Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Improved power play one area Blues feel will produce more wins

Team looking to get back to basics with man advantage, which is 28th in NHL

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- As woeful as the Blues' power play was for much of the first half of the season, there was a seven-game stretch where they were able to -- as coach Ken Hitchcock likes to term -- dial it up.

Starting with a Dec. 26 game against Dallas, the Blues were able to go 9-for-26, lifting them from the bottom of the pack in the NHL and raising them to as high as 24th. Not a bad lift for a team that had been floundering in 30th for much of the season.

But as the Blues headed for the all-star break, the man advantage had become a thorn again. They were 2-for-26 over the last seven games leading into the break and they slipped back down to 28th at 13.4 percent.
(Getty Images)
The Blues' David Perron (57) has the ability to make a difference on the
power play.

So what ails the Blues, who are 23-for-172 on the season with the man advantage, when they get the opportunity to make a difference on special teams, particularly with the power play?

Hitchcock, who proclaimed when he was hired that all it would take would be one practice to fix the power play, said it's been a combination of things: they don't shoot enough, making one too many passes, trying to get too cute with the puck, losing important face-offs in the offensive zone, and one that really sticks out is gaining clean entries into the offensive zone.

"Timing is important," Hitchcock said after Tuesday's practice at St. Louis Mills. "I think it's everything that allows you to have the puck more. We went really good for a month and the reason we went good was our point shots were effective, which started everything. But we had the puck more. We won more face-offs, we came in cleaner ... I think it's everything.

"I think the entries are a part of it, but I think it's also how many puck battles we won, how many face-offs we won, how many clean entries we got. So in a two-minute power play, we were a minute and thirty in the zone. Now we're back to a minute in the zone. You're kind of one-and-done. Every effective power play is a minute and thirty in the zone. Whatever way it is ... entries, face-offs, loose puck races, shots on goal that you get back, all that stuff is encompassing to make an effective power play. When you're only a minute in the zone and half the power play's dead on the water, you don't have a good power play. You're chasing the puck too much."

It seems like the Blues tend to do too much of that in recent weeks, and instead of gaining instant entry into the offensive zone, they spend too much time chasing and by the time they get the five-man unit set up, there's little if any time to generate much.

"When we have success on a nightly basis, it's getting in the zone and not having to work on our breakout too long," winger David Perron said. "If you get 1:40 in the zone instead of a minute, then you have a lot more time to try and score a goal. Once we're in the zone, we're fine. We're creating traffic to the net and we're getting a lot of shots from the point, from the center of the ice. That's the simplest way to describe it."

The Blues, who put in plenty of work on both sides of special teams in practice sessions, were at it again Tuesday, searching for ways to rectify an area that could become the difference between winning and losing games in the home stretch.

And when the Blues were scoring nearly half of their season total in that seven-game stretch, it was all about making simple plays and getting pucks from their point players towards the net.

"If you put yourself in a penalty killers position, you have to ask yourself what are the hardest plays to stop," defenseman Carlo Colaiacovo said. "The hardest place to try and kill penalties is when shots are going to the net because you're always turning and looking for rebounds. You're making the penalty killers move and we stay stationary. I believe that's a huge part of the success.
(Getty Images)
Maybe Kris Russell (left) can step into a power play role and make a
difference for the Blues.

"When you look at the Detroit Red Wings, who year after year have a good power play, they generate a lot of their goals and chances from their point shots. When we get away from that, we try and get pretty and fancy and that's when everything starts to go in the opposite direction. We practice it a lot, we talk about it a lot, but I think our focus just has to be to stick with it and to do what works. Sometimes there's going to be a play there where you can make a pretty play, but those come after you generate momentum and after you generate shots. You get the penalty killers moving and turning. Power plays look great when you can just stand on the outside and make plays. If you're not generating anything towards the net, the penalty killers are doing their job."

So the Blues, instead of trying to get too tactical with who plays on what unit, who's a right-handed shot and who's a left-handed shot, are going to go with the ones that get the job done. No righty-lefty or vice versa, just go with the hot hand.

"We're kind of worried about distributing players and having two units ... screw that," Hitchcock said. "We've got our best two defensemen on the front-end unit loaded, let's see what they do. You put the two guys that have done the best job for us offensively, put them out there and let's see what they do. Don't worry about righty-righty, lefty-lefty, all that other crap. Just put your best players on the ice and make them work.

"It's more than just simplifying the message, too. Everything we have done offensively has come from a point shot. The attitude for us is more traffic, more point shots. We went over a lot of stuff here during the break to get better. We put some of it in place at practice, we'll put more of it in place. I think part of it is put your best players on the ice and make them work."

That means getting Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk, both right-handed defensemen on one unit together.

"We can all play both sides," Pietrangelo said. "We can all play in any situation with the other guys. That's what we're known for.

"The power play replicates our 5-on-5 game. I think when we're simplifying our game, putting pucks to the net, using our size and our strength in front of the net, as a d-core, getting pucks to the net, that's a big thing for us. Not getting the blocks and getting it by that first guy. There's still creativity there. We're still going to make plays, but it's as simple as getting pucks in, chasing after it, winning battles and putting pucks to the net."

Defenseman Kris Russell, who has not been a part of the rotation was on one unit Tuesday. He hopes to make a difference.

"I've played it the last four years in Columbus," Russell said. "I felt comfortable playing it. I'm doing my best to make plays, get pucks to the net and to our forwards and make sharp, accurate plays on the power play. Execution is a big thing. We've got to get pucks to the net so we've got guys jamming them in.

"There's guys coming off injury (Andy McDonald and Alex Steen) that might jump in my spot or whatever, but I really do feel like I'm a guy when things aren't going well, I can step up and help the guys out."

Tuesday's units saw Pietrangelo and Shattenkirk on one unit with Perron, David Backes and T.J. Oshie down low, and Colaiacovo and Russell on another unit with Jason Arnott, Patrik Berglund and Chris Stewart.

If the Blues can get their power play headed in the direction that their 5-on-5 game is, racking up points won't be an issue over these final 33 games.

"Our power play right now, the percentage isn't where we want it to be, but sometimes you're not always going to score goals when you get out there," Colaiacovo said. "Sometimes you've got to use it to turn momentum your way and create 5-on-5 chances.

"We've been a great 5-on-5 team, but obviously if we can get our power play going, it'll make us that much better."

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