By Lou Korac
As Doug Armstrong stepped off the freight elevator at the end of the Blues’ final game of the 2018 calendar year, it was slow and deliberate.
Almost as a defeated person, much like a death walk.
Easy to feel such misery after the Blues pumped 40 shots at Henrik Lundqvist, including outshooting the New York Rangers 31-5 in the game’s final 35-plus minutes.
And it still wasn’t enough.
The Blues couldn’t wait for 2018 to end soon enough after a deflating 2-1 loss to the Rangers at Enterprise Center, another demoralizing game and another way to add to the loss column, dropping to 15-18-4 heading into 2019.
It added to the frustration after the Blues lost to the Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday, 6-1, in similar fashion in which they threw lots of pucks towards the net (74 Saturday and a season-high 79 shot attempts, of which 40 were on goal, 23 blocked and 16 missed the net).
And as the Blues close the calendar year, they also go out with it tied for last place in the NHL with the Ottawa Senators, each with 34 points.
“It’s tough. It’s frustrating,” Blues left wing Jaden Schwartz said. “Chances are there, but it’s not going in. We’re just in a bit of a dry spell right now. It’s not for a lack of effort or chances, they’re just not going in.”
They’re not going in, and points aren’t going in the bank either, and with 45 games remaining and a season sinking by the day, it’s going to be a tough climb back up the chain.
“It’s tough right now,” interim coach Craig Berube said. “They’re not going in very easily, I’ll tell you that. And it’s not from a lack of trying and a lack of getting to the net. I thought guys did a real good job there but come up short.
“It’s tough winning with one goal in this league.”
The Blues tried to be deliberate with the puck, sustaining ample time in the offensive zone. And after a sluggish first period and roughly five minutes into the second and being outshot 18-9 at that stage, the Blues had 31 of the final 36 shots on goal between the two teams.
A future Hall of Fame goalie was the difference.
“We had traffic at times,” said Blues center Ryan O’Reilly, who scored the Blues’ lone goal. “There was times, we had good traffic, he made good saves, at other times, we didn’t have traffic, he feels the puck. It’s frustrating.
“… It sucks. You’ve got to put the puck in the net. Especially the power play too. We’ve got to find a way to bury something. We shot a lot of pucks, and for myself, I had a lot of opportunities and made stupid plays, and not goal scoring plays and play making plays, just throwing it at the net at dumb times when I’ve got to create more. We had o-zone time, we had chances but sometimes, for myself, I’ve got to make higher-end plays than just shoveling them at the net.”
The first period was a case of getting a lead when O’Reilly and David Perron worked a nice give-and-go before O’Reilly’s bomb from the high slot just inside the left circle beat Lundqvist high glove side 10 minutes 8 seconds into the game for a 1-0 lead, but then giving the Rangers momentum with more bad penalties.
Oskar Sundqvist’s was the worst and the tipping point that led to Mats Zuccarello’s tying goal with 19.6 seconds left in the period after a loose puck from a wrist shot from the point was loose and three Blues (Schwartz, Alex Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester) failed to corral it and out of the zone. Zuccarello was able to keep it alive for Chris Kreider, who found Zuccarello in the right circle.
“Well, penalties again. We took penalties, which gave them a little momentum,” Berube said. “They capitalized on one of the goals. That puck’s gotta be ours on that PK.”
It carried into the second period when Boo Nieves scored what would be the game-winner at 3:11 after coming off the bench, waltzing down the slot and backhanding a shot through traffic.
Adding salt to the wound is Kevin Shattenkirk, the former Blues defenseman playing in his first game in St. Louis since being traded to Washington on Feb. 27, 2017, picked up an assist on the play.
But the Blues began to mount attacks, getting quality looks and quality chances. None were better than Schwartz’s golden chance from the top of the crease with 1:21 remaining and the Blues throwing the kitchen sink at Lundqvist with Jake Allen pulled from the 2:35 mark.
“Yeah, I don’t know what to say,” Schwartz said. “They’re just not going in.
“… It’s going to turn around. It’s just you hope they start coming in bunches. It’s just there’s lots of Grade A’s, there’s lots of chances, it’s really tough to explain. It’s frustrating, guys are mad. Gripping it a little bit. There’s not much you can say.”
“Chances are one thing, and hopefully they keep coming, but at the end of the day, you have to bear down on your chances and put them in the back of the net,” Blues center Brayden Schenn said. “It starts with me and a few other guys. We’ve gotta start producing and helping the guys win some hockey games.”
Shattenkirk played his first game after missing the past seven with a separated left shoulder, as did Blues forward Robby Fabbri, who missed the past 11 (10 with a separated left shoulder of his own).
But now that the Blues have added players back to the lineup and the results aren’t any different, it’s going to take a miraculous turn of events for this team to be relevant in the playoff race.
And it’s become beyond a point of frustration.
“Definitely. That’s the hard part,” Berube said. “Guys that are used to scoring, that are counted on to score goals, they’re gonna be squeezing their sticks and pressing. It’s my job, too, to loosen them up, and they gotta relax a little and not press so much.”
Too late for that.
“Having that even keel, that consistency all year has been a struggle for us,” O’Reilly said. “When one thing is going good, something else falls apart. If you want to throw a run together here, everything’s got to be going and you make your adjustments quick and you move on. It’s tough right now when we don’t.”
The Blues’ power play was 0 for 4 and finished December in a 3 for 32 funk.