ST. LOUIS The first of the NHL's two de facto trade deadlines passes on Friday afternoon, begging the question: Can these Blues be trusted?
Following Thursday night's display at Scottrade Center against the Boston Bruins, one is tempted strongly to answer in the affirmative. Well, at least for now.
Higher expectations are the curse of a strong team. Anyone who has paid attention this season and witnessed the 3-2 overtime win against last year's Stanley Cup finalist should recognize the Blues as a strong, even a power team.
Only a Saturday game against Winnipeg separates the Blues from the Olympic break. They entered Thursday night's showdown four points shy of the Chicago Blackhawks for the Central Division lead. They've picked up 82 points in 56 games. Only twice this season have the locals failed to pick up at least one point in consecutive games and they've yet to go three straight without. The Blues are the league's only team found in the top five in scoring average, goals against, penalty kill and power-play efficiency.
This is either an elaborate mirage on ice or a team that carries relatively few questions more than two-thirds through its regular season.
The Blues suffered arguable their most embarrassing loss of the season Tuesday. They led a middling Eastern Conference team, Ottawa, by two goals before three goals slipped past Jaroslav Halak in less than three minutes. They ultimately lost, 5-4, in a shootout.
The Blues weren't stiffs that night. They threw 50 shots on goal. They went on the power play seven times compared to the Senators' one. They played with high energy, perhaps too much on a night when they sought payback for the mugging forward Alexander Steen suffered in Ottawa earlier this season.
Depth has so far allowed the Blues to avert a prolonged skid. Thursday they played a third consecutive game without second-line center Vladimir Sobotka, whose fractured kneecap subtracts one of the league's best face-off burglars. Another Olympian, Russian forward Vladimir Tarasenko, hasn't skated for two days and was a scratch against Boston due to the ubiquitous flu-like symptoms. Steen missed 11 games with a concussion but has still produced 28 goals in 45 games. Defenseman Roman Polak took a deflection off the face during Thursday morning's skate but was available to take his regular shift nine hours later. T.J. Oshie took a puck off his instep in the second period but was back to jam the game-winner past Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask.
Thursday's win came despite being out-shot every period, including overtime. They led 2-0 before a screened slapshot and a rebound off the backboard tied the game in a third-period span of 128 seconds.
The Blues count 10 players with at least 30 points, 12 with at least 25, while waiting for Patrik Berglund to find form.
Unlike last season, the Blues do not cry for an upgrade. Last February Hitchcock publicly wondered about his team's willingness to grind. The club teetered at the fringes of the playoffs. General manager Doug Armstrong responded to the urgency by trading for defensemen Jay Bouwmeester and Jordan Leopold.
St. Louis loves a sporting soap opera. One year it's Colby Rasmus' simmering relationship with Tony La Russa; the next it's Sam Bradford's fitness as a franchise quarterback. Conspiracy theorists still question the Cardinals' motives for refusing Shelby Miller a meaningful appearance after October's Division Series. Stan Kroenke buys 60 acres in Inglewood and we hear Mayflower vans.
With these Blues, the interrogative will always reside in goal. It's actually a condition that induces whiplash in fans and sports talkers alike.
Halak pitched a shutout 10 days ago at the New Jersey Devils. For a week he was golden. Then comes Tuesday's third-period meltdown against Ottawa the seventh time in a 10-game span the Blues allowed at least three scores and fans sing like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir for Ryan Miller.
The Blues could end the speculation by publicly endorsing Halak as their No. 1 for the rest of the season. (Thursday, after all, was his sixth start in the last seven games.) The club's failure to do is striking even as Hitchcock spreads blame for recent defensive lapses among Jaro's surrounding cast.
Buffalo Sabres general manager Tim Murray insists he is open for business regarding Miller, Team USA"s likely backup to Jonathan Quick in Sochi.
"I'm ready to deal. I just need a partner," Murray recently told a Buffalo radio station.
Miller, meanwhile, has been scorched for five goals each by the Colorado Avalanche and Pittsburgh Penguins in his last two starts.
The net resembles this team's loose thread. The Blues seemingly are afraid to tug on it for fear it leads to greater unraveling. Yet they also can't honestly clip speculation that will persist until the league's final trade deadline pass March 5.
Questions are being asked all around. The dreaded Los Angeles Kings entered Thursday with 13 goals and nine losses in their last 10 games. They are without question seeking scoring help.
The Anaheim Ducks are 4-6 since winning 18 of 19. They just completed a 1-4 homestand at the previously impregnable Pond.
San Jose, another Blues bully, has gone seven consecutive games without more than two goals in regulation.
Early-season overachiever Vancouver ranks 23rd in goals per game, 29th on the power play, and stands 4-14 since Dec. 30. The recent loss of center Henrik Sedin only complicates their position as a potential first-round playoff opponent for the Blues.
As for Halak, he drew within 11 minutes of dealing the Bruins only their shutout of the season. A shot zipped through four players to beat him with 10:44 left. A few shifts later a wide shot clattered off the boards behind the net, past Blues defenseman Alex Pietrangelo and onto Bruins left winger Brad Marchand's stick.
Shot. Score. Question. The win had to wait.
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