St. Louis Blues Doomed By Missed Shots, Lack Of Will

The St. Louis Blues are easily the most perenially disappointing successful team in the NHL. The last three years they have bowed out in the first round to teams they had home ice against. They have not even figured out yet how to take their opponent to the full seven games. Their head coach is 1-7 in his last eight playoff series.

People can talk about the long history of the franchise as a team that chokes all they want. I have personally sat through every single disappointment since their maiden voyage back in 1967. There is a time and a place for such ruminations, but this is not it.

At the beginning of the radio broadcast on Sunday at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, ex-Blue Kelly Chase opined that the game would be won by goaltending and by will. He was right. After the disappointing effort turned in by his alma mater, a 4-1 closeout loss in which the Blues were never in the game, he mentioned the aspect of will once more.

It was obvious that the game was won—or lost, depending on your perspective—by goaltending, and that the Blues lost on that count with the sorry performance by Jake Allen and the equally lackluster performance by Brian Elliott in relief.

It is less obvious, but every bit as important—perhaps more—that the Blues lost the contest of will as well.

Without A Will There Is No Way

The Minnesota Wild wanted this series more. Pure and simple. Even after having their heads handed to them in Game Four by the Blues’ 6-1 evisceration of their opponent in their own barn on every possible level, they came back and proved they wanted it more.

A fight might not advance the goal counter on the Blues’ side of the scoreboard but . . . It says to the rest of the squad: Okay boys, I’ve put myself out there in the biggest way a player can. Who’s with me?

When Allen let in the second soft goal, the score might as well have been 5-0 and the Blues knew it. There is a time for discipline and “robotic” execution and there is a time for stepping up and taking off the gloves to make a point, to infuse some semblance of hostility and pushback to what was happening on the ice.

Apr 26, 2015; Saint Paul, MN, USA; Saint Louis Blues goalie Jake Allen (34) reacts to a goal by Minnesota Wild forward Zach Parise (11) (not shown) during the first period in game six of the first round of the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Xcel Energy Center. Mandatory Credit: Marilyn Indahl-USA TODAY Sports

Nino Niederreiter had been spoiling for a fight since Game One and if Barret Jackman, Kevin Shattenkirk (the players he most often wound up tangled up with), or another Blue had only indulged him, the fight would have happened. Matt Cooke would have been another willing participant. Any fan who would argue the Blues would not have benefited by such an action last night simply doesn’t watch NHL hockey.

The Chicago Blackhawks have a wealth of role players like Andrew Shaw, Daniel Carcillo, and Bryan Bickell who step up and drop the gloves when the game is flat to get the juices going. I’ve seen it time and again, during the regular season and in the playoffs. Funny thing, the Blackhawks keep winning series and the Blues keep losing them.

Apr 23, 2015; Nashville, TN, USA; Chicago Blackhawks center Andrew Shaw (65) is escorted off the ice after a major penalty during the third period against the Nashville Predators in game five of the first round of the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Bridgestone Arena. Mandatory Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

A fight might not advance the goal counter on the Blues’ side of the scoreboard, but in every single situation, guaranteed, it is a team motivator. It says to the rest of the squad: Okay boys, I’ve put myself out there in the biggest way a player can. Who’s with me?

But the Blues let the Wild and their antiseptic, disciplined style dictate the terms of play and left quietly, like high school Chess Club kids on the losing end of a timed game, tails tucked politely between their legs, shamed one more time in defeat, knowing a team with less talent and firepower but more desire beat them.

Missed Shots

I have saved the worst for last. The St. Louis Blues, as they did last year, and the year before that, buried themselves in every game they lost this series by failing to convert golden opportunities, often with a wide-open net or Dubnyk down on the ice. These are far, far too numerous to mention, but in every game they lost there were at least 2 or 3 “gimme”s that would have been goals had they simply been on-net.

David Backes, Jaden Schwartz, T.J. Oshie, and Paul Stastny each scored 1 goal the entire six games. Four of the six defensemen finished the entire series without a point.

I am not sure what the answer is but at this point it is a club malaise/culture that needs to change. Players like Alexander Steen, Jaden Schwartz, Jori Lehtera, and Patrik Berglund need to spend hours more time each week practicing coming down the ice with a man or as a trailer and shooting the puck on-net.

Hours.

