TAMPA, FLA. — By the end of this week, and the end of November, the Blues will have gone through one-third of their schedule. The “early season” portion of this 2019-20 NHL hockey season is past.
The Blues are in strong position, leading the Central Division with a 14-5-6 record and 34 points. Only Washington (37), Boston (35) and Edmonton (35) have more points in the entire NHL.
But position is one thing; staying power another.
Last year through 25 games, the Blues were 9-13-3 and were 30th in the league with 21 points. As you may recall, they ended up winning the Stanley Cup.
Two years ago through 25 games, the Blues were 17-7-1 under coach Mike Yeo and were second in the league with 35 points. They ended up missing the playoffs by one point.
So there are many miles to go before playoff time, but for now the Blues have reached a stage where they’re having to work extra hard to score goals and to garner points in the standings.
Over their past 10 games, they have scored more than two goals in regulation only three times.
Over their past seven games, they are treading water with a 2-2-3 record. As a result, the Central Division race is tightening up with the Dallas Stars charging up the standings and the Winnipeg Jets hot as well.
One of the reasons the Blues are a .500 team over those past seven games is slow starts. In five of their past six games, the opposing team has scored first. In three of those six contests — against Anaheim and both Nashville games — the Blues found themselves trailing 2-0 in the first period.
When you’re having trouble scoring, the last place you want to be is chasing games.
“That’s something we’ve obviously got to improve on,” Brayden Schenn said. “I think we build our game around defense, tight defensively. So if we’re able to get that first one early, we’re even harder to play against. We gotta do a better job of trying to get the lead.”
“I thought our start (Monday) was better than last game,” David Perron said after the Blues’ 3-2 shootout loss to Nashville. “I think the shots were like 5-1, 6-1 before that (Nick) Bonino goal. Definitely the building got into it. It turned their game around a little bit. It’s something to look at.”
Just about anything would be better than Saturday’s start against Nashville, in which the Blues were down 2-0 after just 220 seconds and were outshot 15-2 in the first eight minutes of play.
In Monday’s Blues-Predators rematch, the Blues did have a 6-1 edge in shots (as Perron mentioned) before Bonino’s goal. The bad news was they squandered a chance to get the jump on Nashville with two early power plays. They came back-to-back, meaning the Blues had 3 minutes, 41 seconds worth of continuous power play, including 19 seconds’ worth of 5-on-3 in the middle.
“Didn’t capitalize there,” coach Craig Berube said.
No, they didn’t. Nashville has an aggressive penalty kill, sending defenders out to the point, and this tactic clearly disrupted the Blues’ attempts to get anything going. The Blues entered the game with the NHL’s top power play on the road at 29.4%, but went 0-for-3 Monday and are 2-for-16 over their last five games.
Berube is doing what he can to generate offense in all situations. This extended even to the shootout rotation, which had gone 0-for-8 in shootout losses to Vancouver (Oct. 17) and Arizona (Nov. 12).
“Yeah, just switch it up and see if we can get a little success there,” Berube said. “But it didn’t work out.”
Normal leadoff man Tyler Bozak, who has an excellent 43% career success rate but is 0-for-2 this season, was not among the four shooters Berube sent out after a scoreless overtime. Robert Thomas, who had taken only one NHL shootout attempt previously and none this season, was fourth in the rotation Monday.
As for even strength play, the Berube Blender was in full use Monday as is frequently the case when the offense is struggling to gain momentum. In other words, lines were shuffled, particularly in the third period as the Blues attempted to erase a 2-1 deficit.
“Five-on-five we gotta try and find ways to score some goals, and I’m sure we’re gonna be mixing it around a little bit,” Schenn said. “We seemed to find some chemistry again with Thommer (Thomas) in the third and see what happens in (Tampa).”
After some success in recent games centering a third line with Zach Sanford and Oskar Sundqvist on the wings, Thomas found himself back with Schenn and Jaden Schwartz on the Blues’ top line to finish out Monday’s game. He set up Schenn for the game-tying goal.
“He had a great game,” Schenn said of Thomas. “He sees the ice so well and when he has the puck on his stick we try to get open.”
Vladimir Tarasenko (shoulder surgery) may not be back this season. Sammy Blais (wrist surgery) isn’t coming back any time soon. So the Blues need such contributions from Thomas and anybody else in the lineup. That includes Ryan O’Reilly, who has gone seven games without a goal, matching his season-long drought. And extends to the defense, where Justin Faulk is still searching for his first goal of the season.
“As we’ve done even when we were winning seven in a row, we just keep going back at it the next day in the video room whatever, and hammer at details,” Perron said. “And that’s what we’ll keep doing. There’s no other way around for our club to have success. We’ve done that all year and last year when we started turning it around.”