Inside the NHL | Free Perron: St. Louis will need its star winger on the ice to secure playoff spot
Published: Friday, April 10, 2009
Updated: Friday, April 10, 2009 01:04
With two games remaining in the regular season, the St. Louis Blues are clinging to the last playoff spot in the Western Conference by just two points.
The breakout play of youngsters David Backes, David Perron and T.J. Oshie, as well as the hot hand of goaltender Chris Mason, has given the Blues a shot at the playoffs. Tonight, they face the Columbus Blue Jackets, which are sixth in the conference and the proud owners of its first postseason berth in franchise history. If the Blues win, they will have a playoff spot all but sewn up. It's a huge turnaround for a team that was last in the West in January.
In fact, the Blues' season was hamstrung before it began. A teambuilding golf trip in September started things off on the wrong foot. Sophomore defenseman and 2006's No. 1 overall draft pick Erik Johnson got his foot caught while hopping out of his golf cart. The accident tore his ACL and MCL and put him out for the whole 2008-2009 season. Johnson had played 18 minutes per game in his rookie season and was expected to take a big step forward and assume the role of number one defenseman for the Blues. His injury set back the already-fragile blue line.
Blues head coach Andy Murray did not help his own cause. He continually clashed with talented Québécois winger David Perron, demoting the 2007 first-round pick to the fourth line, where he played with noted checking line forwards Brad Winchester and Yan Stasny. After Perron returned from the All-Star game in Montreal, Murray famously benched Perron and told him that unlike at the All-Star Game, he expected his players to do work. That's a pretty big slap in the face for a guy who played on the fourth line (for no good reason) with few complaints.
If the Blues fail to make the playoffs, you can pin a solid amount of blame on Murray's unwillingness to play his best players on his first lines. When Perron has played with better linemates, the Blues have been successful. That's no real surprise to anybody but Murray. Unfortunately, if the Blues make the playoffs, Murray's job is secure for the future and he can continue to mismanage the assets he is given by management.
Fortunately for Murray, Mason and Backes seem to like him so much that they want to keep him around. Mason was named First Star of the Week on March 29 and went 8-2-4 in the month of February with a 1.64 goals-against average. He has been one of the hottest goalies in the NHL in the past two months, and without him, the Blues would have no shot at making the playoffs.
Backes may be the quietest 30-goal scorer in the NHL. A tough guy who has racked up 163 penalty minutes, Backes has enjoyed a breakout year after toiling in relative obscurity in his past two seasons. He has really picked up his pace in the last few months, scoring four goals against the Detroit Red Wings on April 2 to lead the Blues to a 5-4 victory. He has enjoyed great success in his career against Columbus, with 11 points in 16 games.
The Blue Jackets are fresh off a victory over the Chicago Blackhawks Wednesday night. Clinching their first postseason berth in franchise history is huge, but the Jackets have little to play for except seeding. Blue Jackets' rookie goaltender Steve Mason, a Calder Trophy favorite, may sit, which would be great news for the Blues. Avoiding Steve Mason, who leads the league in shutouts, with 10, and has a 2.23 GAA, would give the Blues their best shot at a win.
Even without their goaltender, the Jackets are a tough, young team. Containing left wing Rick Nash will be the Blues' top priority. Nash is an offensive weapon who can score goals and create his own offense without the aid of his linemates. Keeping Nash from scoring is like keeping ice from melting in Florida. He has 39 goals this season, including a league-leading five shorthanded. If Nash stays off the score sheet and Mason stays off the ice, the Blues have a better-than-even chance to win and move forward.
The franchise desperately needs the win to return to its former glory. Prior to the lockout, St. Louis qualified for the playoffs in 25 straight seasons. Since the lockout, however, no such luck. And despite their playoff success, no Blues team has managed to drink from Lord Stanley's punch bowl. Getting back to the postseason is the first step down that road.
Of course, even if the Blues get the win and move on to the postseason, they will likely face the San Jose Sharks in the first round. The Sharks are far and away the best team in the NHL, and it's unlikely that the Blues would be able to do much against them. But Blues fans will be thinking back to 2000, when the 51-win, President's Trophy-winning Blues were bounced out in the first round by the eighth-seeded Sharks. History may yet repeat itself, and the Blues would love the opportunity for a little revenge.