Well, it certainly wasn't the series we were expecting
. The Blues' series against the Canucks, I mean. Not at all the way is was supposed to go.
I know, I know, the series isn't over yet, so how can I be saying that it wasn't anything? "Still present tense, motherfucker!", I can hear you shouting at your computer screen. (By the way, if you actually are shouting that at your computer screen, I would love love love it if you and I could hang out. You sound awesome.) However, I feel completely and totally confident in saying that what we've seen up to this point is far from anything that anyone likely would have predicted before this series started.
It was entirely plausible in most people's minds that the Blues could very well lose the series to Vancouver. The Canucks are, after all, a very good team, and come blessed with perhaps the best goalie in the NHL. It was certainly possible that said goalie, one Mr. Roberto Luongo, could play just absolutely lights-out and shut the Blues down completely.
The other way that most could have seen the Blues losing -- in fact, probably the most likely scenario, all things considered -- would have been to see Chris Mason
fall flat on his ass. Nothing personal against Mason, but we are, after all, Blues fans; we've seen every possible permutation of goalie ineptitude one can imagine over the history of this franchise
Strangely enough, though, neither of those things have really happened. Instead, what has befallen the Blues seems much stranger, particularly in the context of how this team came to be in these playoffs in the first place
Down the stretch this season, the Blues were one of the most aggressive teams in the NHL. This was a team that relentlessly attacked their opponents, crashing the net and outshooting opponents consistently night after night. Particularly on the power play, the Blues of '09 have been a team that wore their opponents down with their hard-nosed, physical play and a tenacious offensive attack.
What we've seen in the playoffs, to be quite honest, is almost the exact opposite of those traits. This Blues team has looked tentative in nearly every game of the series, laying back and allowing Vancouver to dictate the pace of the game. What's more, while the Blues were known as a far more physical team coming into the series, the Canucks have been the aggressors, hitting harder, hitting more often, and hitting more efficiently than what the Blues have done.
The biggest difference in the Blues of the regular season and the playoffs is on special teams. At the beginning of the series, special teams was seen as the one area that the Blues had a marked advantage. The St. Louis power play, in particular, was seen as a significant advantage, as the Blues were one of the best teams in the NHL with the man advantage this season.
Instead of being an advantage, the power play has really turned out to be the main showcase for just how badly the Blues have struggled: There have been three separate 5-on-3 opportunities for the Blues in this series, and they've come away with nothing all three times. Even more telling than the 0-for-3 is the way in which they've failed to score. With a two-man advantage, the team on the power play should have enough extra bodies to just park a couple of players down low, create traffic, and wait for scoring opportunities, either on deflections or rebounds. The Blues, though, have failed to get any sort of traffic in the crease in front of Luongo, instead playing back, sending short little passes back and forth, all around the perimeter.
You watch them on the power play, and it becomes painfully obvious that this a team trying desperately to set up the perfect play, rather than attacking, confident that they have the ability to score. The Blues, since the very first minutes of the series, have been playing scared.
How much of that can be attributed to the play of Luongo? I'm sure some will say a lot of it is due to his presence, but I don't buy it. A great player can beat you by playing better than you, but he can't change the way that you play the game unless you allow him to. It's the same reason I don't buy the notion that Tiger Woods is really as much better than everyone else as he seems to be. Sure, he's the best golfer in the world; no one can deny that. But an awful lot of his victories have come when the golfers in front of him have simply shit the bed and disappeared, leaving Tiger the last man standing. I don't know, maybe that's a testament to his greatness, and I just don't get it somehow, but when everyone in front of you just lays and down and allows you to use them as stepping stones, somehow I think that says a whole lot more about the weakness of the stepping stones than the strength of the stepper.
I don't care how great a goalie is, or a pitcher is in baseball, or a golfer, or anything else. The quality of the opponent can certainly change, but your approach shouldn't change. What the Blues have done is allow themselves to be overcome by the stage, by the stakes. The team that played so loose and so effectively the last three months of the season has become a tightly wound ball of nerves, trying not to lose the game, instead of trying to win it.
In the end, though, perhaps it shouldn't be so surprising the Blues have struggled in the playoffs. They are, after all, one of the youngest teams in all of hockey, making the first playoff appearance of what is essentially a new era for the team. Guys like Patrik Berglund, no matter how successful they've been in the regular season, are going to have an adjustment period to the big stage. Maybe what the Blues are going through now is nothing more than the growing pains of a team not quite ready for primetime, despite their play the latter half of the season.
All we can hope for now, really, is for the Blues to make a respectable showing of themselves the rest of the way. A couple of wins would be nice, of course, but maybe that's a bit too much to ask. You certainly would like to see them win at home and at least force the series back to Vancouver, but even if they fail to do so, what you really want from them is just to show the same kind of abandon, the same kind of heady play, that got them here in the first place. This Blues team is going to be back here, and sooner rather than later. This first series, above all things, should serve as motivation for this team, as well as a reminder of what can happen when you play scared.
Barring a miracle, the Blues are going to end their season disappointed, the victims of an unceremonious backhand by the Vancouver Canucks. But I'm not discouraged, and the players shouldn't be either. Rome wasn't built in a day, and neither is a great hockey team. This is going to be a great hockey team, mark my words. They're just not there yet.