When the NHL schedule first came out, the Blues games Friday and Saturday at Vegas were supposed to be the final games of the regular season. By the middle of the Blues season, as wins and losses started to go hand in hand for them, that was starting to look like something that could come to haunt them.
Namely, if the Blues’ playoff chances came down to the final weekend of the season, needing to get a win in one of those games with the Golden Knights could make it just a bit more complicated.
But this year in the NHL, more than ever, things change. World events, usually not a factor in playoff races, moved three games to the end of the schedule, so these two with Vegas are no longer the end of the season. With the Blues still just shy of a playoff spot, the games figure significantly, but not definitively, in the postseason picture. The Blues could lose them both and still qualify. Their biggest role may be in happiness and confidence as much as anything.
As far as happiness goes, the Blues would just as soon clinch their playoff spot and get on with their lives. Once that happens, coach Craig Berube can give some players, all of whom are banged up, a few to the extent they’re not currently playing, a chance to rest up for the postseason.
As far as confidence goes, Vegas right now is the most likely first-round opponent for the Blues, so tightening up the season series with a team the Blues are currently 2-3-1 against wouldn’t be a bad thing. Though if the Blues do too well against Vegas, which is up by four points on Colorado, with the Avs having one extra game to play, they could move Colorado back into first in the West. The website moneypuck.com makes the case that the Blues are better off losing to Vegas to increase their chances of getting to the second round, since their model shows them faring better against Vegas than Colorado, so they have an interest in Vegas finishing first. (Though the difference isn’t all that big.)
Just as important in the confidence category is that after playing pretty good against Colorado and Minnesota, the Blues did not play pretty good against Anaheim. This is the time of year to be playing good.
“That’s a good challenge,” said forward Mike Hoffman of Vegas. “They’re a good hockey club obviously and that’s a good test for ourselves. We’re gonna have to be prepared. Everyone’s gonna have to be going, playing 60 minutes if we want to go in there and put on a good performance.”
“They played us really well this year,” Berube said, “so it’s a good opportunity for us to go in there and get some points from them.”
The Blues are still at the point where they can’t clinch a playoff spot on their own. To get in on Friday, they need to get one more point from their game with Vegas than the Kings get in their game with Colorado. If the Kings lose, just going to overtime will be enough for the Blues. If the Kings lose in overtime, the Blues need a win. If the Kings win, the whole thing gets pushed back another day. Both games start at 9 p.m. St. Louis time, creating one bonus: If the Blues clinch, they can celebrate as a team rather than on their own two hours after their game had ended, which is what would have happened on Wednesday.
Obviously, the playoff picture strongly favors the Blues, who are eight points up on the Kings with each team having five games to play (and four of the Kings’ games against Colorado). Kings coach Todd McLellan said his team was done after they lost to Anaheim over the weekend. Essentially, the only situation that keeps the Blues out of the postseason is losing all their games in regulation while the Kings win all of theirs. (There’s one point of wiggle room for an overtime loss for somebody.) The Blues are at 56 points and the most the Kings can get is 58. The Kings hold the tiebreaker of regulation wins, so the Blues will have to get one more point than the Kings. The Blues don’t even have to win a game; they can clinch if the Kings lose twice.
While the Blues are still battling to get in, Vegas is battling for first in the division with Colorado. The Golden Knights are four points up but the Avalanche have five games to play compared to Vegas’ four. Vegas is also the only team with a real shot at catching Carolina for the Presidents’ Trophy.
“We gotta take care of what we can control,” Hoffman said. “I thought we’ve been playing some pretty good hockey as of late and hopefully we can continue with that and keep building on that. Maybe our last two games weren’t great, but we got a great opportunity, great challenge going into Vegas, and give ‘em our best foot forward.”
“Focus on the details,” said Kyle Clifford. “I thought we were getting a little loopy in certain areas of our game (against Anaheim). We’ve got to be tough on pucks, be harder to play against. Just clean things up a little bit and get ready for Vegas.”