NHL Playoff Predictions: Are the St. Louis Blues a Western Conference Favorite?

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NHL Playoff Predictions: Are the St. Louis Blues a Western Conference Favorite?
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images
Has Ken Hitchcock gained control of a team that could win the Stanley Cup?

The St. Louis Blues currently sit fourth in the Western Conference standings after Thursday night's loss to the first place Vancouver Canucks.

However, looking solely at points, the Blues have the third most points in the NHL and were just one win away from being the league's No. 1 team.

Now, six points ahead of the fifth place Nashville Predators, it seems the Blues have at the very least locked up home-ice advantage for the first round of the playoffs. So, the question to be asked is, how far can the St. Louis Blues go in the 2012 NHL playoffs?

First, let's discuss what's working in favor of the Blues.

Goaltending—The Blues have allowed the second fewest goals in the league. The tandem of Brian Elliott and Jaroslav Halak is a leading contender for the William M. Jennings Trophy, a trophy awarded each year to the goalie tandem with the fewest goals against.

What I think is so crucial to their playoff success is that the Blues will not have to lean on one goalie. I fully expect them to continue the two-goalie system in the playoffs that allowed both Halak and Elliott to win 20 games this season, the first time in franchise history that that has happened. If one of the net-minders is off of his game, the other will be fresh and ready to step in as soon as the elite goal-tending play starts to falter.

Defense—The Blues currently lead the NHL in shots allowed per game with 26.2, according to ESPN.com.

Ken Hitchcock has established a defense-first philosophy that backchecks harder than any other team. The Blues do a phenomenal job clogging up the neutral zone and causing difficult entries for their opponents. In the defensive zone, they force shots to the outside.

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Adding to the great defensive fundamentals, the Blues play extremely physical. They really don't have a single player who is afraid to hit or take a hit, and you can tell from the way that they wear down their opponents.

Ken Hitchcock—The Blues coach is practically guaranteed to be a Jack Adams finalist for coach of the year.

Prior to this season, one of the Blues' prime postseason concerns was playoff experience. Enter Jamie Langenbrunner, Kent Huskins, Jason Arnott and now Ken Hitchcock. Between the four of them, they have won five total Stanley Cups and know what it takes to make a postseason run. Hitchcock, who often says he does not coach hockey but rather coaches people who play hockey, knows how to handle the young talent of the Blues and when to leave responsibility to the veterans.

Playoff style hockey—The intensity of playoff games is unbelievably different than the intensity of regular season games. Every player is on their toes, playing the tightest defensive hockey they have played all season. Teams that have relied on their offense have trouble making deep playoff runs.

In the 2010-2011 season, the Stanley Cup Final was played between the Boston Bruins and the Vancouver Canucks. The Bruins allowed the fewest goals during the regular season in the Eastern Conference, and the Canucks allowed the fewest goals during the regular season in the Western Conference.

Marianne Helm/Getty Images
The Blues' tough, defensive style of hockey is an advantage to use in the playoffs

The Blues have been playing this low-scoring, defensively-intense style of hockey all season now, so they are accustomed to close one-goal games.

 

 

In the NHL, the old mantra "defense wins championships" tends to hold true.

Now, let's look at some of the major factors working against the Blues.

Scoring—One of the weaknesses of the Blues has been their scoring. Their defense has been what's gotten them so far, but the Blues lack a defined goal-scorer.

That doesn't mean that they can't win, but late in the game when the Blues need a goal, they have no go-to scorer. This has been a problem for a while, as the Blues have a shaky ownership situation and have not been able to spend big money on big players.

Injuries—The Blues were practically silent at the generally unexciting 2012 trade deadline. GM Doug Armstrong said he liked the team as it was, and most people would agree, but part of that decision was the hope that key players would return from injuries.

No team has been more affected by concussions than the Blues. Top-six forwards David Perron and Andy McDonald have missed huge portions of the season with concussions and are always prone to re-injury. Now, top-six forward Alex Steen has missed 29 straight games and still has no timetable for his return. Defenseman Kris Russell is out indefinitely with a concussion, along with the Blues' most skilled third line forward Matt D'Agostini. Jamie Langenbrunner, an assistant captain and tremendous two-way player, remains out with a fractured foot.

Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images
There's still no timetable for the return of Alex Steen and other Blues players

The Blues are seriously having troubles with their depth now, and the return of any of these players would be huge for their postseason success.

"Quality-wins"—If playoff seeding were like March Madness, the Blues might not be looked upon favorably by the selection panel. The Blues have had serious problems of late with beating elite teams. Since the start of January, the Blues are 2-6 against teams currently in the top five in their respective conferences. If you include Chicago, the Blues are 2-7 since January against top-five teams. In fact, among the past 11 Blues losses, three have come against Detroit, two against Nashville and two against Vancouver. If the Blues plan to go further than the second round, they will certainly need to prove that they can beat elite teams.

Because of their dominant defense, strong goaltending and tremendous team chemistry, the Blues really do have a chance to do something special this postseason. Doing something special means going past the second round, a round in which they will undoubtedly meet another elite team.

If the Blues can prove in the last quarter of the season that they can play with the other league powerhouses, they are a true Stanley Cup contending team, as strange as that feels to say given the Blues' lack of success in the past six years. But, if they continue to struggle against top teams, it's difficult to imagine the Blues going deep into the playoffs, unless of course, the team gets healthy and stays healthy.

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