Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Everyone getting defensive for stingy Blues

Team allowing NHL-best 1.42 goals-against,
doing so with makeshift lineup

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- The Blues' 18 goals allowed in 12 games can naturally be attributed to a certain area: the defensive side of the ice, particularly strong goaltending.

And although those areas cannot be denied, if any of the Blues' defensemen or goaltenders are asked, it's a five-man game that has enabled the Blues to be the stingiest team in the National Hockey League to date.

Not only the stingiest team, but the team with the best record (9-1-2) in the league as well.

And what's most remarkable about the Blues' start is the fact they've done this with a patchwork lineup. Injuries have besieged them in recent weeks, but as the Blues square off tonight in Columbus against the Blue Jackets (6 p.m. on FSN, KMOX 1120-AM), they bring along depth players that seem to plug the holes left by those that are shelved with injuries.

"It's huge. I think we're seeing that. I think we saw that this (past) weekend," Blues coach Davis Payne said of the franchise's depth. "The d-men that end up out of the lineup and how our guys have to step in and continue to play the game we're playing. All five guys have to be a strong link out there in our game and all 200 feet of the ice. Guys' minutes have gone up, guys have been put in different situations, guys have come off the IR and have been thrown right into the mix, come up out of the minors and thrown right into the mix. They've done a great job."

From Carlo Colaiacovo (concussion, although Payne said Tuesday morning he's progressing well) to Roman Polak (wrist surgery) to Barret Jackman (sprained knee) to David Perron (concussion-like symptoms) and Brad Winchester (knee contusion), the Blues have found suitable replacements that has seen the team enter tonight's game on a seven-game winning streak and allowing a miniscule 1.42 goals per game.

"The guys have played really well and they've worked really hard," said captain Eric Brewer, who along with defensive partner Erik Johnson have paced the way on the blue line with 50 percent of the season's starting d-men out. "It's a credit to them to be able to come in and play well and be comfortable.

"It's been a big team approach from the start. The forwards have been back a lot. They've given us good opportunities to be aggressive and to fill lanes and to really out-number teams. It's not just the D, it's not just the goalies. It's a little bit of everything. The forwards have been a big part of it as well."

On the blue line, rookies Ian Cole and Nikita Nikitin saw their first NHL action in wins over Boston (2-1 in a shootout) Saturday and New York Rangers (2-0) on Sunday.

Nikitin, 24, was on injured reserve stemming from a broken right wrist sustained in preseason action but garnered his first NHL minutes and played like a seasoned veteran, as did Cole, 21, one of three No. 1 picks by the Blues in 2007.

Both played key minutes and both contributed to the success of slamming the door shut against two of the East's best in the early going this season. Throw in Alex Pietrangelo, the Blues' top pick in 2008, Tyson Strachan, and Peoria call-up Nathan Oystrick and the are the team nobody wants to play these days.

"I just heard about what was going on here from a distance and heard about how well they were playing ... and read stuff," Cole said. "To be able to come in and play a team like Boston, (which) was hot and New York had won something like six in a row ... two teams that were very hot and to come in and play well against them and keep their top offensive players to one goal over the weekend, it was awesome to see how good (Jaroslav) Halak and Conks (Ty Conklin) are and how solid the other defensemen are, even the young guys like Niki, Strachs and Petro ... it's awesome. To be able to see how hard the forwards come back and help us out down low ... they come back so hard. There's hardly any odd-man rushes. It makes playing defense a whole lot easier."

Payne was extremely pleased with Cole and Nikitin and rewarded the young blue liners with crucial minutes down the stretch of both games when two points were in the balance.

"Extremely pleased. I thought both guys stepped in for their first game ... it was a great atmosphere in Boston," Payne said. "Both guys stepped in in a physical game that had a lot of energy, had a lot of intensity and got to the point where both guys were playing, both guys looked like they belonged in a game that was a battle between two teams that were playing pretty good hockey. Boston is a big, physical team that can come at you. They've got good size, they've got good skill with their size, and I thought both guys handled themselves extremely well; good reads, great stick, great defensively. I'm real pleased with both guys."

Halak, who is 8-1-1 with a 1.46 goals-against average and .944 save percentage, has obviously been as good as advertised when the Blues made the deal for the Slovakian netminder in June. And Conklin, who is 1-0-1, was extremely sharp in the win over the Rangers Sunday, stopping all 27 shots he faced.

Conklin, who went 22 days between starts, didn't seem like he missed a beat despite the lengthy time between starts.

"What it says is not only is Ty ready, willing and able, he shows that he's good enough to carry that responsibility when called upon," Payne said. "That's why we felt good about our goaltending since Day 1."

Payne said tonight's lineup will likely feature the same setup as the weekend when the Blues played with seven defensemen and only 11 forwards.

The team is 2-0 in those games and with Winchester likely to miss once again tonight, Payne likes the idea of an extra d-man in there.

"We like the roles guys are playing," Payne said. "It distributes the minutes to those guys in a fashion that we feel that each guy has a chance to contribute. Right now, that formula's been pretty good over the last couple (games). Depending on how Winny feels will probably be the mix we use tomorrow night."

There is a buzz around St. Louis about the Blues' start, but once again, the team is taking a ho-hum approach to it.

"It's nice to have a stretch of games like this for sure," Brewer said. "But on the other hand, we've played 12 games and the season's certainly not over by any stretch. We're barely into November. We don't want to get too carried away by it, but we know everyone's excited about it. We're just doing our thing and trying to keep it even-keeled so we can continue to do it."

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