Thursday, February 3, 2011

When PK wins, Blues win

Team's penalty-killing unit 20th in league after being No. 1 year ago

ST. LOUIS -- Facts are facts. It doesn't get any clearer when statistics are crystal clear.

For the Blues and their penalty-killing unit, there's no running from the truth.

A unit that's been in the NHL's top 10 the past three seasons -- including No. 1 a year ago -- the Blues (22-20-7) have slipped to 20th in the league this season with an 80.1 percent efficiency rating.

As the Blues battle down the stretch to stay in the Western Conference playoff chase, there are a number of areas they need improving on, including an effective PK unit. The power play needs a drastic boost, more consistent play from the goaltenders, balanced scoring, etc. etc. But the bold, plain truth for the Blues: in their 22 wins this season, the PK has thwarted 77 of 84 attempts, which is 91.1 percent. In the 27 losses, including overtime/shootouts, the Blues are 68 of 97, or 70.1 percent.

"I think for the last couple years, the penalty kill has really served as an identity for this hockey club," Blues coach Davis Payne said. "You create invincibility with your defensive play.

"Our penalty kill's always been able to do that for us. The last little bit here, it's been stung a time or two for a number of different reasons. We'll continue to work and identify those reasons."

The Blues' wins and losses have come in bunches this season. It's been a team that is as streaky as their special teams. Just looking back the last set of games, the Blues are 0-3-1 in their last four games heading into today's 7 p.m. home battle with the Edmonton Oilers. In those four straight losses, the Blues are only 9-for-14 on the PK. Looking back at their last winning streak of five games (from Dec. 21-31), that unit allowed only one goal in 13 attempts.

"It definitely hasn't been as good as it has been (in the past)," said defenseman Eric Brewer, one of the key members on the unit. "There are a few minor tweaks that are going to make that better and possibly less time on (the penalty kill), which makes a difference. It's just a read here or there that kind of sets everything else in motion that we have to be a bit stronger with. We'll be fine."

The Blues have spent a lot of the past nine days in between games working on special teams, and penalty-killing work was a point of emphasis.

"It's been a huge point of emphasis definitely since I've been back," forward T.J. Oshie said. "We're doing a good job most of the time, but when we have one guy making a mistake, instead of the other guys slowing down the play or taking away passing plays, we're diving in and making another mistake. One mistake turns into two or three and then the puck's in the back of our net."

One notable exception to the group is the absence of defenseman Mike Weaver, who was not brought back this season. But the mainstays from seasons past are still here and are befuddled by the lack of consistency.

"It's a little frustrating because we know how we can play," Oshie said. "We know we can shut teams down. ... To go from where we were last year to this year, we've got a lot of the same penalty killers. We're missing a couple guys, but it's all five guys that are on the ice ... us and Jaro or Conks (goalies Jaroslav Halak and Ty Conklin), we've got to come together."

So does the execution come from one particular area, or is it a combination of things? Maybe an extra shot block or a stick in the passing lane or coverage area.

"Whether it's a shot block or a passing lane or a save or second-chance denial, all of these things are things that we've got to do better in our penalty kill," said Payne, whose squad is effective 86.3 percent of the time at home (82 of 95) as opposed to 73.3 percent on the road (63-for-86).

The players believe the unit's not far off from being dominant again. It's just a matter of putting the pieces back together. Getting a healthy unit might help in that regard.

"It's very close," Brewer said. "I think we've had a stretch of games where it's been really good and then we have a couple where it's like, 'Wow, what are we doing?' ... It's a combination of being in shooting lanes, stick position ... it's making that aggressive read, staying aggressive and sometimes it's going, 'Hey, it's not my time, so I wait here.'"

Said Oshie, "A minute and 59 is not good enough. We've got to get the full two minutes every time and then some if they're still in the zone."

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