I don’t believe the Blues are a soft team, a team short on heart. Not for a second. Over the last two seasons the Blues have 13 postseason wins; only Pittsburgh (19) and San Jose (16) have more. Current players on the Blues’ roster developed mental toughness and survival skills during the team’s 2016 run to the third round.
The ’16 Blues could have put away their first two opponents sooner, but persevered to win Game 7 against Chicago, and another Game 7 vs. Dallas. That will harden a team’s callouses, but the Blues ultimately wore down and faded in their six-game loss to San Jose in the Western Conference Final.
The many Blues players that remain from last spring’s learning experience were prepared for the 2017 Stanley Cup tournament. With goaltender Jake Allen shaking off a torrent of shots, and the Blues rarely losing composure under pressure, your favorite team won the first three games in the best of seven series against Minnesota.
Unfortunately, the Blues misplaced their competitive character Wednesday night in Game 4, inexplicably taking the ice with flat emotion and negligible urgency. The Blues’ disappointingly slow start — their faint response to the extreme determination from a proud, desperate opponent — set up a predictable 2-0 loss. With their ambivalence, the Blues gave the Wild a transfusion of confidence and hope.
The Wild’s energy hasn’t been an issue in this series, but their adrenaline is pumping as they head back to St. Paul for Saturday’s Game 5.
After procrastinating before clinching their first two series vs. the Blackhawks and Stars a year ago, I thought the Blues would carry the lesson into the 2017 postseason. But no … at least not in Game 4.
Again, I don’t think this means that the Blues are chokers … that they will yack up this series. They still own a 3-1 lead. Minnesota has to win the next four to pull off the extremely rare feat of coming back from an 0-3 deficit to prevail. But after watching the placid Blues’ dull start-up in Game 4, I came away hoping for several things:
1. I hope the boys learned a valuable lesson: you can’t rely on Jake Allen to win every damn game.
You can’t expect him to do it all, every time out, for 60 minutes or whatever it takes, to compensate for a preposterously low possession time and a woefully lame attack that’s produced three 5-on-5 goals in three games. Allen not only stole a game for his teammates in this series … he swiped THREE games. It’s time for the Blues to repay Allen for his exceptional servince.
2. I hope Allen will stay strong, and avoid signs of cracking.
Minnesota’s first goal in Game 4 came after an inexcusable mistake by Allen, who blindly cleared the puck along the board to have it picked off by grateful Charlie Coyle, who put the gift in a wide open basket vacated by Jake. And the Wild’s second goal, by Martin Hanzal, was one we’d expect Allen to snare. For the record, I don’t think a couple of uncharacteristic moments, bad moments, is going to mess with Allen’s head. I think he’ll be fine … more than fine. After all, Allen did save 26 of 28 shots last night and was hardly a stiff. And he still has a .966 save percentage through four games. He was outplayed by Devan Dubnyk in this one, and that’s no disgrace. But look: anytime a molten-hot goaltender cools down, you’re going to wonder how he’ll do in the next game. This is all part of playoff hockey.
3. I hope Blues coach Mike Yeo can find a way to power-charge the offense.
Yeo has earned considerable praise in this series for making it difficult for the Wild to score against the Blues’ packed zone defense. But now the focus shifts on Yeo for another reason: do the Blues have a plan to spark the offense? Do they plan to have an offense, one that’s capable of going on a sustained attack instead of having their own goaltender under siege? The rope-a-dope strategy can be great … but Muhammad Ali did come off the ropes to deliver a wicked flurry of punches that leveled George Foreman.
The Blues have three 5-on-5 goals in this series …
Or four at even strength if we include the 4-on-4 winner by Jaden Schwartz in Game 2.
Blues defensemen have nearly as many goals (three) as Blues forwards (four.)
According to Corsica Hockey, the Blues have only 14 scoring chances all series in 5-on-5 play; that’s the lowest total among the 16 postseason teams .
The Blues have only 23 scoring chances in all situations, which ranks 15th among the 16 teams.
The Wild’s Devan Dubnyk has faced only 13 high-danger shot attempts in the series, the second lowest total of HDS gunned at a goaltender so far in this first round.
The Blues need to gain — and keep — possession of the puck. They’re Corsi For rating (a possession metric) ranks last among the 16 postseason teams at 38.7 percent. It’s hard to score (imagine that!) when your opponent has the puck more than 60 percent of the time.
In shots taken — including those that miss the net, and those that get blocked — Minnesota is outshooting St. Louis 277 to 192 in all situations, and 221 to 140 at 5-on-5. That imbalance has to change. At 46%, the Blues’ Corsi For percentage was better in Game 4 … but not good enough … and most of the activity came after the Wild took the lead and sat on it.
4. I hope Vladimir Tarasenko scores a goal … or many goals.
Tarasenko is involved, playing well, and has the best Corsi rating by a Blue in this series. He also leads the Blues on shots on goal. And the Blues have had their highest volume of scoring chances in the series with Tarasenko on the ice. His two assists set up the winning goals in Game 1 and Game 3. Of course, we’re already hearing idiots ripping Tarasenko for the wrong things. Here’s the only thing that matters: going back to last year’s Western Conference Final, Tarasenko has failed to score a goal in nine of his last 10 postseason games despite putting 31 shots on goal. It’s time. Game 5 would be a nice setting.
Since the start of the 2014-15 season, a regular-span of more than 200 games, Tarasenko leads the NHL with 87 even-strength goals … 10 more than Patrick Kane, 12 more than Alex Ovechkin, and 13 more than Sidney Crosby. Adding in power play goals, Tarasenko ranks second to Ovechkin with 116 goals over the last three regular seasons. And we’ve seen Tarasenko score at a prolific rate in the postseason. Tarasenko is engaged, busy and is fully on board. Now he must get on the board.
5. I hope the Blues end it in Game 5. But if they don’t you won’t find me standing on a high ledge at the Eagleton courthouse.
Here are nuggets of historical perspective from past best-of-7 NHL series, courtesy of WhoWins.com …
— When an NHL team has been up 3-1 in games in any round, they’ve gone 164-127 in Game 5 (.564). And they’ve won the series 263 times with 28 failures, a winning pct. of .904
— When a visiting team takes a 3- 1 series lead on the road for Game 5, they’re 44-61 in Game 5.
— But that 44-61 doesn’t matter as much as the eventual outcome: road teams that tote a 3-1 lead in for Game 5 have won the series 92 times in 105 chances … a success rate of .976.
OK, let’s narrow this down to first-round results in best-o-sevens:
— Teams with a 3-1 lead in games in an opening-round series have gone 50-57 in Game 5.
— Teams that had a 3-1 advantage in the first round went 88-19 (.822) in winning the series.
— Visiting teams up 3-1 with Game 5 on the road went 13-27 in Game 5 …
— Win or lose Game 5, the visiting up 3-1 has captured the series 31 times in 40 tries, a .775 winning percentage.
Thanks for reading …