Monday, January 23, 2017

Weekend wrap: Cursing a Blues streak

We knew this was going to be a weird year for the St. Louis Blues. Their coach quit, but still stuck around for one more year. Next year’s coach has already been hired. They traded their best goaltender to a conference rival, but didn’t move the defenceman we all assumed would be moved.

So sure, nobody went into this season thinking it was business as usual in St. Louis. But we all thought they’d be good, right? Maybe not win-the-division good, or another-conference-final-appearance good. But they’d be in the mix, at least. At a bare minimum, they’d definitely be in the playoffs.

And early on, it looked like we'd all be right. Over the season's first half, the Blues were just fine, even if they looked like they weren't quite hitting on all cylinders. That may even have been a positive; after years of following up solid regular seasons with disappointing playoffs, maybe the Blues had learned to pace themselves, the way the Blackhawks and Kings always seem to.

Or maybe not. Maybe the Blues aren't a good team after all. They sure haven't looked like one recently.

After dropping a 5–3 decision to the Jets on Saturday, the Blues have now lost three straight. They've won just five of 12 since the Christmas break. And since a three-game win streak that had them at 14-7-3 on Dec. 1, they've only managed to string together back-to-back wins once.

So what's the problem? These days, the big issue is goaltending, as Jake Allen seems to be imploding in his first year as undisputed starter. The Blues have lost his last four starts and 10 of his last 14, and he's given up three goals or more in six of seven. He hasn't made it through a full game since Jan. 5, and things got so bad on Thursday that he was pulled twice in the same game.

That was the last we've seen of Allen; the Blues took the highly unusual step of leaving him behind when they headed to Winnipeg, citing a need to "get him unlocked." The team insists that Allen is still their guy, but it's clear that his current struggles aren't just a typical cold streak.

It all adds up to a Blues team that's just barely clinging to a Western wild-card spot, just one point up on the ninth-place Canucks. Even the Predators, all but written off after an awful first half, passed them over the weekend, bumping them out of the Central's top three.

The Blues' struggles may be shifting the league's trading landscape heading into the final weeks before the deadline. It had long been assumed that they'd hold onto Kevin Shattenkirk for a deep playoff run, but with that run now looking unlikely, he's back in play. It had also seemed like the market for goaltending was thin, with only the Stars and maybe the Flames or Islanders really in the hunt, but that changes if the Blues decide that Allen can't cut it. (Remember, this is a franchise with a history of making mid-season goaltending moves that are aggressive or even downright strange.)

Of course, that's led to speculation that the team might try to kill two birds with one stone by moving Shattenkirk for a goalie; more than a few observers have wondered if a Ben Bishop deal could be a fit. But there are other options, including shaking up the lineup or even pulling the trigger on Ken Hitchcock a few months early.

Or maybe they stand pat, turn things around and get back into the race. That's certainly a possibility. But the schedule won't do them any favors heading into the all-star break; they'll visit two of the best teams in the league this week, with stops in Pittsburgh tomorrow and Minnesota on Thursday.

Road to the Cup

The five teams that look like they're headed towards Stanley Cup favorite status.

5. San Jose Sharks (29-16-2, +16 true goals differential*): They make their first appearance in the top five since early December thanks to four straight wins.

4. Columbus Blue Jackets (32-10-4, +48): Yesterday's 7–6 win over the Senators was all sorts of fun. But more importantly, they may have dodged a bullet when Zach Werenski left the game after being hit with a shot. It looked bad, but he returned later in the period.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

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