It’s not easy being a St. Louis Blues fan. For 47 years, fans have hoped to celebrate a Stanley Cup championship on 14th and Clark in downtown St. Louis and been denied the right to raise a glass. By the third week of the playoffs, the Blues are usually done playing and the entire city is left scratching their heads. The Blues haven’t been to a Stanley Cup Final in 44 years and they haven’t went past the 2nd round in over 10 years. This is the wrong kind of consistency for a sports team.
This tough reality creates ridiculous claims like “The Blues are the Cubs of Hockey”. Wrong, because the Cubs have a championship yet have been very bad over the past…let’s say…100 years. Anyway, what happened to the Blues isn’t uncommon. They ran into the best and couldn’t topple the best. The Chicago Blackhawks, the defending Cup champions, took the local hockey team to the wall and back. The Blues knocked down the Hawks 2 games to none and Chicago came back swinging harder than before. The Blues once again saw greatness in front of them, failed to overcome it and now much measure themselves up to it for an entire summer.
A lot of fans and analysts are making it easy and blaming Ryan Miller for the whole collapse. Sure, that’s wise. Blame the one guy on the ice who can’t score goals. The Blues had trouble scoring goals for the past 2 months, but let’s blame Ryan Miller because it’s easy, popular and trending on Twitter. Look, Miller didn’t play great. He was disappointing. General manager Doug Armstrong’s big bold gamble on March 1st didn’t pay off but I still like the risk he took. Miller was supposedly the final piece to secure into the unit that would pump out a Stanley Cup. Armie believed in that and I trust Armie because he doesn’t make unruly decisions yet worthy risks. Jaro Halak had great stats yet couldn’t stay healthy and didn’t inspire the most confidence on the ice. So Armstrong made the move and brought in Miller. He played solid if not amazing. A lot of fans thought Patrick Roy 2.0 would show up in net for the Blues and except for a handful of games, it didn’t happen. Miller was outplayed by Corey Crawford in the first round of the playoffs and the experiment failed. Many fans outside of Chicago forget Crawford won a Stanley Cup last year because he turned it on at the right time and made a lot of key stops against great teams. The Blues threw a ton of shots at Crawford and he stopped them. For the majority of the series, the Hawks didn’t throw as many shots at Miller and too many got past him. Simply put, that was part of the problem but not all of it.
I don’t feel sorry for Miller but I also recognize the fact that he was limited. He can’t circle the Hawks zone on the power play. He can’t shoot the puck at Crawford. He is incapable of skating out of the zone. Miller can only do so much. He was unlucky and also not good enough to steal a game for his struggling offense. If I was asked today if Miller would be brought back, I would say no. He is getting too old to hand over a large contract and the Blues can bring back Brian Elliott next season and Jake Allen waiting in the wings ready to be the Blues goaltender of the future. Once again, I liked the Miller move. It was bold and beautiful at the time. In the end, it wasn’t what the team really needed and it showed this past week.
Blame the lack of offensive finish of this hockey team. The Blues scored 14 goals in the six games and threw a lot more shots on goal than the Hawks but they also missed 92 shots in the series. Far too many Blues forwards missed the net down low and lost out on open looks. You can’t do that in the playoffs. One must bury those rebounds and open nets. If not, the odds won’t be in your favor for long. This was going on for a few weeks and wasn’t a new issue. Seen in small batches, the Blues attack wasn’t as sharp or measured as the Hawks. The margin was slim but it was visible enough. In an article that was demolished for inaccuracy, I said the Blues don’t get enough shots on goal. Looking at this series, the Blues put shots on Crawford but missed far too many as well.
