FIVE MINUTES FOR SCRIBING
There’s a quality gap in the NHL Western Division, and the Blues are on the wrong side of it.
Put the Blues against lesser teams, and they do just fine.
But against the good teams? It’s ugly and embarrassing.
As we saw this again Monday night, when Vegas romped to a 5-1 victory that had Golden Knights irritant Mark Stone laughing on the ice. The Blues can’t slap the smile off Stone’s face, because they’re turtling and getting slapped around by Vegas.
The Golden Knights toyed with the Blues on Monday, thoroughly controlling the play but letting the visitors hang around. It was 1-1 going into the 3rd period, but in the final 20 minutes the Vegas players all but set up a champagne room in the Blues’ defensive zone.
The teams have met three times since March 12, with Vegas winning all three bouts, one by shootout. The Blues were outscored 15-6 overall in the three games. In the last two meetings, the cumulative score was Vegas 10, St. Louis 2.
At 5-on-5 play during the three games, the Blues were outscored 11-4, had 40 percent of the shots on goal, managed only 34% of the scoring chances, and came up short (37%) on high-danger opportunities. Vegas cashed in for 7 high-danger goals; the Blues had three.
With Vegas cruising in for too many easy chances, Blues goaltenders had a 5-on-5 save percentage of .864 in the three encounters.
These beatdowns were humiliating and have exposed the Blues’ softer side. This condition causes considerable agony for coach Craig Berube. Predictably, Chief went off in Monday’s post-game session with the media. Berube didn’t holler; he didn’t have to. The look on his face — disgust? — reflected the state of Blues hockey right now.
“Basically it boils down to they wanted the game more than us,” Berube said of Vegas’ 4-0 putaway in the 3rd period. “They dug in more, won more puck battles, made more plays, skated better. That’s why they won the game.”
Berube knows the Blues failed this three-game test against the NHL’s second-best team based on points percentage (.750.) He makes no excuses and doesn’t seek excuses offered by cheerleaders and outsiders.
“The last three games we played them, we really didn’t dictate anything in the three games in my opinion,” Berube said. “We hung in there. All the games were tight going into the third period. You have an opportunity tonight. In my opinion, we didn’t play well the first two periods, but we hung in there, it’s a close game, it’s right there and we get outshot 15-3 in the third period. That’s just not good enough. There’s nothing more I can really say about it. We’ve got to be better, I’ve got to coach better and they’ve got to play better.”
Sadly, this was no aberration.
The Blues cleaned themselves up and became a more disciplined and determined team over the weekend, winning two in a row at San Jose. But the Sharks rank 25th in the NHL with a .467 points percentage, and the Blues didn’t have them to prey on. It was time for another go with Vegas. With mini-momentum on their side, surely The Note would be in better form in this unofficial rematch with the Golden Knights.
And this was no surprise.
This season the Blues have played 19 games against the three Western teams that currently have losing records: Anaheim, San Jose and Arizona. The Blues are 12-4-3 in those matches, and have outscored the opponents 67-53 at all strengths.
The Blues haven’t faced Minnesota as of yet; their first clash happens Thursday night. But in their 13 games against the other winning teams in the division — Vegas, Colorado and Los Angeles — the Blues are 4-7-2 and have been outscored 51-30 at all strengths.
When you’ve scored 56% of the overall goals in games against losing teams …
And only 37% of the total goals in the battles against the winners …
Well, that pretty much sums it up.
The Blues’ 5-on-5 performance — formerly their bedrock — continues to disintegrate. I want to avoid blitzing you with another batch of statistics, so let’s keep it simple.
Percentage of goals scored at 5-on-5:
- 2018-2019: Blues scored 55.6%, ranked 4th in the NHL.
- 2019-2020: Dropped to 53%, but still strong, ranking 10th.
- 2020-21: Down to 48.3%, 18th.
But in reality it’s much worse than that. In their last 22 games the Blues rank 30th in the league at 5-on-5 goal share at an alarming rate of 39.2 percent. Opponents have outscored the Blues 48-31 over that time. No coincidence but the Blues also rank 30th in their share of high-danger scoring chances over the 22 games.
Injuries? Yes, certainly a factor. And the Blues have received heaps of empathy for grinding through the schedule in a debilitated state. We’ve cut them plenty of slack over the last two months or so.
But with injured players filing back into the lineup, the fundamental issues remain: defensive zone turnovers, the adynamic forechecking, insufficient offensive zone time, a lack of precision in breakouts … and so much more.
You can’t swaddle the Blues with pity because of injuries — not when the coach continues to publicly snarl at his team’s feeble effort and call out their wishy-washy competitiveness.
Look., the Blues could cover some weaknesses when playing lesser teams. But now they’re down to 24 regular-season games, and appointments with Vegas, Colorado and Minnesota will take up 75 percent of the STL schedule.
The Blues (16-11-5) have stayed above water, but that’s getting harder now. The players must make a decision: paddle furiously through these bigger waves, or slump their shoulders and slowly submerge.
Thanks for reading …
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For the last 35 years Bernie Miklasz has entertained, enlightened, and connected with generations of St. Louis sports fans.
While best known for his voice as the lead sports columnist at the Post-Dispatch for 26 years, Bernie has also written for The Athletic, Dallas Morning News and Baltimore News American. Bernie has hosted radio shows in St. Louis, Dallas, Baltimore and Washington D.C.
Bernie, his wife Kirsten and their cats reside in the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood of St. Louis.