On paper, the Blues still look like contenders.
But on the ice, they are still struggling to reestablish the “it” factor that once made them great.
Months into this season they still lack collective commitment and confidence they once enjoyed. They are hoping to win, not expecting to win as they did two postseasons ago.
They are still seeking offensive and defensive cohesion. They still lack the momentum that once propelled them shift after shift at top speed.
The Blues understand the power of these intangible qualities. They rode them to the Stanley Cup in 2019.
They also felt the absence of those intangibles when they fell flat during Bubble Hockey 2020.
They entered this season eager to regain their relentlessness and resilience. And yet here they are, still searching, still on the outside of the West Division playoff bracket looking in.
As an old Canadian folk singer would say, the feeling’s gone and they just can’t get it back.
“We believe in each other,” Blues captain Ryan O’Reilly insisted Monday. “We believe in each other here and we know it’s not going to be easy. It’s something we talk about, it’s going to be tough to get out of it.
“But when we do, it going to be worth it. It’s just sticking with it, becoming closer as a team and having each other’s backs.”
Blues coach Craig Berube has tried everything to prod his team out of neutral. On Monday the coaching staff showed the Blues video of them failing to reach the right place at the right time to smother opponents.
Berube ran an up-tempo practice, reminding the players what full-tilt skating feels like. In his latest lineup shuffle, he broke up the Non-Production Line of Jaden Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko flanking Brayden Schenn.
He urged Schenn to attack the net harder and score ugly goals. He challenged Tarasenko to assert himself and quit waiting for good things to happen.
These messages and tactics are nothing new. Berube has used battle drills to crank up the team’s competitive intensity.
He has used words like “weak” and “fragile” to describe the team’s persona to the media. He has demoted prominent players to lesser roles and even scratched a few from the lineup.
Ultimately, though, a team develops the “it” factor organically or it doesn’t. Coaches can only do so much to aid the process.
Hockey is an intense, punishing and emotional sport. The puck bounces crazily on choppy ice. It caroms wildly off the glass, boards, goal posts, skates and various body parts of the players and on-ice officials.
Sometimes the Xs and Os mean little. Sometimes the personnel matchups become irrelevant too, because puck luck changes the game’s flow.
Amid all this chaos, the will to win is critical. In the face of hockey’s randomness, teams must keep pushing and pushing toward victory.
This is why the “it” factor is so critical. It can transform the group, making it far greater than the sum of its parts.
When a team is flying, the players become interchangeable. Scorers grind and grinders score. The team tilts the ice against its opponent and skates downhill.
This feeling must be built step by step by step, with one big play leading to another and another and another. Then one big victory leads to another and another and another.
This is how the Blues morphed from also-ran to champion during their epic Cup run.
This process is easier with superstar players. The NHL’s elite talents can take over games and bring their teammates along.
Their swagger becomes contagious. They can inspire confidence and instill belief within the group.
The Blues don’t have superstars, so the transformation must come the hard way as it did before. Everybody must raise their game and seek every small advantage in every shift.
Only then can the team convert desperate energy into confident aggression.
The Blues want to get there. Time after the time this season they have gotten ready to play. Time after time they turned good preparation into fast starts.
And time after time, they have buckled when their opponent pushed back.
“Everyone in this room knows that we get caught on our heels and we just stop trusting instincts and just going and being aggressive,” O’Reilly said. “Teams are going to make pushes but we have to be able to get momentum back and get out of it. We have to stick with it and make sure when things aren’t going well, ramp up our aggression and simplify.”
As the Blues try to muster one more push with this group, their championship experience could be helpful. Most of their core players have Cup pedigrees. The parade wasn’t that long ago.
But they still must do it. The Blues can talk and talk and talk about what it takes to regain their winning form, but they must back it up for more than 15 or 20 minutes at a time.
“We can play with anybody in this league and we can beat anybody in this league.” O’Reilly said. “It’s going to be the commitment to the details and throwing 60 minutes together.”
If they can manage to do that, then maybe they can win a game, then another, then another and start building the magic again.