There’s some good hockey being played in the NHL’s Western Conference. Between Vancouver and Detroit jousting for the #1 spot, to Phoenix rolling through the month of February undefeated, the West is asserting its superiority as we come down the stretch of the regular season. But don’t overlook the St. Louis Blues, who are only two points back of Detroit in the race for the Central Division crown and what would be one of the top two seeds in the playoffs. St. Louis has a four-point lead on Nashville for the four-spot and home-ice advantage in the first round. TheSportsNotebook takes a look at the Blues as we turn the calendar into March.
St. Louis was playing well when the New Year came, sitting on a 21-12-5 record, but they’ve found a new gear since then, going 18-5-2 after January 1. It’s all about defense with this team. While other hopefuls wonder if they have one solid goaltender, St. Loo has two. Brian Elliot and Jaroslav Halak are both elite-level goalies and they’ve mostly shared time. This will represent a challenge, albeit a positive one for Ken Hitchcock in the playoffs, in making sure he’s got the hottest possible hand in the net. Whomever that is gets a lot of help from the defenseman in front of him. Thanks to the work of people like Alex Pietrangelo, Carlo Colaicova and Kevin Shattenkirk, St. Louis not only leads the league in goal prevention, they lead it in shot prevention. And that’s helped translate into the Blues being the NHL’s second-best team in straight 5-on-5 play.
Getting offensive production is the problem in St. Louis. They rank ninth in generating shots, but only 22nd in the bottom line of lighting the lamp. With three-quarters of the regular season gone we can’t assume that’s just a statistical fluke that will take care of itself. It’s likely that the Blues are not getting quality shots—whether that be a problem of effective screening around the goal or just not creating enough rebound opportunities, I can’t say, but that stat discrepancy is an eye-opener.
Since February 7, St. Louis has won 9 of 12 games as they‘ve watched Detroit finally cool off from the Red Wings’ record-setting hot streak. Let’s take a run through the last dozen games and see if there’s anything we can learn…
St. Louis played an Ottawa team that’s been quietly surging themselves and has drawn to within one point of Boston in the Northeast Division. The Blues scored twice in the first period and won 3-1. Two of the goals came from David Perron. Two nights later against a hot New Jersey team, Perron was again a factor, scoring the tying goal in the third period and enabling the Blues to get a 4-3 shootout win. It was time to come home for games against Colorado and San Jose, but the Perron show continued. He scored twice in the first period against the Avalanche, and then scored a power play goal early over San Jose. The Blues won both games, and Pietrangelo was able to showcase his scoring chops, in getting a pair against the Sharks.
The winning streak continued as St. Louis took advantage of three soft opponents and beat Columbus, the New York Islanders and Minnesota. The latter two games were won by a combined score of 9-1 and were complete team efforts. Five different players scored against the Isles and four different players lit the lamp against the Wild.
Games at Chicago and at home against Boston brought the win streak to an end, as the third period in the Windy City and the first period against the Bruins constituted about as rough a 40-minute stretch of hockey as the Blues could endure. They led 1-0 against the Blackhawks before three third-period goals left them in the dust. Apparently the two days off didn’t cure the funk, because the Bruins scored three times in the first. Over this stretch of games though, and reaching back to the Islanders and Wild games, we see Ryan Reaves start to step forward in producing some offense consistently.
It was time to hit the road as St. Louis went to Nashville for the game that still looks like a playoff preview. It was closely fought all the way, with minimal penalties. It went to a shootout and St. Louis won 3-2. Solid execution in 5-on-5 play against a good team with a good goaltender in Pekka Rinne fits the Blues mold and shows why they are going to be a tough out in the playoffs. Perron returned to the fore two nights later in Winnipeg, scoring one goal and then winning it in a shootout. Finally on Monday in Calgary, the Blues got two power play goals and won 3-1.
What stands out the most with this team is…well, that nothing really stands out. You have some different players stepping up to play well, including in the net. St. Louis doesn’t get a lot of power play opportunities, but their #25 ranking with the man advantage suggests it wouldn’t really matter. Their penalty kill isn’t bad and they did a good job on it during this stretch, but given their reliance on defense, the #12 unit in the NHL could use some improvement. On balance though, there’s no mystery to this team. They play good sound hockey, they execute in the 5-on-5 and they’re tough to score against. I don’t know if I’ll pick them to win the Stanley Cup—heck, I don’t know if I’d pick them to win the first round. But I will say if they’re beaten in the spring, it’s going to take a good team playing extremely disciplined hockey, because everything about St. Louis screams that it’s a team built for success in the playoffs—kind of like the city’s baseball team was, and we know how it worked out for them.