ST. LOUIS – Exactly as advertised, Ryan Miller came to the St. Louis Blues and the goals-against number went down.
Until the Blues started losing bodies.
They’re hoping to get everyone on a lengthy injury list back sometime in the first round of the playoffs against the rival Chicago Blackhawks, and help Miller again be the cool, calm save machine they assumed they’d acquired. The Blues, who had been contending for the Presidents’ Trophy before their late-season fade, open Thursday at home as the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference against the defending Stanley Cup champions.
Miller won his first four starts and seven of eight after the Blues, billing him as the improvement they needed to make a deep run, acquired him from Buffalo. He finished 0-5 with a 3.82 goals-against average and woeful .856 save percentage.
Preparing for his first post-season since 2010-11, Miller said the raw numbers make everything look a lot worse than it’s been.
“I feel like I’m in a pretty good place, honestly,” Miller said. “I know people probably will take that and just chop it up and laugh about it, but I feel pretty good. I can compete.”
The Los Angeles Kings eliminated the Blues the previous two seasons behind brilliant play from Jonathan Quick, reason enough to break up the Jaroslav Halak-Brian Elliott tandem. The day he made the deal, general manager Doug Armstrong acknowledged the franchise sought that extra little bit of help.
Miller hasn’t won since shutting out the Stars on April 1 and in his last 11 times out, minus key personnel in the lineup, the opposition has scored three or more goals nine times. Miller is another question mark on a franchise that’s short on playoff success.
“There’s always going to be things that make you doubt what can happen, there’s going to be things that make you believe in the worst kind of situations, that you’re not going to be able to do it,” Miller said. “But this group and our fans and everybody around us need to understand we’re going to have to have perseverance and have to have a good attitude about facing those situations and doing it the right way.”
Coach Ken Hitchcock anticipates a full cast of characters at some point during the Blackhawks series, while declining to go into specifics.
“I realize everybody’s going to be going, ‘Who’s in your lineup, who’s out of your lineup? What’s the roster going to look like?'” Hitchcock said. “A lot of these guys are going to be back in. We’ve got lots of time.”
The most-missed player is speedy forward Vladimir Tarasenko, who has missed 15 games with a broken thumb and is unlikely to be ready for the playoff opener. Tarasenko had points in seven of his last eight games before getting hurt and the Blues are 6-9 without him.
Leading scorer Alexander Steen missed three games and they lost two of them. They dropped the last three without captain David Backes (lower body), the last two minus dynamic T.J. Oshie (head) and top tier defenceman Alex Pietrangelo (undisclosed) also missed a dispiriting 3-0 loss to the Red Wings in the regular-season finale.
Hitchcock doesn’t want to give Miller a total pass for the off-and-on play, but he believes a roster at full strength can make a big difference this time of the year. They set a franchise record with 52 wins but frittered away a Central Division lead with loose play and too many skaters coming in alone on net.
“With what we’ve been icing, we’d be hard to play for,” Hitchcock said. “Heck, we gave up a 2-on-0 on the power play in Minnesota. I think before we can even talk about how Ryan’s playing, we need to clean it up in front (of him).”
Hitchcock also believes fatigue from 10 players participating in the Olympics—including Miller—was a factor. The Blues took the day off Monday and then have two more days to prepare for the post-season, a luxury compared to a schedule that had teams basically playing every other day after Sochi.
Iron man defenceman Jay Bouwmeester was the only player to appear in every game, running his streak to 717 games.
“I think overall for the most part of the year we’ve been pretty lucky with injuries,” Bouwmeester said. “Obviously, you don’t want it to happen all at once. We’ll get guys back, for sure. What’s done is done.”
Soon, they’ll try to punch that reset button.
“You want to see them back in the lineup, they’ve worked all year for it,” Miller said. “But whoever’s in the lineup, we have to have the mind-set we have to make it work.”