After six straight playoff years in which they have failed to make the Stanley Cup Finals, the Blues should have a pretty good idea of what it takes to get there. With another championship for Pittsburgh in the books, eight of the last nine titles have been won by three franchises (Three each for the Penguins and Blackhawks, two for L.A., one for Boston).
The Blues lost to the Stanley Cup Champion Kings in 2012 and the Western Conference Champion Sharks last year and Predators this season. St. Louis has been eliminated by multiple time champs Los Angeles twice and Chicago once, along with Wild in 2015, the Sharks last year and the Preds this year. So, the bar is pretty well known.
What do the Blues need to do in the playoffs to reach the finals?
1) Have a hot goalie for two months. Each of the teams the Blues have lost to in the playoffs have had superb goaltending. Jonathan Quick of L.A., Corey Crawford of Chicago, Devan Dubnyk of Minnesota, Martin Jones of San Jose and Pekka Rinne of Nashville this year. They’ve all been outstanding in the playoffs when they’ve beaten the Blues and gone to the Finals. Jake Allen told us after the season that he felt fresh and could have gone two more series, and he was terrific for the Blues in the two series they played. In fact, Allen’s .935 save percentage was tops in these playoffs, just ahead of Pittsburgh’s Matt Murray and Nashville’s Pekka Rinne. Allen’s 1.96 GAA was second in these playoffs, between Murray and Rinne. That part of the equation appears to be in good hands.
2) Acquire the depth to overcome key personnel losses and get unexpected scoring. This is where the Blues had some problems in these playoffs. The guys they expect to score goals didn’t do it at a high level. Nashville got offensive production out of Frederic Gaudreau, who has averaged 1.43 goals per sixty minutes, and Colton Scissons, who has 1.14 per sixty minutes. They’re got expected production out of Filip Forsberg and their defense, but were able to overcome the loss of Kevin Fiala, Ryan Johansson and lack of goals by Viktor Arvidsson with offense from other guys. Pittsburgh got shocking goal production out of rookie Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust, and expected work out of Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel and Sidney Crosby.
The Blues didn’t fare as well, getting roughly a goal per sixty minutes or less out of Jaden Schwartz, Alexander Steen, Paul Stastny and Vladimir Tarasenko. They didn’t get a goal from a rookie forward, either. The surprise needs to be there.
3) Play great special teams. Play great special teams. The goal is to have your power play and penalty killing percentages add up to 110 or higher. Pittsburgh got to 104.1 (20.5% on the PP, 83.6% on the PK), and Nashville had 106.0 (16.9% on the PP, 89.1 PK). The Blues, in their two rounds, were last on the power play at 6.7% and 80% on the penalty kill. A total of 86.7 just isn’t good enough to win a Stanley Cup.
4) Get offensive production from the defense. Get offensive production from the defense. We all know about Nashville’s defensemen. 14 goals and 39 assists for 53 points in the 22 playoff games. Pittsburgh’s defensemen had 10 goals and 40 assists for 50 points in 25 games. The Blues blueliners had just five goals and 10 assists for 15 points in eleven playoff games, with only three defensemen registering a point. Nashville was at about two and a half points per game from their defense, the Penguins finished at 2.04, and the Blues were at 1.36. The Blues have to improve there next post-season.
5) Don’t worry about playoff seeding. The Predators were the eighth seed in the west this season, and advanced to the Finals. Last year’s Sharks were the seventh seed. Chicago was a fourth seed in 2015. The Kings were a sixth in 2014. The 2013 ‘Hawks were the top seed in a lockout shortened season. The 2012 Kings snuck into the playoffs on the last day of the season as an eighth seed. Clearly, the Stanley Cup playoffs are about the team that’s playing the best when the post-season arrives. Season totals have nothing to do with how a team will play in the playoffs.
The bar is high. The NHL’s Western Conference, and especially the Central Division, might be the best conference and division in all of sports. But this Blues team should know what it needs to do to win a title. Now the job is to find the players than can do it.