David Backes, Chris Stewart

Could the St. Louis Blues be a ‘sleeper team’ in the West?

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Last off-season, I thought the St. Louis Blues were really onto something. While I’m not a huge proponent of spending big on a goalie with a small resume, I thought that Jaroslav Halak would get enough support from backup Ty Conklin to succeed reasonably well. Adding more talented goaltending to a solid stable of young talent prompted me to pick the Blues to make the playoffs in 2010-11.

Obviously, I was wrong with that one. Halak wasn’t awful, but Conklin certainly was. The Blues dealt with a litany of injuries, with David Perron still in a depressing state of concussion limbo. The team even traded Erik Johnson – the first pick of the 2006 NHL Entry Draft – although it wasn’t one of those trades in which a team essentially admits defeat by not getting much in return for a top pick (see: James Sheppard with Minnesota, Nikita Filatov and Columbus).

The 2010-11 season had enough lows and such a dearth of highs that it’s almost tough to believe my own gut feelings from last year. Yet if you look at that roster, the Blues have a diverse group of scorers and enough talent that they might have a chance at sneaking up on some people in the Western Conference.

USA Today’s Kevin Allen shares that hypothesis, calling the Blues “the sleeper team” of the West. Allen gives 10 reasons why, but we’ll look at some of the biggest points.

1. They have six returning forwards (David Backes, Chris Stewart, Patrik Berglund, Alexander Steen, Andy McDonald and Matt D’Agostini) who scored 20 or more goals last season. To put that into perspective, the Boston Bruins have four and Vancouver has three.

Allen points out that T.J. Oshie didn’t make that list largely because he missed 33 games with injuries and Perron also deserves a mention since he scored exactly 20 in a healthy 2009-10 season. It could be said that the Blues lack a true superstar forward, but teams have had success with a scoring by committee approach before. Stewart and Backes are the types of big forwards who can score in the rugged Northwest Division.

Allen also points to the free agent acquisitions of Jamie Langenbrunner and Jason Arnott. There are some serious questions about how much each player has left in the tank (Langenbrunner’s game looked especially “off” during his time with the Devils and Stars), but the Blues were wise enough to sign them to one-year deals to reduce their overall risks. If nothing else, those veterans reinforce the impressive depth this team has on offense.

4. Jaroslav Halak, 26, is entering the best years of his career. Last season was his first season as a wire-to-wire No. 1 goalie. You can bet he learned something. Would anyone be surprised if his save percentage was .920 this season?

5. St. Louis’ defense is still a work in progress, but presumably Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk will be more polished this season.

Ultimately, it all rests on Halak even more than last year with the Blues’ backup situation being a considerable question mark. The only problem is that the Blues defense isn’t likely to provide the kind of support Halak enjoyed during some of his better moments with the Montreal Canadiens. The Blues might hope that they’re “just good enough” in their own end.

10. The Blues have players who are hard to play against. Backes had 213 hits last season. It seems as if solid defenseman Barret Jackman has been around forever, but he’s only 30. He plays 20 minutes a game and blocks plenty of shots. Roman Polak is another 20-minute defenseman who will dish out some hits.

Toughness can be a serious asset in a division and conference that rewards grit a bit more than the East (at least it seems).

***

So what do you think about the Blues? Do they have the offense and just enough goaltending to sneak into the playoffs next season, like the 2009-10 Colorado Avalanche? Will their question marks on defense and lack of a true star on offense doom them next season? Let us know in the comments.

Lightning, Islanders make East playoff races even more confusing

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 01: Ben Bishop #30 of the Tampa Bay Lightning makes the third period save as Ryan Strome #18 of the New York Islanders looks for a rebound at the Barclays Center on November 1, 2016 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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Whenever you groan at what seems like a quiet trade market, take a step back and ask yourself this: “Who is really out of it?”

For a while there, it felt reasonable to dismiss the chances of teams like the Florida Panthers, New York Islanders and Tampa Bay Lightning. Now? There’s probably only a handful of teams that can really be comfortable, at this very point, with calling themselves sellers.

The Islanders took care of their business with a 3-1 win against the fading (probably selling?) Detroit Red Wings, even with Petr Mrazek making a save like this.

Meanwhile, Ben Bishop might just be putting his game together (while Nikita Kucherov‘s game remains very much together) as the Tampa Bay Lightning throttled the Edmonton Oilers 4-1. Bishop might just end up being indispensable – or at least not worth trading – as he’s on a five-game winning streak.

