Tonight the Blues face the Blackhawks in what will be a measuring stick game – not a match that will determine if the defending champion second-place Hawks are legit, but one that will provide insight into the validity of the St. Louis Blues as a Stanley Cup contender.
You see, the Blues – although they grasp ahold of first in the Central – must win in the playoffs to prove they are not the latest rendition of the Vancouver Canucks, San Jose Sharks and Washington Capitals – three franchises that have recently dominated the 82 game regular season but failed to hoist the Cup in the end, over and over again.
The Blues are good, and to suggest otherwise would be like telling grass not to grow in May – it’s pointless. But the Blues – as good as they are – have hit an offensive wall in recent Stanley Cup playoff tournaments and it’s caused them to bow out early, despite their notoriety as a team to beat.
The current Blues core that hopes to win the franchise’s first Cup since entering the league in 1967-68, has had issues scoring in recent post-season’s when one goal separates the men from the boys. And although we can conclude that in a hypothetical world: what happened last year doesn’t necessarily mean much this year, there is that stigma: the Blues don’t have the offensive horses to break a game open; to win a seven- game series against a top club.
The Blackhawks will score – they ice Kane, Toews and Hossa and Sharp.
The Kings will get their goals from Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter, and newly acquired rogue sniper Marian Gaborik.
Even the upstart Avalanche have weapons that snipe, and if Colorado plays the Blues at some point, and Avs netminder Semyon Varlamov can hold the fort; Duchene, O’Reilly, Landeskog, MacKinnon and more possess elite raw skill that the Blues can’t match unless T. J. Oshie is shooting free breakaways. But there are no free breakaways in the Stanley Cup playoffs. That being said, the Blues will grind the Avs to smithereens as soon as they’ll lose a shot for shot free wheeling showdown against the young Avalanche.
But the Hawks are a different beast – one that wins when it counts and scores when it matters.
The Chicago Blackhawks have not beaten the St. Louis Blues this season but they haven’t played since 2013, when the Hawks were still drunk (not literally) on whatever they drank out of Stanley’s Chalice.
And the Blackhawks may not beat the Blues at all this season, and even if they don’t it won’t have too many sane folk thinking that makes St. Louis better than Chicago. To be the best you have to beat the best and beating the best doesn’t include a mid-week regular season victory, because if it did, the Philadelphia Flyers would be the best team in the league right now having just won 3-2 over the defending champion Hawks.
But the Blues want to win the Cup and if they do so no one could be overly surprised because since 2010 every Cup champion has broken a Cup drought of more than thirty years, not including the 2013 Hawks, who in 2010 broke a franchise Cup dry spell that lingered since 1961.
The Blues made a big splash two weeks ago when they acquired former Vezina winning 33-year-old goaltender Ryan Miller. The move was admirable because it signified that St. Louis is going for it, as they should. However, many have wondered if they didn’t miss the mark acquiring an upgrade in goal even though they were already top three in goals against. Perhaps, in this low salary cap ceiling season caused by last year’s NHL lockout, the Blues would have been better served if they had hitched their wagon to a pure goal scorer like Thomas Vanek, who wound up with the Montreal Canadiens.
The Blues may very realistically finish first place in the entire NHL this season and win the Presidents’ trophy for top club – it means nothing if they don’t win 16 more afterward.
The Hawks, and the Bruins and Kings too for that matter: they don’t care where they finish in the standings. They are the three most recent Cup winners and they understand that the real season begins after 82 opening face-offs.
The Blues look great, and they deserve respect, but that Central Division lead they have on the Blackhawks and whatever happens in tonight’s game – it means nothing when go-time occurs in one month and Jonathan Toews meets David Backes to kick off the second round series we’re all anticipating.
Logic says this Blues team is one of a handful of clubs capable of winning the Stanley Cup this year, but logic has a bad habit of trying to understand the unpredictabilities of reality. Fortunately, the Blues don’t need to worry about that – they just need to win 16 hockey games in the spring. Tonight’s game is one for note taking and adjustment making, but it will not establish much in the way of crowning a champion. Win or lose, the Hawks are the team to beat, the Blues are the team with something to prove, and both are strong candidates to win the Stanley Cup this coming June.