Apr 27, 2013; St. Louis, MO, USA; The St. Louis Blues watch the action against the Chicago Blackhawks during the first period at the Scottrade Center. The Blues defeated the Blackhawks 3-1. Mandatory Credit: Scott Rovak-USA TODAY Sports

The St. Louis Blues: The West's Legitimate Darkhorse

Apr 27, 2013; St. Louis, MO, USA; The St. Louis Blues celebrate their 3-1 victory over the Chicago Blackhawks at the Scottrade Center. Mandatory Credit: Scott Rovak-USA TODAY Sports

SoHo, NY– The St. Louis Blues are the one Western Conference team to which I’ve paid most attention during this truncated season, for several reasons, but none more apparent than their ‘trajectory’ toward the playoffs. Their ebb and flow success, their burgeoning talent, their hard-nose, blue collar style, remind me of this year’s New York Islanders.

Both teams can be accused of having slow starts (or erratic ones), inconsistent defense, and losing streaks, something of a blanketed critique, I know, for obviously most teams can attest to similar shortcomings. But few can equally boast a concerted effort to improve midway through a tough and frenetic schedule and, thus, secure an identity and garner wins to qualify for postseason play. The Blues had a shaky end to March, but finished in similar roaring fashion to the Islanders in the month of April.

Look at the numbers:

  • the Islanders tallied 8 wins and garnered 17 points to the Blues 7 wins and 14 points; similar success and hovering in 8th or 7th place, etc.
  • the Blues had a whopping 12 wins (24 pts) landing them a 4th seed at the close of the regular season; the Isles, although cooling off after having showed serious fight against Toronto (setting the stage for the clincher in Carolina), had their best April run in several years: 8 wins BUT acquiring 20 points while doing so. New York would eventually pay for their poor play against Philadelphia and Carolina, landing the ‘dreaded’ 8th seed and a ticket to dance with Sidney and Co. But what cannot be forgotten is the surge of energy and confidence meted out these last 5 weeks or so; goes double for St. Lou!

Point is, St. Louis’ road to the postseason is paved with similar material as that of the Islanders. But unlike the Isles and the entire East Conference, the West have, in my opinion, more legitimate cup contenders on paper, thereby giving any team coming out of it, beginning with the Blues, the edge for the cup. Better opponents breed better hockey, and the East isn’t impressive when you take out the Penguins.

Right now the hottest teams in the East are clubs that two months ago looked to be planning an early summer, or ‘devastated’ by injuries, the Isles being top candidate for the former rather than the latter. Now we have Alex Ovechkin on an asbolute tear, the Ottawa Senators making believers out of everyone except the people in Quebec, and the Islanders who no one thought had a snowball’s chance to even finish 9th at the onset of the season.

But in the West, I say, counting St. Louis, I see as an obvious frontrunner for Lord Stanley in the Chicago Blackhawks, followed immediately by the Vancouver Canucks, and maybe Anaheim, but lately I’ve been on the fence with them.

But if the Blues’ Chris Stewart and David Backes continue their success up front, Alex Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester further understand their shared duties on defense (Bouwmeester acquired from Calgary in an obvious attempt to help P’Angelo fortify the blue line, etc.), and Vladimir Tarasenko emerges as the natural talent everyone knows he is, then the Blues are more than just a 1st round contender.

BLUES COUNTRY

I had an opportunity to speak with Sean Jeffries, staff writer over at BLEEDINBLUE.COM , an absolutely awesome place to read up on all things St. Louis Blues. (Honestly mean that.)

I asked my Fansided colleague what his thoughts were regarding his beloved team, and he filled me in with some keen insight an ‘outsider’ like myself might overlook.  Below is our Q & A:

Did the Blues exceed your preseason expectations, or come within striking distance of them? Supersede them?

I would say the Blues ended the regular season about where I expected them to be, in the 4th spot, with home ice advantage in Round 1. Last year was such a strong year, and while it didn’t end the way I hoped, it was definitely something I thought the team could build on. [...] The shortened season started off like gangbusters for the Blues, but no one could’ve predicted the kind of year Chicago put together. They ran away with the Central Division but I was confident the Blues would be in the playoffs at the end.

Jan 10, 2012; Montreal, QC, CAN; St. Louis Blues goalie Brian Elliot (1) during the warm-up session prior to the first period against Montreal Canadiens at the Bell Center. Mandatory Credit: Jean-Yves Ahern-USA TODAY Sports

I think the fact few goaltenders played during the lockout hurt many teams, but the Blues especially [...] Both Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott took longer than expected to really settle into form, despite the fast start, and I think their season might’ve been more dominant had it started on time, with full training camp etc. St. Louis has key players who are notoriously slow starters (Backes) so the shortened season definitely affected the team.

