(HockeyStL) - For the first time in three years, the Blues will play on past the regular season, but this year has been anything but regular for the Blues. The Blues have already exceeded 100 points and been crowned Central Division champions, and now they look towards the playoffs, hoping they have what it takes to bring the Stanley Cup to St. Louis. Earlier in the week I listed why the Blues have a real chance at a successful playoff run, but now it’s time to talk about the aspects of their game that could prevent them from securing the cup.
Lack of offense: The Blues have become known for their stellar defense, and have often been able to win a game with limited scoring. Come playoff time, this may not be the case. Playoff hockey consists of strong defense, which often leads to low scoring games. Offense is harder to come by, and the Blues, who rank 20th in the NHL in goals for, could find it much harder to put pucks in the back of the net. The Blues rely on every roster member to contribute offensively, and should any player decide to take a game off, the Blues could struggle. The Note must continue to play as a team and base their offense on teamwork if they want to be successful in the playoffs. They have shown all season that they can win with limited goal scoring, and while some don’t view this category as an area of concern, it could become a detrimental problem for the Blues if other teams can find ways to crack the Blues’ defense.
Not playing 60 minute hockey: When Ken Hitchcock took over for Davis Payne on November 7, he challenged the team to play a “200 foot game”, and be able to do it for 60 minutes. He assured them that this style of hockey would allow them to prosper, and indeed it has. The Blues rose to the top of the standings very quickly after implementing this style of play, but have lately strayed off course. The Blues have recently been struggling to play a complete game, and have either taken a period off, or have not shown up ready to play at all. Teams can often spot when the Blues aren’t on their game for a period, and can take over a game very quickly. This is something the Blues cannot allow in the playoffs. If the Blues take a period off, their offense will struggle to get them back into the game, and regaining momentum will prove to be to large of a task to overcome.
Poor neutral zone play: Another area that has emerged as a weak point for the Blues is their neutral zone play. Many opponents’ chances have come due to poor Blues’ player’s decision making between the two blue-lines. Weak transition play by the Blues has led to neutral zone turnovers that end up with the other team taking control of the puck, and creating chances in the Blues’ end. Cleaning up this area cannot be overlooked by Blues coaching staff, and is an area that is of the upmost importance for the Blues in the playoffs. The Blues rely heavily on smooth transition play created by their strong defense. When they turn the puck over in the neutral zone, it puts more pressure on the already overworked Blues defenders. Making a smooth transition from their end to the opponent’s, could mean more offensive pressure for the Blues, and less time spent on their heels. Look for this to be an area of focus as the season winds down. Hitchcock and company will key in on why the Blues have been weak in this area, and will be sure to improve on it before the playoffs arrive, because they understand just how important this area is.
Special teams: As much as special teams could help the Blues, it could break them just as easily. The Blues special teams have been hard to categorize this season, often going cold as soon as they get hot. The inconsistency of the special teams can be partly credited to injuries to key players, but I believe that chemistry has played a large role as well. With so many players injured, others had to step up to fill their roles on the power play and penalty kill. These players became accustomed to those roles, and now that the Blues are once again healthy, they are struggling to find chemistry once again. Should they find it, the Blues could have the best special teams in the league, but should they be unable to find success, they could fall in the playoffs.
Special teams are just as important as any other area in the playoffs, and making the most of your power play opportunities is key. Being unable to convert on the power play gives immediate momentum to the opponent, and could turn the tide of the game. The Blues power play has been average this year, but with the return of Andy McDonald a few weeks ago it suddenly had life. Of late though the power play has struggled, and the Blues will have to find a way to apply pressure and convert with the extra man if they want to extend their time in the playoff. Just as important in the penalty kill.
The Blues’ penalty kill has recently been the best in the league, and has become one of the hardest to solve. Continuing this reign of dominance on the penalty kill will be critical in keeping the Blues in games, and allowing them to take control of games. While the Blues’ special teams haven’t necessarily struggled of late, it is without a doubt something that could end their fantastic season early, and you can expect Ken Hitchcock to spend a lot of time with his team discussing how they can continue their special team’s success, and take it to the next level. Their season depends on it.
All of these are areas that the Blues will focus on in the playoffs. The Blues know that faltering in these areas would mean a quick end to their Stanley Cup hopes, and with only a few days before the playoffs start, they will be analyzing the team in these areas, and work on improving. If the Blues are hoping o extend their season into June, they will have to cut down on their mistakes, and eliminate their areas of weakness, but if they prove to be successful in doing so, they will have a long and prosperous offseason.