ST. LOUIS — Those who yearned for the St. Louis Blues to reach a new milestone in the Stanley Cup Playoffs became convinced: Maybe this could be the year.
Such optimism was snuffed by the same Los Angeles Kings who booted the Blues last year. This time, the defending Stanley Cup champion beat St. Louis 4-2 in the best-of-seven conference quarterfinals.
In the wake, Blues fans have been left to mull over another season that ended sooner than expected. As they look ahead, they will notice certain scenarios on the horizon. How these situations are handled could be the difference between another letdown and a breakthrough.
The Blues got plenty of good looks at the net this past season. The problem — especially in the playoffs — was turning said looks into goals.
Against Los Angeles, the Blues fired shot after shot at master Kings goalie Jonathan Quick. Out of their 177 shots on goal, just 10 found the net.
The team’s leading scorers in the regular season, Chris Stewart (18 goals) and Patrik Berglund (17), were held to zero and one playoff goals, respectively. Their troubles were shared by teammates as well. As much as St. Louis poured shots at the net, the shotgun approach rarely rattled Quick.
Whether a current player grows into the role, or a new face is acquired through free agency and or trades, the Blues would benefit by having a go-to scorer.
Perhaps Alex Pietrangelo gets his offense back on track as he continues to play with Jay Bouwmeester, a late addition to the team last year. Maybe Vladimir Tarasenko stays healthy and thrives. Or, the answer might be the young and talented Dmitri Jaskin.
However it happens, finding a go-to scorer would make a big difference, especially for a team that lost four of its most recent playoff games by one goal.
Blues general manager Doug Armstrong described the situation as “cloudy.”
St. Louis has three goalies (Brian Elliott, Jaroslav Halak and Jake Allen) who played last season. Figuring out which one, or two, the team will lean on is key.
Elliott (14-8-1, 2.28 GAA, .907 SV%) excelled after a rocky start. He earned the starting nod in the playoffs after a strong April, but left the door cracked by losing his battle with Quick and the Kings. Halak (6-5-1, 2.14 GAA, .899 SV%) started his season on a four-game win streak before injury slowed him down. Meanwhile, Allen (9-4, 2.46 GAA, .905 SV%) made the most of his limited time. The 22-year-old impressed his teammates and coaches, and proved he belongs.
Combine the goalies’ numbers, and it’s clear why the jostling will continue. St. Louis ranked 20th out of 30 NHL teams in save percentage (.902). The year before, the Blues were first (.929).
Even if the Blues keep the three-goalie approach next season, the lead role is obviously up for the taking.
The player Blues coach Ken Hitchcock credits as his team’s “conscience” will be in search of a rebound season.
T.J. Oshie slogged through injury and played in a career-low 30 games this past year. While the wing returned from a fractured ankle in time to start in the Blues’ first playoff game, his performance left something to be desired. Oshie, whose playoff +/- was a -4, said so himself. He heaped blame on his own shoulders after the Blues lost Game 4.
After the season, Hitchcock said his team needs more from its home-grown players. Oshie, one of the faces of the Blues, is one of those players.
If he stays healthy and performs at his highest level, his team will follow.
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