Blues Season Over – The Journey Was Remarkable


The St. Louis Blues were defeated 3-1 in Game 6 of their second-round series with the Nashville Predators Sunday at Bridgestone Arena. The loss marked the Blues’ eighth straight Game 6 without a victory dating back to April 21, 2001. St. Louis is one of 11 teams that have never hoisted the Stanley Cup. They have now completed their 49th straight season without winning the Stanley Cup. The Blues are setting tee-times before the final game of the NHL playoffs again, but their season is not an unsuccessful one. In fact, their journey to the Game 6 loss is remarkable.

The Journey to Round 2

Head Coaching Change

Mike Yeo (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

On February 1st, the Blues fired legendary head coach Ken Hitchcock, propelling his hand-picked successor Mike Yeo into the position a year earlier than planned. Yeo inherited a team that had lost five of their last six, carried an underwhelming 24-21-5 record and a group that was barely hanging onto the second wild card position in the Western Conference.

Yeo immediately changed the culture by simplifying their defensive schemes and allowing their players to do what they do best.

“We found a way to just simplify our game, just mentally,” Blues’ center Kyle Brodziak said. “We’re more aware of what our game feels like when we’re playing well, and I think that’s helped us.”  The Blues won seven of their first eight games under their new bench boss, the best of any Blues’ coach debut in franchise history. Yeo took the Blues from 28th to first in goals against per game, and led them to a 21-8-2 record, finishing as one of the hottest teams in the NHL going 7-1-2 in their final 10 games.

Jake Allen’s Turnaround

(Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports)

After the 2015-2016 season, the Blues decided to move on from goaltender Brian Elliot trading him to Calgary in exchange for a second-round pick in 2016 and a conditional third-round pick in 2018. The move solidified Jake Allen as St. Louis’ goalie of the future. The 2008 second-round pick’s start to the 2016 campaign was up and down to say the least.

Allen started off the season with a 4-1-2 record, a .923 save percentage, and a 1.83 goals against average, but as each month progressed Allen got worse. By December, The Snake told the St. Louis Post Dispatch he was “pretty pissed off” that his save percentage had dipped to .905, 25th in the NHL. On January 19th, Allen allowed four goals on 10 shots against the Washington Capitals and was pulled not once in the game but twice, by then coach Ken Hitchcock. That was Allen’s fourth time in six outings that he was yanked.

“Hitch had a short leash, probably shorter than most coaches in the league,” Allen told the Post-Dispatch. The Blues elected to leave Allen behind on their next road trip allowing him to reset, a term used by general manager Doug Armstrong.

Jake Allen 2016-2017 Monthly Splits

Twelve days later, Hitchcock was fired and not only did Yeo’s culture change improve the defense it saved Allen’s season. The lines of communication between Hitchcock and Allen clearly no longer existed and the change was just what the doctor ordered for the 26-year-old netminder.

“I think every message he has is important. He brings a good attitude to the rink every day; he’s always talking with all the players,” Allen told CBC Sports of Yeo. “He’s determined to win and has really tried to help guys find solutions to play their best. He’s always there to support you.”

Not only was Hitchcock shown the door, so too was St. Louis goalie coach Jim Corsi. The Blues just so happened to have arguably the greatest goaltender of all-time sitting behind a desk in their front office. Enter Martin Brodeur.

The NHL’s all-time leader in shutouts became the Blues’ new goalie coach, splitting duties with Ty Conklin. Yeo gave Brodeur all goaltending responsibilities and allowed Brodeur to set the game schedule for Allen and backup Carter Hutton.

“I didn’t know what to expect,” Yeo said. “What I did know is, he’s a Hall of Famer, one of, if not the best, goalie to play the game. You know there are some things he can add, some ways he can help. I would say it’s exceeded what my expectations were.”

Allen’s season immediately rebounded and a month later Allen carried a .941 save percentage and a 1.80 goals against average, the best in the NHL over that span. Brodeur preached that the Blues’ goalie get back to the basics.

“There are so many things he sees that not many other goaltending coaches would see just because of his experience,” Allen told CBC sports of how Brodeur had helped his game. “Puck in the center of your chest, always have motion in your skating when the rush is coming at you, being square to the puck, understanding who’s on the ice and where they are on the ice at all times, competing and having fun.”

