Hurdles keep coming in Blues’ quickening race for Central Division title
ST. LOUIS — Two weeks after finally climbing back to the top, the Blues find themselves on the brink of falling out of a two-team race for the Central Division title.
Four losses in five games can have that effect at this point of the season, even when two of the losses went to overtime. Brian Elliott would be awfully far down the list of reasons for St. Louis’ recent issues, but he shouldered the blame like any good goaltender and summed up the situation quite nicely after a 4-2 loss to Columbus on Saturday night.
"Starting with me, we’ve got to be better," Elliott says.
He’s right, of course, and it’s a message made much stronger by the Blues’ miserable six-game losing streak to end last season. The good news is they’ve got a long way to go to reach those levels of panic, and the situation this year looks considerably different.
Most important, injuries aren’t putting huge holes in the lineup, though that could change if the lower-body injury that forward Alexander Steen suffered Saturday turns out to be serious. He already tied his career high with 62 points, including a team-best 39 since Jan. 1.
But if Steen can return, St. Louis figures to get stronger in its final seven games as defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk rounds back into form. Combine that with five home games, and it’s no wonder the Blues still have their sights set on a Central Division title, or even the Western Conference’s No. 1 seed.
"We know how every point counts," Shattenkirk says. "I think now with the way that this race is shaping out, it’s really going to be tough."
Slumping Chicago and red-hot Minnesota would need a lot of help to catch Nashville, which regained its supremacy with four straight wins against what should have been a tough part of the schedule. The Predators are seven points ahead of the surging Wild with six games remaining for both teams, and Chicago has two games in hand but must win Sunday night against Winnipeg to move back ahead of Minnesota.
That leaves St. Louis as the only obstacle between Nashville and its first-ever division title. The Blues sit only three points back with a game in hand, but they face much tougher competition down the stretch.
That’s part of the reason Saturday’s game must go down as a missed opportunity, two points St. Louis might wish it had gotten when the season ends. Hitchcock said the Blues should have done better taking advantage of three days’ rest while Columbus was on a back-to-back, particularly when St. Louis played at home for the first time in seven games.
"You never want to start a homestand like that, but we always say, get the lows too low and the highs too high," Elliott says. "So we’ve got to take it and learn from it and come back tomorrow ready to work."
The Predators and Blues are clearly both destined for the playoffs, and considering the remarkable parity in this year’s NHL, it’s not unreasonable to believe seeding won’t really make much difference. After all, if Anaheim takes advantage of a weak schedule and wins the Western Conference, Minnesota or Chicago may keep fighting for third place and could await the Central’s top two teams.
Neither would be an appealing option, considering the Blackhawks beat St. Louis twice already and knocked them out of the playoffs last season, while the Wild have the best record in the NHL, at 26-6-2, since goaltender Dustin Dubnyk took over Jan. 13. But Shattenkirk and the Blues have aspirations well beyond the first round that must be taken into consideration.
"I think the ability to win the Central, hopefully get the Western Conference (title) and get that home ice advantage throughout is something that you can’t take for granted," Shattenkirk says.
The Blues have lost eight straight road playoff games, and their one win in seven road games against the West’s top six teams this season came in a shootout at Minnesota. A year ago, Western Conference teams went 34-15 at home in the playoffs, including Los Angeles’ perfect 3-0 record at Staples Center in the Stanley Cup Finals.
St. Louis hasn’t exactly been dominant lately at Scottrade, where the Blues have lost six of their last 10 while getting outscored 30-22. They’ve won by more than a goal only once since the All-Star break, and that came against Boston goaltender Malcolm Subban in what remains his only career NHL game.
Despite those struggles, the Blues still have the third-best home record in the conference behind division leaders Nashville and Anaheim. Since getting swept by Los Angeles in the 2012 conference semifinals, St. Louis has won four of six playoff home games and has never lost in regulation.
No postseason win comes easy, especially for the Blues, so they’d do well to use every edge they can find.