CHICAGO – What now for the St. Louis Blues? What now for Ryan Miller?
The Blues gave up so much to acquire Miller before the trade deadline, hoping he could make the extra save when they needed it and help them finally win the Stanley Cup. Miller accepted the challenge, waiving his no-trade clause with unrestricted free agency approaching.
Here they were Sunday in the third period, trailing by a goal, facing elimination. The Blues needed that extra save with the Chicago Blackhawks’ Patrick Sharp barreling down on a breakaway. Sharp took a stick in the face from defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk and lost the puck. Miller went down on his right side with his stick extended and …
The puck slipped underneath his arm.
“That was really the one that hurt,” said Blues coach Ken Hitchcock. “You could see a big sag on the team after that.”
The Blues went on to lose the game, 5-1, and the series, 4-2. They have been one of the best teams in the NHL over the past three seasons, but they are now 4-12 in their last 16 playoff games and have blown 2-0 series leads in the first round in back-to-back years.
It isn’t as bad as it sounds, considering the competition. In 2012, the Blues were swept in the second round by the Los Angeles Kings, the eventual Cup champions. Last year, they took a 2-0 series lead and then lost four straight to the Kings, the defending champs. This year, they took a 2-0 series lead and then lost four straight to the Blackhawks, the defending champs.
[Puck Daddy: Blackhawks win four straight, eliminate Blues]
The Blues do not need to panic. “This team is real close – real close to being something special,” said Blues center Steve Ott. This team does not need a new general manager, a new coach or a new core.
But something is missing. This team aspires to be the best but cannot beat the best. The challenge will only continue in the Central Division. The Blackhawks are built to contend for years to come. The Colorado Avalanche, Dallas Stars and Minnesota Wild are all improving. This team still needs more scoring, and it needs another goaltender.
“Close,” said Blues captain David Backes, “didn’t get it done.”
The Blues had the best record in the NHL as recently as April 5. But they lost their last six regular-season games, the Presidents’ Trophy and the Central Division title largely because they lost several players to injuries. “A little bit of a healthier team heading into the playoffs, we’d be a scary, scary team,” Ott said.
They still bounced back and won the first two games of this series at home in overtime. Even though some key guys missed games and others played hurt, they stayed right with the Blackhawks until the last period. Game 3 was 1-0, if not for an empty-netter. Game 4 went to OT. Game 5 went to OT. Game 6 was 1-1 entering the third.
At 5-on-5 with the score close – tied in any period or within one goal in the first and second – the Blues and Blackhawks were almost dead even in shot attempts over the course of the series. The Blues had 234, the Blackhawks 235. But over all situations, the Blues blew away the Blackhawks. The Blues had 424 shot attempts, the Blackhawks 363. Some of that was because of playing from behind, and some of that was because of the power play.
The Blues had 52:37 of power-play time to the Blackhawks’ 35:38, but they scored only two power-play goals to the Blackhawks’ three – and one of them came on a 6-on-4 situation at the end of regulation in Game 2. They had six power plays in Game 6 – all in the first two periods – and failed to score. The Blackhawks had two power plays and capitalized on their second early in the third period. It held up as the winning goal.
[Watch: Blues, Blackhawks shake hands]
Which brings us to goaltending. Corey Crawford was supposed to be the weak link for the Blackhawks, but he could have won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoffs’ most valuable player last year, and he put up a .935 save percentage in this series. Miller was supposed to be the missing piece for the Blues, and he put up an .897 – despite facing 30 fewer shots.
“Not good enough, I guess,” Miller said.
To be fair to general manager Doug Armstrong, the Blues were one of the highest scoring teams approaching the trade deadline, and Miller was having an outstanding season for the Buffalo Sabres. He had a .923 save percentage on one of the worst defensive teams in the league. Jaroslav Halak had a .917 save percentage for the Blues, one of the best. At the time, Armstrong acknowledged that acquiring Miller was a marginal improvement. He hoped that marginal improvement would make the difference.
But in retrospect, Armstrong would have been better off adding a scorer – a Matt Moulson, a Thomas Vanek – instead of acquiring Miller and Ott from the Sabres for Halak, winger Chris Stewart, prospect William Carrier, a 2015 first-round pick and a conditional 2016 third-round pick. In the end, the Blues needed more goals, and Miller was probably, at best, no better than Halak would have been.
Miller left open the possibility of staying: “I definitely like St. Louis, like the guys, like the team.” But he added: “We’ll see what they feel about the playoffs.” And it’s hard to see the Blues bringing him back. That 2016 third-rounder becomes a first-rounder if they re-sign him before the draft. Do they want to give up even more for him after this, especially when he turns 34 this summer? It’s hard to predict who will sign Miller now, frankly.
The Blues need to move on. They have a young goaltender in Jake Allen. They have a deep defense with an elite pairing in Alex Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester. They have a lot of elements up front, including youngsters T.J. Oshie, Jaden Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko. They need to stick with it, and they need to add to it wisely, as hard as that is right now and will be in the future.
“Up until the last week or two of the regular season, we had a fantastic year,” Bouwmeester said. “It doesn’t matter who you are. When you lose, it’s [lousy]. … It just goes down the tube, and it’s all for nothing.”