Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Blues' last line of defense: everyone on ice

Successful 6-1-2 beginning starts and stops
with shutdown mentality in own end

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- The concept for Blues coach Davis Payne regarding the Blues' defensive plan of attack is this: if there are five skaters behind the puck, it's a tough challenge for the opposition to create opportunities.

Sure, a solid corps of blueliners and your goaltender are the last line of defense, but the Blues' 6-1-2 start has as much to do with Jaroslav Halak's stellar goaltending as it does with all three forwards back-checking without the puck.

The Blues are second in the league in goals allowed (17) through nine games, behind Boston's 11 through eight games. They're also behind Boston (1.38) in goals allowed per game (1.78), but the Blues are No. 1 in the league in shots allowed per game (25.8). Last season, the Blues allowed an average of 2.66 goals per game and 30.2 shots per game.

Sure, Halak (6-1-1, 1.71 goals-against average, .932 save percentage) has been scintillating in net. But so far this season, the Blues' last line of defense has been whoever is on the ice. They all have contributed one way or another.

"I think you see real good intent to our game," Payne said Tuesday. "I think you see five guys that ... although we want to spend as much time in the offensive zone, although we want to provide or attack as much as possible, we want to enter (and) we want to forecheck correctly. I think you see an immediate response from all three forwards to get back into the picture and defend together. That was something that we talked about last year. It was something we talked about through training camp and it's something that we've drilled in. These guys know that if five steps aren't taken, that lack of skating shows up on the video and these guys have bought in."

The Blues, who have already suffered losses to their defensive unit with Roman Polak (severed tendon in wrist) and Carlo Colaiacovo (neck spasms) going down this season, are able to plug in stop-gaps without missing a beat. The support they get from the forwards on a given night allows them to be more aggressive in divesting entry from the opposition early on in the rush. The defensive strategy is quite meticulous.

"The way that the forwards have been coming back and allowing the defense to step up and close our gaps and limit time of the opposition is really been the key to our game right now," defenseman Barret Jackman said. "... I think everybody is doing the little things which is going to make us the better team in the league.

"Our team defense is great. I think we've had a pretty good chemistry with the guys on the back end."

Added forward Matt D'Agostini, "If (the d-men) know we're having good back pressure and we're right there, that gives them the ability to stand up and kind of crush some rushes if we're there for support. It works both ways. Payner really emphasizes the track-back, get back in pursuit kind of mode. It's been working for us."

As much as the Blues place an emphasis on their forwards to get behind the puck, it comes with a good amount of time spent in the offensive zone as well.

"The way we're trying to play is a puck-pressure game and having our forwards coming back hard," center Jay McClement said. "I think that's the big thing that's helping our D stand up a little bit more and play more aggressive is having us with some back pressure. That's been a focus since Day 1 here is having that back pressure so that our D can play more aggressive."

The Blues have been getting that shutdown, lockdown mode on a consistent basis from all the d-men, including Jackman, Eric Brewer, Erik Johnson, Alex Pietrangelo, Tyson Strachan and Polak and Colaiacovo before they were injured.

But having Halak in goal to provide that calm demeanor and to have the ability to make the timely save has given all five members on the ice a shot on the arm.

"Jaro's been amazing for us, but I think he'll give a little bit of credit to the guys in front of him, I hope at least," forward David Backes said. "He's a great team guy that's bailed us out countless times already this year. We're going to need him the rest of the way too."

Said McClement, "That's got to be a given every night for us. Obviously the biggest thing is the way Jaro's playing right now. Even we haven't played well, we've given up some chances. ... He's our last line of defense, and sometimes we count on him a little too much, but our defense is playing well as are all five guys."

As the games progress, the Blues seem to get stingier. They've allowed only three third-period goals this season -- two in one game at Chicago -- and have outscored the opposition 9-3.

So when the game's on the line in the final 20 minutes, the Blues have risen to the occasion thus far. It's a good sign for a team that has prided itself on protecting its net.

"It's not just goaltenders, it's not just d-men. It's all five guys," Payne said. "It's how hard we return, what are our responsibilities, are we making those reads as we're coming back, are we coming back and really kind of squeezing the space around the puck so it's difficult for our opponents to handle and find options. We've done a pretty good job of that. Guys have understood the concept of where we're going and when we're going and just how many guys are getting there. .. It's what makes our team play effective to this point."

* NOTES -- The Blues are expected to recall a defenseman from Peoria today, likely Nathan Oystrick, who played in Saturday's shootout win over Atlanta. Defenseman Nikita Nikitin, who broke his right wrist in the preseason, practiced again today but is not expected to play. Colaiacovo is also not expected to be ready to play when the Blues host San Jose Thursday. He was injured in Nashville this past Thursday. ... The Blues' games against Nashville last Thursday and Atlanta on Saturday ranked among the most-watched regular season Blues games on FSN in the last 10 years. The Nashville game drew a 3.8 on the Nielson ratings while the Atlanta gamedrew a 3.9. The Blues' TV ratings rose approximately 34 percent over last October, and October 2010 may rank as the best season-opening month ever. Excluding the season opener, Blues telecasts on FSN averaged a 3.0 household rating in October in St. Louis. That places the Blues fourth among U.S.-based NHL teams behind Pittsburgh, Buffalo and Detroit.

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