The Blues were reeling from five-game losing streak on the morning of March 5, sitting with a 32-27-5 record, good for 67 points and trailing the Nashville Predators in the Central division by six. Worse than that, they were a point behind the Los Angeles Kings for the final wildcard spot, so with 36 days left in the season they were on the outside of the playoff race looking in.
Exactly two weeks later, the Blues found themselves tied with Nashville in points, but ahead in the tiebreaker. And after their 7-and-1 run, the Blues built a six-point lead over the Kings in the wildcard race. How did it happen? Here are five things…
1) Goaltending: In the eight-game hot streak, Jake Allen and Carter Hutton combined to allow two or fewer goals in six-of-eight contests, compiling a 1.38 GAA and a .950 save percentage. Since Mike Yeo took over February 1, the Blues have allowed the fewest goals in the NHL at 36, and the fewest even strength goals with 29. Allen specifically has been superb during the streak, going 5-1 with a .961 save percentage. Allen and Hutton’s play is reminiscent of Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott’s in 2011-2012, when they won the Jennings Trophy by combining for a 1.78 GAA and a .932 save percentage.
2) Depth: Blues General Manager Doug Armstrong takes a lot of heat from fans, but we can’t complain much about the number of quality players the Blues have.
Back in February, when Robby Fabbri was lost for the season with a torn ACL and Kyle Brodziak was injured, the Blues brought up Ivan Barbashev, Magnus Paajarvi and Kenny Agostino from the AHL Chicago Wolves. All contributed to winning, as did forward Wade Megan, who was up for a cup of coffee. Barbashev and Paajarvi have become lineup mainstays. In addition to the forwards, the Blues have been able to withstand the trade of defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk by giving Robert Bortuzzo a regular shift. Bortuzzo is playing better and better. Right now, Fabbri, Dmitrij Jaskin and Jori Lehtera are out with injuries, and the Blues are as hot as they’ve been all season.
3) Youthful energy: Not only have the callups provided production, but their energy has been contagious. The line of Barbashev, Paajarvi and either Zach Sanford or Nail Yakupov spend a ton of time getting the puck deep into the opponent’s zone and keeping it there. The speed and effort that the young players display, along with the consistently great play of fourth liners Brodziak, Ryan Reaves and Scottie Upshall has propelled the rest of the team. That kids are making a difference with production AND effort.
4) Best players being the best players: During the current hot streak, Vladimir Tarasenko has been on a roll, with six goals during the eight-game stretch. Alexander Steen has two goals and four assists, Alex Pietrangelo has a goal and six assists, and Jaden Schwartz, badly snakebitten in the goal department, has six assists, nineteen shots and is a plus-4 in his last eight games. All year, the Blues have been waiting for their best players to play the best. The only one not putting up numbers during the run is Paul Stastny, who has two goals and two assists…but he’s winning key faceoffs and is a plus-4.
5) Mike Yeo’s even-keel demeanor: I’m a big fan of the coaching of future Hall of Famer Ken Hitchcock, and from a system standpoint he and Yeo are similar, but Hitchcock wore his emotions on his sleeve. He was like a fan, in that he was many times enthralled after wins and quite critical after losses. Yeo is the same after every game, and I get the sense that players appreciate it.
After an embarrassing 3-0 loss in Winnipeg, Yeo told the media that he hoped the game would be a slap in the face for his players. After that loss the Blues started this streak of seven wins in eight games. Blues FSN analyst Darren Pang joined us in The Fast Lane last week and said Hitchcock told him the team either needed to make a big trade, or change coaches when they did. Having Yeo waiting to take over was fortuitous for the Blues.
Now that the Blues know what works, they must keep doing it. Rather than face red-hot Chicago in the first round of the playoffs, the Blues can see the reeling Minnesota Wild if they finish in third, ahead of Nashville. The Wild lost their fifth game in a row Sunday at Winnipeg to fall seven points behind the Blackhawks, and former MVP candidate Devan Dubnyk is 2-7 with a 2.92 GAA and an .899 save percentage in March.
The schedule falls the Blues’ way, with four of their next six games against the two worst teams in the league, Colorado and Arizona. It’s amazing, but two weeks has changed the Blues outlook completely, and they have a chance to be on a roll heading into the playoffs, rather than missing them altogether.