Column: Blues go from rock-bottom to NHL playoff team in three months
Here’s what we’ve learned from the past week in the NHL:
The Blues got clues and reached the playoffs
The St. Louis Blues ranked last in the NHL after games completed on Jan. 2, with a record of 15-18-4 for 34 points. They were just behind the Kings (16-22-3), Flyers (15-19-5), and Senators (15-21-5), who each had 35 points, and all of them appeared headed nowhere. But after a long and sometimes rocky climb, the Blues clinched a playoff spot Friday, a major accomplishment in a league that makes upward movement difficult by awarding a point to teams defeated in overtime or a shootout.
According to the NHL, the Blues were the 35th team in league history to make the playoffs after having ranked last overall at any point after their 20th game. They’re also the seventh team since the 1967 expansion to make the playoffs after ranking last overall at any point after New Year’s Day. “It’s a big thing,” coach Craig Berube told the St. Louis Post Dispatch. “But we’re not finished. We’re a long way from being done. ... This is a good hockey team, and they got themselves in the playoffs, but there’s a lot of hockey left, and we gotta focus on that.”
The emergence of goaltender Jordan Binnington (21-5-0, 1.85 goals-against average, .928 save percentage) and a fifth straight 30-goal season by Vladimir Tarasenko supported Berube’s strong work in solidifying the defense. It’s noteworthy that of the seven teams that fired their coaches this season, the Blues were the only one that earned a playoff berth. The Kings and Chicago Blackhawks made their changes before the Blues dismissed Mike Yeo on Nov. 19 and replaced him with Berube; the Edmonton Oilers, Flyers, Ducks and Senators dropped the ax later.
Were the Blues a good team that simply needed a better coach and found one in Berube? Were the other teams so bad that no one short of Scotty Bowman could have saved them? The Flyers, under interim coach Scott Gordon, and the Blackhawks, under interim coach Jeremy Colliton, made modest pushes toward the playoffs but couldn’t make up enough ground. Firing the coach isn’t always the right move, but it saved the Blues’ season.
It was appropriate that the New York Islanders clinched their playoff spot at the Nassau Coliseum, their renovated former barn, instead of their current home at hockey-unfriendly Barclays Center. Fans chanted and roared during the 5-1 win over Buffalo on Saturday that got the Islanders into postseason play, and coach Barry Trotz loved it. “It’s got a great vibe, and I’m glad in the playoffs we’ll play games here,” he told the New York Post. “To me, it just feels right.” Too bad the NHL has decided the Islanders will play only the first round on Long Island. If they advance, they’ll have to go back to Barclays Center, which is bigger but soulless.
The Sharks’ bite is missing
San Jose is stumbling toward the playoffs and raising questions about its playoff fate after a generally solid season. The Sharks interrupted an 0-6-1 slump to beat Vegas on Saturday in a physical game and clinch home-ice advantage for their first-round playoff series against the Golden Knights, but the Sharks reverted to their bad form on Sunday in a 5-3 home loss to Calgary. They should be concerned that they’ve won only one of their last seven games at the Shark Tank, which used to be a forbidding place for visitors. San Jose’s woes are partly due to injuries: Joe Pavelski (lower-body injury) on Sunday missed his seventh straight game and Erik Karlsson (groin) missed his 15th in a row, and forwards Melker Karlsson and Lukas Radil also sat out after being hurt on Saturday. But the biggest concern is their goaltending, which has compiled a league-worst save percentage of .889 and could undermine their chances against Vegas, though the Golden Knights have been sliding lately, too.
The Flames have gone from also-rans to No. 1 in the West
One of the NHL’s lightest-scoring teams last season and mediocre defensively, the Flames missed the playoffs and fired coach Glen Gulutzan. With Bill Peters as their coach, they’ve pulled off a remarkable turnaround, which was capped on Sunday when they beat the Sharks. That clinched first place in the Pacific Division — their first division title since 2006 — and the top spot in the West. Through Sunday’s games they were second in goals, with 280, and ninth in goals against, at 219. Five players have at least 70 points, led by Johnny Gaudreau’s 35 goals and 96 points (both career bests) and 17 goals and a career-high 73 points from defenseman Mark Giordano, who is having a Norris Trophy-caliber season.
Goalie Sergei Bobrovsky did his part to fuel the five-game winning streak that has lifted the Columbus Blue Jackets into the first East wild-card spot. Bobrovsky was 4-0-0 last week with a 1.00 goals-against average and two shutouts, giving him a league-leading nine shutouts this season. The schedule should favor the Blue Jackets’ efforts to keep that playoff spot. They host Boston on Tuesday but finish against two non-playoff teams, the New York Rangers and Ottawa Senators.
Follow Helene Elliott on Twitter @helenenothelen
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