That's exactly what I was afraid of. Last night, the Blues ran into the Chicago Blackhawks
, who have been one of the top teams in the league for most of the year. They were an absolute buzzsaw in December, and though they haven't been able to maintain that torrid pace in 2009, the 'Hawks are still tied for third place in the Western Conference, and that's following a down stretch over the last ten games that has seen them go only 4-4-2.
Suffice to say, Chicago is a very, very good team. And tonight, they play Detroit.
The thing is, of course, is that the Blues have looked like just as good a team over the past couple of months. Unfortunately, last night was just one of those games you want to try and forget as quickly as possible. The Blues now find themselves back on the outside of the playoff picture, one point behind both Nashville and Anaheim.
When you don't score a goal until the final two seconds of the game, it's a rough night. But when you only take three shots on goal in the first period, that's a flat out ass-kicking.
What was more than a little surprising to me was how over-matched the Blues looked, from an aggressiveness standpoint. Over the past few weeks, when the Blues have been winning, they've gone out and really taken it to their opponents physically. A guy like T.J. Oshie
has garnered a lot of attention for his willingness to hit people, a trait you don't see all that often in skill players, and that attitude has seemed to sort of sum up what this year's Blues squad is all about.
The Blues have a tough road ahead.
Last night, though, it looked like Chicago just punched the Blues in the mouth in the opening minutes of the game, and St. Louis never really responded.
All game long, the Chicago players were extremely aggressive with their checking, and the Blues simply failed to match that intensity.
What this really means, of course, is that the Blues' playoff hopes just lost a bit of the margin for error.
They play tonight in Detroit, against a Red Wings team that has jockeyed back and forth with San Jose and Boston all year for the overall points total lead
in the NHL. To me, the biggest key to the game tonight will be to see if the Blues can do to the Red Wings what the Blackhawks did to them. The best way to play Detroit is, and has been for as long as I can recall, to try and beat them up a little bit. They've always been a team full of skaters and skill guys, with an accent on finesse play, rather than a really physical style.
If the Blues want to have any real chance of beating Detroit tonight, or even of just gaining a much-needed point in the game, they're going to have to turn around what happened last night and stick it to the Red Wings. Hit them early, and hit them hard.
Put Henrik Zetterberg or Pavel Datsyuk up against the boards, see if you can put them off their rhythm. The Wings' defensemen aren't very big on the whole, either; of the nine defensemen on the Detroit roster, only three of them top 200 pounds. The Blues, by comparison, have only one defenseman, Mike Weaver, who fails to reach 200. (Technically, Carlo Colaiacovo is right at 200.) There are some tough guys who play defense for the Red Wings, but they still fall into that smaller, speedy class of player.
Bottom line, the Blues need to get at least one point tonight, and the only way to do that is to avoid making the same mistake they made Wednesday in Chicago. This Blues squad has forged an identity as a tough, physical team that is aggressive on both ends of the ice. They need to come out tonight in Detroit and immediately establish that identity once again. If they fail to do that, they could very well be looking at having to get at least six, maybe even seven points in their last four games, three of which will be on the road. That's an awfully tall order, even if the Blues have proven they have the talent to do it.