National Hockey League

Even if they don’t win, there’s that one thing the Blues can control

Back at the turn of the century, the St. Louis Rams and the St. Louis Blues were the most exciting, offensive and successful franchises in their sports.  Over a three-year period, the Rams became the only team to score 500 points in three consecutive seasons, and the Blues had the best regular season record in the NHL over the same three-year period.

One of the things that made those teams successful was that they had style and aggressiveness.  Rams Coach Mike Martz consistently told his team to “play fast and be aggressive.”  While not saying it every day, Blues Coach Joel Quenneville’s team did the same thing; they cycled and possessed the puck in the offensive zone, and when they lost it, they played fast enough to go and get it back.  When they had a lead, they would become even more determined, burying the opposition on a consistent basis.

Fast forward to this year’s Blues.  They still haven’t won three games in a row, and they can’t stand prosperity.  The Blues are 13-5-3 when scoring first, which is impossible for a good team in the NHL.  Losing eight times when scoring first doesn’t compare favorably.  Nashville is 19-2-1 when scoring first.  The wide open Tampa Bay Lightning are 17-2-2.  Pacific leading Calgary is 19-3-0.  So, the blues have scored first 21 times, Nashville and Tampa 21 times and Calgary 22.  Calgary has an .863 points percentage when scoring first, Tampa is at .857 and Nashville is at .886.  As we speak, the Blues have the second worst record in the NHL.  If they had turned that 13-5-3 when scoring first into a respectable 16-3-2, they would have five more points, and be four points out of a playoff spot rather than nine points out.

Getting a lead, playing fast, and being aggressive would make such a difference.  Not that this is a fast team, but they can PLAY faster.  Saturday night against the Islanders was the perfect example.  After the Blues scored a goal to increase their lead to 2-0 midway through the first period, they had three power play chances and didn’t score.  They had two chances up 2-1 and had a total of four shot attempts, and then another power play tied 2-2 and had three shot attempts, but only one shot.  At a time when they should have been going all out, the Blues seemed to take their foot off the gas and played with caution.

That’s typical of this team this year.  Under either Mike Yeo (7-9-3) or Craig Berube (9-10-1) they haven’t played with any real desire to seal a victory.  In those areas where playing fast and being aggressive are most important, on special teams, the Blues under Berube are 23rd in power play percentage and 22nd in penalty kill.  This isn’t a criticism of Berube, it’s a problem with the Blues players.  This team was put together during the off-season with the idea that it would be good enough to be a playoff team, and at one point injuries could have been considered a reason for their struggles.

As it stands now, there are no injuries.  The goaltending has been bad, with three of the four goals scored by New York against Jake Allen fairly being considered soft.  The league average save percentage is .909, and Allen’s in .898.  In a stunning split, Allen’s stats in wins include a 1.90 GAA and a .935 save percentage, and in losses it’s a 4.18 with an .855 save percentage.

But Allen is far from the only problem.  Somehow, the Blues need to find a way to play faster and be more aggressive throughout the game, like they did against Washington on Thursday night.  They need to make him less of a factor.  Score a power play goal to make it 3-0 or 3-1 and suddenly the goalie’s performance doesn’t have to be perfect.  The inconsistency is alarming.  And other teams know it.  Because the Blues have talked so much about their lack of work ethic and confidence, other teams come into Enterprise Center knowing that if they just play hard for sixty minutes, they’re going to have a great chance to win.  Stay close, play hard on special teams, and get shots to the net.  At some point, they know, the Blues will crumble.  And the Blues’ lack of aggressiveness on special teams will come back to haunt them.

It did again on Saturday night against the Islanders, and will again this season.  If ever a team required a lateral deal for the sake of making a deal, it’s this one.  G.M. Doug Armstrong is looking for a coach, too.  Hopefully that guy will be able to get the Blues to do what Quenneville got them to do twenty years ago.  If they would simply play fast and be aggressive, Allen couldn’t be the detriment that he is.

It really can’t get any worse.  With where the Blues are, they might as well just try hard all the time, right?  If you aren’t going to win, go down swinging.