Thursday, December 1, 2011

Blues have become stingiest team in NHL for goals allowed

Team is No. 1 in goals-against per game; forwards'
back-check, structured D, stellar goaltending all playing major role

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- When the Blues departed the month of October, they welcomed November with open arms.

One obvious reason was the record (5-6) was not up to standards. They allowed 31 goals in those 11 games. 

But as the Blues departed November with a 14-8-2 mark (9-2-2 for the month), they allowed a microscopic 1.31 goals game and lowered their overall mark to an NHL-best 2.00 after allowing only 17 goals in 13 games, including 13 in 11 games under Ken Hitchcock.
(Getty Images)
Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby (87) was held without a point by the Blues
because of the shutdown ability by defenseman Ian Cole (left).

Quite a feat considering the Blues' defensive-oriented structure was allowing 2.81 goals per game, among the lowest in the league in the season's first month.

So what's been at the forefront of such a resurgence? Well for starters, how about the play of the two between the pipes. Brian Elliott has been superb from the season's start, owning a 10-1 record with an NHL-best 1.34 goals-against average and .951 save percentage. But Jaroslav Halak has allowed only 11 goals in his last seven starts (3-2-2) with a 1.57 GAA and .937 save percentage.

Also, the Blues defensively have been able to grasp the changes in styles implemented by Hitchcock in the 11 games that he's been at the helm.

But what really stands out in all this is the back check of the team's forward units.

Since Hitchcock has been in place, there's been an emphasis on, as fourth-line winger Ryan Reaves puts it, "Always making sure our toes are pointing back. ... Just being in a good structure is really helping us."

Indeed it is, and even with a Blues lineup that is feeling the effects of injuries once again, everyone that steps in or has been in place embraces the role.

"It's absolutely huge having the forwards coming back. It makes a world of difference," defenseman Ian Cole said. "If you watch a team whose forwards don't come back hard or they come back but aren't anticipating coming back, they can never get back in time to help stall the rush. We can only stall it so long. When it's a 3-on-2, there's an open guy somewhere. If it's a good team with good players, they can find that open guy."

Good teams like Detroit, Chicago, Vancouver, San Jose or anybody else looking to exploit a team's weakness. Only problem is it's not a weakness for the Blues these days, which is what Hitchcock has ingrained in his team.

"He's got a different way of pushing us," defenseman Roman Polak said of Hitchcock. "Guys are responding well to it.

"Sometimes there's going to be ups and downs. We know that, but like Hitch said, the great teams do this every day. It's always hard to win the next game and we have to focus on that right now.

"It's not just the D. The forwards are doing a great job on the back-check, and goalies are standing tall right now. Altogether, things are just working out. ... We're trying to make it simple. Quick outs every time, don't spend too much time in the D-zone. Just make the simple play. If you see a forward open, just give it to him right away."

But the way Hitchcock is having the team play these days is not simple, according to him. That's why the veteran coach feels like he must get his fourth liners (Reaves, Scott Nichol, Chris Porter or whoever else fills that role) more time to off-set the demands of the others.

"I don't want to say fortunate, but the way we need to play to win, which is similar to three or four other teams in this conference, we have to get a fourth line playing," Hitchcock said. "That's my responsibility to get (them) more minutes. It's going to get impacted when a (David) Perron or a (B.J.) Crombeen or a (Andy) McDonald come back again. But I have to have the belief that we can put more minutes into the fourth line. Otherwise, I'm going to wear guys out. ... You can't do it with three lines; I've got to have four."

The Blues are also tops in the league in shots allowed per game (25.6) and they're second behind Boston in 5-on-5 goals for/against ratio (1.59) and that comes with minimizing the oppositions scoring chances.

"We have some great defensive forwards in Osh, Backs, Steener, Sobe ... go down the line with all our forwards," Cole said. "Everyone on our team plays defense. That's what's so crucial. If you watch the game and you cut the video up, you see four guys back when (the opposition) has the puck coming down the ice, or you see at least three guys coming back, you rarely see odd-man rushes. We're limiting odd-man rushes.

"We're definitely playing staunch defense with our forwards coming back. It makes our job as defensemen so much easier just because it clogs everything up and it helps us push everything wide. When it's wide, it's not dangerous."
(Getty Images)
The Blues' Jaroslav Halak (left) and Roman Polak (46) held Capitals star
Alexander Ovechkin (right) pointless in the teams' meeting Tuesday.

The Blues have cracked at times but haven't been broken often. It's a sign that the new structure is holding in place with positive results.

"We're making the other team defend a lot more than they want to," Hitchcock said. "Our goalies have played well, but they've also been the product of not many scoring chances against. When you're giving up under 15 scoring chances a game, you give yourself a chance to win. When you give up scoring chances that are over 15 or are off odd-man rushes, that's the danger zone.

"Out of the 11 games we've played, we've only had two games where we've given up a lot of odd-man rushes, so that's a good sign, too."

It also helps to have that last line of defense (Halak or Elliott) standing tall like a rock.

"The goalies are playing unbelievably well. That's obvious by their numbers," Cole said. "I would put our two goalies up there with the best goalies in the league.

"As a D-core, we're definitely trying to keep tight gaps and definitely playing in guys' faces, be more aggressive. All six guys right now can skate, can play physical, can take away space. Being able to defend like that and be able to skate and move and get pucks back, you can play tight gaps, but if they dump it in behind us, we can beat them to pucks, turn it up and get the offense going."

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