Not a month ago the St. Louis Blues were top dog in the NHL. The President’s Trophy was in reach, along with the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference and the Central Division crown.
My, oh my how four weeks can alter the entire landscape of a team.
Since going 11-3-1 in March, the Blues went just 2-6 in April and concluded the regular season riding a six-game losing streak – the longest skid the club has encountered in eight years. In a division that saw them go 20-0-2 before losing their first game in regulation, the local six dropped six of their final nine to the same competition. The streak cost the Blues the division, the No. 1 seed in the conference, and assured them a date with the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks in the Western Conference quarterfinals, beginning Thursday night at Scottrade Center.
“We ran out of gas,” Blues coach Ken Hitchcock told reporters following a 3-0 loss vs. Detroit Sunday.
Injuries have depleted the lineup (see: Vladimir Tarasenko, Vladimir Sobotka, David Backes, Patrick Berglund, T.J. Oshie and Brenden Morrow, etc…), the defense has been subpar and goaltender Ryan Miller, who was acquired as the final piece for the Blues to get over the hump, has lost his confidence if not his game.
Fans are on edge, preparing for what could be another disastrous, heartbreaking letdown following a record-setting regular season that saw their hometown team set the franchise record for points, with 111. Players, though remaining calm, seem to have no answers for their lack of focus and attention to detail. The Blues have gone astray from their own game. Instead of punishing the opposition, the Blues are letting their opponents skate uncontested, unchecked.
However, Blues coach Ken Hitchcock isn’t a stranger when it comes to tough times and extended losing streaks, especially late in the season.
“I’ve had it happen and been successful with it, I’ve had it happen and not been successful with it,” Hitchcock said. “I’ve seen it both ways. The times I’ve had success, it was a slow build-up. There was an overtime win in Game 2.”
Hitchcock was most likely referring to his Dallas Stars’ 5-4 overtime win against the Blues in the Western Conference semi-finals in 1998-99, the year he let the Stars to their first Stanley Cup.
With an extended break before gearing up for Chicago, Hitchcock believes his club will benefit from time away from hockey.
“This break will do us a lot of good,” he said. “We can get re-energized, refocused and come back ready to play.”
With the assortment of problems, Hitchcock isn’t sounding the alarm, nor is he raising the white flag. He remains patient, firmly believing that his squad will regroup and build momentum heading into the postseason tournament.
“You look at the big picture, we set a record for points,” Hitchcock told reporters during Sunday’s post-game news conference following the Blues’ 3-0 loss to Detroit. “We had a brutal stretch here at the end. Everybody went through a brutal stretch. Teams that had the Olympians had some period of time when they hit the wall. Chicago’s stretch was right after the [Olympic] break, ours happened now.”
The Blackhawks’ ‘brutal stretch’ was from Feb. 27 to March 30, in which they went 7-9-1.
For the Blues to go through a slump of this magnitude isn’t unheard of. A number of teams, including those that will compete for Lord Stanley’s Cup have gone through similar periods of frustration much like the Blues. Colorado had a horrid month of December, going 5-5-4, including dropping four straight from Dec. 21-31.
Putting the Blues’ nightmarish stretch aside, can we really expect (heck, imagine?) a sudden change of course from this downward, depressing spiral? In all honesty, it’s good to hear the positive words from Hitchcock and the players. What’s done is done. But time is of the essence. Hitchcock assured that every player that wasn’t in the lineup against Detroit in the regular season finale, at some point, will be on the ice come playoff time.
It’s expected forwards Backes (foot), Oshie (upper body) and Sobotka (lower body) will be available for Game 1. The statuses of Berglund, Morrow and Tarasenko remain uncertain, although, Tarasenko continues to skate with the team wearing a cast on his surgically repaired hand. Playing without Berglund and Morrow will be challenging for Hitchcock, who has utilized his club’s depth by spreading it across all four lines. Offensive consistency during 5-on-5 play against the Blackhawks could prove questionable.
Despite the ailing bodies, the Blues have a bigger problem: the play of their stopper, Miller. The Blues landed Miller because of his world-class talent and nifty resumé. During his short tenure in St. Louis, Miller has had some spectacular moments between the pipes. Still, he’s had too many moments that have fans scratching their heads as if to say, “Did we get the right guy?”
Miller is 1-6 in last seven starts and has allowed four goals in six of his final 11 regular-season starts. Not exactly spectacular. Over those six games, Miller’s save percentage is a woeful 85.5 percent, while his goals allowed average is nearly four.
Yet, Miller says he feels good, and believes he isn’t too far off his game.
Just how much farther will he need to go in order to carry the Blues? Even when the Blues’ offense is rolling, scoring comes in spurts. Last I checked, the Blackhawks are more than capable of putting (at least) four goals on the board in the blink of an eye. Is Miller capable of stealing a handful of games during the playoffs?
He’ll have to, otherwise the Blues could easily be making reservations for a round of 18 in two weeks if they don’t find their game.