With the Pittsburgh Penguins in town and the Blues coming off a convincing win Thursday in Mike Yeo’s first game at the helm, it seemed timely to remind everyone of the intriguing similarity between St. Louis and the defending Stanley Cup champion Penguins.
Before making their magical run to last year’s title, the Penguins–like this year's Blues–fired their coach in the middle of the season. When Mike Johnston got the boot in December 2015, Pittsburgh was toiling away at ninth in the conference standings. Team brass felt the roster was too talented to be out of a playoff spot. Well, they made the move and never looked back. Pittsburgh would go on to hoist the Cup.
For as frustrating as the Blues play has been of late, that link could inspire some optimism. Could Ken Hitchcock’s firing send the Blues on the same path, delivering St. Louis its first-ever Stanley Cup? It’s fun to imagine.
The problem with this hypothetical is that the Blues aren’t the Penguins. The most striking area that proves the previous statement: goaltending.
Granted, Jake Allen wasn’t the goat in the Blues 4-1 loss to Pittsburgh Saturday night–Mike Yeo called Allen “by far the biggest positive of the game.” The Penguins would probably make that same claim about their guy. Marc-Andre Fleury stopped 22 of 23 shots (Patrik Berglund scored the lone goal against him) to pace the Penguins and keep the Blues at bay.
“I thought Fleury made some pretty big saves,” Kevin Shattenkirk said. “He seemed to be tracking the puck really well tonight. It wasn’t for a lack of chances in the second period. But it’s tough, because when you have that sort of momentum against those guys, and you get those chances, you’re playing on the offensive side of things. If he makes a big save and a bounce goes their way, then they have the advantage coming back up the ice and they’re a team that can hurt you in that respect.”
Stellar netminding was a major driving force behind Pittsburgh’s run through the playoffs last season. For the regular season, Marc-Andre Fleury’s .921 save-percentage was better than adequate. Then rookie Matt Murray famously carried the Penguins through the playoffs, posting a 15-6 record with a .923 save-percentage.
Pittsburgh even had a third goaltender, Jeff Zatkoff, contribute capably with a .917 save-percentage in 14 games. Depth between the pipes proved a true difference maker.
On the other hand, Blues goaltending this season has been a blight. Out of 50 qualifying goaltenders, Allen and Carter Hutton rank 44th and 45th respectively in save-percentage. For the Blues to have a Penguins-like turnaround, it would require the goaltenders to perform their own about face.
Consistency has been absent from the Blues’ on-ice vocabulary. Fuel from the coaching change ran dry Saturday, as the Blues lacked the kind of aggressiveness they displayed during Yeo’s debut Thursday. It marked another missed chance at consecutive wins–a feat the Blues have accomplished only once in the past two months.
The Penguins just did it on consecutive nights.
“They showed why they were Stanley Cup champions,” Yeo said of the Penguins. “Not because of the skill, that’s obvious, but the fact that they played last night, they were very smart about how they played with the puck. They made sure that they got everything into the offensive zone; they made sure that they kept it in the offensive zone. When we got in those situations, we didn’t do enough. We didn’t check well enough to get it back. We didn’t execute well enough to get them away from that type of game.”
Pittsburgh executed. Sidney Crosby netted two goals for the Penguins; he’s a bona fide star. Vladimir Tarasenko is the best the Blues have to offer, but he falls short of Crosby’s output–and was quiet Saturday.
Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel–those secondary sources of offense have already reached the 50-point threshold for the Pens. Shattenkirk ranks second on the Blues for points–he has 35. And he’s a defenseman. And St. Louis is probably going to have to trade him.
The Blues remain on the cusp of playoff contention, but they don’t have the dominant traits that made the Penguins champions a year ago. Playoffs are a possibility, but a Cup? St. Louis can’t even expect to secure a spot in the bracket without stringing together wins. They’ve put themselves in the unenviable position of having to do so now as road warriors: 15 of the Blues’ next 20 games are on the road, where they have gone an underwhelming 8-13-1 this season.
Signs are pointing to goaltending stabilization, and the rest of the team is making strides toward playing as a unit. It’s possible that the loss to Pittsburgh will prove to be an outlier against an elite opponent as the Blues carve out a path toward the playoffs. But until proven otherwise, it feels safe to say the Blues are not the Penguins–not by a long shot.
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