David Backes is congratulated by teammates after scoring a goal against the Nashville Predators. (Photo by Mark Buckner/NHLI via Getty Images)
St. Louis has been one of the better feel-good stories of the young NHL season. Riding the hot goaltending of Jaro Halak, the ‘Little Team that Could’ finds itself battling the mighty Detroit Red Wings in the Central Division and in the thick of the nascent Presidents’ Trophy chase.
But with injuries piling up in Missouri, such Central- and Trophy-winning chatter will soon fall by the wayside. Literally half of the Blues defense corps is on the shelf. Carlo Colaiacovo (head), Barrett Jackman (knee) and Roman Polak (wrist) aren’t the flashiest of names, but they’re a helluva lot flashier than Nathan Oystrick, Tyson Strachan and Nikita Nikitin (alright, that one’s pretty cool sounding), all of whom currently patrol St. Louis’ black-and-blueline.
Couple those with David Perron’s concussion and it’s amazing the Blues are where they are – 9-3-3 and without a regulation loss on home ice. But last week’s news that leading scorer and big personality T.J. Oshie is gone for at least three months after breaking his ankle is a killer. Oshie is fast becoming the face of the franchise and, while still learning, is a speedy, dangerous threat.
This will be the test of St. Louis’ mettle this season. Will the Blues prevail during the tough times to stay in the thick of things atop the uber-tough Western Conference or will they falter and finish the campaign battling for one of the bottom playoff seeds – or worse?
My money is on the Blues doing fairly well for themselves. I’ve been waiting for this team to breakout for two years and I think they can do it despite the adversity.
Luckily, Halak is on the scene. The Slovakian sensation is 8-2-2 with a 1.79 goals-against average and a .932 save percentage. Heady numbers to be sure and in the league’s top five in each category. Helping his cause is the fact the Blues allow the second-fewest number of shots against in the NHL (27.1), despite averaging 20.3 penalty minutes per game, the most in the league.
Two seasons ago, the Blues rode a hot goalie and all-around great play in the second half to the West’s No. 6 seed. They were swept by Vancouver in the first round of the playoffs, but the kids got a taste of both the agony and the ecstasy of springtime hockey. Patrik Berglund and Oshie were rookies that year, Erik Johnson was sitting out after a pre-season injury had cost him the season, Perron was just a sophomore and David Backes in his third year. They will all be better prepared – and just plain better – for the tough sledding that is to come this season.
Backes will have to return to form after a slight drop in production last season and Perron, expected to return soon, must continue to improve. But in my mind, Brad Boyes will be a key player this season for St. Louis; it’s he who will have to take up the slack in Oshie’s absence. The question, of course, is can he?
The versatile center/winger has been somewhat of an NHL enigma. He’s thrice cracked the 25-goal plateau in his five previous seasons, but his goal totals have trended down each of the past two campaigns from a career high of 43 in 2007-08 to a career low 14 last year. Although he hasn’t exactly lit the league on fire to date this year – two goals, six points in his 15 contests – after Halak, Boyes will be the biggest factor in St. Louis’ success this season. If he can again lead this team in scoring (with a decent total), good things will happen.
Expect coach Davis Payne’s crew to continue playing sound defensive hockey and clocking low-scoring decisions. You won’t find any 50-goal or 100-point men in St. Louis, but you should find five or six in the 60-point range by season’s end. If Halak keeps playing as he is and Boyes is one of the 60-points-or-more guys, Blues fans will be singing “See you in St. Louis” come early April.
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