The St. Louis Blues not long ago looked to be on their way to the Presidents' Trophy, now they won't even win the Central Division.
The Blues limped to the finish line and on Sunday lost their sixth consecutive game in their final game of the season, a 3-0 defeat to the Detroit Red Wings. With the loss, it guarantees that the Colorado Avalanche, who finished with the worst record in the Western Conference last season, are the first winners of the new Central Division.
The Avalanche own the tiebreaker so no matter what they do against the Ducks on Sunday evening won't matter, they are the division's top seed. The Ducks clinched the West's top spot on Saturday night.
It also means that now we have our matchups set in the Western Conference. By virtue of the Avalanche winning the division, they will avoid the matchup with the Blackhawks that looked certain for months and will instead face the top wild card, the Minnesota Wild. On the other side of the Central bracket, the Blues now will drop into a matchup with the defending champion and rival Chicago Blackhawks.
With the way the Blues are playing right now, that's hardly ideal for St. Louis' Cup aspirations.
They have been dealing with injuries down the stretch, putting a lineup on the ice on Sunday that looked more like an AHL team than their NHL squad. So that is issue No. 1 facing St. Louis right now against a Blackhawks team that as we all know, is incredibly deep all over the ice despite a so-so (by their lofty standards) regular season.
But more concerning has to be the play of goaltender Ryan Miller down the stretch. Obviously no team is going to win when they don't score a goal like the Blues on Sunday, but Miller hasn't been at his best in the month of April ... or since joining the Blues really. As a sign of how the high expectations of Miller in St. Louis have not yet been met, the home crowd gave Miller a Bronx cheer in the second period on Sunday when making a routine glove save.
In his month and a half with the Blues since his trade from Buffalo, Miller has just a .905 save percentage. For a guy that they believed was an upgrade over Jaroslav Halak and gave them that last bit to get over the hump, that's a concern. Certainly it's nowhere near Miller's levels in Buffalo earlier this season despite playing behind the worst team in the NHL.
That's not to say all of the Blues' issues down the stretch in this six-game losing streak are on Miller, not at all. In those last six games the Blues scored only five goals, being shut out three times. Again, when you're missing players like T.J. Oshie your scoring will suffer, but that's another concern. Everything has turned south on the Blues at the wrong time. Confidence has to be a season-low in St. Louis.
The Blues won the season series 3-2 over the Blackhawks but two of those three wins came in shootouts and the Blackhawks did win the final two games. It's a good rivalry already and with the playoffs as the backdrop, it should be an intense series, even with the Blues' slide going into the playoffs.
The Avalanche, meanwhile, are just the opposite. A surprise from the start, they never let up nor gave up. It was just a couple of weeks ago that they were behind the Blackhawks in the Central and seemingly too far behind the Blues to think about the division crown, especially after Matt Duchene went down with injury. But here they are, defying the odds again and winning the division, something that will only enhance the great case for Patrick Roy to win the Jack Adams as the NHL's top coach.
With the West's second-best record, the Avs get the top wild card, which is the Wild. They will play their final game against Nashville, looking to join the West's 100-point club. The Avalanche won four of the five meetings between the teams this season with each team winning one in the shootout.
The Pacific Division side of the West was already set coming into Sunday. The top-seeded Ducks will face the second wild card, the Dallas Stars of the Central Division. Members of the old Pacific Division, the Stars are the only crossover wild card in the first season of the new playoff format. The second matchup will feature the Sharks and Kings.
The NHL playoffs will start on Wednesday.