The St. Louis Blues had two enormous games this past week against the LA Kings and the Anaheim Ducks. While these games only amounted to four points on paper, they were big tests for a team which has been widely labeled as one of the favorites for the Stanley Cup.
The Blues had been enjoying a month of success which only featured one blemish when the club dropped two points to the Vancouver Canucks. The narrative, as a whole, has been extremely positive. This narrative took an ugly turn when the Kings and Ducks invaded the Scottrade Center. In front of some of their largest crowds of the season, the Blues didn't show up. They played small periods of strong, successful hockey, but the bulk of their effort was beyond disappointing.
Fans are panicking. Are their concerns justified?
Let's look at this as objectively as possible.
It's important to remember a few key things:
- Every team goes through slumps.
- Every team will eventually drop important games to successful opponents.
- There's a lot of hockey left.
I think the concern over the Blues' most recent four performances is valid, but I don't think it's time to hit the big red panic button just yet. We all know that this team is capable of big things and that's why so many of us are freaking out over what we may look back on as a minor hiccup during a long season.
With that being said, the Blues have looked awful at times during the last four games. If you stand back and view their efforts against Vancouver (2-1 loss), Phoenix (2-1 win), Los Angeles (4-1 loss) and Anaheim (3-2 loss), you may be wondering how anyone is picking this team to win the Cup. The difference between what we've seen lately and what we're accustomed to seeing is drastic.
The broadcast has been quick to point out how different the bench feels during these games. Ken Hitchcock is angry and shouting. Players are mostly quiet on the bench. Something just feels ... off.
Who deserves the blame?
There's only one correct answer for this question - everyone.
Fans are eager to find one person to blame. Lately this blame has been on the men in net. When Jaroslav Halak made a really, really silly decision and lost the puck along the boards only to have it wind up in the empty net, all fingers were pointing at Halak. Everyone seemed to forget about the poor defense against the Kings. The out of synch power play against the Kings. The fact that Halak's one blunder alone doesn't matter much as the Blues couldn't muster any offense.
Let's not forget Ken Hitchcock. He mostly deserves a free pass for all of the success he has brought to St. Louis, but we still need to question some of his recent decisions. The Blues were rolling. Several lines looked dominant. The Blues were forced to tinker with their lines as players returned from injury, but Hitchock decided to shake up lines which probably should have been left alone. As they say, if it ain't broke.
Now the Blues look like a lost team. The long winning streak seems like a distant memory.
How do the Blues rebound?
Learn from your mistakes. Big tests against LA and Anaheim will be the norm come playoff time. Things will not be getting any easier. Fans are no longer appreciative of a strong regular season. It's a plus, but the time has come for playoff successes.
Play with confidence. It's incredible that this team could look so lost over a three to four game stretch. Look around the room and realize how much talent there is and go out and play like the team you're capable of being.
Play all three periods. This is probably the most overused expression in hockey. There isn't a single team out there which plays a "hard 60" each and every night. However, the best teams seem to be able to play a strong 50 or strong 40 almost every single night. The Blues have barely played a hard 20 over the last few games. It's maddening. They looked overwhelmed by Anaheim only to start playing in the third period. You can't give a good team a two period advantage.
Is all of this panic and worry premature? Yes and no.
The fans jumping off the ship probably weren't really fans in the first place. In fact, the whole notion of giving up on a squad with a 32-10-5 record is insane. There's still a lot to be excited about. There are always going to be areas of concern, but the positives in 2013-14 dwarf the negatives.
However, this slide is troubling and fans have every right to question what's happening as long as they keep the big picture in perspective. The Blues can beat good teams. They defeated Chicago three times this season. They just need to carry that mental edge against the other good teams around the league.
To me, it's not so much a worry in general as a worry about the Blues performances against teams from the Pacific Division in particular. To wit:
The Blues are 32-10-5 overall. It's tough to argue with a record worth the fourth-most points in the league currently, with games in hand on everyone they're trailing.
Against the East, the Blues are 13-2-1, which compares favorably with the other leaders in the West. (Anaheim, at 16-5-3, leads the pack.) That leaves the remaining 31 games in the books thus far against the West, where the Blues are 19-8-4. Again, tough to complain - the only teams with more points against the West are the two teams leading the Blues in points in the West (Anaheim, 21-4-2; Chicago, 20-6-7).
So, how does that 19-8-4 break down? 13-0-1 against the Central, and 6-8-3 against the Pacific. And that, I think, is what has folks worried. Overall, the Blues are earning 73% of possible points, winning 68% of their games. But against the Pacific, they've taken a mere 44% of possible points, and won only 35% of their games. Of those six wins, four have come against Calgary and Edmonton, games that any team with playoff aspirations should certainly be winning. Their record against Pacific teams currently holding down a playoff spot is 1-8-1 (Ducks: 0-2-0 Sharks: 0-3-0 Kings: 1-2-0 Canucks: 0-1-1), with one game left against each of the Ducks and the Canucks.
Now, here's the silver lining: The Blues play their next six, and eight of their next ten, against the East. Of those, Boston is leading their division, and the Rangers (and maybe the Red Wings, depending on how the tie-breakers shake out) are playoff teams as of today. The rest, being the Devils, Islanders, Hurricanes, and Senators, should certainly be beatable without a great deal of fuss. In other words, it's a great time for the Blues to get healthy record-wise, after going through a stretch of teams from the Pacific.
In a way, I might almost feel better if the Blues did struggle on the start of this Eastern swing. We could chalk the recent slide up to a slump, rather than having this mysterious block against playing well against the Pacific. Time will tell, of course, and I'm certainly not concerned for the regular season at this point - all this tells me at the moment is, it'll be time to worry if and when the Blues run into their first Pacific Division competitor in the playoffs.
Three things bother me:
1. Sample size. The whole inability to beat Cali is still based on a relatively small sample, all things considered. Over large enough stretches you're bound to see some small statistical anomalies over different lengths of time. Now that we're focused on the narrative, the narrative seems larger.
2. The 5-0 victory over LA. Yes, Quick was out, but fans are forgetting the Blues shredded LA's defense and completely contained their offense. That's pretty noteworthy, in my opinion.
3. "Blues can't beat the best teams." What about Chicago? Blues beat CHI three times this year. The days of the Blues failing to beat CHI each and every game are over. That's noteworthy too.
@David Rogers That's certainly valid from a statistics point of view. Of course, with the new schedule, the Blues have done almost all the playing against the Cali teams that they're going to do, so until and unless they re-encounter one or more of them come playoff time, it's tough to chalk up either in the "Cali teams own us for some reason" category or the "Random statistical blip that happens to be centered on Cali teams" category.
Meanwhile, yes, beating the Hawks three times, beating Pittsburgh 2-1, Boston 3-2 on the road, and a couple quality wins against the Avalanche, as well. It's not as though the Blues have been doing nothing but feasting on the dregs and not playing any quality competition, and that short list leaves out plenty of other teams currently in the playoff picture in one conference or another that the Blues have beat. Honestly, that's probably *why* there's so much focus on the record against the Cali teams (plus the 'nucks).