Playing just well enough to get by won’t cut it for Blues
ST. LOUIS — Maybe it was the threat of severe storms rolling through the bi-state area Thursday night. Or maybe a few thousand locals just wanted to stay home and watch the "American Idol" results show. Whatever the case, the Blues fans who weren’t among the 16,146 at Scottrade Center didn’t miss much.
The Blues’ 2-1 victory over Buffalo, the NHL’s worst team, was the kind of lackluster performance that leaves you scratching your head and wondering what in the world is wrong with this team.
"It’s a trap game for us," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said. "You want the game to be easier. They’re working hard over there in Buffalo. Same thing happened to … it meant everything to New Jersey and they lost in a shootout. It meant everything to Tampa, it was close, and Tampa ended up winning in a shootout.
"Sometimes you play better when you’re loose and you’re just skating. I think (Buffalo is) getting a good evaluation of players. They are playing hard. And we’re trying to get out of the game without putting much investment into it, and you end up in games like this."
Hitchcock didn’t seem too concerned.
He didn’t yell. He didn’t raise his voice.
He praised goalie Brian Elliott, who stopped 24 of 25 shots, including a point-blank try in the final seconds that would have tied the score. He cautioned that the team’s new record for wins in a season was unfair to previous teams that didn’t have the benefit of shootout victories.
There wasn’t much else for Hitch to say about this one.
It was just that kind of night.
After the thrilling shootout win Tuesday against the Flyers, which featured Ryan Miller’s first shutout with the Blues and T.J. Oshie’s usual shootout brilliance, this game couldn’t have been much less interesting.
Yes, St. Louis was without leading goal scorer Alexander Steen and defenseman Barret Jackman, and is still missing top-six forward Vladimir Tarasenko. But the Sabres were an injury-depleted bunch that had lost 11 of its last 13 games.
"I think we got caught kind of looking at the standings and came out a little flat and a couple parts of the second period a little flat and a couple parts of the third, too," said Ryan Reaves, who assisted on Maxim Lapierre’s second-period goal. "It was just tough to get going. We’ve got to fix it, because we’ve got some big opponents coming up here."
That’s the thing.
The Blues are now 52-17-7 with 111 points — tied with Boston for the top spot in the NHL — in 76 games, one less than the Bruins have played. They have Colorado coming in Saturday and then turn around and play Chicago on Sunday.
But for a team that has been so stinking good for so much of this season, you’re somehow left wondering some nights which team is going to show up and what that means going forward.
Of course, "forward," at this point, means the playoffs. There are only six games left in the regular season. The Blues still have plenty to play for, like the second Presidents’ Trophy in franchise history and a chance to secure home-ice advantage for the duration of the playoffs.
It’s easy to chalk this thing up as a lesson learned, like Reaves said on Thursday and others have said at various times this season when the team failed to perform up to its potential.
"I think if we do that again, we’re going to learn a harder lesson," Reaves said, "so I don’t think we can do that one more time."
The fourth-line forward and resident tough guy said he didn’t think the whole game was bad.
"I thought we did some good things," Reaves explained. "Once we come down to the grind here it’s gonna have to be a full 60 (minutes), and it definitely wasn’t it today."
When was the last time we saw a full 60-minute performance?
That is, and has been, one of the issues with this team for a while. That and slow starts and lack of scoring and an inconsistent power play and the struggles against the top teams from the Pacific Division.
"There’s no way we’re happy with our effort tonight," Lapierre said. "We’re going to have to fix it."
Lappy, who netted his eighth goal of the season, was Mr. Fix It on Thursday night. He used the word at least three times during his short postgame meeting with the media.
"We still have to focus on our game and start building for the playoffs, create momentum and play the way we can," Lapierre said. "I guess like I said tonight, I think it was up and down. We’ve seen some good things. We’ve seen some bad things. We’re going to fix that tomorrow."
But after a night like this you’re still left wondering if the Blues can indeed fix their problems before it’s too late.
You can follow Nate Latsch on Twitter (@natelatsch) or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org