The NHL season is coming to a close, and the St. Louis Blues
-- excuse me, that should be Your First Place St. Louis Blues -- are getting ready for their final push to the finish line.
There's plenty on the line for the Blues, who currently sit atop both the Western Conference and the NHL as a whole with 100 points for the season, and were the first team in the league this season to clinch a playoff berth. (The New York Rangers have since clinched a spot as well, but the Note got there first, damn it!) First to 100 points and first in to the playoffs; not a bad season at all.
Sitting on 100 points, the Blues are far enough clear of their
chasers no team in the NHL can catch them with the same number of games;
the Rangers are closest, at 97 points and one game in hand, making them
unable to match the Blues' total. In the Western Conference, Vancouver
is nearest the Note with 94 points in one fewer game. The Red Wings and Nashville Predators
are tied for second in the Central with 92 points each; Detroit has
played the same 73 games as the Blues, while Nashville still has one
game in hand.
What all of that means is the
Blues are in a very, very good position to finish out the season in
exactly the spot they are now -- first place. What do these final nine
games hold for our boys in blue?
The first, most important order of business is to win the Central Division.
Winning the division will put the Blues in at least one of the top three seeds in the West come playoff time, which cannot be overestimated in importance. Once you move out of the division winner spots, things start to get awfully dicey with what team you might draw. So priority one is to hold on to the division and a top three seed.
There's plenty of good news for the Blues on this front; an eight point lead with less than ten games to go is a solid situation to be in. Nashville and Detroit are tied for second; the Predators are heading in the right direction, while the Red Wings are not. Detroit has gone 3-6-1 over the last 10 games, while Nashville has gone 6-3-1. Considering the moves the Preds made at the deadline to improve, I think they're the likeliest candidate to finish second in the Central. How likely it is the Predators could catch the Blues, on the other hand, is another question entirely.
Consider: the Blues have nine games left to play. If they go just 5-4 in those games, pulling down 10 more points of a possible 18, Nashville would have to go 9-1 in their final 10 contests just to tie. The Blues go 6-3, and the Preds have to go undefeated just to end up even. In other words, the Blues are firmly in the driver's seat in the Central Division.
Priority two is the number one overall seed in the West. There's obviously a real benefit to nabbing the top seed; the opposition is likely weaker, and home ice is assured through the conference finals. Considering the Blues' home record this season is 29-4-4, home ice is a very, very big deal.
Vancouver, leader of the Northwest Division, is the only team closer to the Blues than either of the two Central contenders -- and we already discussed how tough it would be for one of them to catch the Blues. The Canucks are at 94 points, with 10 games left to the Blues' 9. Blues go 5-4, Vancouver has to go 8-2 to tie.
Problem is, the Canucks just might do that. They have a fairly soft schedule over the last ten games of the season, with two games against the very mediocre Calgary Flames, two against the at-least-as-mediocre Colorado Avalanche, and a game against the Edmonton Oilers the last day of the season that comes as close as any NHL game ever has to an honest-to-god gimme. The Canucks also play six of their last ten on home ice. For this Vancouver team, 8-2 is probably doable. Still, if the Blues handle their business, they can make it extraordinarily tough for the Canucks to catch them either.
Priority three for the Blues is the top point total in the NHL, the reward for which is the President's Trophy. Winning the President's Trophy is a noble endeavor, to be sure, and I would love to see that piece of hardware in the Scottrade trophy case, but in the end it isn't a Cup -- as in Stanley's Cup -- and that's the only trophy that really matters. Still, it would be nice to see.
The Rangers are the chief rival here; if Pittsburgh just doesn't lose another game this year they could be a problem too. But the Rangers are only three points behind the Blues with a game in hand, and have a better chance of passing the Note by the end of the season than any other team in the league.
On the other hand, the Rangers have a tougher schedule than Vancouver; they play the Red Wings, Bruins, and Penguins, all of whom have proven to be elite teams in their own respective rights. They also play the Flyers and Washington Capitals, two squads each capable of winning on any given night. The Rangers do get a couple of walkover games against Buffalo and Winnipeg, but on the whole their schedule points to something closer to 6-4 or even 5-5 to close out the season. If the Blues hold serve down the stretch, they should hold off the Rangers as well.
The biggest question, though, is of course what the Blues themselves will do. After all, we can talk about the other teams in the league until we've all gone full Smurf, but what really matters is how the Blues play these last handful of games. They're the team in the lead; if they play well enough all other scenarios essentially become moot anyway.
The Blues' schedule the rest of the way is not, I'm sorry to say, the cakewalk you would like to see. They do get the Ducks, who are very beatable, but they get them in Anaheim. They play the Kings and Coyotes after that to close out the road trip and complete the west coast swing. All three of those games are certainly winnable, but both Phoenix and Los Angeles are fighting for their playoff lives. That's a tough order for a team that has to go into their barns and try to dash their hopes.
It doesn't get any better when the Blues come home, as they see Pekka Rinne and the Predators their first game back in town. The Blues have had virtually zero success against Nashville this season; it's the biggest reason I'm more afraid of the Preds in the playoffs than any other team in the West. Next the Blues head up to Chicago and the United Center for the last time this season; the Blackhawks are trying to hold on to a playoff spot and have kicked the living shit out of the Blues in Chicago this year. Then it's back home to face Columbus. The Blue Jackets have played tough lately, but a game against them here in St. Louis should be a win.
The last three games of the season see the Red Wings and Kings come to Scottrade, followed by the Blues travelling to Dallas to close out the campaign against the Stars. Detroit always gives the Blues fits, and the Kings are likely still going to be in full FFTPL (Fighting For Their Playoff Lives), mode. Two more tough games. The Blues can take the Stars, but that's still a division leading team, and the game is in Dallas. Eeshk.
By my count, that's two wins (Anaheim and Columbus, though you still have to watch the Ducks), five tossups (both Kings games, the Coyotes in Phoenix, Red Wings here, and the Dallas game), and two really nasty matchups (Predators and Blackhawks in Chicago), in the last nine games. The Blues probably need six wins of those nine to be relatively safe in the overall points lead.
So do the Blues have it in them to stay strong this last little bit of the way and take home the President's Trophy? Or will their sprint to the end look more like a chase scene from The Walking Dead? All season long -- or at least all season since Ken Hitchcock came over -- the Blues have played hard-nosed, consistently solid hockey night in, night out. And they have the conspicuous lack of losing streaks to prove it, too. But against a schedule featuring teams fighting too hard to be outworked and a couple of truly problematic matchups, I would be lying if I said I wasn't very worried about the last nine games of the Blues' season, and their ability to hold on to their position atop the heap.