Even the best teams experience a lull from time to time during a hockey season. And the Blues are definitely one right now.
So far, they have only lost two or more regulation games in a row twice. So far they have gone three or more games without a win just once – a 0-3-1 stumble in mid-November.
But now, just as the stretch race approaches, they are down 0-2-1 after a lost week in greater New York. This is the time to gain momentum, not to fall into a slump.
“Absolutely,” Blues captain Ryan O’Reilly said after Sunday’s 3-2 overtime loss to New Jersey. “And that’s part of why we’re so disappointed. We know we’re preparing for something and we’re just not doing it the right way right now.
“It’s good that we got some points, but we have to start winning again if we want to stay in the mix and prepare and put ourselves in a good position for the playoffs.”
They certainly racked up points. Even so, they’re only five points above the current Western Conference playoff line. Any kind of protracted slump, and the Blues could wake up one morning and find themselves out of playoff position. A sense of urgency is needed.
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“I think we’ve had some urgency for a while,” coach Craig Berube replied. “It’s tight. We know the division is tight. The teams are coming, and you have to keep winning.
At two thirds of the season, the Blues (32-16-7) retain second place in the Central Division, with 71 points. With 67 points, third-place Minnesota is one game short but has been in a tailspin lately, losing eight of its last 10 games.
But watch out for Dallas. The Stars are on a six-game point streak (5-0-1) and also have 67 points — although, like the Blues, they have played one game more than the Wild.
As the Blues return to the ice on Tuesday against a visit to Ottawa, some areas need strengthening:
Over time: For a team with so much scoring depth, the Blues struggle to score in overtime. Something about the three-on-three game didn’t agree with them. They are 1-5 in overtime; only Buffalo (1-7) is worse. Games are supposed to tighten the stretch, so the team needs to do better here.
The Blues are often too cautious in their OT approach. Some of their talented young players such as Robert Thomas and Jordan Kyrou have forgotten the importance of coverage and positioning in OT.
Power play: Like the rest of the offense lately, the power play has lagged. It took too much effort to negotiate the neutral zone and once they did, the Blues spend too much time passing the puck around the perimeter looking for the perfect shooting lane. Sometimes just putting the puck on the net is the best approach. It doesn’t have to be that complicated.
This lull extends beyond the last 0-2-1 dip; the Blues are just two for 17 on the power play in their last seven games.
Mark first: Yes, the Blues have won 15 times when the opponent scores first. These feedbacks are admirable. But as the level of competition increases late in the season and into the playoffs, that’s no way to live.
For the season, the opposition scored first in 26 of 55 games. That doesn’t sound too bad, but for a team that wins nearly two-thirds of its games, the Blues should come out of the blocks quicker. It’s been worse lately, with the opposition having scored first in four of the last five games. And in all three games in the New York area, the Blues have trailed 2-0 each time.
Afternoon issues: The Blues are playing .692 hockey in night games this season, going 30-12-5. In the afternoon, it’s .375, with a 2-4-2 record. It’s such a big disparity. How is it possible? The good news is that the Blues only have two afternoon games left on their schedule — but they’re both important: this Saturday in Nashville and April 16 at home against Minnesota.
Road difficulties: After showing signs of progress with a 3-0-1 trip to Canada and Philadelphia, the Blues fell back a bit with a 1-2-1 trip to Chicago and the New York Metro. For the season, the team is a modest 13-10-5, by far the worst road record among the league’s current top 14 teams. Florida is the only top contender team in the same quarter at 12-7-5 on the road to start the week.
Fourth line contributions: The unit just hasn’t been able to sustain much this season. Don’t forget it was a vital cog in the Stanley Cup season with Alexander Steen, Oskar Sundqvist and Ivan Barbashev all making significant contributions.
It may be too much to ask to expect anything like this. But there’s a reason Bérubé has limited his ice time in so many games. He doesn’t trust them with the game on the line. Tyler Bozak has struggled to adapt to the shorter minutes he’s gotten in a fourth-line role this season. And judging by Springfield’s callbacks from the AHL on Monday, Berube is still looking for answers.
Hockey North: Bérubé has nothing against skill and speed. But he realizes that the daily bread of the Blues remains simple and straightforward. Cycle with the puck, own the puck, win wall battles, work behind the net. It’s the winning recipe in Bérubé’s book, especially at this time of year.
Les Bleus have gotten into the habit of overtaking and, in Bérubé’s words, trying to get too cute. It’s not the first time this has happened this season. When the team plays the most direct style, so-called “northern” hockey, it is generally more successful.