Tampa Bay Lightning v St. Louis Blues

2011-2012 season preview: St. Louis Blues

2010-2011 record: 38-33-11, 87 points; 4th in Central and 11th in West

Playoffs: Did not qualify

The Blues missed the playoffs for the second consecutive season — they haven’t won a playoff game since before the lockout. Missing the playoffs has been something new for the fans in St. Louis, since they made the postseason every single year between 1980 and 2004. With a good balance of youngsters and veterans, the Blues are a dark-horse candidate to make it back to the playoffs this season. Then again, they were a dark-horse candidate to make noise last season as well.

Offense

The offense looks to improve this season as they’ll enjoy Chris Stewart’s talents for the full 82 games. It’s not just Stewart who will help the Blues this season either. Forwards David Perron, Andy McDonald, and TJ Oshie all missed significant time last season with serious injuries. In essence, this is a team that hopes to have four players (who weren’t available for stretches last season), who are all capable of playing on the Blues’ top-six. Not too bad for a team that proved they could score goals last season. They were 10th in the league in scoring and power play last season; and there’s no reason to think that they can’t improve upon those numbers this season. Newly-minted captain David Backes will look to prove that his 31 goals weren’t a fluke as well.

Defense

The Erik Johnson experiment finally came to a close when the Blues sent former No. 1 overall pick to the Avalanche in a mid-season blockbuster last season. The reason they were able to trade a player with that kind of potential was simple: they thought they had a better cornerstone defenseman in Alex Pietrangelo. The 21-year-old defenseman showed down the stretch that he’s the type of player who can play in all types of situations — from the power play to the penalty kill. Barret Jackman and Carlo Colaiacovo are well respected in the locker room and Kevin Shattenkirk has shown that he’ll be a productive NHL blueliner. There’s potential here — but the drop-off after Pietrangelo is fairly significant.

Goalies

Goaltending was one of the big reasons why people thought the Blues would be a contender last season. Jaroslav Halak was coming off a spectacular playoff run with the Canadiens and many thought he was the missing piece for a team that seemingly had a strong core of young forwards and defensemen. Like the rest of the team, Halak was inconsistent last season. His (and the team’s) play at the beginning of the season made the Blues look like world beaters. But over the course of the season, Halak struggled to replicate his playoff success over an 82-game season. His 2.48 goals against average was alright, but he’ll undoubtedly need to improve upon his .910 save percentage. Newly acquired back-up Brian Elliott was picked up in the offseason to be just that — a backup. There’s no question that Halak needs to improve his consistency if they Blues want to improve this season.

Coaching

The jury is still out on Blues’ headman Davis Payne. The Blues got a bump when he took over for Andy Murray during the 2009-10 season, but injuries and inconsistency killed their playoff chances this season. Optimists will tell you that Payne is a good coach who wasn’t able to overcome injuries; pessimists will tell you that he’s an average coach leading and average team. This will be an important year for Payne to show that he has what it takes to lead a team with potential to the playoffs.

Breakout candidate

Some will say he broke out last season, but Pietrangelo is looking to take the next step this season. The superstar-in-the-making was handed the keys to the defense in the middle of last season and didn’t disappoint. This year, he’ll look to improve upon his 11 goals, 43 points, and team best (for defensemen) +18 rating. Last season he established himself as the best defenseman on the team – this season he’ll look to establish himself as one of the best defensemen in the league. Don’t be surprised if people are mentioning Pietrangelo and the Norris Trophy in the same sentence in the next few years.

Best-case scenario

On paper, this team has all the makings of a playoff contender. If everyone can stay healthy (a big “if” after last season), the Blues forward lineup takes on a completely different complexion. Veteran newcomers Jason Arnott and Jamie Langenbrunner should help teach the young core how to play like professionals and fulfill expectations. If the defense holds up and Halak returns to the form that he showed in Montreal, the Blues can battle for the second place in the Central and a solid spot in the playoffs.

Reality

The reality is the Blues have a lot of question marks surrounding their potential. They need to stay healthy, they need to figure out a way to mix Langenbrunner and Arnott into the fold up front, they’ll need their second and third pairings on the blue line to play strong defense all season, and they need their up-and-down goaltender to keep the puck out of the net. There’s too much talent to ignore here — expect the Blues to win the battle with a few other teams to sneak into that final playoff spot in the Western Conference. They may finish behind the ‘Hawks, Wings, and Preds in the Central, but that still may be good enough for the eighth and final spot in the West.

