True, technically the NHL season started back on October 8th with a 3-1 win over Edmonton. But the real season, the moment that every St. Louis Blues fan has been waiting for is now here, April 13th. The NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs. This has been the moment that Blues fans, coaches, and players have been waiting for since seeing the seconds tick off the game clock in their loss to the Minnesota Wild, nearly one year ago, on April 26, 2015.
Redemption. Atonement. Release. As we begin this year’s Stanley Cup playoffs it is all about each of those words for the St. Louis Blues. Redemption for three straight first-round losses. Atonement for not making it beyond the second round since 2000-01. Release of pressure of four straight years of finishing in the top two in the central division only to find themselves ending their season with a bad taste in their mouth.
What better way than to jump right into facing these words, the pressure, the past than going up against your heated rival the Chicago Blackhawks. Blues vs. Blackhawks. A team trying to move beyond its past failures against the defending champions. Playoff hockey.
This series is without a doubt the premiere series of the first-round match-ups. The two teams played it about as close as possible this season, with the Blues holding a 3-2 lead in the season series. Three of the games went into overtime and a third was decided in shootout. All five games were decided by no more than two goals.
The Blues can win this series. Of course the Blues could have won each and every one of the series that there were eliminated in during each of the last four years. The Blues have one playoff series win since 2003. Meanwhile the Blackhawks have three Stanley Cups since 2010. I have been critical of the Blues play all season long. I will be the first to admit I said Hitchcock should have been fired. But this year it does seem as though something has been different about the Blues. So why is this year different?
Early in the season the Blues were jumping out to early leads in games, but having to hold on at the end. They then went through a stretch of games where they would fall behind only to come ROAR-ing back (bacon). They were just 13-10-5 combined in the months of December and January only to go 18-6-1 in the final two months. The Blues have battled numerous significant injuries all season long and yet it came down to the final game in a battle for the top spot in the division. The Blues have overcome adversity this season, they have fought for everything they have had. Whereas in years past it seemed like at times they were cruising through the regular season, just assuming they would turn it up in the playoffs. This year they have shown the will and heart to rebound back.
I don’t know what will happen in this year’s playoffs but I highly doubt you will see this team swept as they were by the Kings in 2012. I don’t think you will see a team that blows a 2-0 lead in the series as they did against the Kings in 2013 or against these same Blackhawks back in 2014. And I don’t think this year’s team will be inconsistent like last year’s team when they could not put two good games back to back in the series against the Wild.
For the Blues to have success they simply need to do what they have been doing. Be a physical team and continue to roll out three effective scoring lines and use a fourth line to frustrate their opponent. The Blues are one of the deepest teams in the league; both with forwards and defensemen (and even goalkeepers). This should benefit them against the Blackhawks who are very top-heavy. Many teams consider the Blackhawks to be a potent offensive team, however the Blues actually scored more even strength goals than the Blackhawks this season. Where the Blackhawks blew teams away was on the power play. But we all know that referees, whether you like it or not, put away their whistles come playoff time. So that advantage for the Blackhawks will be diminished in the playoffs.
One of the Blues biggest failures in the past playoffs has been the evaporation of their scoring. Be it changing the way they play or as Ken Hitchcock says not sticking to the system. The Blues can not afford to once again go silent on offense. If you look at the last four years of playoff series losses for the Blues it is almost baffling to see the numbers. In 2012 the Blues scored a whopping six goals in their four game sweep at the hands of the Kings. The next year they tallied just 10 goals in six games against the Kings, scoring just six times in the four losses in the series. In 2014 the Blues managed 14 goals in six games against Blackhawks but just seven in dropping the final four games in a row. Last year the Blues once again scored 14 goals in their six game series against the Wild, but netted just four in the four losses. Scoring is important obviously. The Blues will need it not just from their top line but from their entire roster.
I think the key to the Blues this playoff is going to be Alexander Steen. Steen, one of the premier two-way players in the league, has been quiet offensively since returning from his arm injury. He has not scored since February 20th and only has 10 points since the start of the New Year; yet still managed to finish second on the team in points. Steen has a quick shot and the timing to be in the right spot on the ice. His problem has always been getting that shot on net. Steen has had 68 of his 177 shots either blocked or miss the net this season. And that is an improvement over the previous three years when he either shot wide or had the shot blocked a remarkable 45% of the time. David Backes stepped up this year and was second on the team in goals, Paul Stastny made a late push to finish third on the team in points but if Steen can get his shot on net and return to the same form as in the first-half of the season it will go a long way to the Blues success.
The Blues are healthy for the first time all season with all 26 players skating in practice yesterday for the first time this year. They have a hot goalie in Brian Elliott who has been waiting for this chance for three years. They have hungry veterans and young players with fresh legs. The Blues have three high quality defensemen. Hitchcock has the type of players he likes to play his system. It all sets up for the Blues this year. I know the Blues are ready, all you have to do is listen to Hitchcock’s 20-second interview from the other day. “Let’s play the games.” And I know the Blues fans are ready.
Fulfillment. Achievement. Attainment. These are the words that the St. Louis Blues are playing for this spring. If fans are using these words come the end of the season, that is all we can ask for. Only one team wins the Stanley Cup, which means 29 others are in the same boat as each other. It is absurd when fans claim they are disappointed when their team fails to win a championship. But those three words. Fulfillment. Achievement. Attainment. If the Blues can Fulfill their potential. If they can Achieve something they haven’t done in 15 years. If they can Attain their goal of playing their style of game. That is all we can ask for, that is all we as fans should want. Because of the Blues can Fulfill, Achieve, and Attain; then the Blues will be playing for a long time this spring. Let’s. Go. Blues!!!