On March 5, the Blues were in the midst of a five game losing streak and had a record of 32-27-5, in danger of falling out of the NHL playoff picture altogether. On the same date, the Minnesota Wild were 42-15-6 and in commanding position to win the central division. After that date, the Blues went 14-2-2 for 30 points and raced past Nashville for the third spot in the division, while the Wild went 7-10-2 and fell into second behind Chicago.
Minnesota’s goalie, Devan Dubnyk, was an MVP candidate in early March, with a 2.05 GAA and a .932 save percentage. Since then, Dubnyk…despite a late rebound…had a 2.89 GAA and an .895 save percentage. As we know, the opposite happened for Blues goalie Jake Allen. After the hiring of Mike Yeo as head coach, Allen led the NHL with a 1.84 GAA, was second with a .938 save percentage and was second with three shutouts.
The Blues played nineteen of their last thirty games on the road, and went 14-4-1 in those nineteen, picking up 29 of a possible 38 points.
They head into the playoffs hot, against a Minnesota team trying to find itself after a great start and a halting finish.
With that, a handful of do’s and don’ts for the Blues as they approach game 83 and beyond:
Do: tighten up defensively. The Blues allowed twelve regulation goals in their last three meaningful games, a 5-2 loss to Winnipeg, a 6-3 win over Florida and a 5-4 shootout win at Carolina. They’ve allowed 169 shots over their last five games that mattered, for an average of 33.8. That needs to be better during the playoffs. As great as the Blues goaltending has been, they simply can’t allow a playoff team to get that many shots at Allen.
Don’t: Provide less than a 60 minute effort. Part of the frustration of this season was that the Blues didn’t always appear to give 100%. The results of those efforts were what got Ken Hitchcock fired and Yeo promoted. The Blues have shown a tendency in the last few years, even in the playoffs, not provide a full sixty minutes each game. Against a team like Minnesota or Chicago, that’s not going to fly. The Blues are going to have to win those puck battles, they’re going to have to take the body and skate enough to play a tight, five man game. A sixty-minute effort is imperative once we get to game number 83.
Do: Win faceoffs. As a puck possession team, the Blues need to get the puck. During the regular season, they were twelfth in the league with their 50.4% faceoff win percentage. However, that percentage dropped off after a lower body injury suffered by their best faceoff man, Paul Stastny. If Stastny can’t get back into his groove, the addition of Vladimir Sobotka should pay dividends, and the Blues should be OK. In his last season in the NHL, Sobotka was far and away the best faceoff guy in the league at 61.9%. But even with Sobotka back, everyone needs to participate. The players assigned to the dot need to win draws, and the rest of the group needs to hustle and battle to get the puck after the draw.
Don’t: Allow early or late period goals. Those are devastating. The Blues have had a few, most notably the home loss to the Panthers with five seconds remaining. This club has had a tendency to let down in the waning seconds of a period. It’s important for them to keep playing to the horn at the end of periods, and come out fast at the beginning of periods.
Lots of playoff games are won at those times, and the effort in the first and last minutes and seconds of periods can be huge. We should note that the Blues have gotten off to some good starts in games recently, with first minute goals against Nashville, Winnipeg and Florida.
Do: Deliver great special teams play. Hitchcock always said elite special teams get to 110% combined for power play and penalty kill. The Blues were eighth in the NHL with their power play at 21.6% and fourth on the PK at 84.7%, for a total of 106.3. That’s really good. But behind the numbers, the Blues power play went 1-22 before hitting on three of their last six against Florida and Carolina. The PP needs to live up to their talent level. There are few questions about the penalty kill, which has been tops in the league under Yeo. Since February 1, the Blues have killed off 88.5% of the opposition’s power plays.
Don’t: Let Minnesota play faster. This is a different Minnesota team than the one that beat the Blues in the playoffs a couple of years ago. Zach Parise had an off year with just 42 points in 69 games, and 34-year-old Jason Pominville has had back to back down years for him. But, Mikael Granlund has emerged as one of the best two way players in the league and is their leading scorer, Nino Niederreiter is still pesky, and big centers Eric Staal and Mikko Koivu are a handful. Defensively, Ryan Suter, Jared Spurgeon and the emerging Matt Dumba are a strong top three. Like they did under Yeo, the Wild PLAY fast under Bruce Boudreau, so the Blues are going to have to match that quickness. As they have for most of the last two months, the Blues best players are going to have to be their best players in this series. If they are, the Blues have a chance to advance.
By the way, if the Blues stay out of the penalty box in the series, everything falls their way. Under Yeo, the Blues are first in the league in even strength goals against per game, and first in even strength goal differential. They’ve been playing brilliant 5-on-5 hockey. But as we know, everything changes when we get to game number 83.