The Blues evened up their first-round series with Minnesota with a 6-1 Game 4 win Wednesday, but Friday night in St. Louis, the Wild regained the edge in the series with a 4-1 victory. The Blues are now one loss away from elimination – and they’ve only got themselves to blame.
The St. Louis Blues played a statement game of sorts Wednesday in Game 4 of their first-round series against Minnesota, stomping the Wild 6-1 to pull even at two games apiece. But that dynamic performance was only going to resonate in the minds of their fans if they followed it up with a series victory. And after the Wild answered back in Friday’s Game 5 with a 4-1 win to put the Blues on the brink of elimination, the likelihood of people remembering that Game 4 win is not strong.
For the third time this series, the Blues had no real answer for Wild goalie Devan Dubnyk, who stopped 36 of 37 St. Louis shots after he registered a rare sub-par performance Wednesday. Young star Vladimir Tarasenko beat Dubnyk for the game’s first goal eight minutes into the first period, but after that, there was nothing from any Blues player. They had some tantalizing chances – including Alexander Steen’s second-period opportunity directly in front of Dubnyk – and came strongly out of the gate, but goalie Jake Allen surrendered a softie three minutes after Tarasenko scored and all their momentum evaporated, never to return. And although their strong possession meant Allen only faced 19 shots on the night, he allowed four goals for a gruesome .789 save percentage.
This consistent inconsistency is going to be the end of the Blues, and probably, of head coach Ken Hitchcock’s tenure in St. Louis.
You can be regarded as one of the NHL’s great tacticians as Hitchcock is, but when your players can’t produce timely goals or get solid goaltending, even the most shrewd patterns of Xs and Os aren’t going to win you games. If the Blues don’t win the next two contests, Hitchcock is likely to move on, but the issues plaguing St. Louis run deeper than the man behind the bench.
To be fair, Minnesota hasn’t been a paragon of consistency in this series, either. But their Game 5 victory wasn’t just about Dubnyk. Nine Wild players had one point, but none had more than one point. Marco Scandella, Nino Niederreiter, Mikko Koivu and Charlie Coyle had their goals, but Zach Parise was a handful up front and Ryan Suter and Jonas Brodin gave them quality minutes on the blueline. You could see Dubnyk feeding off the play of those in front of him, and vice-versa.
The Wild clearly believe in Dubnyk, and I’m not sure you can say the Blues have that same confidence with either Allen or Brian Elliott in net. And to be honest, I don’t know that any Blues goalie should have a ton of confidence the offense will be there for him if he can keep the score down. Yes, Tarasenko scored again (his sixth of the post-season), but Paul Stastny’s one shot on net in Game 5 was not good enough. Nor were the two measly shots T.J. Oshie managed Friday night. In theory, the Blues have more offensive firepower – indeed, they had the league’s fifth-best regular-season offense, averaging 2.92 goals-per-game – but it forever seems lost in its post-season translation.
Game 6 is set for Sunday afternoon in Minnesota. The Blues did win there in Game 4, so it’s not out of the realm of possibility they send this series back to St. Louis for a Game 7 on Wednesday. But try to envision the Blues in their current condition getting past Chicago in the next round, or Anaheim in the Western Conference Final. It’s almost laughable to compare their inconsistent, goal-starved state to a dynamic, high-octane team like the Ducks or Blackhawks. And that’s a problem for a Blues squad that should be aiming much higher than just making it out of the first round.
To see them struggling this much, this soon does not bode well for their future.