This is the year.
If you are a Blues fan, this is what’ve you’ve continually been chanting for the past few decades. The team has had no shortage of skilled teams that should’ve gone all the way, and yet they’ve failed to close in on Lord Stanley’s Cup. So, here it is again. This is the year.
It’s hard not to be optimistic after a win like last night against the Chicago Blackhawks, where Alexander Steen rifled one past goaltender Corey Crawford in the waning moments of the game. Add on top of that a 7-0 thrashing of Florida Panthers, and a solid 4-2 win over their division rivals, the Nashville Predators, and you can see why the continued chant of “This is the year”, goes on.
It takes an eternal optimist to be a Blues fan, and this year will be no exception. The team has their first 3-0 start since the 1993-94 season, a season which contained the likes of Brett Hull and Brenden Shannahan. It’s important to not read into the start too much though. 2 of the 3 wins came from teams who are likely to struggle this season, and a lot can happen over the remaining 79 games in the season. Let’s go over the good, the bad, and the ugly of the start of the Blues’ stellar season.
In a move that’s come as an absolute surprise to nobody, Cardinals shortstop Rafael Furcal has elected to undergo Tommy John surgery (for the uninitiated, TJ is ligament replacement surgery in the elbow), meaning he will miss the 2013 season. Furcal felt a pop making a throw in a game against the Nationals on August 30 last season and elected against surgery at that point, opting for aggressive rehab. The Cardinals tried to track his progress in the off-season, and Furcal made a single appearance in a B-team game this spring before he sought a second opinion for his balky arm.
Furcal was traded to the Cardinals back in 2011 from the Dodgers in exchange for Alex Castellanos to provide a bit of stability to the shortstop position, a job he did marvelously well. He injected a bit of pop into the lineup (7 HR in just 50 games) as the Cardinals won the World Series and was an All-Star last year due to a strong first half (through May, he was batting .333) before he faltered down the stretch. Regardless of how his rehab goes, his career with the Cardinals could well be over. The team signed him to a two-year deal after the 2011 season, but he’ll be 36 by next season, and the Cardinals HAVE to look for a long-term solution to shortstop.
Ok, maybe I should have done this recap one game earlier, as the title isn’t too catchy.
As it stands, the Blues are currently resting in fifth place in the Western Conference, a point ahead of San Jose. While this would put them in a playoff spot, it’s a pretty far cry from where they stood after seven games, when they’d gone 6-1 and looked to be among the elite of the NHL.
What’s Gone Right?
Vlad the Tank has been the player most Blues fans have been drooling over ever since he was drafted. How’s he handled this pressure?
Through his first 17 games, Tarasenko’s scored 6 goals and registered 6 assists. Although this total isn’t exactly the sexiest point total hockey fans would dream of, it’d still put him on pace for 29 goals and 29 assists in a full 82-game schedule. Obviously, that’s a rough estimate, and not everything’s going to come easy for him, but not everyone’s exactly going to come out and be the next Crosby.
Tarasenko’s just 21, and he’s still adjusting to the NHL game. Hopefully this concussion is a minor issue (both immediately and down the road; he also suffered a concussion in the KHL earlier this season) and he gets back on the ice quickly.
Save of the year?
Could very well be. Allen’s great play as a backup couldn’t have come at a better time. He gave up a goal on his very first shot in the NHL and didn’t look back. In his four starts, the Blues went 3-1 and he posted a respectable save percentage of .914. With a healthy Jaroslav Halak back in the net, the Blues sent Allen back down to Peoria to keep him sharp. Given the way he played in his cup of coffee with the Blues, he won’t be down there long.
Quick, name the Blues’ leading goal-scorer.
Yeah, I’m surprised, too. After setting a career high in goals (22) and points (52) in 2010-11, Berglund regressed a big last year in the points total, tallying just 19 goals and 19 assists on the season. Through 17 games this season, Berglund’s already nearly halfway there with nine goals. Given his track record, it’s unlikely he’ll continue at this pace, but who knows? Perhaps a shortened season can keep him going strong. Given the Blues’ disappointing blue-line play, they’ll need to keep up their scoring pace (3.0 goals per game, fifth in the NHL).
What’s Gone Wrong?
