In a number of ways, the unpredictable, yo-yo Blues are doing the exact opposite of what we expect them to do.
They’re winning games at a rate that puts them only two points out of the second wild–card spot in the Western Conference. As of Monday morning FiveThirtyEight.com gave St. Louis a 43 percent probability of making the playoffs. The Note have moved up in the projections by earning points in 11 of their last 14 games, going 8-3-3.
Thanks to a strong, 3-1 road trip, the Blues’ playoff odds improved by 10 percent over the last week. Their three road victories came over winning teams – Toronto, New Jersey and Minnesota – that respectively rank 3rd, 5th and 13th in the NHL for best points-earned percentage.
The Blues are flourishing despite the epidemic of hurt that could have made this team crack. But that hasn’t happened. When the Blues closed the 3-1 travelog with a 3-0 Sunday triumph in St. Paul, they achieved the shoutout under unusual circumstances.
The Blues won it with a lengthy list of players sidelined by injuries: captain Ryan O’Reilly, scorer Vladimir Tarasenko, and defensemen Torey Krug, Nick Leddy, Robert Bortuzzo, Scott Perunovich and Marco Scandella.
The Blues are suddenly scoring goals at an accelerated pace – certainly a surprising development considering the team’s reduced manpower. More on this in a few moments.
Even though the Blues are winning – which is the bottom line, right? – they continue to be outplayed on a regular basis. During their 8-3-3 upsurge – competing in all situations — the Blues have only 46.3 percent of the overall shot attempts, 46.4% of shots on net, and 42% of the high–danger chances. With this discrepancy the Blues should be sinking … but they’re rising instead.
So, what’s up?
1. The Blues have found their scoring touch, and that can’t be underestimated as a prime factor in the success. In short: even though the Blues have had fewer shots and top-quality chances than their opponents in recent weeks, they’re doing a significantly better job of converting opportunities into goals.
STL’s improved goal-scoring punch began with a 4-3 shootout victory against Edmonton on Dec. 15. That initiated a 7-3-2 stretch in which the Blues have averaged 3.65 goals per 60 minutes in all situations. That’s ninth-best in the league over that time.
Before Dec. 15, the Blues (13-15-1) averaged 2.88 goals per 60 minutes, which ranked 23rd in the league. They’ve also gotten better offensively at 5-on-5 play. After averaging only 2.27 per 60 minutes in their first 29 games (23rd in NHL) the Blues have scored 3.02 goals per 60 over their last 12 games, 7th in the NHL.
The extra bang in scoring really matters. While the Blues Blues have reduced their overall rate of goals allowed per 60 over the last 12 games, they’ve actually given a higher rate of 5-on-5 goals per 60 minutes (2.92) compared to their first 29 games (2.76.) But goaltenders Jordan Binnington and Thomas Greiss have supplied good (if inconsistent) work in the net.
2. Let’s circle back and take a closer look at the Blues’ enhanced finishing touch during their 7-3-2 run. The shooting percentage tells us all we need to know. Shooting percentage – simply – is the number of shots on net that results in a goal.
— First 29 games: 9.72 shooting percentage in all situations, 19th in the NHL. And a 7.86 shooting percentage at 5-on-5, ranked No. 22 in the league.
— Last 12 games: 13.76 shooting percentage in all situations, tied for second–best in the NHL. And a shooting percentage of 12.08% at 5-on-5, which ranks second in the league.
This recent jump is reminiscent of what the Blues did last season in leading the NHL in shooting percentage at all strengths (12.4%) and at 5-on-5 (10.4%)
3. Obviously, several players have picked up the pace during the 7-3-2 bounce-back phase.
* Jordan Kyrou has nine goals and six assists over the team’s last 12 games.
* Through Dec. 15, Brandon Saad had only six goals in his 23 games but has turned it up for seven goals in his last 11 games – including five goals in the last four.
* After scoring only two goals in his previous 20 games, Brayden Schenn has three goals in his last four games. He also has nine assists in the team’s last 12 contests.
* Though missing time with an injury, Pavel Buchnevich has seven goals and 11 assists in his last 15 games.
* On the 3-1 road trip Schenn, Saad, Kyrou and Robert Thomas combined for 12 goals and eight assists. Ivan Barbashev and Buchnevich combined for two goals and seven assists in the four games. Even Colton Parayko is stepping up with four assists in the last four games.
4. We’ve seen past Blues teams pull together, take a stand, and rally during injury-related adversity. That response hasn’t always been there this season, but in this phase they’ve done an admirable job of digging in and battling instead of succumbing to their roster-shortage disadvantage. And with so many missing Blues, the depth has been a positive factor in the form of guys like Calle Rosen, Jake Neighbours, Josh Leivo, Nikita Alexandrov, Noel Acciari, Alexey Toropchencko, Tyler Tucker and Steve Santini. The question: can the Blues’ bullpen keep it going over time? That’s a big ask.
”We’ve lost a lot of players here, but we’ve got guys who are coming up and doing the job,” Blues coach Craig Berube told reporters after Sunday’s win over the Wild.
5. The team chemistry is in a positive place right now. I don’t know what this says – if much of anything – about the injured and inactive players. But if this trend rolls on, GM Doug Armstrong won’t be stricken with nausea if he decides to trade away pending free-agent veterans at the deadline.
The Blues have a terrific opportunity to show us who they are during a seven-game homestand that begins Tuesday night.
This team has been messing with our minds so I think it’s wise to keep the expectations level. The Blues (20-18-3) are doing a very fine job of playing through the recent chaos and turmoil, but this 7-3-2 turnaround can’t be just another apparition. Their long-term determination and consistency will determine their fate in 2023.
Bernie invites you to listen to his opinionated and analytical sports-talk show on 590 The Fan, KFNS-AM. It airs Monday through Thursday from 3-6 p.m. and Friday from 4-6 p.m. You can listen by streaming online or by downloading the show podcast at 590thefan.com or the 590 app.
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Stats used here were culled from Natural Stat Trick and Hockey Reference.