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The Weekend in Hockey: Blues Hit the Right Notes

Jay Bouwmeester #19 of the St. Louis Blues keeps Brandon Dubinsky #17 of the Columbus Blue Jackets

Columbus Blue Jackets v St. Louis Blues

Each Monday, we’ll wrap up three of the biggest stories from the weekend and how they’ll play into the coming week.

Blues May Be the Best

The St. Louis Blues are the NHL’s hottest team, and right now you could make a good case that they are the league’s best, period. They’ve won five straight and collected 15 points over their last eight games. And as we’ve come to expect, they’re doing it with defense, giving up 2.27 goals per game, the third-best mark in the league. They give up fewer shots than any team outside of New Jersey, and they have received dependable goaltending from the Jaroslav Halak–Brian Elliott combo.

In a typical season, this would be the part of our St. Louis Blues summary when we’d point out that all that defense is compensating for a lack of scoring. After all, the Blues have only finished in the top 10 in goals per game once since the 2005 lockout (they were 10th in 2010-11). But that caveat doesn’t apply this year; the Blues are scoring 3.56 goals per game, good for second-best in the league. They lead the league in shooting percentage by a wide margin, and their power play is top five. If anything, their offense has been even better than their defense.

Add it all up, and you’ve got a team whose plus-55 goal differential leads the league by 12 over second-place Chicago, with no other team even cracking the plus-40 mark. The Blues have padded those numbers in January with a pair of blowout home wins, blanking the Kings 5-0 on Thursday and following that up with a 6-2 stomping of the Blue Jackets on Saturday. They were kind enough to spot Columbus a 2-0 lead after 20 minutes in that one, before pulling away in the second period on the way to scoring six unanswered. Patrik Berglund had a pair of goals, and Vladimir Sobotka added a goal and an assist.

Despite the hot streak, the Blues are still just tied for third overall, four points back of the Hawks and Ducks. But they have four games in hand on Chicago and three on Anaheim, and the Blues get the woeful Flames and Oilers in their next two matchups. And while leading scorer Alexander Steen remains out with a concussion, they did get David Backes and Jordan Leopold back in the lineup over the weekend.

So are the Blues the league’s best team right now? Maybe, though there’s some evidence that they’ve also benefitted from above-average luck. They lead the league in PDO by almost a full point, powered largely by that 12-plus percentage team shooting that’s likely to drop as the season continues. And while the team’s overall goaltending numbers have been decent, that’s been driven largely by Elliott; Halak’s .907 save percentage ranks him outside the NHL’s top 30.

Still, even if their luck starts to even out, the Blues are still going to be very good. And if they don’t think their goaltending is championship-caliber, well, let’s just say there are options available. It feels wrong to anoint anyone else in the West as the Stanley Cup favorite as long as the defending champs are still on top of the conference, but the Blues may not give us much choice.

Depleted Wild Hanging On

On December 17, Minnesota beat the Canucks, 3-2, in a shootout to move to 20-11-5, four points up on the Coyotes for the West’s final wild-card spot. They’d earned that spot largely on the basis of defense, allowing the eighth-fewest goals in the league. Goaltender Josh Harding was the feel-good story of the year, overcoming a 2012 multiple sclerosis diagnosis to make a long-shot bid at the Vezina and a spot on the Canadian Olympic team. Times were good. It wouldn’t last.

The next day, the Wild announced Harding was being placed on IR as he adjusted to new medication. The team then closed out 2013 by losing six in a row, including a run of five straight in which it gave up four goals or more. Harding returned to the lineup December 29, but couldn’t stop the slide. By New Year’s Day, the team had surrendered its wild-card spot and appeared to be in free fall.

But if the Wild’s New Year’s resolution was to salvage their season, they’re off to a good start. The schedule certainly helped, serving up a Thursday matchup with the last-place Sabres that resulted in a 4-1 Minnesota win to snap their losing streak.

Saturday’s opponent offered a slightly tougher challenge in the form of the struggling Capitals, who jumped out to a 2-0 first period lead. But the Wild stormed back, powered by Ryan Suter’s three goals (the first hat trick by a defenseman in franchise history). Suter also played 31 minutes, which would be newsworthy for most blueliners but is now pretty much standard for him. The game was just the latest highlight in Suter’s standout season, and at this point, it’s probably fair to call him the favorite for the Norris Trophy.

So the Wild have won two straight and moved back into a tie with the Coyotes for that last wild-card spot. That’s the good news. But injuries are continuing to hit hard, with Mikko Koivu the latest to go down. He took a puck off the foot on Saturday, and while he was able to temporarily return to the game, he eventually had to shut it down in the third period. If he misses time, he’ll join Zach Parise on the sideline. The star winger has a foot injury of his own, which may or may not be a fracture. Defenseman Jared Spurgeon is also hurt, and Harding is out again due to what the team is calling an illness.