With those wins, the races for the last seemingly available Eastern Conference playoff spots just get that much muddier.*

Third place in the Atlantic: Maple Leafs – 67 points in 59 games, 28 wins, 27 ROW

Second wild card: Panthers – 66 points in 58 GP, 28 W, 25 ROW

Bruins – 66 points in 59 GP, 30 W, 28 ROW
Islanders – 66 points in 59 GP, 28 W, 27 ROW
Flyers – 63 points in 59 GP, 28 W, 23 ROW
Lightning – 62 points in 59 GP, 27 W, 25 ROW
Sabres – 62 points in 60 GP, 26 W, 25 ROW

Wow, that’s crazy-close. Naturally, teams like the Islanders and Flyers lack the luxury of having a third spot in reasonable reach – unless things get truly wild – but that’s quite the congested group of playoff hopefuls.

And, sure, the Bolts are among those facing longer odds, but the way things keep swinging wildly this season, who knows? Especially with a team with a track record of success and high expectations like the Lightning.

* – We’ll arbitrarily cut off the East race at the Devils, but just in case you’re wondering, they have 60 points, the Red Wings have 58 and the Hurricanes have 56. Also, the Ottawa Senators hold the second spot in the Atlantic with 70 points and the Montreal Canadiens lead the division with 72, so that group could see quite a bit of movement over the last quarter of the season.

Forsberg’s hat trick, own-goal highlights Predators’ wild OT loss to Flames

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If you want to summarize the kind of night the Nashville Predators experienced, you could do worse than to draw parallels to Filip Forsberg‘s experiences.

The highs were quite high, you see. Forsberg & Co. carved away at the Calgary Flames’ 4-1 lead as his hat trick (see above) eventually gave the Predators a fleeting 5-4 edge.

We all should have seen more drama coming … and it did. Forsberg ended up being at the wrong place at the wrong time in overtime; the Flames’ 6-5 overtime winner ended up going off of his foot. Ouch.

Mark Giordano ended up being credited with that goal. The game was just a barn-burner.

While it was an up-and-down night for both the Flames and Predators, Pekka Rinne‘s evening was pretty much uniformly dismal.

Rinne was pulled early in the second period after giving up four goals on 13 shots, making way for Juuse Saros (who actually ended up gtting tagged with the loss).

The Flames can breathe a sigh of relief after winning the game despite coughing up a big lead, improving to 64 points and strengthening their grip on the second wild card spot. That “charity point” comes in handy for Nashville, leaving the Predators with 65 points and a game in hand on the Flames.

Serious performance: Blackhawks gain on Wild thanks to Toews’ five points

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If the Chicago Blackhawks are going to make up some serious ground and overtake the Minnesota Wild for the Central Division title, they’ll need wins like these.

It’s only fitting that “Captain Serious” Jonathan Toews did the heavy lifting, generating a hat trick and two assists as the Blackhawks beat the Wild 5-3 on Tuesday.

Yes, Toews was involved in every goal. And yes, the Blackhawks won this one in regulation after beating the Wild in overtime last time around. It’s a nice swing for Chicago:

Central Division title chase

1. Wild – 84 points in 59 games (39 wins, 36 ROW)
2. Blackhawks – 79 points in 60 games (37 wins, 35 ROW)

Yeah, that’s still a substantial edge for Minnesota … but this is a significant swing.

Even beyond the name recognition that comes with Toews & Co., the Blackhawks’ push shouldn’t be surprising. They’re red-hot in February so far, going 7-1-0 despite playing seven of eight on the road (strangely losing that lone home contest).

The Wild have played reasonably well in their own right, yet this loss sends them into a bye week with some frustration … and maybe some questions about whether they can hold the Blackhawks off.

Also, tonight marked a nice milestone for Joel Quenneville:

Matthews, Leafs get last laugh in OT vs. Laine and the Jets

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Hockey fans tend to get their radars up about over-hyping things, particularly promising rookies.

Is it hasty, then, to wonder if there’s something to a rivalry between Auston Matthews (and the Maple Leafs) vs. Patrik Laine (plus the Jets)? If nothing else, the two have come up big in two very exciting games.

Back in October, Laine generated a hat trick as the Jets beat the Maple Leafs 5-4 in overtime. This time around, it was another 5-4 overtime decision … only Matthews and the Maple Leafs took this round.

This isn’t to take anything away from Laine’s performance, mind you. He scored two goals on Tuesday, becoming the rare modern rookie to muster 30 goals. He reminded hockey fans that he only needs the smallest window to make you pay with his deadly, world-class shot.

MORE on that goal and the violence that ensued here.

But Matthews wouldn’t be denied, either, and fittingly did so in a quieter fashion. (Virtually everyone seems a little quieter when Laine’s around, it seems.)

The Maple Leafs’ outstanding rookie managed three assists in this game, giving him 52 points in 59 games. He also has six points in a three-game run and eight in his past five.

Laine? He now has 54 points in 55 games, extending is own point streak to five games (seven goals, three assists).

In other words, it’s really close … just like the games when these two budding stars (and their young, promising teammates) meet.

You might even be tempted to believe the hype.