In early November, the St. Louis Blues were a club with playoff aspirations, but were also sitting on a 6-7 record and decided to make a major move. Ousted was head coach Davis Payne, and he was replaced with coaching veteran Ken Hitchcock. Since that point, the Blues have climbed to the near the top of the Western Conference (and overall NHL) standings.
This has been a drastic improvement over what Blues fans have come to expect over the better part of the last decade. Since the lockout that wiped out the 2004-05 NHL season, the Blues have only qualified for the postseason one time.
Before the lockout, the Blues had been a playoff team for 25 consecutive seasons. Fans in St. Louis had been accustomed to hockey after early April, but the Blues clubs since the lockout have been nothing short of disappointing.
As the NHL is set to resume after its annual All-Star break, the Blues finally find themselves in line to be invited to the after-party once again. However, the second half of the season will do the Blues no favors.
After taking advantage of a home-game heavy schedule before the break, the club now finds itself with 20 of its last 33 games on the road, including three games in Chicago and another west-coast swing. While the club leads the league in home wins (21), they are also a sub-.500 team on the road (8-10-3).
Currently, the Blues have a 10 point cushion over the 8th place Minnesota Wild, so there is a little margin for error. However, playing .500 hockey the rest of the way will put the Blues' point total in the upper 90s.
Remember last year when the 8th seed Chicago Blackhawks needed all 97 of their points to qualify for the playoffs (Dallas was 9th with 95 points). In the days of 3 point games, getting to 90 points is no longer the near playoff-qualifier it used to be. How can the Blues keep the pace, you say?
KEEPING THE INTENSITY
Coach Hitchcock came to town with promises of playing a five-man, 200 foot game. And boy has he delivered on that promise. However, the team now needs to reset itself after the break and keep that intensity. With a deep lineup, fresh legs should always be available for that energy required to play Hitch's game and earn a "road warrior" mentality for the balance of the season.
Two of the club's pre-break weaknesses were converting power plays and performing in shoot-outs. If forwards Andy McDonald and Alex Steen can return from their concussions sooner rather than later, both areas should pick up immediately.
Neither will most likely be available for the Feb. 3rd game against the Kings, but hopefully the wait won't be much longer (McDonald recently shed the red non-contact jersey in practice). With things bound to tighten up in the playoff race, the Blues cannot continue to squander games and points in these areas.
BEING SMART SHOPPERS
If McDonald or Steen are slow in their recovery process, the club might need to look outside the current roster for help. Adding a scoring forward or perhaps a veteran defenseman could be at the top of the wish list.
While the former would probably require talent from the top three lines, the latter might be had for G Ben Bishop, who is having a stellar year in Peoria and is only being held down by the even better play of goalies Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott with the big club.
Of course, top-flight prospects Jaden Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko are off-limits and could be making an NHL impact next season.
PROTECTING THE CAGE
Speaking of Halak and Elliott, they have been a huge part of the Blues' success to this point. Keeping that potent one-two punch will be invaluable to getting into the playoffs.
In 2010, the Blues got off to a hot start behind the play of newly-acquired Halak. However, when his play faltered a bit, the club got caught in a downward spiral with no reliable assistance coming off the bench.
Now with Elliott in the mix, the Blues can afford to bridge the gap if one of the goalies hits the same inconsistent patch.
CONTRIBUTIONS FROM ALL
Without a bona fide "sniper" on the team, the Blues have relied on scoring from all lines this season.
After a slow start, Chris Stewart has gotten back on track. David Backes, T.J. Oshie and Patrik Berglund are all in double-digits for goals. Veteran additions Jason Arnott and Jamie Langenbrunner are chipping in. Even young defensemen Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk are in the top six point-getters for the club.
However, there has been a lack of production from David Perron after his return from injury this year. If the club can get him on track, and can get back Steen and McDonald ASAP, the Blues could see consistent scoring from all four lines.
Obviously, the second half won't be a cakewalk with their remaining schedule, but the Blues have put themselves in a position to qualify for the playoffs with their strong first half. If the club can hit the keys above, fans in St. Louis can get excited for a thrilling postseason rather than just being happy to get there.