The best teams in sports are those that can play poorly and still win. That was certainly the case for the Blues Sunday in Sunshine, Florida…as the Panthers outshot them 16-2 in the final 10:46 of the third period…scoring the tying goal on their last shot of regulation…before the Blues picked up the second point available in a shootout. Brian Elliott was spectacular in between the pipes, and Jori Lehtera scored a brilliant shootout goal to give the Blues a 2-1 shootout victory.
Can this team win the Stanley Cup? It would be difficult; the Stanley Cup is the most difficult team trophy to win in sports, but they certainly have the depth and talent to do it. In terms of metrics, they’re tied with Chicago for the best goal differential in the league at plus-41. Their combined 104.5% power play/penalty kill is second in the league to Detroit’s 109.2.
In addition, the Blues are fifth in the league in 5-on-5 goals, and fifth in 5-on-5 goals against. The only other team in the top five in both categories is Nashville, with the best record in the NHL. And in perhaps the most important stat for the Blues, when they score first they’re tied for the second best record in the league at 26-4-1, their .839 winning percentage leading the west, tied with Washington and trailing only Montreal’s .840.
Coach Ken Hitchcock often talks about the aforementioned statistics, and is quick to tell anyone that will listen that the Blues style of play is dependent upon getting the lead and strangling the opposition. They’ve done that brilliantly this year.
The only team in the NHL that compares to the Blues statistically is the Central division-leading Nashville Predators, who are just behind the Blues in scoring and two spots ahead of them in goals against average. With a trade for Toronto’s Cody Franson and Mike Santorelli on Sunday, the Preds added to an already formidable defense with the high scoring Franson and the more than serviceable and quite versatile as a third line player who’ll add to Nashville’s forward depth. Nashville appears poised to win the President’s Trophy, reserved for the team with the best regular season record in the league. Including the Blues President’s Trophy win in 2000, just five of fourteen teams with the best record went to the Finals, with four winning the Stanley Cup…the ’01 Avalanche, the ’02 and ’08 Red Wings, and the 2013 Blackhawks. So there is no guarantee of regular season success translating to the playoffs.
The Blues have already completed their season series with Nashville, going 2-3 against the Preds. With Pekka Rinne playing at the highest level of his career, Nashville will be an incredibly tough out in the playoffs. There’s been a lot of concern about the Blues’ ability to beat premier teams, but their record against the other seven teams in the west that would make the playoffs is 8-9. Against western conference playoff teams, the Predators are 7-10. There isn’t a good team that dominates the other potential playoff teams, and I don’t see that as a barometer of how the Blues or any team will do in the post-season.
The keys are going to be relatively simple. The Blues are going to have to get the same kind of goaltending they’ve gotten in the regular season in the playoffs. They’re going to have to be much healthier than they were when they faced Chicago last year in round one. And they’re going to have to maintain or improve upon their excellence in special teams.
Since the all-star break, the Blues are 8-2 (including a shootout win over Nashville), having won four games in overtime or shootout. Some of those games have been against lesser teams…they had to go past sixty minutes to beat Carolina and a desperate Florida team. But the bottom line is they won the game.
Once the post-season starts, the Blues have the depth and firepower to win playoff games in overtime. It’s a team that can dominate when it plays its A game, and still win when it struggles down the stretch against a team like the Panthers. The roster has the goaltending and skill to win any game. Blues fans have a lot to look forward to in mid-April when the Stanley Cup playoffs get underway.