The St. Louis Blues have lived through postseason disappointment in both 2012 and 2013. While it’s too early to say if the same fate awaits the Blues this spring, they are putting together an outstanding regular season. St. Louis is tied for first place with last year’s Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks in the Central Division—in fact, given the Blues have played three fewer games than the Blackhawks, St. Louis is, for all practical purposes, in first place. Let’s take a look at how they’re doing it.
Defense has been the foundation of this team’s regular season success the past two years and it’s no different in 2014. Actually, let’s be even more specific than that—it’s team defense. Even without goaltenders Brian Elliot and Jaroslav Halak having big years, the Blues are the third-best defensive team in the NHL because they just don’t give you many shots on goal. This is fully consistent with St. Louis’s past success and can therefore be expected to continue.
This year’s St. Louis team is getting real offensive production, actually ranking higher in goals scored (they are 2nd) than they do in goals allowed. David Backes at center and Chris Stewart on the right wing are the top producers. Center is a deep spot, with Patrik Berglund (17 goals) and T.J. Oshie, who played for the U.S. Olympic team, behind Backes.
Oshie is someone who needs to pick up the production when we resume play after the Olympic break. He’s only got seven goals and thirteen assists. Alexander Steen on the left side is someone else who can give more than what he has thus far. Furthermore, defenseman Alex Pietrangelo has a pedestrian 19 assists, and this is yet another player that can do more, at least on the passing end.
The key concern for St. Louis’ offense is that they rank 19th in shots on goal, and that’s a huge disparity with the actual goals. You can argue two things on the Blues’ behalf—that sixty games is a big enough sample size that, if their goal-scoring proficiency was luck, it would have caught up to them by now. And second, that it’s not unusual for good offensive teams to have a significant disparity.
I would counter that by pointing out that the teams who score goals consistently without high shot volumes usually have a signature offensive star doing the damage. Alex Ovechkin with the Washington Capitals is the best example and one that happens consistently. I’m sure we’ll see more instances when we start previewing each individual playoff series come mid-April. St. Louis doesn’t have that sort of a star, that can fill the net without getting a lot of cracks at it.
As to the sample size, that’s true as far as this season goes, but this is a team whose offense has failed them the last two springs and the low shot totals are sort of an elephant in the room right now. As is the questionable play the team is getting from Elliot and Halak. The NHL postseason exposes shaky goaltending more dramatically than the NFL playoffs expose mediocre quarterbacks.
Those are concerns, and we’ll deal with them at the appropriate time. Right now though, the appropriate thing to do is tip our cap to another fantastic coaching job by Ken Hitchcock and the consistency of his team. St. Louis executes equally well whether they’re in standard 5-on-5 play, have a man advantage or in penalty kill mode, ranking in the top five in all three categories. That’s a pretty good demonstration of a team balance.