Blues make big push for playoffs

Bradley Piros , Sports Editor

With the All-Star break behind them, many NHL teams are starting the fight for the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and in the middle of that fight you find the St. Louis Blues climbing up the standings night in and night out.

They are currently on a six-game winning streak capped off by back-to-back wins against the Nashville Predators in a home and home series, but I’ll get back to that.

The win streak started back on Jan. 23 against the Anaheim Ducks on the road. After losing to the worst team in the NHL the night before 4-3 to the Los Angeles Kings, they were able to bounce back in a big way. The Blues cruised to a 5-1 victory that night and headed into the All-Star break with tons of confidence.

They ended up coming back even stronger after the break, showing some promising signs that they might be able to creep into the playoff picture. They came back from break to play the Columbus Blue Jackets on the road. This was the midpoint of their five-game road trip and they won 4-2.

They took their travels south for a few days to play the Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning. They beat both these teams in emphatic ways. The Panthers fell 3-2 after three periods but it took a little more than that to top the Lightning.

The Blues were able to completely shut down the Bolts after 60 minutes due to the wonderful goaltending of rookie goalie Jordan Binnington who now boasts a 9-1-1 record. Tied at 0-0 this game headed to overtime. I sat watching thinking we were toast. The Bolts lead the NHL in scoring and are in first place. But I was proved wrong as Brayden Schenn had a mini breakaway against Andrei Vasilevskiy and slotted the puck into the back of the net to escape with a 1-0 overtime win.

This story just keeps getting better though. The Blues finally returned home after two weeks to play a home-and-home weekend series with the Nashville Predators. The first game was Saturday in St. Louis.

The Blues came out hot and scored in the first five minutes as defender Vince Dunn made it 1-0. Assistant captain and right winger Vladimir Tarasenko doubled that lead late in the first period to take a 2-0 lead into the intermission. The Predators did strike back as Mattias Ekholm cut the lead in half in the opening minutes of the second period.

Rookie Mackenzie MacEachern scored the eventual game winning goal to make it 3-1 to lead the Blues onto their fifth straight win. That same night, MacEachern was signed to a one year, on-way contract for $750,000. Full of confidence, the Blues took a short flight to Nashville.

Less than 24 hours later, these teams were playing again, this time in music city. The first period was scoreless, and it seemed like this was going to be a pretty low scoring game. Oh how I was wrong. The Blues broke the game wide open scoring two goals in the first five minutes from captain Alex Pietrangelo on a power play and once again, Tarasenko.

Victor Arvidson scored to make it 2-1 for his 23rd goal of the season. Tyler Bozak immediately answered with another goal for the Blues to make it 3-1. The Blues took that lead into the second intermission.

Things didn’t look too good for St. Louis to start off the third. Nashville scored back-to-back goals from Roman Josi and Arvidson again to tie the game at 3-3. Not even a minute later, Tarasenko scored his second goal of the game to take back the lead at 4-3. The Predators weren’t done scoring, though, as Filip Forsberg scored to tie the game at 4-4.

The game would finish tied, which meant another overtime. I once again wasn’t that confident in my team because the Bridgestone Arena in Nashville is one of the toughest if not the toughest place to play. But sure enough, the Blues managed to make my day. Tarasenko scored in overtime to end the game 5-4, completing his hattrick and scoring his 200th career goal.

This win marks a season high six-game win streak for St. Louis. In that time they went from the second worst team in the NHL to the first wildcard spot in the West as of writing this. That just goes to show how wide open the Western Conference is though. It’s an absolute dogfight for the two wildcard spots, but right now the Blues are only a game behind the Dallas Stars for third place in the Central Division, with a game in hand.

This Blues team has played some of the best hockey I’ve seen them play since there run to the Western Conference Final in 2016. As good as they’re playing though, they are going to need to keep it up if they want to secure themselves a spot in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Here’s a couple of ways they can do just that.

The biggest thing right now is their lack of power play production. They are only 20.6 percent with a man advantage, scoring only 28 goals. This stat ranks them 22nd in the league. In the game yesterday against Nashville they went 1/4 and 0/3 the day before. They don’t cash in on their opportunities when they have them which will be key moving forward.

Overall, it’s goaltending that wins hockey games, and it has been red hot with the insurgence of Binnington. I already talked about his 9-1-1 record, which is one of the best starts in Blues history, but he has also recorded two shutouts. He currently has a .931 save percentage with only a 1.72 goals allowed against record. Him and Jake Allen, who got the win yesterday, will have to have a spectacular rest of the season to keep the Blues alive.

It really just comes down to the players, though. Leading the team in points is Ryan O’Reilly with 55 points in only 54 games. He has 20 goals, 35 assists and a 20 +/- on the season. This guy was a big risk in the offseason as STL traded away three forwards and two draft picks. Buffalo received Patrick Berglund, Vladimir Subotka and Tage Thompson, a 2019 first round draft pick and a 2021 second round draft pick. This trade helped both parties, as Buffalo obtained some depth and St. Louis got an elite goal scorer and play maker.

On his right side on the first line is Tarasenko. He has 41 points, 22 goals and 19 assists in 53 games. Leading the team in goals and coming off of an emphatic hattrick performance he is on fire. He’ll have to keep scoring goals in abundance.

Finishing out the first line is Brayden Schenn. A natural center, head coach Craig Berube has him playing at left wing to add some talent to the starting lineup. He has 33 points, 10 goals and 23 assists. To stay on this first line I think he’ll have to start scoring more goals. The workload should be divided evenly with everybody playing together.

Rookies MacEachern and 19-year-old Robert Thomas will have to keep putting in good shifts on the fourth line and the defense will have to stay solid like it has been these last 10 games. In that time the Blues are 7-2-1 and they’ll need to continue at this pace to go far.

Last season it came down to the final game of the regular season to have a chance into the playoffs. I don’t think it will be like that this time around. I think the Blues can comfortably take third in the Central, but with this team I’ll never keep my hopes that high. Let’s hope they live up to St. Louis’ expectations.