In retrospect, maybe the good people of St. Louis should have known in the first three years of the Blues’ existence that this hockey thing was going to be more traumatic for them than baseball. St. Louis got a hockey team for the 1968 season and made the Stanley Cup Finals the first three years. All three ended in defeat. The city is still chasing its first Stanley Cup and a Game 6 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks yesterday only added to the St. Louis Blues playoffs problems.
St. Louis grabbed the first two games of this series. Then they never won again. If the fans felt like they had been here before, it’s because they had—in 2013, the Blues played the defending Stanley Cup champions (the Los Angeles Kings in that instance), won the first two games and then never won again. Both losses came in the first round.
And if we go back to 2012, the Blues did reach the second round, but lost in four straight to the Kings, who were barreling their way to a Stanley Cup. For all of St. Louis’ success in the regular season, they can’t get it done in the playoffs. Is head coach Ken Hitchcock the hockey equivalent of Marty Schottenheimer, seemingly destined to keep flaming out in the playoffs?
For the record, I consider a comparison to Schottenheimer be a high compliment, since it means your teams are consistently well-coached, disciplined and play to their potential and beyond it over a long period of time. I consider that an accurate description of the St. Louis Blues.
But, as NFL fans in Cleveland, Kansas City and San Diego know, the comparison to Marty comes with a bit of an edge too, as it means hopes raises that this is finally the year, and then the playoff bottoming-out.
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When we look at the recent problems—specifically the last two years, we need to be fair to Hitchcock and the Blues. They drew teams that were better than St. Louis in both instances. In the case of Chicago, I consider the talent disparity to be dramatic. In the case of Los Angeles, there was a big difference at goalie.
Furthermore, the NHL’s change in playoff structure, moving back to a division-based format rather than a conference one, meant that St. Louis drew Chicago much earlier than otherwise would have been the case.
Although in either case, it still underscores that the Blues are not as good as other top teams in the West, at least when the puck drops in the playoffs.
I think the reason is simple—St. Louis wins in the regular season by playing very smart, disciplined defense and they limit the number of shots opponents get—third-best in the NHL this year at preventing shots from even getting off. But great defense doesn’t automatically mean great goaltending. The Blues traded for Ryan Miller this year, but even Miller only ranked 20th among regular NHL goalies in save percentage.
To win a postseason series against a really good team—and sometimes just to avoid an upset—you need a goalie who can put you on his back and win a game or two almost by himself. Whatever the virtues of Miller, or of his predecessor Brian Elliot, they aren’t of that caliber.
If the problem of playoff goaltending even looms over a team like the Pittsburgh Penguins, with all their offensive firepower, it certainly is going to loom over St. Louis, whose offensive talent is much more limited.
In short, it’s tough to win with defense when you don’t have a great player in the defense’s most important spot. Coaching can cover it up over a grinding 82 regular season games. There’s no covering it up in the playoffs, at least not against at the league’s upper crust.
I’m not sure that a solution exists for the Blues—it’s not like great goalies are just sitting out there waiting to be picked up. But until St. Louis finds one, the fan base can save itself further disappointment by not getting their hopes up.