After a fast start, the Blues are slumping.
Or are they?
Let’s Roll Four Lines:
FIRST LINE: The Blues have lost three straight games, coming up short against Nashville, Carolina and Edmonton. All three were one-goal losses, and the Nashville skirmish spilled into overtime. All were skate-blade margins of defeat. After a fast 5-0 start to the season, the Blues are 3-4-2 in their last nine.
Are they headed the wrong way? In the standings, yes. Obviously. The Blues have slipped to fourth place in the Central division, but the difference between the top four teams is so close it’s nothing worth fussing about. But it’s a tough league, and three straight losses can cost you. In only four days the Blues went from fourth in the NHL in points percentage (.773) to 12th in points percentage (.643.)
SECOND LINE: But here’s the deal. In losing three in a row, the Blues in many ways played a better overall game than we saw during their 5-0 jump into the season. I know it sounds crazy; all that really matters is the final tally on the scoreboard. I haven’t lost my mind. I’m just trying to step back and have some perspective. Winning the first five games out of the gate was impressive.
But as I noted multiple times during their 5-0 run, the Blues were outplayed at five-on-five. They managed to come out on top through goaltending, special teams, and a strong finishing touch on scoring chances.
That put a shiny gloss on some underlying problems. At five-on-five, the 5-0 Blues had only 48 percent of the shot attempts, 48.6% of the shots on goal, and 44% of the high-danger chances. Even though the Blues outscored their opponents 18-11 (at five-on-five) for a 62% goals-scored share, their expected goal share was only 46.3% — which ranked 25th in the league through five games.
What’s the big deal? The Blues went 5-0, right? Absolutely. It wasn’t a big deal on the scoreboard or in the standings. But winning despite the five-on-five problems was a red flag. In short, the Blues couldn’t keep winning that way. Their shooting percentage would inevitably drop, the goaltending wouldn’t always be bulletproof, and the special teams would cool down. There was also the impact of injuries and a Covid-19 flare-up. After a 5-0 start, the Blues were due for roster chaos and a downturn.
THIRD LINE: But here’s the thing. I’m only half-right about this. In the three-game test vs. Nashville, Carolina and Edmonton the Blues had the advantage at five-on-five. They had 50.5% of the shot attempts, 52% of the shots on goal, and 61% of the high-danger chances. And though they were outscored 9-6 at five-on-five in the three games, the Blues had an expected goals-scored share of 56 percent. That was 10 percent higher than their expected-goals figure during the 5-0 start.
FOURTH LINE: So what changed? How does a team be on the wrong side at five-on-five and go 5-0, then outplay their opponents at five-on-five, and lose three in a row?
— Killer timing. Allowing spirit-smacking goals in the final minute of periods. That can defeat a team mentally, emotionally, and on the scoreboard.
— Sloppy play, or poor positioning, that led to high-impact goals that erased much of the Blues’ overall quality of work. It’s the equivalent of a football team controlling the line of scrimmage and taking a close lead, and holding onto the lead until giving up a pick-six to lose the lead and the game.
— Marco-Parayko. For the last two-plus weeks, I’ve been talking and writing about the terrible performance of the Colton Parayko and Marco Scandella defensive pairing. And the duo was brutal (again) over the three consecutive losses. So many mistakes, giveaways, and poor positioning. In the three straight losses, playing at five-on-five, the Blues have been outscored 4-0 with Parayko-Scandella out there — and controlled only 42% of the shot attempts and 44% of the shots on goal.
This is nothing new. For the season the Blues have been outscored 11-6 and have an expected goals percentage of 43% when Scandella and Parayko are teamed at five-on-five. In the last nine games the team has been outscored 9-2 at five-on-five when deploying the Scandella-Parayko pairing. Scandella and Parayko rank 1st and 2nd, respectively, among the Blues in giving the puck away this season.
— It will be good to get Torey Krug back. As a group the defensemen are this team’s primary weakness. Because of salary-cap restrictions, GM Doug Armstrong doesn’t have the flexibility to fix it. But something must be done about this embarrassing Parayko-Scandella pairing.
— The line of Ivan Barbashev, Robert Thomas and Vladimir Tarasenko has been exploited during the three-game losing streak. With that line on the ice at five-on-five the Predators, Hurricanes and Oilers outscored the Blues 5-1 at five-on-five and controlled 62.2% of the shots on goal.
— When the Blues were going 5-0 to overcome their lapses in play, they scored on 10 percent of their shots on goal at five-on-five. During the three losses, they scored on 7.5% of their shots on goal at five-on-five. In the 5-0 breakout, the Blues scored on 14% of their high-danger attempts. During the three straight losses, they’ve scored on only 3 of 33 high-danger shots, or 9%. The Blues’ struggle to finish chances is a definite factor in three one-goal losses.
— In the first five games, the Blues’ .942 save percentage at five-on-five was sixth-best in the league. In the three consecutive losses, the five-on–five save percentage was .878.
— Ryan O’Reilly is back, but hasn’t reconnected with linemate David Perron. Since O’Reilly returned from the Covid list on Nov. 7, he’s centered a line that included Perron for 44 minutes and 27 seconds of five-on-five play. And while the Blues and opponents each scored one goal with O’Reilly and Perron out there, the Blues had a weak 46.5% of the shots on goal, 37.5% of the high-danger shots, and expected goal-share percentage of 44.5%.
In the 10 games before O’Reilly went down the Blues scored 64.5% of the goals, controlled 56.5% of the shots on net, and 61% of the scoring chances when Perron and O’Reilly were on the same line at five-on-five. Needless to say, that’s a huge difference between the before and after. Especially in games decided by one goal. Perron and O’Reilly have to get back together and make things happen again.
— During their 5-0 start, the Blues were a plus-5 on the special teams. (Power play goals for and against.) In the nine games played since the end of the 5-0 start the Blues are a plus-1 on special teams. Their special teams units are still very good, but the early-season differential was unsustainable.
This is hockey. So much can change in a few bad moments during games. The outcome isn’t always fair. In starting 5-0, the Blues won more than they realistically should have. In losing three in a row, the Blues did a lot of things well and weren’t an 0-3 level team. But their own mistakes made them 0-3. That’s how it goes.
“I like our team a lot. I do,” coach Craig Berube said after Sunday’s loss to Edmonton. “Like We’ve got a lot of good depth and it’s a good hockey team.”
Thanks for reading …
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* Unless otherwise noted, all stats used here were sourced from Natural Stat Trick or Hockey Reference.
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.