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.

NHL On NBC: Penguins, Flyers meet in Stadium Series

PHILADELPHIA, PA - OCTOBER 29: Sidney Crosby #87 of the Pittsburgh Penguins skates up the ice with the puck against Philadelphia Flyers during the third period at Wells Fargo Center on October 29, 2016 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
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NBC’s coverage of the 2016-17 NHL season continues on Saturday night with the final outdoor game of the season when cross-state rivals the Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers meet at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh in the NHL Stadium Series.

It’s only the second meeting of the season between the two rivals after the Penguins won aa 5-4 decision earlier this season in Philadelphia.

 

The Penguins come into the game fighting through some recent injury woes that have decimated their defense. Olli Maatta and Trevor Daley are likely to miss the remainder of the regular season, while Justin Schultz is recovering from a concussion that has sidelined him for the past three games. As if that wasn’t enough, Kris Letang, the Penguins’ best defenseman and arguably their most irreplaceable player given the role he has, the minutes he plays and the impact he makes, is day-to-day with an injury of his own. That recent rash of injuries forced the team to make a trade with the Carolina Hurricanes earlier this week to acquire veteran defenseman Ron Hainsey, who is expected to make his debut with the team on Saturday at Heinz Field.

The Penguins have also been dealing with injuries to forwards Conor Sheary and Bryan Rust.

Even with all of that the Penguins have managed to remain in second place in the Metropolitan Division and are 6-1-3 in their past 10 games.

The Flyers, meanwhile, are struggling.

With only nine wins in their past 27 games they have lost a hold on a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference and enter Saturday five points back of a wild card spot. A loss on Sunday could even lead to them starting to sell off assets in advance of the NHL trade deadline this week. They have one more game (Tuesday at home against the Colorado Avalanche) between now and the trade deadline.

So it could pretty big game for them on Saturday night.

Faceoff is 8 p.m. ET and can be seen on NBC or our live stream.

Giroux: ‘It’s all business’ between Penguins and Flyers at Heinz Field

PHILADELPHIA, PA - OCTOBER 29: Claude Giroux #28 of the Philadelphia Flyers skates past Sidney Crosby #87 of the Pittsburgh Penguins during the second period at Wells Fargo Center on October 29, 2016 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
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PITTSBURGH (AP) Mother Nature appears ready to make a kick save on spring ahead of the Stadium Series game between the Philadelphia Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday night at Heinz Field.

After a week of temperatures more suitable for early May than late February gave NHL vice president of facilities operations Dan Craig some anxious moments, a cold front expected to move in early Saturday morning should have things feeling a bit more seasonal when the puck drops between the cross-state rivals.

There’s even a chance of snow before game’s end, a startling contrast from pleasant mid-70s that greeted the Penguins when they arrived for their skate Friday.

“I’m not watching (the weather) too much now,” Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby said. “It can change. There’s a lot of different things going into the decision. I think with the game being at night, that should help.”

The Penguins are hardly newcomers when it comes to dealing with the unpredictability of a western Pennsylvania weather. When the Winter Classic visited Heinz Field on Jan. 1, 2011, the NHL pushed the start time back from 1 p.m. until 8 p.m. due to concerns about rain.

The game between the Penguins and the Washington Capitals went off without a hitch. It also altered Crosby’s career arc. The superstar suffered a concussion after taking a hit to the head from Washington’s David Steckel.

Crosby leads the NHL in goals (33) and is second in the NHL in scoring (66 points) for the defending Stanley Cup champions, though he’s hardly in the mood to wax nostalgic Penguins’ previous game at the home of the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers.

“I’m looking for a bit better outcome than last time,” Crosby said with typical understatement.

This is the fourth outdoor game in the NHL this year and the fourth the Penguins have played in since the league introduced the Winter Classic on Jan. 1, 2008, though Crosby insists donning a sweater and skating outside in an unorthodox venue is hardly losing its luster.

“Playing outside is something that’s special no matter where it is,” Crosby said. “That’s kind of the way I’m looking at it. I think we’re pretty lucky. There are teams that would love to play as many outdoor games as we have.”

The timing also provides a heightened sense of urgency. At the Winter Classic, the season hasn’t even reached its midway point. This weekend is the start of a six-week sprint to the playoffs. The Penguins have already started making preparations, acquiring defenseman Ron Hainsey from Carolina on Thursday. Hainsey is expected to be in the lineup for a team with designs on becoming the first team in nearly 20 years to win back-to-back Stanley Cups.

While Pittsburgh, currently second in the Metropolitan Division behind Washington, is in pretty good shape, the Flyers are not. Philadelphia is just 3-6-1 in its last 10 and sits five points out of the second wild-card spot.