Because the in-game results are pathetic. When you are playing a goalie as good as Devan Dubnyk, you must make him pay when the defense or the positioning gives you a ground ball. Perhaps it is that they are trying too hard to pick the corner of the net where there is 100% chance of success. Whatever it is, their skills in this area are not good enough by half.

The Blues have no excuses. They had a goalie who played better down the stretch in the last eight games of the regular season and the first four of the playoffs than any other goalie in the NHL. They had the top-scoring player in the playoffs and the player with the most assists in the playoffs on their team. They had home ice and perfect health. They had four strong lines to roll.

Unlike last year’s team, the Blues won five of their last six regular season games, all but one against teams who made the playoffs. This is a team that should have at least played in the Western Conference Finals, and possibly beyond.

The Wild’s speed on the rush exposed their shortcomings. Their defensive breakdowns and losing the race to the red line killed them every game. The team’s lack of contribution is stunning. The Blues scored 14 goals, 6 of them by Vladimir Tarasenko. David Backes, Jaden Schwartz, T.J. Oshie, and Paul Stastny each scored 1 goal the entire six games. Four of the six defensemen, including Jackman, finished the entire series without a point.

It Is Time For Hitch To Go

Ken Hitchcock is out of excuses as well. Perhaps the Blues’ lack of fisticuffs was at his bidding. If so, he has exceeded the bounds of sound reasoning within the confines and dynamics of the sport. Or perhaps it is simply that all the video and the strict adherence to his system has drained all the primeval fight-or-flight responses out of his players that propel a fist forward into the face of an opponent before the intellectual faculties have a chance to assess the situation.

Mar 19, 2015; Winnipeg, Manitoba, CAN; St. Louis Blues head coach Ken Hitchcock reacts during the first period against the Winnipeg Jets at MTS Centre. Mandatory Credit: Bruce Fedyck-USA TODAY Sports

Hitchcock’s decision to leave Allen in on the rare, late powerplay with his team down two goals with less than eight minutes left in Game Five against a goalie who had stood on his head the whole game was a fatal coaching mistake that did not properly seize the gravity of the moment.

After the failed powerplay, he took Allen out when his team was by then already down by three goals. What was the reasoning behind doing so at the end when the game was clearly out of reach for a 6-on-5 advantage but not at the most critical juncture of the series to that point for a 6-on-4 advantage when the game was still winable?

His refusal to play Robert Bortuzzo and stick with the punchless, pizza-throwing Carl Gunnarsson made no sense, and in the 3-0 shutout even putting top prospects Robby Fabbri and Ivan Barbashev out for a couple shifts, or at least Olli Jokinen, might have generated something.

Ken Hitchcock is 1-7 in Stanley Cup Playoff series since 2004, with a cumulative record of 12-24 in that time. That is unacceptable, especially for a coach leading a team as highly-ranked and talented as the Blues have been the last three years. It is time for him to go.

His post-game remarks after Game Six do not make much of a case against this. As reported by Fox News, here is what he had to say about his team’s performance:

“I thought our best three games were our last three. We didn’t play very well in the first couple of games, and I thought we got a lot better after that. But, we win as a team and lose as a team. We played hard those last three games, but we lost.”

Considering they lost their last two games in a row, including blowing the lead after scoring first in Game Five and poor defensive breakdowns, goaltending, and blown opportunities in both games, it is hard to take these words at face value.

These comments sound more like a coach who knows he is in hot water trying to put a good spin on yet another glaringly disappointing season under his command. Instead of expressing disappointment or anger at the failure of his best players to step up and play like his best players, he seems to be saying that the Wild were simply the better team, and that even playing their best hockey the Blues didn’t have what it took to beat them.

If he truly believes that then he is not only a poor coach but a poor judge of talent. The Blues did not want to win badly enough. And he failed to motivate them or manage them to play well enough to win.

The St. Louis Blues and Blues’ management have their usual long spring and summer to contemplate not only what they did wrong but their future fates. Several core players are probably looking at being moved elsewhere, and, by all rights, they should.

Vladimir Tarasenko and Jake Allen (mostly; he is young and there is lots of room for improvement) are big bright spots, and Alex Pietrangelo may have been the best player on the ice for the Blues, especially in the second half of the series. Grinders Patrik Berglund, Ryan Reaves and Chris Porter contributed above their level compared to their more famous core player teammates. But many big decisions lie ahead for the team.

Let us know your thoughts on what went wrong, Blues fans!