Hopefully, the Blues are in the clear as they head down the stretch of this NHL season. As someone who thought (OK, knew) their playoff chances ended with the seven game losing streak and dropping nine of ten, I have been corrected.
The Blues play better when their backs are against the wall, and their goalie has a strange propensity to play better in months that aren’t December and January.
This year, the struggles were delayed a little bit, as Jake Allen’s January and February helped put the Blues behind the eight ball. He had a January GAA of 4.93 with a save percentage of .871, and followed that up with a February of 3.32 and .877. The rough two months continue a trend for Allen, who has fallen into a rut for a couple of months in each of the last four seasons. In months outside of December and January over those seasons…including this one…Allen has a 2.27 GAA and a .920 save percentage. In December and January, those numbers balloon to a 2.89 goals against and his save percentage shrivels to .898.
Now that he’s out of his mid-season funk, Allen has been sensational in March, posting a 2.00 GAA and a .927 save percentage in nine games, coinciding with a 7-2 run that has pushed the club back into the playoff race. When he traded Paul Stastny, Blues GM Doug Armstrong said the team was going to have to win 1-0 and 2-1 games. In their last three wins, the Blues have beaten Boston 2-1, Vancouver 4-1 and Columbus 2-1, with Allen coming up particularly big in the win at Columbus on Saturday night.
Not to apply any more pressure, but Allen needs to be that great all the time down the stretch. The Blues are missing two key defensemen in Carl Gunnarsson (torn ACL) and Jay Bouwmeester (hip surgery). Gunnarsson leads Blues defensemen with a plus/minus rating of plus-15, and Bouwmeester generally played against the opposition’s top line and was a plus-5. In addition to those injuries, the Blues are missing key defensive forward Scottie Upshall with a knee injury, and of course Stastny to trade. With a relatively inexperienced group of defensemen replacing Gunnarsson and Bouwmeester, Allen is going to face more tough chances, and needs to make more tough saves.
Offensively, the Blues are what they are. They simply didn’t rebound after losing Jaden Schwartz to a broken ankle in early December, even after he returned. The outburst in California, where they scored eleven goals in two games, appears to be the outlier. It’s hard to imagine that this club, as it’s presently constituted, is going to score more than a couple of goals on a regular basis.
Can the Blues make the playoffs? Sure they can. The schedule has some good teams, but those haven’t proven an obstacle lately. Boston has the third best record in the league, and while Columbus was the hottest team anywhere, having won ten in a row heading into Saturday, Tuesday’s opponent, San Jose, is the hottest team in the west. They’ve won seven in a row and eight of twelve heading into a Monday night matchup with the Blackhawks. After playing San Jose at Scottrade Center, the Blues head west with back to back games at Vegas and Arizona on Friday and Saturday nights.
The way the NHL is, you never know what’s going to happen. Chicago has struggled mightily this season, but they’re capable of beating teams like Colorado and the Blues in the final two weeks. The Avalanche have been red hot, but their schedule is brutal; with games at Vegas, Anaheim, L.A. and San Jose remaining, along with home games against Philadelphia, Chicago and the finale against the Blues.
Heck, even Minnesota is within reach. The Blues trail the Wild by four points, but Minnesota has games on the road at Nashville, Anaheim, Los Angeles and San Jose before season’s end.
But none of that will matter if they don’t take care of their own business, and that business starts and ends with Jake Allen. If Allen plays like he’s capable, his team can beat anyone. And if he plays like the December and January (and this year February) Allen, the team has no chance. No pressure, but that’s what he’s signed up for.