This is a rough time for the Wild to be shorthanded; they travel to Los Angeles to face the Kings on Tuesday, then have a showdown with the Coyotes on Thursday night in Phoenix.

Senators Still in the Hunt

We’ve probably reached the point when we can just give up on trying to figure out the 2013-14 Ottawa Senators. They went from trendy Stanley Cup dark horse to first-half disappointment. Their fancy stats have gone from ugly to impressive and then back down to average. They were lucky when they were bad, and unlucky when they were good. Their starting goalie has been badly outplayed by his backup, their nominal second line has been better than their first, and their top-scoring forward is currently at the center of a debate over how well he can spell.

And all the while, they’ve been on the outside of the East’s playoff picture, a weak team in a weak conference that’s spent most of the season as an afterthought. Well, don’t look now, but the Senators have won four straight and are now just two points back of the Maple Leafs and three back of the Red Wings for one of the wild-card spots.

The most recent win came Saturday night in a bat-infested contest in Montreal, and it was a suitably up-and-down performance. The Senators opened up a 3-1 first-period lead, bringing back memories of last year’s playoff steamrolling of the favored Habs, only to let Montreal fight back with a pair of third-period goals to tie the game. But a controversial penalty call on P.K. Subban at the end of regulation put Ottawa on the power play, and Clarke MacArthur scored the winner less than a minute into overtime.

The goal was MacArthur’s 14th on the year, and left him on pace for a nearly 60-point season. That’s not bad for a guy who was scratched and then discarded by the Maple Leafs, and his two-year deal that pays him $3.25 million per season looks like one of the best bargains of free agency.

So what will the second half hold for the Senators? It’s just about impossible to say, though there are still a few sure things we can count on. Erik Karlsson will be very good. Eugene Melnyk will say something regrettable. And some AHL call-up you’ve never heard of will randomly show up and catch fire, at least for a week or two.

Will they make the playoffs? The algorithm at sportsclubstats.com doesn’t like their chances, putting them at about 30 percent. From here, their odds look a lot better than that. But they’ll have to make that push without the benefit of much home cooking — they play just five of 16 at home before the Olympic break. I’d refer to that as a tough spell, but I wouldn’t want to hurt Bobby Ryan’s feelings.

Quick Shifts

• Jonathan Quick was back in the Kings’ lineup after missing seven weeks, and his 27-save performance led them to a 3-1 win over the Canucks on Saturday. That means that rookie Martin Jones is headed back to the AHL, despite posting a .950 save percentage in the first 11 games of his career.

• Vancouver’s Roberto Luongo also returned to the lineup in that game, making 46 saves in the loss. It was his first game after two weeks on the sideline with a groin injury, but it was short-lived — he was a late scratch from Sunday night’s game in Anaheim. There’s no word yet on this injury or how long he could be out, but the news will have Team Canada nervous in advance of Tuesday’s Olympic roster announcement.

• By the way, the Ducks beat the Luongo-less Canucks, 4-3, on Corey Perry’s overtime buzzer-beater.

• In other goalie injury news, Tampa’s Ben Bishop left Sunday night’s game in Edmonton with an apparent hand injury. The Lightning did not provide an update on his status after the game.

• The Sharks and Hawks played an entertaining game that featured a combined 77 shots despite only one power play. They tied, 2-2, after regulation and overtime, with San Jose getting the extra point in the shootout.

• Fresh off their Winter Classic win, the Maple Leafs returned to action Saturday with what was probably their worst effort of the season. They surrendered 50 shots in a 7-1 loss to the Rangers, an effort that got them booed off the ice in Toronto and had players offering apologies to the fans.

• The Rangers also completed a minor trade Saturday, acquiring Daniel Carcillo from the Kings for a seventh-round pick.

• The Flames were blanked by the Lightning in Friday’s 2-0 loss and have now dropped four straight and eight of nine while falling to 28th overall. They’re now just one point up on provincial rival Edmonton for last in the West.

• Carolina edged the Predators, 2-1, last night, giving it four wins in a row and moving it to within three points of a Metro playoff spot. Don’t be surprised if the Hurricanes stay hot; their next five are against the Sabres, Leafs, Blue Jackets, Flames, and Panthers.

• The Penguins keep rolling, winning a pair over the weekend to keep their hold on first place in the East. They beat the Rangers, 5-2, on Friday, then followed that with a wild 6-5 win over the Jets on Sunday. That game featured a pair of goals from Evgeni Malkin, who was making his return after missing nine games with a leg injury.

• Finally, congratulations to Finland on its first World Juniors gold medal since 1998, beating Sweden in the final on an overtime winner from Sabres prospect Rasmus Ristolainen. It’s a beautiful goal, and worth watching just for the celebration alone.