The St. Louis Blues had two takeaways from their six-game, Round 1 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks last spring. Their Top 4 on defence couldn’t match the Blackhawks’ Top 4, and the Blues had to play so hard all year long that they didn’t have another level to get to come playoff time.
This year they’re on track to meet again in the first round, after a fantastic series last spring when St. Louis won a pair of 4-3 overtime games in Games 1 and 2, lost Game 3 at the United Center 2-0 on an empty net goal, and dropped Game 4 in overtime. Jonathan Toews scored an OT winner in Game 5 to put Chicago ahead.
In Game 6 the teams were tied 1-1 after 40 minutes, and through 21 periods of hockey there was literally no separation between the two clubs. Then, inexplicably, the Blues cracked. Chicago scored four times in the third period to hand St. Louis their second consecutive Round 1 exit.
“We played our best hockey last year against Chicago for the first five-and-a-half games. There are all kinds of lessons there,” Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said on Friday, his Blues taking a mandatory off day in Edmonton prior to playing the late game on Hockey Night in Canada tonight. “We don’t know how much better we are today, because you find that out in a series. But the thing that’s impressed me with this team this year is, when things don’t go well, we’ve got the ability to grab it back. That’s what you’re going to need for the next 20 games here — an ability to really keep your focus narrow.”
To that end, the Blues haven’t lost three straight games in regulation all season long. That’s testimony to a club that’s been able to get things back on track. They’ve gone 17-6-1 since Jan. 1, and although Hitchcock hasn’t loved the way his team has played of late, a 2-1 shootout win at the MTS Centre in Winnipeg against a very physical Jets team impressed him.
“Our competitive level was forced to go up,” he said of the Jets. “The time of year, losing a few games, the opponent — we started to play the way we’re capable of.”
St. Louis still hasn’t matched Chicago’s blueline, and their top offensive defenceman — Kevin Shattenkirk — hasn’t played since Feb. 1. He isn’t due back until late March after abdominal surgery, a particularly debilitating injury because the player usually can’t maintain his core strength during the recovery period.
If the Blues’ Top 4 didn’t stand up to Chicago’s last year, then GM Doug Armstrong is going to need to find a defenceman before Monday’s deadline. Not a Keith Yandle or Jeff Petry type, but one whose game is better in traffic. One who wins the physical battles.
They could also use a third-line winger to play with Paul Stastny and Patrik Berglund. Calgary’s Curtis Glencross would be a perfect fit, but the Flames would want draft picks and/prospects, and St. Louis is already without their first-rounder from the Ryan Miller deal with Buffalo last year.
St. Louis wasn’t good enough to coast the way Los Angeles seemingly does in the regular season (my words, not his), and Hitchcock is pretty sure that hasn’t changed.
“We go on pretty high RPMs. We have to to win,” he said. “We just saw last week (losses at home to Dallas, Pittsburgh and Montreal) what happens when we don’t run at a high RPM.”
This isn’t exactly the same team that has bowed out in Round 1 in each of the past two seasons, however.
“Our competitive level is higher, and it had to be higher. We’re more mature. The core group has another year under its belt,” he said. “To us right now, these are the playoffs. Every game matters, every point matters, every shift matters.”
CHICAGO GOALIE AVAILABLE AT TRADE DEADLINE
Count Chicago goalie Antti Raanta among those unsigned free agents who come to the NHL with so much fanfare and end up being fairly average players. Remember Jonas “The Monster” Gustavsson? Fabian Brunnstrom? Well, you could get Raanta at the deadline from the Blackhawks as a pot-sweetener in any deadline trade. Or likely a fifth-round pick.
“We see him as a capable backup,” one competing executive told us on Friday. The Blackhawks prefer Scott Darling as Corey Crawford’s No. 2, and Darling is marginally cheaper than Raanta, signed for two more years at an AAV of $570,000.
WOULD CANUCKS TRADE RED-HOT KASSIAN?
The roster is about to get crowded in Vancouver, with Brad Richardson and Alex Burrows both expected off of injured reserve in the next couple of games. And the one player who does not require waivers to go down is Ronalds Kenins, who has been the team’s true spark plug over the past few weeks.
The Kenins - Bo Horvat - Jannik Hansen line is billed as the fourth line, but has actually been the Canucks’ second-best unit. The Latvian winger Kenins never passes up a hit and the chemistry on that line is undeniable.
So, what does GM Jim Benning do? Well, even though Zack Kassian has seven goals in his past 10 games, it is believed the Canucks would move him. His shooting percentage is 19.1, so there couldn’t be a better intersection between red-hot player and pending trade deadline, could there? His value will never be higher.
The other player who could be dealt to clear a roster spot is Chris Higgins. However, he’s got two years left with an AAV of $2.5 million and is likely viewed as a declining asset. Pending UFA Shawn Matthias could also be a player who would draw interest, but draft picks are likely coming back in all cases.
With everyone coming back from injury, I sense a quiet deadline in Vancouver.
WHY ANDREW LADD IS AN UNDERRATED CAPTAIN
One more item from Hitchcock: He was truly impressed with the Winnipeg Jets team that he saw Thursday night.
“They’ve got some really nice pieces there, boy. Andrew Ladd is really driving the bus right now. Really pushing hard.”
The Jets captain had 10 hits in Thursday’s game — twice as many as any other player on the ice. “He was runnin’ over everybody,” Hitchcock said. “And it’s such a great atmosphere in that building. Oh my God.”
I always praise Ladd as a fantastic leader at age 29, but a recent tweet drew out a few Jets fans who questioned his leadership due to the Evander Kane soap opera. They feel Ladd didn’t do the job as a captain, because Kane never fit into the group and was eventually cast as an outsider.
Ladd is a fine captain, but folks, he’s not Criss Angel. I credit him for keeping the Jets on track through the various Kane fiascos. You know that, if we heard about three or four things, there were another five or six instances that went unreported.
Kane wasn’t interested in being part of the Jets and there isn’t a captain alive who could have helped him to mature. Kane will need time, and perhaps even another team or two, before he figures it out. Meanwhile, the Jets have collected eight of 12 points since the deal and look destined to hang on to that playoff spot in the Central.
I’ll say it again: Andrew Ladd could captain my team any day.
PETRY LEAVING ISN’T OILERS FAULT
Lots of Oilers fans wonder how a team with such a weak defence can afford to let Jeff Petry go. They’re right — he’s going to leave a big hole next year. But last summer, when the time came to sign Petry long-term, his game wasn’t deserving of the commitment. Sure, he was the best guy on a poor defence, but in my opinion, someone will be having buyer’s remorse on Petry at this time next year, when he signs for four years and $18-19 million.
The key to the negotiations though, is that Petry wanted to go to UFA. There haven’t been any talks leading up to the deadline. The player simply wants to exercise his rights, play the field, and make a choice on a new team come July 1. It isn’t always a GM’s mistake when a player leaves. Sometimes the player, in this case an American-born player married to an American girl, wants to head south.
It’s no more complicated than that.