Brodeur would re-instill the fundamentals in Allen’s game, and as time went on he kept getting better and better.

The Trade

Kevin Shattenkirk (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Roughly a month after Yeo took over, the Blues had regained their swagger and looked prime to enter the Stanley Cup playoffs as a major contender. That all changed when the general manager Doug Armstrong pulled the trigger on a blockbuster deal sending offensive-defenceman Kevin Shattenkirk to the already deep Washington Capitals – a move that labeled the Capitals a major contender and the Blues as sellers. The Blues received a 2017 first-round pick, a conditional second-round pick in 2018, and forward Zach Sanford.

The move did not sit well with fans but oddly enough the move didn’t seem to hurt St. Louis whatsoever. Blues’s captain Alex Pietrangelo took over Shattenkirk’s role on the power play and by the end of March the Blues had actually improved their numbers by 0.6 percent.

“I told the guys from the start that I’m not Shatty, I’m not going to try and do what he did,” Pietrangelo said. The former Norris Trophy finalist embraced his new-found role and was able to become the undoubted leader of the team.

Round 1: Minnesota Wild

Build up

The Blues entered the Stanley Cup playoffs as one of the hottest teams in the NHL, while Minnesota was trending in the opposite direction. The Wild looked like a lock to win the Central Division after getting off to a blazing hot start, but they struggled down the stretch winning only four of 16 games in the month of March. Meanwhile, the Blues had won seven of their final 10 games to close out the season.

While they had trended in opposite directions the two teams had more in common than not. Of course,  they both call the Midwest home and yes they both play in the Central Division, but neither team has or had ever won the Stanley Cup. Albeit, the Wild have only been in existence since the year 2000. However, they are not the first NHL franchise to call Minnesota home.

 

Vladimir Tarasenko and Nino Niederreiter (Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports)

 

This brings us to the next connection between the two cities. In 1967, the Minnesota North Stars and the St. Louis Blues were two of the six expansion teams to join the NHL. Just like the Blues, from 1967-1993 they were unable to bring the Cup home to the State of Hockey. The North Stars moved to Dallas following the 1993 season, leaving Minnesota without a franchise for seven years.

Fast forward to more recent times and the connections continue. Blues’ head coach Mike Yeo got his head coaching start with Minnesota in 2011 and remained the Wild head coach until midway through the 2015 season when he was fired in similar fashion to the man he replaced in St. Louis.

The Wild defeated St. Louis in the 2014-2015 playoffs in six games and of course Yeo was still the head coach. Two years later Yeo landed himself as the head coach of one of his former team’s biggest rivals. To make the connection even deeper, Yeo was not only returning to play his former team, he was returning home as he and his family still live in Minnesota.

“It’s funny in sports that these types of stories seem to have a way of coming around,” Yeo said. The Minnesota native stood his ground and maintained the stance throughout the series that he was treating it as if it were any other series, but when the Blues would go on to defeat the Wild it definitely had to feel good.

Game by Game

The Blues would lose Game 4, but behind Allen’s stellar play the Blues were able to defeat Minnesota in five games.

In Game 1, Minnesota fired off a franchise record 52 shots towards Allen, but the Wild’s efforts would go unrewarded as the unpredictable hero turned out to be, Blues’ defenseman Joel Edmundson, who netted the game-winning goal in overtime.

 

Jake Allen and Colton Parayko (Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports)

 

Game 2 was a much different game as Minnesota was only able to get 24 shots through to Allen. As many expected, the physicality ramped up between the two Central Division rivals. St. Louis relied more on their bruising fourth line of Ryan Reaves, Scottie Upshall and Kyle Brodziak to lead them to another 2-1 victory.

By Game 3, Allen had decided that what the Blues lacked in offensive firepower did not matter to him. When the game was over he had stopped 114 of 117 shots in the series, racking up 41 saves in Game 3.  Along with an amazing defensive effort from the Blues, Allen led St. Louis to a 3-1 victory on Easter Sunday giving them a 3-0 series lead.

In Game 4 the Wild were able to answer to keep the series alive behind their own goalie, Devan Dubnyk who stopped all 28 shots in Minnesota’s 3-0 victory.

