Suddenly, life in the rink is getting a little tense and tight for the Blues. The playoff race feels crowded and uncomfortable. A wheezing offense, fragile and vulnerable without missing stars, is misfiring.
Tuesday’s 3-1 loss to Arizona at Enterprise Center was bizarre and unsettling. It was, to use the old expression, a sign of the times. And we’re not talking about good times, either.
The Blues lost a game by two goals and gave more momentum and oxygen to the energized Coyotes despite having a booming 76-34 edge in total shots fired, 40-22 in shots on goal, and a massive 37-12 advantage in scoring chances.
After the Blues crashed, centerman and spokesman Ryan O’Reilly said it all with this sharp snap-shot assessment of the Blues failure: “It’s embarrassing It sucks. It’s a game we should have won. There’s no way those guys should have beat us.”
The Blues are maintaining highly favorable odds — at least on paper, or your digital screen — of securing a spot in the NHL’s postseason tournament. As of Wednesday morning, their probability of making the playoffs was listed at 98.4 percent by MoneyPuck.
Given that comforting update, it’s OK to exhale.
But make it quick.
Some very real problems are tugging at the Blues, pulling them closer to the pack. Opportunistic opponents are creeping close in the standings.
Here’s the refocused picture:
— After winning a franchise-record 11 in a row, the Blues have flattened out with 4-4-2 mark in their last 10 games.
— And as the Blues are all but activating a GPS to find the back of the net these days, their third-place footing in the Central division is getting slippery.
— Dallas is only two points behind the Blues in the division scrum. The Stars are rolling, having won seven of their last 10 including two morale-lifting victories over St. Louis. The Blues had a chance to inflict serious damage on Dallas but gave the Stars a reboot instead.
— As of now, Dallas holds the first wild-card ticket in the Western Conference. But unless the Blues can attain success on the road — with games at Ottawa, Pittsburgh and Buffalo this week — your favorite team could be relegated to the wild-card pool, at least until the offense can get back to finishing off scoring chances.
— We can declare this about Arizona: the Coyotes are officially a nuisance, having hopped over lurching Minnesota (1-2-2 in the last five) and into the second wild-card spot. Arizona has won 12 of its last 16, and nine of its last 11 and are only four points in arrears to the Blues. A St. Louis win on Tuesday would have shoved the visiting team back and increased the Blues’ lead over Arizona to eight points. But why make it easy?
— The Blues’ recent troubles have slowed their rush to overtake first-place Winnipeg and/or second-place Nashville in the Central. Both rivals have extended an open invitation to the Blues — the division is up for grabs — by having slumps of their own. Winnipeg is 6-9-2 in the last 17 games, and Nashville has gone 6-8-1 in its last 15. The Blues trail Nashville by four, and Winnipeg by five.
— And now, let’s get to the largest problem: the Blues are 2-4-2 in their last eight games when either Brayden Schenn (six games) or Vladimir Tarasenko (two games) are missing from the top line because of injuries.
— In the only two games during this 10-game stretch that featured the top line intact, the Blues scored nine goals total in two wins over Anaheim and Los Angeles last week. No coincidence.
— In the last eight games played with either Schenn or Tarasenko inactive, the Blues have been outscored 23-12 overall. C’mon, it shouldn’t be this awful.
— Even worse: in the aforementioned eight games the Blues have coughed out only six goals at even strength … and have been outscored 21-6 at even strength. And that’s despite the Blues having 52 more scoring chances than opponents in those eight contests. A team’s offense shouldn’t die just because of injuries to a coupe of important players
The Blues have an obvious flaw. They’re prolific in their volume of shots and quality scoring chances. But with the No. 1 line disrupted by injuries, the Blues are lagging terribly in converting their scoring chances.
I’ll show you what I mean. These metrics and rankings are from the Blues’ last 10 games. I’ll just go with the even-strength stats to keep it simple.
