As the Blues embark on the second half of their season, they’re in great shape in the NHL’s central division as far as the playoffs are concerned, but there are things they need to either improve upon or avoid as they traverse the rest of their schedule. In my view, here they are…
1) Stay healthy. We saw what happened when Brian Elliott and Jaden Schwartz were injured. Without Elliott the Blues were 8-5-1 (.607), and with him healthy they’re 21-8-3 (.703). Without Schwartz they were 1-6. Those two are big keys. Any projection of success is obviously predicated on health. Last year, the Blues were ruined down the stretch, to the point that in their finale against Detroit, among the scratches were Barret Jackman, Brenden Morrow, Vladimir Sobotka, Patrik Berglund, David Backes and T.J. Oshie. They had to play Keith Aucoin, Ty Rattie, Chris Porter and Adam Cracknell. So health down the stretch is imperative.
2) Win against the Central. Last season, the Blues started 20-0-2 in their own division before losing to Chicago on March 19. Their injuries down the stretch caused them to stumble to 21-6-2 overall in the Central, with their only division win in their last seven division games coming against Minnesota at home. This year, the Blues are only 9-6-0 against the Central. With a heavily weighted division schedule the rest of the way, the Blues need to pick it up…especially with nine games against division also-rans Colorado, Dallas and Minnesota.
3) Dominate the Eastern conference. The Blues did that last year, going 23-7-2 against the other conference, and their 11-3-2 against the East this year is the best mark among Western conference teams. The Blues still have sixteen of their 36 remaining games against teams from the East. That’s a great opportunity for the Note. The Predators have also played sixteen against the weaker conference, and the Blackhawks have played seventeen, but the Winnipeg Jets…two points behind the Blues…have already played 21 of their 32 scheduled games against the weaker conference.
4) Get hot stretches out of Paul Stastny and Patrik Berglund. Stastny is a playoff player. He has scored eighteen points in 22 career playoff games, including five goals and five assists in ten games last year with Colorado. That’s one of the reason the Blues got Stastny. Hopefully his hot streak will come late. Berglund suffered an injured shoulder and wasn’t 100% for the playoffs last season. The Blues gave him another contract because he’s a big body that can defend opposing big players at that time of year, but he is capable of more offense. Last year coming out of the Olympics, Berglund had his hottest streak of the season with six of his fourteen goals coming in an eight game span. The Blues need to get better second half production out of Berglund, and then get his best come playoff time.
5) Stay out of the penalty box. The Blues have the top power play in the NHL at 25.5%, scoring 40 goals on 157 opportunities. But their penalty kill, while hot lately, is only seventeenth in the league at 81.2%.
Coach Ken Hitchcock is striving for a combined 110% in power play and penalty kill percentages, and because of that 81.2%, the Blues right now are at 106.7%. The Blues can do one of two things. Getting into the top six in the penalty kill would get them to that 110% threshold. Only fourteen teams have been shorthanded more than the Blues 154 times. So the Blues need to take a few less penalties, and kill off a few more of the power plays they do allow.
Last year, most people were talking about the Blues needing to get a goalie, and they got Ryan Miller from Buffalo. This year, there isn’t a glaring need . They have terrific front line talent and great depth. As they hoped after last season, Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko have ascended to become their best forwards. They roll four lines up front. They sit a couple of good players every game, with Dmitrij Jaskin and Joakim Lindstrom splitting time up front and Ian Cole and St. Louisan Chris Butler sharing time on the blue line.
Health is the key. If this team maintains that, they should be primed heading into the playoffs and be able to make a major run in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.