ST LOUIS, Mo – St. Louis ended their regular season in dramatic fashion, winning a 4-3 at home in a shootout win against the Winnipeg Jets, but having lost two leads in the process before victory. While the Note is having one of its’ finest campaigns in their 46th season, they have some work to do in order to finish the regular season strong and repair some glaring deficiencies to compete in the extra season with the strong Western conference teams.
As a current status, with a record of 39-12-6 for 84 points through 57 games, the Blues are 1st in the Central division winning the point total tiebreaker over Chicago by having three games in hand. St. Louis holds the best winning percentage in the League at 0.737.
St. Louis also is second in the Western Conference and the entire league only trailing the Pacific Division leader Anaheim who has 87 points, but also with three games in hand. The Blues face the Ducks in Anaheim February 28rth. St. Louis was dominated by Anaheim 5-2 on home ice December 7th.
Still, the overall strong results are coming from several key statistical areas.
Offensively, St. Louis scores 3.32 goals per game, 2nd only to Chicago’s 3.37. While the Blues rank 19th with 29.8 shots per game, they rank 1st in scoring percentage by netting 11.13% of their shots, nearly a full percentage point ahead of 2nd place Anaheim with 10.35%. This proves St. Louis takes more quality shots in scoring at such a strong rate.
Defensively, St. Louis allows just 2.32 goals per game, 3rd to Los Angeles’ 2.10 and Boston’s 2.14. The Blues rank 2nd in shots allowed with 26.6 per game, 2nd only to New Jersey with 25.4. It is simple; allowing fewer shots typically means allowing fewer goals.
The balance needed for success in the offensive and defensive sides of the ice are best detailed with New Jersey’s current season. Even with leading the League in fewest shots against and ranking fifth in goals against (with 2.34), the Devils rank 23rd in points with 61 and a poor 24-22-13 record. They needed scoring and will not succeed without it.
Special teams are playing a big role with the Blues success this season as well.
St. Louis is 4th on the power play with a 21.7% conversion rate. The only trail Pittsburgh (25.4%), Toronto (22.2%) and Chicago (22.1), all worthy contenders for the Stanley Cup. The Blues have scored 45 goals, 24 at home and 21 away, and only trail Pittsburgh (48) and Washington (47).
On the penalty kill, the Blues are 4th with an 85.1% survival rate. They only trail New Jersey (87.4%), Pittsburgh (87%) and Montreal (86%). St. Louis has allowed just 30 goals against while shorthanded, good for 7th in the league allowing 17 shorthanded goals against at home and 13 shorthanded goals against on the road.
It is always a huge edge when a team scores first and leads at key moments during a game. When St. Louis scores first, their winning percentage is 0.868, good for 3rd only trailing Pittsburgh (0.903) and Colorado (0.882).
When they lead after the first period, their winning percentage is 0.889, good for fourth and trailing just Pittsburgh (0.952), Colorado (0.920) and Nashville (0.895).
However, when St. Louis trails after the first period, their winning percentage drops to 13th at 0.316. Anaheim leads in this category at a surprising 0.607, but most clubs ahead of St. Louis are in the high-to-mid 0.300 percentage.
When the Blues lead after two periods, they rank 14th in winning just 0.867 of their games, something which has become an apparent problem as they club has struggled to hold leads in the last few weeks worth of games. They will have to protect their leads in the final weeks of the season to be successful the rest of the way.
Individually, the Blues are getting scoring support throughout the roster. Currently, St. Louis has eight goal scorers in double digits. Two snipers have 20+ goals, silver-medalist Alex Steen with 28 and Captain David Backes with 20.
In assists, fourteen players have at least ten with seven having at least 20 and two having at least 30 (defenseman and gold medalist Alex Pietrangelo with 35 and right wing T.J. Oshie with 32). In points, thirteen players have at least 20, nine have at least 30 and five have at least 40 with Alex Steen leading with 46 total points.
Defensively, the team is getting good scoring support from the backline. Three defenseman have more than 30 points with Pietrangelo registering 41. Kevin Shattenkirk is 36 points and gold-medalist Jay Bouwmeester has 32.
As for player ratings, only Magnus Paajarvi is on the minus side with a -5 in 37 games. The young left winger acquired from Edmonton for David Perron, Paajarvi has four goals and four assists for eight points. He is averaging just over ten minutes a game and just over 15 shifts a game with limited contributions over the last few weeks.
Of those players who might have trouble sticking around for the stretch run, Chris Stewart is tops on the list. The 6’2”, 231 lb. right winger has played in all 57 games tallying 15 goals and 11 assists for 26 points and a low +2 rating. He has just one assist in the last five games and two assists since January 10th. The streaky scorer, he last lit the lamp on January 9th and has just two goals since December 21st.
Last season in all 48 games, Stewart scored 18 goals and added 18 helpers for 36 points and had an even player rating for a team who had a solid positive goal differential. Essentially, the experiment with Stewart has not worked out. Others are stepping up on the team making his role less significant. I have heard from several sources how is presence in the locker room is a bit of an issue, not necessarily the type of player who fits well. With a cap hit of $4,150,000 and a contract with another year left on it, it is likely another team might find value in adding the once powerful forward with a change of scenery possibly making the difference.
Another is Jaroslav Halak who has appeared in 39 games (starting 37 games) and holds a 24-8-4 record allowing 82 goals and 2.26 goals against per game, a save percentage of 0.915 and 4 shutouts. Brian Elliott has contributed heavily in a supporting role appearing in 24 games (starting 20 games) with a 15-4-2 allowing 46 goals against per game, a save percentage of 0.916 and 3 shutouts. But he struggled a little down the stretch and showed poorly for Slovakia in an Olympic collapse. I don’t think he is the answer short or long-term for the Blues and is a free agent at season’s end.
Soon-to-be free agent goaltender Ryan Miller from Buffalo is an attractive option at first glance, but there is competition in the market for his services in the form of division-rival Minnesota and Washington in the Eastern Conference where goaltending, along with a better team-defensive game has been a huge problem. Miller currently has a cap hit of $6,250,000 and might be acquired for either Halak or Elliott (my bet is Halak), a current roster player and a prospect and draft picks. I hear Miller may provide similar problems in the locker room which affect teammates, though. Either way, look for Miller to be moved.
As for the Blues, here is where things get tricky as they emerge from the lengthy Olympic break. The remaining 25 games involve 11 home tilts and 14 road battles, and a formidable test for St. Louis. Beginning with the game Wednesday night in Vancouver, six of the next seven games are on the road as the Blues play Anaheim on Friday and Phoenix on Sunday before returning home against a tough Tampa Bay club. They then head back on the road to face Nashville, Colorado and Minnesota.
After completing that stretch, the next 18 games involve 11 at home and 7 on the road with a four-game road stretch at the end of March when St. Louis faces Chicago, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Toronto. If they can weather these two rough stretches, the Blues finish 7 of their last ten at home to close out the regular season, a nice way to transition into the playoffs in front of their home fans.
The first two games this week will see how the lay-off has affected the nine-Olympians and the balance of the team who had the more than two-week break. If ever there was a time for the Blues to show their mettle, it is now.
Also, look for my reports and stories from the 2014 Tom Horton’s NHL Heritage Classic from B.C. Place in Vancouver where the Canucks host the Ottawa Senators. It is the sixth and last of the outdoor games and is sure to be a magnificent event in the recently renovated facility.
Follow me on Twitter at @DMMORRELL