While the Blues haven’t always had the best five-on-five play this season, their special teams have carried them to playoff contention.
On the strength of the NHL’s ninth-ranked power play (converting 20.8% of their opportunities) and third-ranked penalty kill (86.4%), the Blues sit third in the Central division and a modest sixth in the Western Conference standings. Most nights, the Blues can use at least one facet of their special teams to elevate the club to bring scratch out a point or two.
But when the special teams fall flat–like they did Thursday night in a 4-2 loss to the Hurricanes–the Blues don’t really stand a chance. Wipe away that advantage, and they’re easily exposed.
"I thought that was our worst game of the year,” goaltender Jake Allen bluntly stated after the loss. “I don't know what you guys saw, but from everyone, we need to look at ourselves in the mirror after that game. Unfocused, unexecuting and just didn't play our game at all."
The Hurricanes, with the top penalty kill in the NHL (89.0%), neutralized the Blues’ power play efforts. Though St. Louis scored a power play goal in the second period–Vladimir Tarasenko netted his 19th of the season on a world-class shot from the slot–Carolina suppressed the Note on two critical power plays in the third.
Meanwhile, the Canes cashed in on their own third-period power play after a Brad Hunt slashing penalty, with Jeff Skinner scoring a mere 17 seconds into the man-advantage. That goal proved to be the game-winner when Derek Ryan capitalized on an empty net for his second goal of the game late in the third.
Blues defenseman Joel Edmundson scored his first goal of the season in the game, but echoed the sentiment of his teammates after the brutal letdown following the Winter Classic.
“After the big event at Busch, it’s kind of hard to get back up for a game,” Edmundson said. “I thought we were ready for this game, it’s just… We didn’t leave it out on the ice and that’s the result we’re going to get.”
Allen and Paul Stastny also disagreed with the notion that the Winter Classic was a valid excuse for the Blues’ lethargy Thursday, but as Edmundson surmised, there’s no denying they fell short of expectations.
“Just a lack of energy,” Edmundson said. “Thought we were getting outworked on the boards. When that happens, we’re not going to win too many games, so we’ve gotta figure that out quick.”
Such inconsistency is not new for the Blues, though–it’s officially a trend. The Blues still haven’t won consecutive games since winning three straight from Nov. 26th to Dec. 1st. It’s hard to find more meaningful momentum than a win over a bitter rival in front of more than 46,000 fans. Yet, the Blues dropped the puck–again.
Ken Hitchcock called for his players–each of them–to recommit to playing with consistent effort.
“This is attitude consistency,” Hitchcock said. “We needed to really dig in and regroup with each other and we didn't have enough people doing it today. You can't play the game when you're losing as many races to pucks and battles–that's the game. Our first goal was a great example of that; did a great job on it. We needed more people involved in the game today. Many more.”
This recent trend of inconsistency–which now spans more than a month–can be viewed a couple ways. The optimist sees that, despite the Blues’ apparent struggles to put together consecutive efforts, the team has remained entrenched in a favorable position in the standings. This view would indicate that by the time to Blues work through their issues, the team would be primed to strengthen its already-acceptable playoff seed.
The gloomy alternative, at this juncture, carries an equal likelihood of playing out. Not only do the Blues have deficiencies in specific parts of their game, they remain vulnerable particularly on the road, where a significant percentage of their remaining games will be played.
St. Louis is still in position to get into the tournament, but considering what lies ahead, its safety in the Central is no guarantee. Unless Hitchcock can get the Blues to start digging in, they’ll keep desperately clinging to special teams that are, on some nights, nothing special.
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