Inside. Outside. Hot. Cold. Rain. Shine. It doesn’t matter to the Flyers.

“I think we really need to get going,” forward Dale Weise said. “That’s really probably more of a concern right now. It kind of takes away from the novelty of the outdoor game. We need the points more than anything. I know it’s going to be a fun experience and guys are excited to play, but we need the points more than anything right now.”

While Craig is accustomed to rapidly changing conditions during his long tenure as the league’s de facto “ice doctor” he also won’t be the one who has to try and play on it. The surface may be softer than what’s typically found indoors. Not exactly a welcome development for a team that relies on crisp passing and creativity like the Penguins.

“You try not to overhandle (the puck) too much,” Crosby said.

Get it and get rid of it might be the order of the day. Outside of all the pageantry and weather uncertainty, following the opening faceoff it’s just another game.

“If it was earlier in the season, I think we could take it in a little bit more,” Flyers forward Claude Giroux said. “It’s all business now. For us it’s about finding a way.”

Senators, Panthers fail to gain in Eastern playoff races

OTTAWA, CANADA - FEBRUARY 7: Jay Harrison #44 of the Carolina Hurricanes celebrates his game winning overtime goal with team mate Jeff Skinner #53, during an NHL game at Scotiabank Place on February 7, 2013 in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Jana Chytilova/Freestyle Photography/Getty Images)
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PHT already touched on the Florida Panthers falling to the Calgary Flames on Friday, but in tandem with the Ottawa Senators losing to the Carolina Hurricanes, it makes for a night of teams failing to gain valuable points out East.

With the Montreal Canadiens failing lately, the Senators had a chance to take first place in the Atlantic by tying the Habs in points while holding games in hand. Instead, they’ll need to wait.

For the sake of simplicity, here are the Atlantic rankings, with emphasis on the top five.

1. Canadiens – 72 points in 61 games played
2. Senators – 70 in 59
3. Maple Leafs – 68 in 60

Bruins – 68 in 61
Panthers – 66 in 60
Sabres and Lightning have 62 in 60, Red Wings have 58 in 60

You can see the Panthers hanging around the perimeter of the top three; a point or two would have made them a bigger threat to Toronto and Boston. Alas, even with a heavier slate of home games lately, Florida has lost two straight at home.

Here’s an updated look at the wild card races after the Panthers failed to make up some ground:

1. Blue Jackets – 79 in 58, more concerned with Metro races
2. Islanders – 68 in 60

Bruins – 68 in 61
Panthers – 66 in 60
Flyers – 63 in 60

Tiebreaker situations would have meant that the Panthers would have ended tonight technically outside of the playoffs anyway, but a win or even a “charity point” congests an already snug situation. Instead, they stayed put and wasted a game.

Ottawa’s still in a solid situation to overtake Montreal or at least maintain a round of home-ice advantage as the second seed in the Atlantic. So while both teams are kicking themselves for their losses, the Panthers have more to be upset about.

Ultimately, some of the biggest winners in the East were teams that didn’t play or that have a lot less to play for.

(Perhaps the Hurricanes feel a little more optimistic, by the way, as 58 points in 57 games played means they could at least theoretically fight their way back into the discussion.)

Road warriors: Flames move to first West wild card spot with win vs. Panthers

SUNRISE, FL - FEBRUARY 24: Troy Brouwer #36 of the Calgary Flames celebrates his second period goal against the Florida Panthers with Lance Bouma #17 and Matt Stajan #18 at the BB&T Center on February 24, 2017 in Sunrise, Florida. (Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images)
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The road has been doing both the Calgary Flames and Florida Panthers quite a bit of good lately.

Calgary moved to the first wild card spot on Friday after beating the Panthers in Florida by a score of 4-2. So far, they’ve grabbed at least a point in every game during a road trip that ends in Carolina on Sunday:

Feb. 18: 2-1 OT loss at Vancouver
Feb. 21: 6-5 OT win at Nashville
Feb. 23: 3-2 win at Tampa Bay
Tonight: 4-2 win at Florida

You can’t totally blame the Panthers if they almost miss their road trip.

They rattled off five straight wins through what seemed like a brutal road haul on paper, but now they’ve lost back-to-back home games in regulation. With five of six and six of seven slated in Sunrise, the Panthers need to make the most of these opportunities. So far … not so good.

Here’s how the West wild card situations look now:

1. Flames – 68 points in 62 GP
2. Predators – 67 points in 60 GP

Kings – 62 in 60 GP
Jets – 62 in 63 GP

(The Blues could easily slip below the Predators into the wild card spot, as they also have 67 points in 60 games but hold wins and ROW tiebreaker advantages.)

So, Calgary might not manage to maintain its hold over the first wild card spot, but this streak makes a playoff berth look far more likely.