In Game 5 we realized that Allen remained fantastic, Yeo got his revenge, and that Minnesota head coach Bruce Boudreau is still cursed. The Blues closed out the series defeating the Wild 4-3.

Round 2: Nashville Predators

Build up

Pekka Rinne, Yannick Weber and Scottie Upshall (Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports)

Both clubs entered the second round in similar fashions. They defeated the top two regular season teams in the Western Conference in surprisingly decisive fashion and both teams were led by their goaltenders. Pekka Rinne was the only goaltender in the NHL this postseason to sport better numbers than Allen before the series started. In fact, Rinne became the first goaltender since 1967-1968 to win all four games of a playoff series with a goals against average of 0.70 or less. The Predators became the first major sports franchise in history to sweep a number one seed in a playoff as an eight seed when they defeated the Chicago Blackhawks in round one.

Game by Game

After only allowing 11 goals combined in round one Allen and Rinne would allow seven goals in the opening game of round two. Game 1 insert Vernon Fiddler became the hero for the Predators as he would score the game-winning goal late in the third period to defeat St. Louis 4-3.

Game 2 was about Vladimir Tarasenko, who scored two goals in his best game of the postseason. The Blues would win 3-2, tying the series at 1-1 as the teams headed for Nashville.

 

James Neal and Ryan Ellis (Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports)

 

A national audience got to see how crazy the crowds are at Bridgestone Arena in Game 3 and their talented defensemen would continue to lead the way in the scoring column as Ryan Ellis and Roman Josi both scored to help the Predators take a 2-1 series lead.

As many other series have had their fair share of officiating issues, so too did this series in Game 4. A questionable penalty on Reaves would give the Predators a 5-on-3 power play and Ellis capitalized. Ellis tallied a point for the seventh straight postseason game, a Predators franchise record. The Blues would go on to lose by one and fall to a 3-1 series deficit.

Another unsung hero led the Blues in Game 5. Alex Steen wound up becoming a late-scratch, thrusting Dmitrij Jaskin into the lineup for the first time this postseason. Jaskin became a difference maker, scoring a goal and giving the Blues a much-needed energy boost. Steen would call Jaskin’s goal during pre-game warm ups and his prediction came true. The Blues forced Game 6 back in Nashville after the 2-1 victory.

The Storybook Ends

The Blues’ storybook season would come to a close in Game 6. They jumped out to an early lead when Statsny shoved home a loose puck. The Predators got better as the game continued, while St. Louis wound up in the penalty box over and over again. Like a legitimate predator, Nashville smelled blood in the water. After tying the game at 1-1, Nashville forced a two-on-one rush and Ryan Johansen was able to make a nifty move past Allen to give Nashville the game-winning goal. The Predators went on to win 3-1 after they netted a late empty-net goal.

 

2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs between the Nashville Predators and St. Louis Blues at Bridgestone Arena. (Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports)

 

After the conclusion of Game 6 the Blues announced that Alex Steen played the entire playoffs with a broken foot. Steen was asked how difficult it was to play Sunday for him physically but he opted to comment on the entire teams toughness.

“I wish everybody could see what goes on within these four walls because it’s pretty special,” Steen said.

Jeremy Rutherford of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported post-game that Steen did in fact play with a broken foot that he suffered in Game 1 of the Minnesota series.

“A lot of guys played through a lot of things these playoffs,” Alex Pietrangelo said. Head coach Mike Yeo called Steen a “warrior” in his post-game press conference.

The team that was labeled a seller at the trade deadline became a major contender by the end of the season. NHL analysts and experts alike chose St. Louis to lose in round one to Minnesota and they won in five.

Expectations began to change for the Blues in the second round. By then, The Blues themselves believed they could do it, not just because of their physicality and great defense but because of Jake Allen.

“I think this stings so much because we had incredible goaltending and you can go really deep with that,”  Alex Steen said.

Allen finished the postseason with a .935 save percentage and 1.96 goals against average, by far career bests in the playoffs.

The Blues should be encouraged after this season, the perseverance every member of the team displayed was utterly impressive. Now that Jake Allen has emerged as a go-to guy for their future the Blues can focus on improving other areas of need this offseason. When we look back on the 2016-2017 Blues, we should consider them a success.



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