The Blues have been one of the NHL’s better regular-season teams the past four years, but they’ve been unable to enjoy a lot of playoff success. There was hope that would change this year, but Thursday in Game 1 against the Wild, St. Louis once again didn’t have what it takes.
Over the course of 82 regular-season games this season, the St. Louis Blues established themselves as a very difficult hockey team to beat. What they’ve yet to establish themselves as, though, is a team with the ability to do some serious damage in the playoffs. And after Game 1 of their first-round series against Minnesota Thursday ended in a 4-2 win for the Wild, they’ve still got a lot left to prove in order to be taken seriously at this time of year.
In a game that will not be remembered as one of the most entertaining playoff matchups in NHL history, the Blues managed to get just 21 shots – including only four in the second period – on Minnesota ace Devan Dubnyk, who let in two of them for a paltry (for him, anyway) .905 save percentage on the night. But despite pressing numerous times during the first period, St. Louis didn’t register its first goal until 7:12 of the third frame on Jaden Schwartz’s goal. By that stage of the game, they were already down 2-0 thanks to rookie Matt Dumba’s second period power play goal and Jason Zucker’s first-period marker – and after Schwartz’s goal, there was no difference-maker who stepped up for the Blues to tie it late and force overtime. (Sure, Alex Steen scored with 59 seconds left in regulation, but his goal came 14 seconds after Mikael Granlund scored an empty-net goal to make it 3-1 Wild; Minnesota promptly scored another empty-netter – this one, from Jason Pominville – to ice the victory for the visitors and erase St. Louis’ home ice advantage.)
Following Granlund’s goal, the sounds of discontent could be heard in pockets of Scottrade Center, and who could blame Blues fans for the now-familiar sense of unease?
This is a franchise that has only won one playoff series since 2001-02, and that hasn’t made the Western Conference Final since Chris Pronger and Al MacInnis were still members of the team in 2000-01. They’ve qualified for post-season play four years running and finished first or second in the Central Division in each of those seasons, but whatever momentum they’ve built up seems to vanish come mid-April.
You do have to give the Wild a good deal of credit in the Blues’ predicament. Minnesota played a disciplined game – they took only two penalties and killed off both while allowing just three shots combined on the penalty kill – and made the most of their power plays, scoring twice (including on Pominville’s goal) in four man-advantages. The Wild also had only three giveaways on the night (the Blues had seven) and adeptly disrupted St. Louis’ best offensive weapons: high-scoring winger Vladimir Tarasenko had an assist, but didn’t register a single shot on net; captain David Backes and prized off-season acquisition Paul Stastny both were held off the scoresheet and mustered only one shot apiece; and winger T.J. Oshie had three shots, but no points. In fact, the only Blues player who had more than three shots was defenseman Alex Pietrangelo (six), and only he and Oshie had more than two shots apiece.
Once again, there was nobody on the Blues prepared and able to put the team on his shoulders and will/carry St. Louis to victory. And given that this type of hard-nosed, scoring-chances-are-rare style of play is expected to continue through the remainder of the series, Blues coach Ken Hitchcock desperately needs someone on the roster to do exactly that. After the 37-goal regular season Tarasenko had this year, there was some hope the 23-year-old could be just such a player, but at this point, it doesn’t matter who it is. Hitchcock’s job very well could be on the line if the Blues are eliminated by Minnesota, and bigger changes involving on-ice personnel could follow.
You’d think that would lead to a sense of urgency among Blues players, but you never saw it in any real sustained form in Game 1. It was there in spurts and pockets, but the lasting surge teams need to win playoff games was nowhere to be found.
With another crushing disappointment just three losses away, maybe they’ll wake up and focus their energies properly. If not, the Wild will move on to face either the Hawks or Predators, and St. Louis will move on, yet again, into a summer of regret and dismay.