A popular urban legend in the NHL is the curse of the Presidents’ Trophy, a notion that finishing first overall in the regular season dooms you to playoff failure. The notion ignores the fact that it’s still better to finish first than anywhere else, given the fact that one-quarter of the teams who have done so over the past 20 years have also won the Stanley Cup — a higher percentage than any other seed.
But what about lofty preseason expectations? Can they be a death knell for a team? Case in point: the St. Louis Blues. When the season opened, the Blues were a lot of analysts’ trendy pick to win the Stanley Cup based on their hard-hitting, tight-checking style and the progression they made last season by winning the Central Division and finishing tied for the second-most points in the league, two behind Presidents’ Trophy winner Vancouver (which did not win the Cup).
St. Louis currently sits third in the Central, miles behind the torrid Chicago Blackhawks and ninth in the Western Conference. In other words, the Blues are not in playoff position as the season approaches its midpoint.
Injuries have certainly played a role in the Blues’ struggles. Forward Jamie Langenbrunner (hip) is out for the season while forwards Alex Steen, Andy McDonald and Vladimir Tarsenko have all missed significant time, leaving the Blues without an entire second line for a stretch this season. St. Louis also lost goalie Jaroslav Halak to a groin injury for significant time. His injury coincided with a February slide in which the team lost its first five games to open the month.
But there are other issues. Backup goalie Brian Elliott has suffered a statistical regression that looks more like a counterweight to last season, when he led the league in goals-against average and save percentage in 38 games played. Elliott’s 3.65 goals-against average this season is the second-worst mark in the league, and his .851 save percentage is the worst. Couple that with Jaroslav Halak’s struggles and rookie Jake Allen could be in net for the Blues against the Coyotes after getting called up from AHL Peoria on Wednesday. The 22-year-old is 3-1-0 with a 2.62 GAA in five appearances this season.
The Blues are also allowing three goals per game, the seventh-worst mark in the league and a far cry from the 1.89 they allowed last season to lead the NHL. That has offset St. Louis’ increase in production from 2.51 goals per game to 2.82. On Tuesday, the Blues blew a 4-1, second-period lead in a 6-4 loss in Los Angeles.
“We’ve had too many average performances. What can you say?” said coach Ken Hitchcock, whose team has allowed 10 goals in its last two games. “Too many average performances doesn’t get it done.”
THREE KEY OPPONENT STATS
27.8: It’s cooled a bit of late, but the Blues’ power-play unit is still scary and ranked second in the league. Eight players have at least two power-play goals for St. Louis, an incredible balance that makes defending this unit even harder.
23.1: That’s how many shots the Blues allow per game, the best mark in the league. That should give you an indication of two things. First, the goaltending has been bad (Halak only has a .884 save percentage, which isn’t much better than Elliott’s). Second, when the Blues give up chances, they give up good ones.
0.80: You might have guessed this given the team’s power-play prowess and their spot in the conference standings, but the Blues have been dismal in 5-on-5 play this season with a .80 goals for/against ratio, which is tied with the Islanders for the league’s fourth-worst mark, ahead of only Columbus, Edmonton and Florida.
THREE THINGS YOU SHOULD KNOW
Road weary: St. Louis is in the midst of a season-long five-game road trip that has already included stops in Dallas and Los Angeles, where the Blues were beaten 4-1 and 6-4. After Phoenix, St. Louis travels to San Jose and Anaheim for back-to-back games on Saturday and Sunday.
Vrbata back? There is a chance that Coyotes wing Radim Vrbata will play against the Blues. He has missed the past eight games with a foot injury but was slated to make the trip to Anaheim on Wednesday. The Coyotes sorely miss Vrbata’s skill and puck possession abilities as well as his responsible defensive play.
Picks to click: David Moss has seven goals and 11 points in 15 career games against the Blues. Steve Sullivan has 23 goals and 51 points in 62 career games against them, Shane Doan has 20 goals and 46 points in 64 games, and Radim Vrbata has 11 goals and 23 points in 33 games.
For the Blues, forwards Andy McDonald (knee), Alexander Steen (shoulder) and Vladimir Tarasenko (concussion) are all day-to-day, while Jamie Langenbrunner (hip) is out for the season. For the Coyotes, F Radim Vrbata (foot) and D David Schlemko (shoulder) are day-to-day.