Roman Polak, Jakub Kindl, Pavel Datsyuk, Justin Abdelkader

Pressing question: Can the Blues get back on track?


One of PHT’s 10 pressing questions in advance of the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs…

The way a team is playing when it finishes the regular season doesn’t always continue into the playoffs.

Just ask the St. Louis Blues, who finished the 2008-09 campaign on a 9-1-1 streak, only to get swept by Vancouver in the first round.

The Blues are hoping the opposite scenario will occur in 2014, given they enter the postseason on a six-game losing streak in which they’ve been shut out three times and outscored 22-5. That skid cost them first place in the Central Division, and earned them a first-round match-up with the defending champions from Chicago.

Not long ago, St. Louis was the oddsmakers’ favorite to win the Stanley Cup. Today, one has to wonder if the Blues will even win four games this postseason, let alone their first championship in franchise history.

Head coach Ken Hitchcock is counting on the return of forwards T.J. Oshie, David Backes, and Vladimir Sobotka to kick-start an offense that had no trouble scoring most of the season.

“The offense goes when you get the people that have coordinated us all year coming back in,” Hitchcock said, per the Post-Dispatch. “It’s pretty simple. This (playing with replacements) is a perfect example of ‘Try like crazy, try hard, battle away,’ but you need your best players in the lineup to be going.

“When you start dropping guys out, it’s hard to create. For us, just get the players back in, get the thing coordinated, get guys back playing with people that played with each other all year and see where it goes from there.”

Meanwhile, the Blues’ big trade-deadline acquisition, goalie Ryan Miller, is confident he can rediscover the form that convinced general manager Doug Armstrong to pay a hefty price to Buffalo, despite already having a capable netminder in Jaroslav Halak.

Miller has lost his last five starts, allowing 18 goals on 125 shots, for a save percentage of .856.

“Obviously it’s been a tough stretch as far as goals-against, but I don’t feel like I’m in a really bad place,” Miller said. “I feel like I’m in a pretty good place, honestly. I know people probably will take that and just chop it up and laugh about it, but I feel pretty good.

“I can compete. I just have to worry about battling and competing. It was going to be the same job no matter what. Once you get to the playoffs everybody’s at zeros, so compete.”

The Blues entered the NHL in 1967, meaning no current franchise has been around as long as they have without winning the Cup.

This was supposed to be the year.

It still can be.

“There’s challenges in every season,” said Miller. “We’re facing ours right now. I think it can end up a positive.”

For more Pressing Playoff Questions, click here.

Niemi blanks Pens, notches two assists in Stars debut

Antti Niemi, Sidney Crosby, Patric Hornqvist
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DALLAS (AP) — Antti Niemi recorded his 33rd career shutout and assisted on two goals in his Dallas debut, as the Stars beat the Pittsburgh Penguins 3-0 on Thursday night in the season opener for both.

Ales Hemsky had a power-play goal and an assist.

Rookie Matthias Janmark scored on his first shot on his first shift in an NHL game to make it 1-0. The Stars acquired Niemi and Janmark in trades earlier this year.

Dallas scored on two of five power plays. Jamie Benn, the NHL’s leading scorer last season, had a power-play goal in the third period.

Niemi made 37 saves to improve his career record against the Penguins to 5-1-1. He withstood a flurry in the final minute after Pittsburgh pulled goalie Marc-Andre Fleury for an extra skater.

Fleury had 21 saves.

The Stars are 4-0-1 in their last five home games against Pittsburgh, and have won three in a row overall.

Janmark skated down the slot, took a pass from Hemsky and shot between Fleury’s legs at 1:39 of the first.

The Penguins dominated the latter half of the period, but couldn’t score. Niemi’s best stop was a reaching glove save of Rod Scuderi’s drive from the blue line with less than 3 minutes remaining. Pittsburgh outshot the Stars 10-4 in the first.

Hemsky scored at 5:42 of the second on Dallas’ first power play. His shot from the top of the right faceoff circle went in over Fleury’s right shoulder.

The Penguins again had an advantage in shots, 13-11. Pittsburgh had chances in close, but Niemi turned those away. Midway through the second, John Klingberg cleared away a loose puck from in front of the net.

Seven seconds into the Stars’ fourth power play of the third period, Jamie Benn tipped in Jason Spezza‘s shot from the right point.

NOTES: Dallas acquired Janmark as part of a March trade that sent Erik Cole to Detroit. The rookie had been playing in the Swedish Hockey League. . San Jose traded Niemi’s rights to the Stars in June for a seventh-round draft pick. Also making their Dallas debuts were LW Patrick Sharp and D Johnny Oduya, teammates with Chicago’s Stanley Cup champions last season. . In his first game for the Penguins, Phil Kessel played in his 447th straight game. . Pittsburgh was 0 for 3 on the power play.

Fabbri’s first spoils McDavid’s debut as Blues down Oilers

Robby Fabbri, Justin Schultz
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ST. LOUIS (AP) — Rookie Robby Fabbri scored the tiebreaking goal midway through the third period to help the St. Louis Blues beat Edmonton 3-1 Thursday night, spoiling Oilers rookie Connor McDavid‘s NHL debut.

Vladimir Tarasenko had the tying goal for the Blues near the midpoint of the second period, and Troy Brouwer added an empty-netter with 18 seconds remaining in the third. Brian Elliott finished with 23 saves.

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins scored in the first period for Edmonton and Cam Talbot had 28 saves.

McDavid, the No. 1 overall pick in this year’s draft, took 22 shifts, played 18:07 and was on the ice for Brouwer’s goal. He had two shots on goal, and struggled on faceoffs – winning only three of 13.

Fabbri, a 19-year-old forward — and McDavid’s childhood friend — was also playing in his first NHL game. The Blues’ first-round pick in 2014 was one of three rookies in the St. Louis lineup, joining defensemen Colton Parayko and Joel Edmundson.

Nugent-Hopkins gave the Oilers a 1-0 lead late in the first period with a fluke power-play goal. He lost a face-off but when Blues defenseman Alex Pietrangelo tried to clear the puck it bounced off Alexander Steen and past Brian Elliott. Nugent-Hopkins was credited with the unassisted power-play goal with 2:38 remaining in the period.

Tarasenko tied it a 9:10 of the second after getting loose on a breakaway with a stretch pass from Alex Pietrangelo and beating Talbot through his legs.

Tarasenko, who signed an eight-year, $60 million extension in the offseason, was the last Blues player to score in his debut.

NOTES: McDavid and F Anton Slepyshev made their NHL debuts for the Oilers. … St. Louis Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina dropped the ceremonial first puck. … The attendance was announced as standing room-only 19,327.