Column: Blues positioned for a great run

Column: Blues positioned for a great run

Credit: UPI

St. Louis Blues Jaden Schwartz steps out onto the ice as he is introduced for the first game of the season against the Detroit Red Wings at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis on January 19, 2013. UPI/Bill Greenblatt

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by Michael Solomon / HockeySTL

KMOV.com

Posted on January 31, 2013 at 9:19 AM

Updated Monday, Oct 21 at 3:57 PM

(HockeyStL) -- The phrase “it’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon” is common-place in the sports world. In the middle of long, stretched-out professional sports seasons, it’s an easy way out for management and players when talking to the media and their organizations die-hard fans when the team is struggling. As St. Louis sports fans have seen in the past few years, a slow start to the season won’t necessarily mean a disappointing end. As true as that phrase may be for all other years, the 2013 St. Louis Blues, with its shortened season, might want to re-phrase it as simply, “it’s a long sprint or half marathon.”

The 2013 NHL season got underway last Sunday, and already, a handful of teams have played almost 10 percent of their regular season games. That’s quite a pace to keep, even if the regular season is shortened by nearly half of the schedule. In a “normal-length” season, a good start can mean everything. But in a shortened season, a good start means everything. While you probably cannot win a playoff spot in the first 15 games, even with a fast start, teams can surely place themselves out of the running by starting slowly.

The Blues are 5-1-0 through the first six games of the season, and sit in second place in the Central Division. No matter the length of the season, a start like that is something to be genuinely excited about. And in this “half marathon” of a season, the Blues needed to get off to a hot start to have a chance to contend in the Central Division and Western Conference.

The Central Division in the NHL used to consist of the Red Wings, and their great tradition and vast number of division and Stanley Cup titles, and then everyone else. Now, the Central Division consists of heavy-weights—the Blues, Blackhawks, Predators, Red Wings and Blue Jackets, and is considered to be the best division in all of hockey. The stats speak for themselves. The division has won two Stanley Cup Titles in the last five years, and last season, had four of eight teams in the Stanley Cup playoffs. After their spectacular run to the Central Division title in last year’s regular season, the Blues were considered to be the favorite yet again in the Central, and still look to be after the first six games of the 2013 season.

With minor changes to the team in the off-season, the Blues made their statement in the first game against Detroit. With the Red Wings reeling from injuries and a retirement of their future Hall of Fame defenseman, Nicklas Lidstrom, the Blues plowed over the Red Wings 6-0 with two goals from newly signed rookie Vladimir Tarasenko. Even with a minor blip in their record in a road defeat at the hands of the red-hot Blackhawks (6-0-0), the Blues have owned Central Division opponents to start the season. That’s good news considering that the Blues play four division opponents in a row starting with Thursday’s game at Columbus. With wins in all four games (one against Columbus, two against Detroit and one against Nashville), the Blues have a chance to be able to separate themselves from most of the division less than halfway through the season. After those next games, catching the Blues after could be an uphill climb for teams like Detroit and Nashville.

Why are the Blues so well-positioned? We first need to look at last season’s surprising momentum, when the Blues had a late-season surge to take the Central Division title. Their 109 points were tied with the New York Rangers and second-only to the Vancouver Canucks (111 points). While they couldn’t keep up the momentum in the playoffs, the Blues still have goalies Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliot with their NHL-best Goals Against Average of 1.86. In a shortened season, strong defense and goalie play will be critical. Physical play will also be important, and the Blues might even be more tenacious and physical than they were a year ago. Coach of the Year Ken Hitchcock is still one of the top coaches in hockey, and he has added players while not messing up the chemistry. Russian forward Tarasenko has been a great addition to the team so far, and is already in the top 10 in the league in scoring.

The only-team that figures to stand in the way of Blues back-to-back division titles seems to be the Blackhawks. Only two years removed from their Stanley Cup run in 2010, the Blackhawks will be looking to reclaim their position at the top of the Central Division. With loads of talent on offense and defense, the rival Hawks will remain as the biggest threat to unseat St. Louis from their Central Division throne. While it has looked good for Chicago through the first two weeks of the season, don’t expect it to stay that way for long. With inconsistent goaltending, poor special teams and a grueling away-from-home-loaded first half schedule, the Blackhawks will lose steam as the season drags on.

The Blues stack up well in the Western Conference as well. The Vancouver Canucks have not decided what to do with goaltender Roberto Luongo, as he continues to battle for the top goaltending job with youngster Cory Schneider. The San Jose Sharks are getting older, especially with core players like Patrick Marleau, Joe Thornton and Dan Boyle, but they have added strength in former Blackhawk Adam Burish. Detroit still has their stars in Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, but they will wear down defensively with the loss of Lidstrom. The defending Cup champion Los Angeles Kings have made few changes, but are battling injuries to key players Willie Mitchell and Anze Kopitar. Plus, goaltender Jonathon Quick is still recovering from back surgery.

The lockout may have helped the Blues in more ways than any other team in the NHL. One of the deepest teams in the league, the Blues have the depth to offset any injuries or player fatigue that will come. With loads of depth, a stellar goaltending duo and a shot-heavy offense, the Blues seem to be best-suited to reach a Stanley Cup Final in this shortened year where they will play 48 games in less than 100 days.

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