Make no mistake about it, the St. Louis Blues are running on empty. The team that rallied around each other to rise from dead last in the Western Conference to a surprise playoff team has not shown up in this series. More unfortunate is that for many Blues, their first taste of playoff hockey may come to a quick end tomorrow night against Vancouver.
To say that this team has played bad is not fair. They haven't played great, but they have also faced a goalie that has been unstoppable. Even in yesterday's Game Three, Luongo gave up two goals but still made astounding saves to keep his team ahead. There are some very disturbing problems with this Blues team, though. To put it in pop culture lingo, "Strange things are afoot at the circle K".
The Blues finished the NHL regular season with the eighth-ranked power play in the league. Since then, they have managed just one solitary power play goal in the playoffs. More disturbing, they have had three 5-3 power plays and not scored on any of them, including two in Game Three.
The power play has become stagnant and far too predictable. Let's play a quick game. I want anyone who watched the game yesterday to stand up. Now, I want those of you who knew that the Blues were setting Brad Boyes up for a one-timer on every power play possession to sit down. Those of you still standing need to leave the room and find another sport to watch.
Everyone in that arena, and most importantly the Vancouver penalty killers, knew it too. It became painfully obvious when nobody from the Canucks even pretended to act like they were going to cover the Blues players on the point.
Part of this reason is because the Blues just don't have the big bomb from the point like they used to in the days of MacInnis or Pronger. The other painful reason is because the power play has, for some inexplicable reason, become horribly one-faceted in the playoffs.
The best quote of the game came from a friend of mine who, after the Blues squandered their first 5-3 of the night, said, "I wish this was the NFL and we could decline the penalty. Our power play is brutal." Another fan down from us said, "Boy, the Blues sure know how to penalty kill on the power play."
Playoff hockey doesn't need to be pretty; ugly goals count just as much as the pretty passes and one-timers. The Blues have still not figured that out. While they did get more shots on the net yesterday, they still are relying way too much on finesse play. The Blues are much more successful when they roll their sleeves up and get physical.
Case in point is the first period of Game Three. They were hitting, they were pushing the Canucks around, and they scored. It was their first lead of the entire series and it set the 19,500 fans into a frenzy.
The Blues tied the game late in the second period on an amazing pass from David Perron to Andy McDonald. That was the first point from any of the "kids" this series.
A scrum at the end of the second period put Vancouver on a power play to start the third period. The Blues looked tight as they went on the penalty kill. The Canucks were flying around, beating the Blues to every spot on the ice. Vancouver took a 3-2 lead with 20 seconds left on the man advantage, and that would prove to be the final score.
So, as we look ahead to Tuesday night, it's very hard to find optimism. For anyone who's ever owned a pet, they will understand the following statement: There comes a time when you have to put what you want aside and think of what's best. Should the Blues win game four tomorrow, they would head back to Vancouver for game five on Friday night.
It's not impossible for a team to come back from an 0-3 deficit. In fact, it's probably the easiest to do it in the NHL or NBA. However, this team did something in the third period, that they hadn't done all season long: They gave up. You could see it in the way they played out the third.
Vancouver scoring struck what could end up being the mortal wound in this season. It silenced the crowd and it affected this team. Nobody wants to end a season being swept out of the playoffs. However, for the youth on this team, maybe it's the best thing that could happen. They have lived the "feel-good story" for the better part of three months now.
Perhaps being tossed aside in a four-game sweep would leave them with a bitter taste, a reason to train that much harder in the offseason. They know what it takes to get to the playoffs; now they have to learn what it takes to win in them. Everyone has heard the old adage that every door that closes leads to another door opening. If the door does indeed close tomorrow night for the Blues, the door for 2009-2010 will open.
What this means is that, while St. Louis fans are disappointed in the short term, next season would bring a year of experience under the belts of Oshie and Burglund, the return of Johnson and Kariya (side note to Blues management...please don't put him in the lineup tomorrow night), as well as Petrangelo.
Add in the new batch of Blues rookies, and most importantly the confidence that this team is good enough to compete for a Stanley Cup, and depth in the playoffs suddenly looks possible.