Which player has been the Blues’ ‘pleasant surprise’, which ‘a grave disappointment’, and which ‘loaded with potential’? 

Apr 19, 2013; St. Louis, MO, USA; St. Louis Blues center Jaden Schwartz (9) checks Dallas Stars defenseman Stephane Robidas (3) during the second period at the Scottrade Center. Mandatory Credit: Scott Rovak-USA TODAY Sports

The most pleasant surprise to me was Jaden Schwartz. I think Vladimir Sobotka continues to be the most underrated guy on the team, as far as not many people outside St. Louis being aware of how good he is, how consistently hard he works, but he’s not a surprise to me. Schwartz really took advantage of the opportunities given him and really played in the mold of Sobotka- hard nosed, all-out every shift. He played sparingly last season, so we had a glimpse of what he brought to the ice, but I think he proved he can skate with just about any line, and against the opposition’s top guys. I see him winning the Selke some day if he gets the game time. Hitchcock obviously liked what he saw, promoting Schwatrz up to the “#1″ line this last week of the season.

I think Schwartz could also be the one most “loaded with potential,” though I might lean toward Vladimir Tarasenko on that one. It’s a shame we missed out on seeing him for a full season, even in this lockout year. He was on fire before going down with the head injury /concussion, and I’d wager he’d of had a decent shot at the Calder if he didn’t go down the way he did.

The biggest disappointment for me is a tie between David Perron, Patrik Berglund, and Alex Pietrangelo. I’m probably one of the few Blues fans who is so negative about Petro’s season, but he simply didn’t play well enough as the number one defenseman on the team. The level of his game increased tenfold as soon as Jay Bouwmeester joined the club, and Petro had a pretty solid last quarter of the season as a result.

Perron flashed brilliance, and it’s no doubt he has mad puck skills. Watch any broadcast of a Blues game outside of St. Louis and the announcers gush over Perron’s stick handling skills. I don’t think he has the head for the Blues style of game- defense first, playing deep into the “tough areas” of the ice, but he improved markedly over the final 3 games of the season. I honestly think he’s in a better frame of mind about things going into the playoffs and that’s exciting.

Berglund is a mystery to me. A big, power-forward type of guy, he frequently looked slow and lazy on the ice to me this season. I know, he almost led the team in scoring, but he and Perron both seemed to be the ones not “buying in” when things weren’t going well for the team. When those two guys are on, good things happen. Bergie is also apparently getting hot at just the right time. If he’s scoring goals the Blues are going to be a force in the post-season. That said, Perron and Berglund, both RFAs, are both guys I would NOT be surprised to see let go come the offseason.

Summarize for us the keys to a successful post-season run for the St. Louis Blues.  

To succeed in the playoffs the Blues need to be more consistent. When they play the tight defensive style of their team game, they’re tough to beat. Having a hot goaltender is certainly helpful in that regard, but if you go look at the losses this year, St. Louis played poorly in their own zone, in front of their net, had trouble clearing the puck, and made too many turnovers, often at their own blueline. If they can be better at playing their game, I think the rest will fall into place for them- the goals, the wins, and a deep playoff run.

I think the Blues made great strides in April to correct these problems. They won six in a row early with off-the-charts goaltending. Elliott literally stole some of those games, something he did last season but hadn’t this year even once until April. He was the difference in a few more games mid-month, as the Blues didn’t play their best but still won.If you go look at the last three games of the year, the team played exceedingly well in front of him and really came together to play their complete team game. I think the way they played this past week they looked like a team who could beat anybody in the league.

In Summa

I couldn’t agree more with Sean on the keys to Blues success in the playoffs, especially a hot goaltender that helps correct/weather defensive flubs that are sure to happen when tensions are high.

Unsurprisingly, much of what’s said here regarding a Blues postseason run may very well apply directly to the Islanders: a streaky goaltender, courageous and equally responsible blueline coverage/protection, and avoiding the dreaded turnover bug; not mention that the stage is set for John Tavares to make an indelible mark upon the hockey world. If the grit and hunger is there, the Isles, too, will venture deep into the postseason. But that’s still a big “if”. Honestly.

But speaking objectively, if a St. Louis Blues team that coalesces in the manner aforementioned, and do in fact tread deep into the murky and treacherous and dangerous waters that is the Western Conference postseason, rest assured that St. Lou will be singing anything but the blues. Count on it.

–RD

 

NOTES

A great deal of gratitude goes to Sean Jeffries for taking time out of his busy life to answer my questions, doing so excellently, I might add. To him and his wonderful staff over at BleedinBlue.com I wish you much success this postseason.


 Do check out BLEEDINBLUE.COM. We do.

 

Tags: New York Islanders St. Louis Blues

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