Devils unveil ‘The Salute’ statue in honor of Martin Brodeur

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The New Jersey Devils on Monday unveiled ‘The Salute’ — a statue paying homage to one of the greatest goalies in NHL history, Martin Brodeur, who will have his No. 30 uniform retired Tuesday at Prudential Center.

“Looking at the pictures of my career and some of the events that meant a lot to me, I always saluted the fans,” Brodeur, a three-time Stanley Cup winner with the Devils, told the Fire and Ice blog.

“That picture, at different times, in different jerseys, actually, like with Team Canada, it all came to that same pose.”

More on the statue from the Devils:

The 900-pound bronze statue was created by renowned sculpture and artist Jon Krawczyk, who worked with Brodeur on the design. Krawczyk, a Boonton Township, N.J. native and lifelong Devils fan, who also created the hockey statue on Championship Plaza outside of Prudential Center, personally drove “The Salute” from his Malibu, Cali. studio to the arena late last week.

Video: Panthers furious after Abdelkader ‘cheap shot’ hit on Barkov

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The Florida Panthers are fuming after their skilled 20-year-old forward Aleksander Barkov left Monday’s game against the Detroit Red Wings following a hit from Justin Abdelkader.

Abdelkader caught Barkov with a hard hit near the goal line as the Panthers player tried to move the puck up ice early in the second period.

The only call on the play was to Panthers’ blue liner Alex Petrovic for the retaliatory cross check on Abdelkader. Barkov left the game and didn’t return with an upper-body injury.

Members of the Panthers irate with the hit, and the fact there was no call.

“It was a cheap hit, I don’t know how the ref didn’t call it,” Nick Bjugstad told the Miami Herald. “It was frustrating, the whole bench felt that way. We’re not happy with it. It turned the game around. Barkov has tough shoes to fill. It looked pretty serious. We’ll see how the league handles it and I think they will. I just don’t know how it wasn’t handled on the ice.”

“You hate to lose your top player, but that’s part of the game,” added Panthers’ head coach Gerard Gallant.

“We’re disappointed to lose him. I thought it was a cheap shot but the referees didn’t see it that way and explained to me it was a clean check. It’s tough. It happens quick and we get to see the replay. I think it’ll be looked at. [Abdelkader] left his feet a little and got him in the jaw.”

The Panthers gave up three goals in the third period in a 3-0 loss to the Red Wings.

Penguins thump the Ducks as Crosby’s hot streak continues

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In a meeting between two clubs enjoying hot streaks and their own subsequent climbs through the standings, the Pittsburgh Penguins bested the Anaheim Ducks courtesy another dominant Sidney Crosby performance on Monday.

After that slow start, Crosby has put together a growing number of dominant performances of late.

The latest, a four-point night, helped the Penguins to a 6-2 final over the Ducks, stopping Anaheim’s winning streak at six games.

— He extended his scoring streak to a career best seven games, and did so with two beauty goals versus the Ducks.

— From Dec. 18 to Feb. 8, he’s appeared in 21 games. In that span, he’s recorded 34 points.

— Crosby is now into the top five among NHL players in points, with 53 in 51 games this season.

He wasn’t the only Pittsburgh player to have a big night. Keep in mind, Evgeni Malkin wasn’t even in the lineup due to a lower-body injury.

Ten different Penguins players recorded points. In addition to Crosby, Chris Kunitz and Kris Letang had multi-point efforts, and four players — Kunitz, Crosby, Olli Maatta and Patric Hornqvist — were plus-four.

The Penguins now move into third in the Metropolitan Division, while the New York Islanders slip into the first Wild Card spot in the East. Pittsburgh’s lead over the Islanders, however, is only one point.

The Islanders also have a game in hand.

Panthers’ Barkov (upper-body injury) leaves game versus Red Wings

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The Florida Panthers will be without Aleksander Barkov for the remainder of their game versus the Detroit Red Wings on Monday.

As per multiple reports, Barkov will not return due to an upper-body injury suffered after a hit from Justin Abdelkader early in the second period.

Abdelkader wasn’t given a penalty on the play. Barkov didn’t play another shift after that hit.

In 42 games this season, the 20-year-old Barkov has 16 goals and 35 points.