Ladies and gentlemen, your 2011-2012 Central Division
champion St. Louis Blues
It's been quite a ride getting here, but the team has really shown some growth, and the young players have come into their own, and the future is really bright for the squad, and yadda yadda yadda.
Actually, I don't really feel all that good about this team right now, so I won't throw a bunch of season-long analysis at you. I hate to sound negative, but I'm really concerned about where this Blues team is heading as the season winds down.
Still, the Blues did wrap up the division title Saturday night, thanks to a loss by the Nashville Predators. It's the eighth division title in Blues history, and a serious accomplishment when you consider the Blues play in not just the strongest division in the NHL this season, but an historically loaded division. Four teams are headed to the playoffs out of the Central this year, and all three of the non-division winners have more points than the Los Angeles Kings, the team currently leading the Pacific Division.
In short, the Blues won the division, and it's one the best divisions there has ever been.
Now let me tell you why I'm so worried.
While clinching the division is good news, falling out of the top spot in the Western Conference
is bad news, and that's exactly what has happened. Vancouver
currently leads the West with 107 points, one ahead of the Blues. That President's Trophy
thing? Also not happening; the New York Rangers
have the same 107 points as the Canucks
. Chances the Blues manage to pass not one but two teams in the last three games to regain the overall points lead? Not real good. Unfortunately, it looks like the President's Trophy is pretty unlikely at this point.
Worse than all of that, though, is just the simple fact the Blues aren't playing well at the moment. It would be one thing if they were still playing like the juggernaut they had been for most of the middle of the season but had been passed in points by a couple particularly hot teams. But that's not the case. The Blues are not sprinting to the finish line at all; they're staggering.
Two weeks ago I took a look at the final stretch of games for the Blues
, comparing their road with those of the teams chasing them. At the time, the Note were sitting on 100 points, with Vancouver chasing at 94. Since then, the Canucks have picked up 13 points, the Blues only 6. (Vancouver has had the benefit of playing an extra game.) I thought the Blues likely had the toughest road left to the end of the season, but I thought they would manage it a bit better than they have.
Since the time I wrote that column, the Blues have gone 2-2-2. They lost to the Anaheim Ducks, who are frankly pretty awful. They lost to the Columbus Blue Jackets, who aren't as awful but still aren't very good, and did so at home, where the Blues have been almost unbeatable this season. I don't care if those teams are playing loose because of having nothing to lose or not. If you're a truly elite team and not just pretending, you find a way to beat those teams.
What is even worse than the losses is the way the Blues have lost. In those six games, the Blues have allowed eighteen goals. (And that's with a shutout of Nashville thrown in there.) For reference, in the six games before that the Blues allowed just eight. It hasn't been the product of just a sloppy run by the goalies, either; the defensive breakdown over the past two weeks has very much been a team effort.
For most of the season, this team looked every inch a Ken Hitchcock squad. They played incredibly disciplined, with players consistently in the exact right spots on the ice. The team ran like a well-oiled machine.
In recent games, though, the Blues are getting outworked far too often, and their positioning is sorely lacking. Particularly in their own end, the players are playing soft and sloppy, and that sloppy play is directly leading to higher goal totals allowed. It's a frightening development for a team that has based its success on scoring 2.5 goals a night and holding the opposition down below that.
It's been quite a while since I can recall the Blues playing one of those truly smothering, dominant games in which they simply impose their will on the other team and shut them down. I don't know if fatigue is a factor or not; the Blues have played an awful lot of games on the road in the second half of the season, and an awful lot in long stretches. It could be they've hit the wall due to wearing down, or hit the wall due to a breakdown in the players' level of discipline, or hit the wall thanks to the league figuring the Hitchcock Blues out. Or, hopefully, they haven't really hit the wall, and are just suffering through a slump.
Honestly, none of this would be all the concerning any other time of the season. A team going through a stretch where they 'only' average a point per game for half a dozen games isn't a reason to be concerned in the slightest if it happens in mid-January. The problem is this isn't mid-January. This is the first week of April, and the Blues just happen to be playing some of their worst hockey of the season just before the playoffs are set to begin. That's why it's a bit more worrisome.
Hopefully this is just a blip on the radar, and the Blues we saw in January and February will show back up here as the postseason begins. After all, number one seeds and the like really only matter in terms of who you play in the postseason; no one will care in five years who won the most regular-season games in 2012. A deep run into the playoffs would be much more rewarding. But this wouldn't be the first time in this franchise's history we've seen a brilliant regular season followed by a playoff run at something far less than top quality. So while I'm excited to see the division wrapped up, and thrilled with the way this season has gone, I can't help but worry this team peaked too early, and aren't heading into April where they want -- or need -- to be.