If a team from the Eastern Conference has any shot at winning a Stanley Cup this year, it’s going to be thanks to the West grinding itself into fine powder and the eventual Hunger Games-esque victor being so banged up that they’re not the same hockey team they were at the start of playoffs. And really, that scenario isn’t that far-fetched. The team defenses are generally suffocating out West, so it’s going to take some blood and bruises to create anything.
The Los Angeles Kings are safely third in their division and eight points up on the final wild card spot, yet they can’t score goals to save their lives. Here’s the last three teams in the league in goals for:
Yup. Prestigious company you’re keeping there, Kings. But it doesn’t matter – to beat hockey teams you have to score on them, and the Kings give up a league-best 2.06 goals-per-game which is a head-asplode type number. So yes, they’re going to brutal to play in the post-season. Grind, grind, grind.
Beyond the Kings, five of the top seven teams in league goals-against-per-game are from the West, with the St. Louis Blues following up the Kings with a 2.27 nightly goals against.
And they felt the need to upgrade their goaltending.
Basically, I’m not sure if the Blues are going to give up a goal ever again (there’s some potential that might be hyperbole, but you get the point).
Team Canada’s performance at the Olmpics made it glaringly obvious what a difference it makes in tight games to have a great D-corps, and the Blues have that beyond belief. They’re trotting out a group of Alex Pietrangelo (Norris contender), Jay Bouwmeester, Kevin Shattenkirk, Barrett Jackman, Roman Polak and Jordan Leopold (or Ian Cole).
The only team in the West who can really hang with that is Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson Nick Leddy, Johnny Oduya and Michal Rozsival, but the Blackhawks find themselves 13th in goals-allowed-per, at 2.55.
The Blues forwards are just a brutally tough group to play too with David Backes and TJ Oshie headlining the Offensively Capable But Still Mean crew, and names like Brenden Morrow, Steve Ott and Max Lapierre do a good job filling in the holes behind the more pure scorers to provide another layer of misery.
That 2.27 goals-against-per-game comes thanks in no small part to them only allowing 26.6 shots-per-night on average, which is second best in the league. And if they’re being a bit too rough on teams trying to get to their net, their penalty kill is third-best in the league, successfully getting the job done 85.8% of the time.
And they still felt the need to upgrade their goalie.
And honestly, they did upgrade their goaltending. I’ve seen all the stats wonks ballpark what kind of an improvement Ryan Miller is over Jaroslav Halak, and absolutely none of them have come to the conclusion that he’s zero percent better, which is good enough for me if I’m Buffalo (and some find him worth a lot more). You get a guy like Miller for that one extra save in that one game and consider it worth it – it could be the one that gets your team the win they need to take control of a series or close it out. When you’re serious about the Cup, every little bit helps.
To go with all those tools, Ken Hitchcock is a master at coaching defensively sound teams. If you watched the Toronto Maple Leafs lose to the Columbus Blue Jackets on Monday night, you may have noticed something you rarely see when the Blues play – their wingers are taking hard strides around the d-zone, maxing out their skating abilities to cover oddly-large distances when the puck is moved well against them (or after they made an oopsie).
Many AHLers who’ve played NHL games will tell you the same thing – it’s almost easier to play at the higher level because everyone is where they’re supposed to be, and there’s less running around. That’s the Blues – the bizarro Maple Leafs – in a nutshell. Because they’re contained and doing the right things opponents don’t get the amount of looks they do against other teams.
With the Blues adding Miller, they may have just become the least fun team to face in playoffs. They can score (here’s goals-per-game)…
…and the odds of you getting many against them doesn’t look good. A seven-gamer against this group would be miserable.
If your team commits to becoming the fine powder I mentioned in the first paragraph you might be able to bang home some rebounds, or score on some screens and tips. But it ain’t going to come easy. The Blues are a defensive juggernaut, so y’know…good luck with that.