The St. Louis Blues Go Slumping Toward The Playoffs

The St. Louis Blues have a shot at the President’s Trophy as we come into the final two games of the NHL regular season, trailing Vancouver and the New York Rangers by just two points. Even if the Blues just catch Vancouver they would be the top seed in the West when the playoffs start on Wednesday. St. Louis effectively pulled away from Detroit in the Central ensuring themselves no worse than the 2-slot in the postseason. But St. Louis is finishing the regular season on a dour note. They’ve lost seven of ten. TheSportsNotebook first examines what made St. Louis successful and then goes on a game-by-game walkthrough of the recent slump to see if it’s just a blip on the radar screen or a sign of a team coming down to earth.

Defense is what it’s about in St. Loo, and like the New York Rangers, defense is not just shorthand for “great goalie.” St. Louis surely has that in Brian Elliot, and they also have Jaroslav Halak. But the team defense is the best league at preventing shots on goal. Alex Pietrangelo—who’s also a good passer from the backend and a quiet, but important part of the offense, Barrett Jackman, and Kevin Shattenkirk, another good passer, all combine to make the lives of Elliot and Halak easy. Whether it’s stopping shots or the bottom line of shutting down goals, the St. Louis defense is the NHL’s best and that alone makes them a factor in the playoffs.

But as teams like the Philadelphia Phillies and Baltimore Ravens have discovered in other sports, you can get to the playoffs by preventing scoring, you can even advance there, but you won’t necessarily win it all unless you can score. St. Louis has got problems there, ranking 19th in goals scored. What’s more concerning is that the Blues rank much higher—10th—in generating shots. So it’s not a question of playing fundamentally sound hockey. St. Louis is clearly doing that and getting their opportunities, but the numbers suggest there’s no  one with the talent to finish. If this were earlier in the  season I would not view this as a concern. But at this point in the schedule, you have to assume that you are what you are, meaning there’s not a lot of hope for a sudden outburst of scoring. To cross sports for an example, the crosstown Cardinals didn’t enter last year’s baseball playoffs with great numbers for the season, but they had individual players that could be reasonably asked to play at a higher level in the postseason. I don’t see that in the Blues’ offense.

All things being equal, St. Louis is better off with games officiated loosely, as the 5-on-5 play is one of the game’s best, while the power play is as bad as the rest of the offense, and while the penalty kill isn’t bad—7th overall—it doesn’t look very good when you consider the rest of the time the team plays the best D in the league. Of course the good news is that last year’s Boston Bruins had a similar problem and it didn’t stop them from hoisting the Cup.

Now that we’ve got the basics of who St. Louis is down, let’s go through these last 10 games to see if any common patterns of trouble emerge…

March 13: at Chicago (3-4, SO)—St. Louis led 3-1 after a period, but was badly outshot 46-24 and Halak eventually gave up the lead. Was the shot differential a sign the Blues got to conservative too quickly? Either way, when you win with defense, three goals needs to be enough.

March 15: at Carolina (0-2): Elliot was in goal for this one, but it didn’t matter. St. Louis generated 40 futile shots.

March 17: at Tampa Bay (3-1): With Halak in goal the team gets a win with a rare display of special teams’ dominance, scoring both shorthanded and on the power play, building a 3-0 lead after two periods. Let’s take note that the defense shut down a team led by the NHL’s leading scorer Steven Stamkos.

March 21: at Anaheim (3-4): This is the third straight game St. Louis has faced a non-contender and the second that they’ve lost. A 2-1 lead after the first period slipped away at Halak’s hand, in spite of St. Louis winning the shots war 38-22. Pietrangelo had a couple assists in the lost cause.

March 22: at Los Angeles (0-1, SO): If you’re not in the midst of a slump, this one’s easy to write off. Elliot and Kings’ goaltender Jonathan Quick had a great battle , as the teams combined for 72 shots combined in regulation.

March 25: at Phoenix (4-0): A tight game throughout, St. Loo scored three times in the final period, with Pietrangelo giving both a goal and an assist. Elliot delivered the shutout and the team won shots 29-20. A proto-type St. Louis win against a contender desperate for points and playing on their home ice.

March 27: Nashville (3-0): Once again, it’s Elliot on the shutout and a third-period outburst, as the Blues score twice to break it open.

March 29: at Chicago (3-4, SO): St. Louis showed some heart, trailing 3-1 with ten minutes to play before at least forcing the shootout and picking up a point. But Halak in goal added up to a rough night defensively.

March 31: vs. Columbus (2-5): A poor game throughout against a bad opponent. St. Louis trailed 2-1 in the first, 3-2 in the second and finally were pushed over in the third, The discipline was terrible, as Columbus got eight power play chances and cashed two of them in. Halak may not have been a hero, but he can hardly be called the goat.

April 4: vs. Detroit (2-3, SO): All the scoring came in the third period last night, with St. Louis leading 2-0 and then Elliot couldn’t hold it in the final ten minutes.

If we’re looking to cut St. Louis a break we can note that the first six of these games, and seven overall, came on the road. And while I pointed out several cases of bad play against bad teams, fairness requires that we note there were four  games against Nashville, Detroit and Chicago who are legitimate contenders in the West, while Los Angeles and Phoenix are in contention. So while we can ring up St. Louis for failing to take care of bad teams, it’s not as though this whole stretch is one long series of poor performances against inept opposition.

The biggest question I have is this—who’s going to start in goal for the playoffs? The reports I’ve seen say that it’s still up in the air and this may be a tag-team. But both overall numbers, as well as the recent form outlined here clearly say that Elliot is the superior goaltender. Elliot has a 94.3% save rate while Halak is at 92.5%. Given the raw volume of shots and the narrowness of edges that exist, that 1.8% differential is significant. Over these ten games, the high points came with Elliot in goal. The worst collapses came with Halak.

I don’t deny that Halak is a quality goaltender, but I’m not sold that he’s better than say, Tuuka Raask in Boston, and I don’t know anyone in Beantown lamenting that Raask’s rib injury renders him unavailable to sub for Tim Thomas. St. Louis should treat Halak the same way—he’s a great #2 to have for a long season and in case of injury. But this team can win the Cup with Elliot, while I’m not sold that they can with Halak.