Hey, we know the St. Louis Blues haven't exactly set the league on fire after a strong start. But we're not bailing out on our preseason Stanley Cup pick just yet. How would that look? So, without further ado, here are five reasons the Blues will still win the Stanley Cup.
1. They're not the Chicago Blackhawks. That's right. And, no, we're not just the masters of the obvious. Remember last season when Detroit was rolling to a record winning streak at home? Lots of attention. Lots of hype. Then, the Red Wings bowed out in the first round. We're not suggesting the streak was the reason for the Wings' short playoff, nor are we suggesting the Blackhawks will be one-and-done (unless they face the Blues, of course), but no team will face playoff pressure like the Hawks after their record start. And you have to wonder at the emotion being spent on that streak. As for what this means for the Blues, even those who liked them to run the table at the start of the season likely will have backed off on that prediction, meaning there will be less pressure on the St. Louis squad to start the postseason, which is never a bad thing.
2. The Hitch factor. We were fortunate enough to spend time with the Blues' coaching staff, led by defending Jack Adams Award winner Ken Hitchcock, last month. It's hard to imagine a coaching staff anywhere as prepared as Hitchcock's. Once the playoffs roll around, it's not just game planning that is crucial; the ability to adjust on the fly also will be vital to any team's ability to succeed. And given how the team has faltered thus far, you know they will be completely devoted to Hitchcock's systems once the playoffs roll around. If the Blues are denied their first championship, it won't be because of lack of preparation.
3. Jake Allen. That's right. Rookie goaltender Jake Allen. A year ago, Brian Elliott and Jaroslav Halak combined for 15 shutouts and a William Jennings Trophy for allowing the fewest goals. This season, Elliott's confidence has taken a major hit, not to mention his goals-against average and save percentage, Halak has been injured and, by the midpoint, the team had sunk to 24th in the league in goals allowed per game. Allen played well in relief of Halak and Elliott on a crucial road trip last month, going 3-0 in his first NHL starts. The players seem to like playing in front of Allen, and he impressed the coaching staff with his maturity and quick adaptation to the NHL game. We're not suggesting Allen, who was recalled this week from the American Hockey League, will go all Ken Dryden in the spring, but he might be the guy around whom the Blues rally and in front of whom they can get back their elite level of play.
4. Getting healthy. At some point, St. Louis' key offensive pieces are going to get back in the lineup. Without talented rookie Vladimir Tarasenko, skilled veteran Andy McDonald and one of the team's most important all-around players, Alexander Steen -- all of whom have been injured in recent weeks -- the Blues have struggled to get the offense going. St. Louis still boasts the second-best power play in the NHL at the midpoint, and getting those players back will be a big boost to the Blues' dominance with the man advantage. Having such a potent power play forces other teams to play more conservatively lest they take penalties and put themselves at a disadvantage. At least that's the theory.
5. Overcoming adversity. One of the reasons we (and others) liked the Blues to take a step toward their first Stanley Cup championship was that they had followed the time-honored pattern of crawling before they walked. After winning the Central Division a season ago, St. Louis was swept by the juggernaut that was the Los Angeles Kings in the second round. That was the kind of lesson many believed would stand the Blues in good stead coming into this shortened season, the notion that adversity builds the thick skin necessary to go the distance. That adversity has presented itself in spades to St. Louis this season. To take a page out of Hitchcock's book, this sideways stretch in recent weeks is a golden opportunity for the Blues to find out whether guys such as David Backes, T.J. Oshie, Kevin Shattenkirk and Alex Pietrangelo have championship stuff inside them. We're prepared at this point to believe the answer is yes.