Jake Allen and Vladimir Tarasenko
St. Louis has to dig out of a deep hole if they have designs on heading to the Western Conference final for a second-straight season. Here are five keys to the Blues clawing back against the Predators.
The St. Louis Blues are in trouble. Heading into Friday night’s tilt against the Nashville Predators, coach Mike Yeo’s club is on the brink of elimination. Worse yet, there’s a razor-thin margin for error against a team that has looked every bit like a Western Conference favorite since the puck dropped on the post-season. And while trailing 3-1 in the second-round series isn’t a favorable position, it doesn’t mean the Blues are dead quite yet.
That’s especially true because if there was any team that entered the post-season with the ability to get hot at a moment’s notice, it might be the Blues. Since Yeo took over on Feb. 1, there wasn’t a single team in the NHL that had a better record than St. Louis and the only club to post as many points as the Blues, who had 46 over their final 32 games, was the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Washington Capitals. That’s not to mention that along the way to the playoffs, St. Louis had separate streaks of four, five and six wins.
The Blues’ hole isn’t one that’s historically insurmountable, either. In fact, over the past nine seasons, eight teams have come back from 3-1 deficits to win a series, including three in the past four campaigns. But how does St. Louis claw back and push this series to seven games? Here are five keys for the Blues as they look to even up the series for the chance to head back to the conference final for the second-straight season:
Vladimir Tarasenko has to start stuffing the stat sheet
Defense tightens and there’s less offense to be had in the post-season. That’s especially true when squaring off against a Predators blueline that is arguably more stacked than any in the league. Finding a way to slice and dice through the likes of P.K. Subban, Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis and Mattias Ekholm isn’t easy, just as it wasn’t easy to find much time or space against a Wild defense that boasted Ryan Suter, Jared Spurgeon, Matt Dumba and Marco Scandella.
But even while giving Tarasenko the benefit of the doubt, he needs to find a way to break through with some consistency if the Blues are going to stand a chance at drawing even and getting through to the conference final. Tarasenko has done it once already, rifling home two goals on six shots in the second game of this series, but he’s been held to nine shots and zero points over the other three games against Nashville. For the post-season, he has a mere three goals and five points. That’s simply not enough.
Other top players, such as Evgeni Malkin, Ryan Getzlaf and Phil Kessel, have been more than point per game players in the post-season, and that’s what the Blues need out of Tarasenko. If the offense is going to break down the tough Predators defense, it starts with No. 91.
Find an answer for Nashville’s blueline production
The Predators’ rearguards picked apart the Blackhawks at both ends of the ice, and now they’re managing to do the same, albeit with more of an offensive flair, against the Blues. Through four games, each of Nashville’s top four defenders has at least one point, with Ryan Ellis leading the way with three goals and five. But going forward, one of two things needs to happen.
First, the Blues can find a way to completely shut down the production from the back end. That’s far easier said than done, but finding a way to take away passing options or getting in front of anything and everything that’s thrown on goal from the blueline is a start. With the group of rearguards the Predators have, though, there’s bound to be something that gets through and at least a few scoring chances generated by the D-corps.
So, if Nashville’s blueliners are going to put up some points, St. Louis’ defenders have to find a way to match that production. This is where a player like Kevin Shattenkirk might have helped out, but Alex Pietrangelo and Colton Parayko are no slouches. They’ve combined for a goal and four points through this series, but they’ll have to go point-for-point or better as the series progresses. Joel Edmundson has more than done his part, with a goal and four points in four games, but more of that is going to be key to keeping pace with Nashville and staving off elimination.
Jake Allen rediscovering his first-round form
Allen was outstanding from almost the moment Yeo took over behind the Blues bench and his top-level play continued into the post-season. Against the Wild, he was a brick wall. Minnesota dominated nearly every aspect of the game in the first round, but simply couldn’t find holes in Allen. He was locked in, stopping 174 of the 182 shots he faced, posting a remarkable .956 SP in the Blues’ five-game defeat of the Wild.
Given the way Allen played in the first round, a continuation through to the second would have meant that St. Louis could have stolen another series on netminding alone. Unfortunately for the Blues, Allen’s numbers have dipped significantly against the Predators. In four games, Allen’s SP has fallen to .904 and he’s already allowed 11 goals on 115 shots against, all the while his Predators counterpart, Rinne, has continued to have the post-season of his life.
The hope in St. Louis has to be that Allen’s brilliant run of play hasn’t come to an end because the Blues need more of that top-flight goaltending to turn this series around. In fact, given how well Rinne has been playing, it wouldn’t be outrageous to suggest Allen will have to pitch a shutout at some point, if not Friday, in order for the Blues to continue on.
Continue to go chance-for-chance with Predators
Despite home ice advantage, the Blues were seen by some as underdogs if only because the Predators had dominated possession against the Blackhawks and were set to go up against a St. Louis squad that had been hemmed in by the Minnesota attack. Surprisingly, though, the 5-on-5 possession battle hasn’t swung all that far in either direction over the course of the series.
Nashville does hold a slight edge over St. Louis in terms of Corsi for over the course of the four games, earning 51.4 percent of the shot attempts for at 5-on-5, but when it comes to pucks that are actually getting through, the teams are even. And we’re talking literally dead even. The Blues and Predators have both put 84 shots on goal at five-a-side. Equally interesting is that when it comes to scoring chances, both teams have been even, too, generating 18 apiece. Even when it comes to high-danger chances, nothing separates the Blues and Predators, as both Allen and Rinne have faced 16 high-danger shots against.
And while the results haven’t been there for St. Louis, as long as they can maintain pressure in the way they have through four games, there’s a chance the Blues offense has a breakthrough.
Discipline, discipline and more discipline
Officials who’ve been calling the Blues-Predators series have been, as the saying goes, “letting the teams play.” All told, there has only been 19 power plays in the series, which is nothing when you consider the New York Rangers have had 17 chances with the man advantage against the Ottawa Senators across their four games thus far. But St. Louis has to play with more discipline than ever before if they’re going to even have a shot at pushing this series to seven games.
In large part because of the skill of the blueline, the Nashville power play has been downright lethal. Subban and Ellis both have two points with the man advantage, while Josi has chipped in with a point of his own. And even when the Blues have managed to keep the rearguards at bay, there’s 30-goal scorers Filip Forsberg and Vitkor Arvidsson to contend with up front. It’s not an easy power play to stymie, and it’s no wonder the Predators have managed to connect on three of their 10 power plays.
Continuing at a 30 percent clip on the power play isn’t exactly sustainable for Nashville, but it’s best for the Blues not to risk giving the Predators the chance. If St. Louis wants to complete a comeback, staying out of the penalty box is going to be of utmost importance.
(All advanced statistics via Corsica)
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