No one likes knee-jerk analysis during a best-of-seven playoff series, especially when the home team has won the first four games of said series. Regardless, it’s hard not to make alarming observations about the St. Louis Blues, who have now blown a 2-0 series lead in the first round for the second consecutive season.
This team has been my 2014 Stanley Cup pick since last summer and still is, yet I can’t help but remember the questions raised in the THN war room last summer when we were
yelling working out a consensus title pick.
1. Do the Blues have a real superstar to rely on with the game on the line?
2. Do the Blues have a money goaltender who can steal games in the playoffs?
3. Do the Blues have enough veteran experience to guide them through adversity?
As for the first question, look at what Chicago has done the last two games. Captain Jonathan Toews scored the winner in Game 3 and it was Patrick Kane’s turn to take over in Game 4. He scored twice, including this laser to clinch it in overtime:
When in doubt, Chicago can lean on its megastars. In Game 4, Toews had no equal on the forecheck and Kane elevated every Blues fan’s blood pressure every single time he had the puck, terrorizing Ryan Miller. His winner was more of an inevitability than a surprise. Duncan Keith dazzled on the back end with his wheels, too,skating the puck out of trouble repeatedly.
The good news is the Blues have a youngster who may one day be relied upon as ‘The Guy’ the way Toews, Kane and Keith are, if it isn’t starting to happen already. His name is Vladimir Tarasenko, and he’s enjoying quite the coming out party this series. Ken Hitchcock pointed out to THN last month that Tarasenko’s lightning-quick release was a tool no other Blue had in his belt, and that’s proven true four times in the series already.
But Tarasenko is still just 22, and he’s one person. The Blues don’t have another weapon you can set your watch to, at least not yet (Jaden Schwartz is on the way there). There’s a reason why, when Ryan Kennedy and I polled their dressing room last month, almost every Blue named a different player when we asked who they wanted to have the puck with a game on the line.
As for the second question, Miller still has plenty of time to prove he’s not just the top stretch-run acquistion of 2013-14, but also the Blues’ goalie of the future. It’s difficult to deny, though, how shaky he looked in overtime of Game 4. He fought the puck, ducking, flinching and guessing until Kane ripped one through him. He truly has to be better.
Then there’s the third question. To put things in perspective, each of Chicago’s winning goals in the series to date was scored by a different Conn Smythe Trophy winner. The Blackhawks have more Conn Smythe winners than the Blues have Stanley Cup rings, as the Blues have none. Experience is overrated in that every champion was once not a champion, but wouldn’t Hitchcock love a pure veteran winner to be vocal in the room and help dig the troops out of an emotional hole?
Captain David Backes’ absence is noticeable, especially through Toews’ unopposed dominance, and Bryan Bickell levelled NHL faceoff leader Vladimir Sobotka in overtime of Game 4, bad enough that Sobotka should be re-evaluated despite returning. Entering Game 5 minus two of their top three centers, and warriors at that, would be disastrous for St. Louis.
On the bright side, the Blues got to where they are for a reason: near-perfect coaching, tremendous top-top-bottom roster talent and unrivalled depth. I still expect them to bounce back and win this series. But the red flags have become too numerous to ignore. Chicago is about the last team you want to let off the mat.
Can St. Louis get bigger contributions from Miller, T.J. Oshie and Alex Pietrangelo going forward? Game 5 will be extremely telling. If you ask me, whoever wins the next one wins the series.
Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin