The Blues and their NHL brethren are on hiatus as part of a sports world that has stopped spinning. The effort to contain an outbreak of the Covid-19 disease is an urgent priority. This virus is a brutally tough opponent that must be stopped.
In this instance the only checking line that matters are the virologists, immunologists, and epidemiologists.
When play resumes, NHL teams will scramble to complete what’s left of the regular-season schedule. Then again, the regular season could be wiped out. Then we’d see the contending teams jumping directly into the playoffs. But will there be a postseason? None of these questions can be answered with any firm confidence right now.
But for the purpose of having a sports discussion — and localizing the angle — I’m wondering if the time off will help, or hurt, the Blues.
My vote: the Blues will benefit.
1. Check the standings. The Note is in a great spot. When the NHL stopped the season on Thursday, the the Blues led the Western Conference with 94 points, and also had the No. 1 points percentage of .662. The 31 NHL teams haven’t played the exact same number of games to this stage, so the points percentage will determine playoff seeding. That applies to both scenarios: no more regular-season games; or perhaps a couple of regular-season games.
Boston is currently the No. 1 team in the Eastern Conference and has a higher points percentage (.714) than St. Louis. But the Blues are in strong shape.
As GM Doug Armstrong told the Post-Dispatch: “We couldn’t have positioned ourselves any better for when we do come back. We’re second place in the NHL, top place in the Western Conference. So no matter how they slice up the playoffs — if they need two teams, we’ll be one.”
2. The stoppage should work in the Blues’ favor in several ways. Let’s pause for a few seconds to praise the Blues for the way they’ve handled the 2019-2010 season. It isn’t easy being the defending Stanley Cup champion, with every opponent coming after you.
On top of that, this team has competed without winger Vladimir Tarasenko (shoulder) since Oct. 24. And in 61 games since then, the Blues have the best record in the West at 37-17-7. That’s damn impressive considering that Tarasenko came into the 2019-20 with a streak of five consecutive seasons of 33+ goals.
The Blues haven’t shown many signs of getting lost in the haze and the fog of the dreaded Stanley Cup Hangover. But sure, there was always a chance the Hangover would catch up to them late in the season. They figured to be more vulnerable then, right?
The Washington Capitals were the defending champions a year ago. The Caps faded a bit down the stretch, winning seven of their final 13 regular-season games. (That’s good for, say, Ottawa. Not so good for the champeens.) And after taking a 2-0 lead over Carolina in their first-round series, the Capitals lost four of the next five and got booted from the tournament. The Capitals couldn’t make it to the second round.
If the Blues’ energy level is depleted in any way, this break will give them the opportunity to replenish.
3. But if the Blues have too much time off, won’t it make them rusty? Could be. Maybe so. But we can also say the same of the other Stanley Cup contenders. After the hiatus, every team faces the challenge of assembling quickly and getting reacclimated as fast as possible.
“Getting your timing back could be a problem for some teams,” Blues analyst Joey Vitale told me. “But the Blues rely on being aggressive, energized, and deep. Timing isn’t the biggest factor. When you rely on aggression and energy, you can hit the ground running.”
4. Getting ready to go again shouldn’t be a huge obstacle for the Blues. This is a championship team with a winning culture and a collective mindset that serves them well. These players know what to do. And when the effort or performance needs to be better, these players can self-correct. And coach Craig Berube provides strong, direct and sincere oversight. The players respect him. They listen to him.
5. Speaking of the team culture, which is vital, then consider this: Of the 19 skaters (non-goaltenders) who logged the most ice time during the maniacal and excruciating 26-game postseason run to the Stanley Cup, 16 of the 19 are still in place and ready to go. That number includes the anticipated return of Tarasenko.
Defenseman Jay Bouwmeester won’t be able to return this season (if ever) after suffering cardiac arrest during the Feb. 11 game at Anaheim. Defenseman Joel Edmundson was traded to Carolina for defenseman Justin Faulk before the season. And free-agent forward Pat Maroon signed with Tampa Bay.
Other than that, the 2019 champs are in place. Marco Scandella has done an admirable job of filling the void left by Bouwmeester’s absence. Faulk, obviously, was plugged into Edmundson’s roster spot. (It hasn’t been an easy transition for Faulk, but he was a plus 8 in the Blues’ 10-2 streak since Feb. 18.) The Blues haven’t had a direct replacement for Maroon, but they’ve given increased ice time to forwards Zach Sanford, Jordan Kyrou, Sammy Blais and MacKenzie MacEachern.
5. The Blues play a physical, strenuous game. A break in the action can alleviate the wear and tear. They rely on a relentless forecheck to get offensive-zone possession — and then consistently maintain an edge in zone possession with stubborn, hard-to-budge puck control. That requires a high volume of persistence. The intensity can’t subside.When the Blues let up they aren’t the same.
The Blues must own the ice at 5-on-5, and their rugged style of play can be taxing. The “heavy hockey” strategy takes a lot out of the Blues’ opponents — but it can be draining for the Blues as well.
As then-Sharks coach Peter DeBoer said after the Blues bounced San Jose in the 2019 Western Conference Final: “Everybody talks about skill and speed and there’s room for small players, but I don’t think it’s an accident. There’s no space. They’re heavy. They’re hard. They’re organized.”
Including the 2019 postseason, the Blues have played 179 games since the start of 2018-2019. They’ve played more games and clocked more minutes than any NHL team over that time.
In more recent times, the Blues just completed a difficult stretch of playing four games in six days over three time zones.
Rest up, boys.
6. Injuries can be taken care of. The Blues will have Tarasenko back for their push for another Stanley Cup. They’ll have a healthier Oskar Sundqvist, and this tough, versatile forward has been playing hurt for weeks. If “Sunny” can get to 100 percent, he’ll be even more valuable to the Blues’ renewed quest.
All teams have injuries. And each NHL contender can look forward to having some injured players back when (if?) the competition resumes. Colorado, for example, expected a two-week recovery time for leading scorer Nathan MacKinnon, who suffered an lower-body injury earlier this week. But with NHL play suspended, MacKinnon can use the two weeks to treat the injury and be ready to go when the Avalanche return to the ice. That’s a big deal; MacKinnon is fifth in the NHL with 93 points.
But the Blues will be boosted by Tarasenko’s comeback. He was close to returning to the lineup. Now he has some extra time to complete the rehab, and reinforce his shoulder strength. Not that the Blues would be tempted to rush Tarasenko back, but now there’s no reason to even think about.
A brief review of Tarasenko’s prominence:
♠ From the start of 2014-2015 through the end of last season, Tarasenko ranked third in the NHL with 182 regular-season goals. Only Alex Ovechkin (236) and John Tavares (183) had more.
♠ Over the same five-season stretch, Tarasenko was second in the league to Ovechkin with 135 even-strength goals. The great OV had 140.
♠ During the last six postseasons, Tarasenko led all NHL forwards with 22 even-strength goals, and is second to Ovechkin with 33 goals overall. That’s one goal behind OV’s 34.
♠ Tarasenko must be accounted for when opponents scout the Blues. In the previous five seasons coming into this one, he ranked fourth in the NHL in shots on goal.
♠ When Tarasenko was on the ice at 5-on-5 during the five-season stretch, the Blues scored 60.2 percent of the goals. Opponents scored 39.8% of the goals.
The Blues have some down time now. It’s the kind of down time that no one wanted. The scourge of the alarming Ovid-19 disease made it necessary. But with the Blues having a mandatory recess, they might as well make the best of it.
Thanks for reading and have a good weekend…