The St. Louis Blues are a team that almost never seems to get the coverage it deserves. Though they have show signs of being a dominant team this season, their playoff experience is thin compared to some of the other playoff-bound teams, which may cost them in the end. A late season stumble may also lead to some struggles in the first round.
St. Louis Blues
(3rd in Western Conference, 2nd in Central Division)
Preseason Expectations: St. Louis entered this season with high expectations despite last year’s early playoff exit. They faced off against the defending Stanley Cup champions Los Angeles Kings, in that first round. While they lost in six games, each game was decided by a single goal, leaving a small margin of error for the Blues. Each game in that series could have gone either way, leaving hope for the St. Louis faithful to build upon. The team was not expected to be as strong of a contender as they are this season, so finishing as high as they did came as a pleasant surprise for Blues fans.
How they got here: St. Louis started the season strong, right out of the gate. In the first 43 games of the season, the team held a 31-7-5 record and were ranked No. 1 in the NHL in goals per game and No. 3 in the league in powerplay proficiency. However, they seemed to hit a wall shortly after that. The team continued to win games, but their goal totals and powerplay proficiency dropped greatly. The way the team ended the season should raise some concerns heading into the playoffs, having lost the last six games of the season.
Key players: LW Alexander Steen, RW T.J. Oshie, C David Backes, D Alex Pietrangelo, G Ryan Miller
Major moves: The biggest surprise of the season was the emergence of winger Alexander Steen. After combining for only 23 goals the past two seasons, Steen exploded for 30 goals this year, including 14 in the first 14 games of the season. His production has dropped off a bit recently, mostly due to starting the season at an unsustainable level of play. St. Louis also shook the hockey world when they acquired goaltender Ryan Miller a week before the trade deadline, sending the message that they are ready to compete for the Cup this year.
Who they will face in the first round: The Blues first opponent on the road to the Stanley Cup will be the defending Stanley Cup champions, the Chicago Blackhawks. If both teams are healthy, this matchup will be the marquee match in the first round. However, both St. Louis and Chicago have dealt with injuries to their star players in the past month. While most of the players will return for the first round, they likely will not be at 100%.
How they will fare: Before the losing streak, St. Louis seemed to be poised to make a deep playoff run. They would have received a more favorable matchup and would have entered the playoffs with the idea that they finished the season strong and could carry the momentum into the first round. Instead, the six straight losses has put their confidence at an all-time low, and facing off against Chicago instead of Dallas will not make the first round any easier.
Prediction: Blackhawks in 6.
Conn Smythe Winner: US Olympic hero T.J. Oshie showed he can perform under pressure and on the highest stage. Though he was known for his shootout heroics in Sochi (a part of the game that has been eliminated for the playoffs), he should put forth a good showing for the Blues regardless. If St. Louis does win the Cup, expect Oshie to be a big factor as to why.
Commentary by Jonathan Gardner