Last 10 Games…
The Blues are ranked 5th in the NHL with a shots-for percentage of 53.8%.
And there’s no shortage of good opportunities; the Blues rank 2nd in the league with 56.9% of the scoring chances in a game over their last 10.
And the Blues have gotten a big share of the high-danger scoring chances (55.1%) over the last 10; that ranks 5th in the NHL.
But this plethora of goal-scoring setups isn’t leading to enough goals. That’s the issue. Despite being a top five team over the last 10 games in controlling the shots, the scoring chances, and the high-danger chances, the Blues have come up on the short end.
In converting all scoring chances, the Blues have been outscored 15-9 at even strength. And in the area of high-danger chances, the Blues have been outscored 11-6 at even strength.
So despite having a significant advantages as a goal-scoring threat, the Blues over their last 10 games rank 26th in the league in scoring-chances goals-for percentage (37.5%), and 29th in high-danger goals-for percentage (35.29%.)
Their shooting percentage is way off target in the last 10 games, ranking last in the NHL in high-danger shooting percentage at even strength (7.59%) as well as last in scoring-chance shooting percentage (6.29%.)
If you want to search for culprits, the most glaring case is that of Jaden Schwartz. His metrics are very good; the Blues have controlled even-strength possession at a rate of 55 percent when Schwartz is on the ice.
And Schwartz has been a solid-plus scorer in the past; he’s banked 19+ goals in four seasons including 24 last season. But for whatever reason Schwartz has lost the scoring touch this season, with only seven goals overall, six at even strength.
Among the 101 NHL forwards with at least 150 shots on goal this season, Schwartz ranks last with the seven goals. And he ranks last with a 4.6 percent shooting percentage.
In Blues franchise history, forwards have mustered at least 150 shots on goal in a season a total of 204 times. And that includes the current campaign, in progress. But as of now, among the 204 forwards with 150+ shots, Schwartz would be last on that 204 list with seven goals. The previous low count for goals in season for forwards with 150+ shots is 10. (That would be Petr Cajanek, in 2005-2006.)
Factually speaking Schwartz is experiencing one of most extreme goal-scoring droughts in Blues history. He isn’t alone, considering the disappointing goals-scored totals for Blues forwards Pat Maroon (five), Alex Steen (10) and Tyler Bozak (11.)
Here’s another way to index the Blues’ goal-scoring underachievers. We’ll use the “Goals Above Expected” metric. And anything that begins with “minus” is bad. Based on the quality of their chances, here are the Blues’ most ineffective forwards at scoring goals this season:
* Brayden Schenn, minus 6.9 goals
Schwartz, minus 6.4 goals
Maroon, minus 5.0 goals
Robert Thomas, minus 0.9 goals
Steen, minus 0.8 goals
Bozak, minus 0.6 goals
(Schenn, who has scored 20 or more goals four times in his career, including 28 in 2017-2018, has 13 this season. But he was moved from center to left wing on Jan. 23, and has really made a difference as a playmaker, rather than scorer, on the top line. He’s been fantastic for a while now … and we shouldn’t be too harsh on Robert Thomas; he’s a 19-year-old rookie.)
It’s difficult to score goals when you can’t get the shot to the net. And that’s been a problem for Schwartz (and others) this season. Whether it’s missing the net entirely with shots, or having shots blocked by opponents, he isn’t having much accuracy or luck. His 57.1 percent “shots through” rate is tied with Maroon for 10th among Blues forwards.
Losing Schenn, and now Tarasenko, isn’t easy. And let’s remember that winger David Perron had 17 goals in 45 games before withdrawing with a concussion that still has him on the injured list.
But the Blues are making this harder than it should be. The extreme nature of this goal-scoring fade is absurd. Not counting Perron or Tarasenko — who remain out — the Blues have seven forwards that have combined for 21 NHL seasons of 20+ goals.
And these guys are still capable of scoring more often.
And it’s time to do it.
The Western Conference standings say so.
Thanks for reading …