In their embarrassing losses to Calgary and Edmonton the Blues looked like a team bogged down from the effects of a hangover following their triumphant three-game winning streak over elite Western Conference units Chicago, Anaheim and Dallas. The boys were undisciplined, careless and disrespectful of their weaker opponents.
Apparently, the Blues believed they could play a pickup-hockey style of game and collect four easy points by mopping the ice with the Flames and Oilers.
But the opponents didn’t roll over.
The opportunistic underdogs enthusiastically peppered the inattentive Blues for 13 goals in two games. The Blues paid dearly for their arrogance, dropping two games and the chance to open up a lead over Chicago and Dallas in the NHL Central standings.
Just when we thought it was safe to praise the Blues, believe in the Blues, and convince ourselves that there will be a happier ending in the upcoming Stanley Cup playoffs, the Blues have an inexplicable letdown at a critical time of the season.
A team that had refused to bend and buckle under the weight of all of the injuries suddenly turned pliable and amiable and gave wins to opponents ranked 26th (Calgary) and 29th (Edmonton) in the 30-team NHL in winning percentage.
Now the Blues are down to only 10 games remaining in the regular-season schedule in a Central race that should go down to the wire. It is also a three-team battle that will have a huge influence in the seeding for the Western Conference playoffs. The Blues can still pull this off and finish No. 1 … unless of course they decide to take two or three more games off.
So as the Blues go into Vancouver for Saturday night’s game, it’s reasonable to expect that they’ll clean up and deliver a sharper and more focused effort. But I’m interested to see if coach Ken Hitchcock will give the start in goal to Brian Elliott, who is eligible for removal from the long-term injured reserve list. Elliott would give a break to Jake Allen, who has played in the last 10 games — the last nine as the starter.
The Blues’ disheveled appearances in Calgary and Edmonton left Allen exposed — they were plundered for four power play goals at Edmonton for cripe’s sake — and he went off form. The defeats weren’t Allen’s fault, per se. But Allen seemed to have a hard time seeing the puck, and his balance was out of kilter. He looked like a goalie who could use a break, and Elliott is standing by.
Will Hitch reaffirm his confidence in Allen by putting Jake back in the cage?
Or will the coach turn to Elliott and give Allen a night to regroup?
Unless Hitchcock has already made a firm commitment (in his mind) to go with Allen for the postseason, he’ll have to give Elliott a chance to play. Elliott has been out since Feb. 22, and he won’t be a factor in the postseason plans unless he can start a few games, smooth the rusty spots, and give the coaches a chance to make a proper inspection.
If Hitchcock starts Elliott, it doesn’t mean he’s gone cold on Allen. It just means that Allen has started nine consecutive games after being down with a knee injury between Jan. 8 and Feb. 22. It’s reasonable to look at the situation and conclude that it’s a good time to give Allen a breather.
Beyond that, I have no knowledge of Hitchcock’s long-term thinking or how he’ll sort out the plusses and minuses to decide on a No. 1 goaltender for the Stanley Cup tournament.
Let’s review his choices based on the Allen-Elliott performances this season.
Here are the basics:
Starts: Elliott 30 … Allen 42
Goals Against Average: Elliott 2.13 … Allen 2.43
Save Percentage: Elliott .930 … Allen .917
Save Percentage in Close-Game Situations at Even Strength: Elliott .944 … Allen .921
Winning Percentage: Elliott .667 …. Allen .622
Goals in Support: Elliott 2.44 … Allen 2.63
Shutouts: Elliott 1 … Allen 5
Percentage of starts with a save percentage under .900: Elliott 23% … Allen 36%.
A few things hopped up to me there:
I think that Elliott has been the better goaltender this season. He’s certainly been the most consistent. That doesn’t mean Elliott will be the coach’s choice, however. If Hitchcock went with Allen in the 2015 playoffs, I’m inclined to believe he’ll stay with Allen in 2016. Why? Because even though you can make a case for Elliott based on the numbers, Allen is still having a very good season and hasn’t done anything to “lose” the job as playoff starter.
Of course, there’s no law to prevent Hitchcock from using both of his goalies in the postseason. That would go against the grain, but it’s been done before in recent seasons.
Some examples of the postseason shuttling:
Carolina rookie Cam Ward replaced Martin Gerber during the Hurricanes’ run to the 2006 Cup, but even after giving way to Ward, Gerber returned to make a start in the Eastern Conference Final.
In 2007, Ilya Bryzgalov won three games for Anaheim, but was eased out in favor of Jean-Sebastien Giguere, who returned in net after being distracted by a family health issue. With both goalies contributing, the Ducks won the Cup.
In 2008 the great Dominik Hasek suddenly unraveled during the first round, and the Detroit Red Wings went with Chris Osgood the rest of the way and won the Stanley Cup.
During the 2010 playoffs, the Philadelphia Flyers advanced to the Stanley Cup Finals where they fell to Chicago. Philadelphia had 23 games in the 2010 postseason and gave 13 starts to Michael Leighton and 10 starts to Brian Boucher.
Last season Chicago coach Joel Quenneville went with his usual goaltending ace, Corey Crawford. But when Crawford unexpectedly wobbled in the first-round matchup vs. Nashville, Quenneville brought in a relief goalie, Scott Darling, who made four starts (winning three) before Crawford was plugged back in. Quenneville’s bold decision to go with a more inexperienced goaltender and allow Crawford to pull himself together was paramount in the Blackhawks’ third Stanley Cup championship in six seasons.
Teams with championship hopes don’t have to put everything on the back of one goaltender.
I don’t know how this will play out, but I do know the Blues have two very good goaltenders.
It makes no sense for Hitchcock to pick one and stubbornly stay with him during the tournament if the starter’s performance is slightly or substantially off and the coach can turn to a viable alternative.
Thanks for reading …