ST. LOUIS — The St. Louis Blues are at a crossroads. There have been no status updates provided on the status of forwards Vladimir Sobotka and Jaden Schwartz, which suggests they will be out for at least the next couple of games as they continue to nurse muscle injuries (although both of whom skated at the team’s practice facility on Wednesday), while the future is even murkier for captain David Backes, who is being monitored for concussion symptoms following a collision with Senators forward Colin Greening Monday night in Ottawa.
Together, that trio of players has combined for 29 goals and 38 assists—that accounts for over 25 percent of the team’s goals scored and about 22 percent of its total points and assists.
"All year everyone talks about how great our depth is and I think we know that even if we lose three guys like that, we have guys that can chip in," defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk said. "I don't think there's a team in this league that's not going to go through some injury battles. There's going to be guys that step up.”
While the Blues are averaging about three goals per game (2nd most in the league), the absence of Sobotka, Schwartz and Backes makes this upcoming 6-game stretch appear particularly daunting.
It begins Thursday night at home against Montreal. The Canadiens, who trail Boston by just three points in the Atlantic, are allowing just two goals per game and are 6-3 in the month of December.
The team once again face a quick turnaround, having to fly out west for a two-game swing through western Canada with trips to Edmonton and Calgary lined up. Neither team is particularly good, but former Blue David Perron is a key forward for the Oilers, while Calgary nearly erased a 3-goal deficit against the Blues when the two teams met in early November.
After a much-needed and well-deserved five-day break, the Blues will wrap up the first half of the season with a hellish stretch of three games in four days with Chicago at home, followed by trips to Dallas and Minnesota. For those of you keeping track at home, that’s a grand total of 1,409 miles over about 72 hours to close out the year 2013.
Considering that’s what looms ahead for the already-depleted Blues, it would seem reasonable to expect them to hit a bit of a slump over the next couple of weeks. However, if they are to be considered a legitimate contender for the Western Conference title and worthy of conversation amongst the elite teams in the NHL, then they must find a way to overcome this latest bout of adversity and find a way to continue winning games.
“This is the reality of our team right now and all the teams go through this during the course of the season,” forward Alexander Steen said. “There’s no excuses. It’s part of the game… We’re not the only ones [dealing with injuries].”
The Blues are certainly not the only team dealing with injuries.
The Boston Bruins, who were already missing five players, lost Shawn Thornton to a 15-game suspension prior to a four-game Canadian swing. Their depth concerns were compounded by the emergence of a nasty flu bug that swept through the Bruins locker room. So, what happened? Captain Zdeno Chara took charge, calling a special meeting to motivate his teammates and to refocus them on the task at hand. The result? Boston finished the road trip 3-1-0.
Pittsburgh has been absolutely ravaged by injuries. Goalie Tomas Vokoun has yet to play this season due to a blood clot. Kris Letang, Brooks Orpik, Paul Martin, Rob Scuderi and Evgeni Malkin are all sidelined, while James Neal and Deryk Engelland are both still on suspension. That leaves 27-year old Matt Niskanen as the team’s most experienced defenseman. Subtract his 445 games played from the equation and Pittsburgh’s defensive corps has participated in just 139 NHL games according to ESPN’s Katie Strang. Despite basically everything going wrong for the Penguins personnel wise, they’ve managed to win 9 of their last 10 games and still have not lost back-to-back games in regulation since early November.
Even the Chicago Blackhawks, who were already amidst a three-game skid when 24-year old Antti Raanta was forced into active duty for the injured Corey Crawford, have righted the ship, winning five of their six games since Anaheim dealt them their third loss in a row.
The common thread amongst those three teams? All three currently lead their respective divisions and all three are viewed by many among the elite teams in the NHL. If the Blues want to continue closing the gap between them and those upper-tier teams, they have to find a way to make it through this latest bout of adversity, and emerge even stronger on the other side.
While it’s a bit drastic to suggest that this final six-game stretch will define the Blues’ season, it will certainly provide a barometer on the legitimacy of this team’s status as a contender for the Western Conference crown.
Brian Haenchen is a columnist for InsideSTL. Follow him on Twitter (@Brian_Haenchen). You read more of his articles at HanksSportsBlog.com.