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Blues have plenty of reasons for optimism

Team is just three points back of where they were at this point last season

by Dan O'Neill / St. Louis Blues

ST. LOUIS - The Blues have reached the halfway point of the season sitting third in the Central Division, 12 points behind the Division-leading Blackhawks and four points clear of the fourth-place Predators. St. Louis charged out of the gate, winning their first three games overall and earning points in 16 of their first 17 home games (13-1-3) but recently, they've begun to level off. The Blues have traded wins and losses equally over their last eight games with six of those games coming at Scottrade Center.

Though the picture seems average at best at the moment, consider that last year's team, which went to the Western Conference Final for the first time in 15 years, was just three points ahead of the current club's pace. And what's more, the 2016-17 Blues have done a great job in banking points in the traditionally home-heavy first half of the season, putting away 36 on the strength of a 16-5-4 record. Last year, the Blues went 13-7-2 at home in the first half, depositing just 28 points into their first-half total.

The distinction between the past and present is that last year's club entered the second-half stretch having had a fair amount of success in visiting buildings. During the first half of the season, the 2015-16 Blues were a winning team on the road, going 10-7-2 which ranked as the ninth best road record overall. The current Blues are still searching for their road consistency and with 25 of their remaining 41 games away from Scottrade Center, they are staring at a fork in the road. Thus far, St. Louis has managed a 5-10-1 record on the road. That amounts to a .344 win percentage and if that number remains, it will serve as the 11th worst single-season road win percentage in team history.

In order to maintain a playoff spot, the Blues will have to remedy their own game while keeping some motivated teams at bay. Catching Chicago and Minnesota certainly isn't out of the question but the more pressing issue is the teams below the Blues. Currently, the Calgary Flames and Los Angeles Kings own the two Wild Card spots. The Flames, who have won five of their last eight, missed the postseason last year as an encore to their breakout 97-point campaign in 2014-15. The Kings, who boast a ton of playoff experience, were a non-factor in last year's dance, losing in five games in the first round to San Jose. Los Angeles was up and down in the first half but should be getting former Vezina Trophy and Conn Smythe winner Jonathan Quick back sooner rather than later. Quick has been sidelined since Oct. 19 with a lower-body injury. Vancouver, who is a tie-breaker away from a playoff spot, has won six of their last eight. Nashville, like the Blues, has struggled away from home but is just four points shy of St. Louis and eager to improve upon their trip to the second round of last year's playoffs.

That said, there is cause for optimism. The Blues are simply too experienced and too well-coached to let their road issues linger. They've tackled second-half travel better than almost any other team over the past two seasons. In 2015-16, the Blues ranked second overall with a 15-4-3 road record in the second half of the regular season schedule. The year before, they were fourth best with a 13-3-3 mark.

Skeptics may say, understandably, 'the Blues are who they are.' Not necessarily. They have gotten typical first half performances from Vladimir Tarasenko and Kevin Shattenkirk for example, but what about the likes of Alexander Steen, Jaden Schwartz, Colton Parayko and Jake Allen? Steen has four goals and has averaged 0.66 points per game. That's not who he is. Over the previous three seasons, he's averaged 0.85 points a contest. Prior to an injury riddled 2015-16, Jaden Schwartz logged back-to-back seasons with north of 50 points. He's going to get there again. Parayko, who lit-up the radar gun for 104 MPH at the Blues Skills Competition, has posted one goal on 103 shots. It's almost inconceivable that trend will continue. And most importantly, Jake Allen. In 99 games prior to this season, Allen was 57-26-7 with a 2.34 goals against average and a .915 save percentage. This season, he's 17-10-3 with a 2.70 goals against average and a .902 save percentage. He will be the first to say he needs to play better and Blues fans should rest assured that Allen isn't mentally rattled or physically fatigued by the No. 1 position.  

In a broader picture, the Blues' defense has no other option than to improve. Prior to this season, Ken Hitchcock's Blues average just 2.25 goals per game - the second best cumulative number in the regular season since he took the reins. This season, the Blues rank 24th overall with a 2.98 average. Hitchcock has ranks fourth all-time with 778 wins. He didn't forget how to silence an opposing offense.

It's make or break time for the Blues. The competition won't wait for the Blues to find their consistency. It will be a sprint to the finish and a tall task right away. The upcoming West Coast road trip features three clubs in the top 15 in home win percentage this season.

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