St. Louis doesn’t have a ton of money being freed up at the end of the season. Barret Jackman and his $3.25M cap hit are done, but the Blues have to also re-up with another key RFA: Jake Allen, the club’s goalie of the future.” — Mike Halford, Pro Hockey Talk

Armstrong will also have four defensemen becoming eligible for free agency, with newly acquired Robert Bortuzzo becoming a restricted free agent. The route Armstrong chooses to travel this year will affect the year after, when the contracts of David Backes, Jori Lehtera, Jaden Schwartz, and Ty Rattie (among others) expire.

That may seem like light years away, and in a hockey sense, it is. But for a team that hasn’t made it past the Conference semifinal round since 2001, this year’s St. Louis Blues have to get over their mental hurdle in the playoffs this go-round. From StLouisGameTime.com:

“Simply put, the Blues have had great regular season success and playoff failures because everything changes in late March and April. Armstrong keeps adding pieces that don’t fit and Hitchcock keeps messing with success in search of what works in the playoffs. The teams that have had success in the playoffs — like the Kings and Blackhawks — haven’t suddenly changed everything up come the first round.”

The Blues may play in arguably the best division in the league. They may have suffered a number of inconvenient injuries at inopportune times. Come playoff time, though, the reflection in the mirror may make those obstacles look like an anthill.

Central
Andy Dudones
@ADudones

Andy is a Fanrag Sports and Today’s Slapshot contributor, covering the Eastern Conference’s Atlantic Division and the Western Conference’s Central Division. He also covers the Philadelphia Flyers for The Hockey Writers. Andy holds a bachelor’s degree in communications from Walsh University. He is married with a daughter. In his spare time, Andy enjoys golfing and hanging around family and close friends.

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