Blame the power play. A team converts only 2 of 26 power plays in a playoff series and you can bet the end game won’t be swell. This power play unit featured too much passing and not enough crisp shots. Watching the passing, a lot of handoffs down to the circle hit the winger on the wrong part of the stick so one timer’s weren’t in order. The wingers were always moving and never set up to shoot. That could be Hitch’s strategy but when your power play unit doesn’t finish the season well and doesn’t improve in the first couple games of the playoffs, something is very very wrong. Fix it. Change the players. When your hottest scorer, Vladimir Tarasenko, isn’t on the ice for the majority of the power play, something is wrong. I love T.J. Oshie and Alex Steen, but the Russian Express has to be on the ice for the man advantage. Forget defense. Go all in on the offense.
Blame Ken Hitchcock. Great coaches adjust to problems and reconfigure an attack or plan. Hitch seemed to stay within the realms of what worked in November and December instead of adjusting to a new idea. I like the coach a lot and hope he comes back for another round of action but he doesn’t escape blame. In football, the coach is usually the first to be blamed. Hitch doesn’t fit that bill but he did get outworked by Quenneville this series.
Let’s not blame Armstrong for the trade. He made a solid gamble. That would be two sided madness to suggest Miller didn’t have to come here. If you believed that wasn’t the problem and didn’t like the trade then, feel free to disapprove but don’t hate the GM for trying. Armie made a necessary gamble and now knows what the real issue is. This team needs a polished scorer. Someone who can finish. The price won’t be cheap but Armie has to go shopping.
Let Patrik Berglund walk unless he takes a pay cut. The man is a poor man’s Chris Stewart and not in a good way. Effective in small batches yet has the ability to be a ghost like figure for a lot of games. He was hurt this past week but then again, everybody is. Berglund far too often gets on the ice and generates zero energy and scoring chances. Big bodies are nice. The Blues have a few of them. I’ll take a younger hungrier Adam Cracknell over a tired slower Berglund. At least Cracknell has a shot.
The Seabrook hit on Backes didn’t flip the series. I look at Games 3 and 4. Toews getting that soft wrist shot past Miller and Crawford making 34 amazing saves to secure a steal in Game 3. Game 4 had the Blues coming back from a 2-0 deficit to take a 3-2 lead only to give it up late. That was where the series turned. Those two games. Those two moments. Crawford stealing a game Miller couldn’t and Bryan Bickell scoring late on a deflection only to have Patrick Kane skate in and win the game in overtime. The momentum wasn’t just flipped there. The real talent of the Hawks came out in full force. They were down but not out and got back up with a bang. You have to respect that.
Game 5 was painful because the Blues seemed to be in full force for the last two periods. Oshie scoring from his knees and the Blues answering every call of the Hawks attack and dominating the third period. Suddenly, Toews struck in overtime with the breakaway goal. It’s a sad deal and something Blues fans are used to. Watching their team come up a bit short.
A lot of things went wrong for the Blues. A lot of things went right early on. A week ago today the Blues were up 2-0 heading into Chicago. That’s how fast things can change in sports. One minute you are up and smiling but sooner rather than later you are down and cringing. For Blues fans, that reality is well known and fierce.
Yesterday felt like a shot to the gut. Entering the third period, the score was tied but before blinking could happen, the Hawks were up 3-1 before winning 5-1. A 3-1 lead in Game 6 in Chicago felt like a 17-1 deficit for the short circuited Blues who had lost their last 6 road playoff games.
Back to the drawing board for the Blues. Armie will search for a finisher. The team will welcome in Allen as the new kid in town and the face of the future. Miller will be thanked for the effort and will sign a monstrous deal with Anaheim or some other big spender. The Blues did find out Vladimir Tarasenko and Jaden Schwartz were for real this year. They found out there is a young core of hockey players coming up. Greatness was nearly reached again with too early a finish in the spring.
I won’t waste any more time comparing this team to last year’s team or past Blues teams. I will simply state the 6 games were hard fought, brutal in parts and in the end the better team won. It’s not about effort in hockey. It’s about being able to finish. Being efficient and deadly accurate all the time. The Blues came up short again. Today, it hurts like hell. In October, the swelling will go away and the excitement will begin again. Until then, stay classy Blues fans.