The Blues’ bread and butter last year has regressed into a mess this year. During the rough five-game losing streak, much blame was assigned on Brian Elliott’s shoulders, and some of it was deserving. He let in several soft goals and rarely came up with huge saves. For the most part, though, the defense this year has been less-than-stellar. The team that gave up just 155 goals last year (an NHL record 1.89 per game) has to this point surrendered 50, tied for ninth-most in the league, and an average of 2.94 per game.
What’s changed? It’s not the system, as Hitchcock has preached a consistent style of defense in his time here. It’s not the players, as for the most part, the Blues return the same defense as last year (the addition of Wade Redden the lone exception). Perhaps the answer lies in the other zone, as the Blues have upped their scoring average (from 2.51 goals per game last year) with increased pressure in the opposing end. This pressure, though, has backfired at times, with the team caught in odd-man rushes and allowing breakaways for their opponents.
The result? While the Blues are still allowing the fewest shots against per game (23.1 this year, 26.7 last year), teams are getting much better looks against the goaltending. Last year, the combination of Halak and Elliott saved 92.9% of all shots against them (a league best); this year, Halak, Elliott, and Allen have saved only 89.7% of the shots they’ve faced, which currently ranks them dead last, well below Ottawa’s league-leading 94.2%
Last year, the Blues set a team record for wins at home when they went 30-6-5 at Scottrade while managing a respectable 19-16-6 on the road. This year, it’s been a complete and diametric opposite. While they’re 6-2-1 on the road, they’re just 3-4-1 at home.
Perhaps it’s due to bad bounces; perhaps the home cooking isn’t as good. The Blues scored 14 goals in their first three games at home, but in the five since, they’ve managed a total of nine, and five of them came in one game, a loss to Anaheim.
The good news is, there’s still time to right the ship. The Blues play their next three games at home, starting with Columbus (dead last in the Western with 12 points, 2-6-0 on the road) before they host the unbelievably hot Blackhawks (still undefeated in regulation at 14-0-3), then Edmonton (12th in the Western conference with 15 points). After that, they’ll head West for a five-game road trip and be gone for ten days. There’s still a lot of hockey to go, and even with Tarasenko out temporarily, the return of Halak should at least hopefully provide a morale boost
Way Down the Road
Keep an eye on Ty Rattie, who’s currently in his fifth season at Portland in the WHL. The Blues’ second-round pick in 2011 has emerged as a scoring presence the last two years. While he posted a respectable 79 points in 67 games in 2010-11, he exploded last year for 121 points (57 goals, 64 assists) in 69 games during the regular season, and another 19 goals and 14 assists in 21 games during the playoffs. This year, he’s registered 35 goals and 53 assists in 52 games for the Winter Hawks. Now, obviously the WHL isn’t in the league of the NHL in terms of talent, and last year he benefited from playing alongside Sven Baertschi, a first-round pick of the Flames, but Rattie is likely to head to Peoria next year to perhaps put on a little weight (he’s 6’0″, but listed at just 167lb.; currently the Blues’ lightest skater is Kris Russell at 173, and he’s just 5’10”). Questions remain about whether his game will ever translate to the NHL, but for now, he could be a dark horse to become a scoring threat for the Blues in the future.
One day after the two biggest free agents agreed to 13-year contracts in Minnesota, the Blues wrapped up negotiations with one of their young stars and will likely head to arbitration with another.
David Perron and the St. Louis Blues came to terms on a four-year, $15.25 million contract, Pierre LeBrun is reporting.
Perron is perhaps the Blues’ most potent offensive threat. He has some of the best hands, and he’s adept at scoring as well as setting up his other forwards. He missed all but 10 games two seasons ago due to a concussion sustained in a game against the San Jose Sharks, then he missed the first quarter of last season due to the lingering effects. He came back to play 57 games and still managed to set a career high in goals (21) and +/- (19).
Watch game four of the conference semifinals online, where the St. Louis Blues take on the Los Angeles Kings. The game will be boradcasted live in HD today, courtesy of NHL.com.
This game is do or die for the St. Louis Blues, who have lost all three of their games against the Kings thus far. The Blues will have to win the next four of the remaining games in the series to progress in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.