St. Louis Blues Cursed with Playoff Fizzle
It has taken me a while to do a wrap up of the 2013-2014 season. Being a supporter of the St. Louis Blues, I predicted that they would fall within the first round of the playoffs. While the Blues were heavy favorites to go all the way and win the Stanley Cup, they had several factors against them since the Olympic break.
Off with a Bang!
The Blues started the season strong and were able to maintain a pretty healthy team. The team took time under the guidance of head coach Ken Hitchcock to build strong relationships with each other. The players learned to trust one another on and off the ice. There was a strong sense of community among the team and coaching staff.
Their numbers were superb and they played with a fire that was contagious. The fans felt it and were exuberated. The opponents felt it and were awed. Around the league there were comments made about the specialness of this Blues team. Great things were expected and the players became a little too cocky.
The Olympic Break
I have never been a proponent of professional athletes participating at the Olympic Games. This year was no exception. The Blues had 10 players chosen by their respective countries, 9 players made the long journey to Sochi, Russia. Vladimir Sobotka was unable to represent the CzechRepublic on the ice due to a knee injury. Many players took so much emotion onto the ice at Sochi and disappointments abounded for many, triumphs for a chosen few.
TJ Oshie found world-wide fame for his role in Team USA’s win over Russia in a nail-biting shoot-out. Oshie along with teammates Kevin Shattenkirk and David Backes faced heartbreak when they fell to Team Canada and then to Team Slovenia, bringing home only memories. Vladimir Tarasenko of Team Russia and Jaroslav Halak of Team Slovakia also came home empty handed for their efforts in Sochi.
Alex Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester celebrated with Team Canada over its gold medal win. Alexander Steen and Patrik Berglund walked away from the Olympics with a silver medal for Team Sweden.
Team captain David Backes may not have come home with an Olympic medal, but he did come home to a lot of media hype. Backes and his wife Kelly brought to St. Louis two stray dogs from Sochi. They arrived on a private jet amid much media publicity. Backes’ antics took the focus of a poor performance on the ice to a “look at me, aren’t I great for rescuing these poor dogs” stance. News outlets nationwide covered this bleeding heart story and Backes used it to promote his organization, Athletes For Animals, rather than re-focus his attention back on the Blues and their hunt for the Cup.
Maxim LaPierre became a first time father during the break. While I’m not going to rip him apart for starting a family, I will mention that anyone with a newborn in the home will have a little sleep deprivation going on! Post-break, LaPierre started slow and looked sluggish. It took a while for him to rebound.
Oshie’s new worldwide fame seemed to take its toll on the team. With Oshie becoming a break out star, the cohesiveness of the team faltered a bit. Then Oshie crashed back to Earth when his daughter, Lyla Grace, was born with a severe health issue. His focus shifted from rising star to terrified father. Oshie’s spare time was devoted to being at his daughter’s side in the hospital and offering support to his fiancée, Lauren. During this time Oshie grew up. He did slow down on the ice during this time as worry for his daughter weighed him down. He did rebound pretty quickly though and scored some key goals for his team.
Staggering Trade at the Deadline
I had been a vocal opponent to the Miller/Ott – Halak/Stewart trade from the first whispers. Blues general manager Doug Armstrong was salivating over the idea of bringing goaltender Ryan Miller to St. Louis from Buffalo, forward Steve Ott was an added bonus to the deal. The Blues’ cohesiveness that had the league buzzing before the Olympic break was destroyed. Goaltender Jaroslav Halak and forward Chris Stewart were a big part of the harmony within the locker room. When they departed, it was fairly easy to see the Blue’s structure begin to show its weaknesses.
It is still my opinion that this trade was the final nail in the St. Louis Blues’ coffin. Miller, to his credit, started out with fireworks, but he quickly began to fizzle out before the season even ended. Ott played well, but never truly found his niche within the team.
End of Season Injuries
I would be remiss if I did not mention the plethora of injuries that haunted the Blues at the end of the season. Key players fell and others struggled to fill their shoes. In my opinion, had the cohesiveness of the team not been stretched to its breaking point; the Blues still would have had a chance at winning the President’s Trophy.
Strong leadership in the locker room and on the ice would have given the Blues the chance to step up and play great hockey. Bad goals and lack-luster skating along with little to no offense made the Blues fall apart.
Round 1: Blues vs. Blackhawks
The Blues were able to come into the first round of the playoffs much healthier. They were meeting their division rivals and the series matchup brought frenzy among the fans. Game 1 and Game 2 were won in overtime by the Blues. After watching those two games I knew the Blues were in serious trouble. Scratching out a win in overtime is not dominating the opponent. The Blackhawks were not intimidated by the Blues’ prowess over them and they proved it in Game 3.
The biggest folly the Blues made in this series was keeping Ryan Miller in goal. He was self-destructing and Hitchcock refused to pull him. Brian Elliott should have gone in and maybe the Blues would have had a fighting chance. Elliott has a proven playoff record and he could have handled the pressure better than Miller did.
The second biggest folly that the Blues made was playing with their emotion instead of their heads. The players for the most part are young and rash, but the coaches needed to reel them back in and bring things back into perspective. There were too many bad hits and even worse penalties. Game 3 through Game 6 the Blues were left scrambling much of the time. The leadership dissolved and the team imploded!
Miller is a free agent and don’t mind me when I say “Thank God!” The Blues would be insane to resign Miller. He turns 34 years old this summer and has already made comments about wanting to move on. As for goaltending, the Blues have a hot prospect in Jake Allen along with the steady presence of Brian Elliott.
It is time to look ahead to next season and figuring out how to get that cohesion back among a team who continues to face disappointment within the playoffs. They need to dazzle instead of fizzle. Blues management has their work cut out for them during the offseason and training camp.
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