Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Special teams getting the job done, helping Blues rise to the top

PK unit now 9th in NHL, killing 32 straight; PP 11-for-37 since return of McDonald

It was said early in the season that if the St. Louis Blues could get some punch in their punchless special teams, their ascension in the standings would be rapid considering how much goaltending and 5-on-5 play was carrying the load.

It's no secret that the Blues' 5-on-5 play has been stellar the entire season. They're No. 1 in goals-against average per game at 1.88 and even more impressive, they're No. 1 in 5-on-5 goals allowed at 79 in 67 games, which comes to 1.18 goals per game.

Combined with their stellar goaltending of Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott, the numbers were the sole reason why the Blues (42-18-7) were winning.

It sure wasn't because of special teams, which saw both the penalty kill and power play 30th in the NHL as late as December.
(Getty Images)
The Blues' Alex Pietrangelo (27) has been one of the stalwarts on both
the power play and penalty kill that has helped the Blues rise to the top of
the NHL.

But as the Blues sit atop the Western Conference with 91 points and tied with the New York Rangers for the overall NHL lead, the times have definitely changed.

After killing off all five Chicago power plays in Tuesday's 5-1 victory over the Blackhawks, the Blues are in a stretch of killing off 32 straight opposition power plays dating back to Feb. 14. They currently sit at a season-high ninth in the League and it all boils down to simple execution.

"Our penalty kill has been real solid the last thirty-something times now," said center Scott Nichol, who assisted on a shorthanded goal Tuesday night and is a catalyst on the PK unit. "We're all on the same page and it's just about time and space and not giving them much space. You look at our penalty kill, we change pretty quick so we stay fresh and we can out-compete and outwork their power play.

"We take pride in that. That's kind of our baby. We want to see it keep climbing. We put a lot of effort, blood, sweat and tears (into it). We have a ton of meetings on it. It doesn't give you a lot of accolades but it makes you win hockey games."

When Blues coach Ken Hitchcock came on board, one of his first proclamations was that the team's best players had to be on the specialty teams.

That's why the Blues will use David Backes, T.J. Oshie, Andy McDonald, Patrik Berglund, Alex Pietrangelo, David Perron and Kevin Shattenkirk to go along with players like Barret Jackman, Roman Polak, Nichol and Vladimir Sobotka to try and shut down the opposition's most skilled players.

"I think the penalty killing has discouraged a lot of teams lately," Hitchcock said. "I think it's taken out the top players and discouraged them.

"The penalty killing and the goaltending have been the No. 1 and 2 aspects of our game that have helped us win. When you kill penalties and you take out the top players and they don't get a beat in on the game, they don't get a bite on the game, they get discouraged and then I think the team loses energy."

The veteran Jackman, a stalwart on the team's PK unit for the better part of a decade now, said it's all about confidence.

"Once you have that confidence in the PK, everybody's moving together, we're making the right reads on when to pressure, when to kind of sit back and let them sit on the outside," Jackman said. "I think goaltending's been huge, too. ... It's a team effort when you go out there on the PK."

When the Blues were allowing power play goals early in the season at an alarming clip, certain elements of the game were noticeably missing.

"No. 1, skating the puck out of trouble. Obviously big saves by the goalie is No. 2 and then (No.) 3 for me is winning faceoffs," Hitchcock said. "We make the other team pull it 200 feet.

"I think the biggest thing is we skate the puck, whether it's three feet, six feet, 20 feet, whatever. We're not standing still trying to make a 20-foot clear. We're skating to create space for ourselves and I think that that's really helped us. When you see us in the zone, we're not checking with our eyes, we're checking with our legs. It's helped a lot. It's made us close our gaps quicker, it's forced the other team to stand still more, it's forced the other team to make big mistakes. And I think when you're doing it with three pairs like we have right now, everybody knows what their role is. We're able to have one group win it on the right side and two groups on the left. We're able to win faceoffs now on a consistent basis when we weren't before."
(Getty Images)
Guys like Scott Nichol (12) and Kevin Shattenkirk (right) have helped the
Blues' penalty killing unit rise to 9th in the NHL, killing off 32 straight
PK's since Feb. 14.

As for the power play, a unit that remained dead-last for a long portion of the season, has jumped to a season-best 18th in the league. It's no coincidence that since the return of McDonald 13 games ago has helped the Blues' power play soar. They're 11-for-37 (29.7 percent) in that period.

"As far as our power play goes, if we're getting points on the power play, it sparks our offensive guys, all our top guys," said Shattenkirk, who has eight points in six games. "... I think Andy Mac has been a key component to that. He's just a guy who comes out and vocally does it on the ice for us and tells us what to do. Obviously with his play, it's hard to beat. It's nice to have him back."

If the Blues continue to get good special teams play -- Hitchcock said the goal is to have the power play and penalty kill at a combined 100 percent; they're at a combined 99.9 percent now -- combined with the play of Halak (22-10-5, 1.89 GAA and .926 SV%) and Elliott (20-8-2, 1.63 GAA and .937 SV%), the sky's the limit as they head towards the home stretch of games.

"I think our power play's really been stepping up and scored some big goals for us," Jackman said. "The PK's really been playing hard and frustrating the opposition's best players. It's definitely a good combo."

* NOTES -- Halak will get the start Thursday against the Anaheim Ducks, and Elliott will start Saturday's home game against Columbus, Hitchcock said. ... Injured players Matt D'Agostini and Kris Russell (concussions) skated with the team for the first time since suffering their respective injuries. Both were wearing the red no-contact jerseys. Hitchcock said it was a good sign and he was encouraged to see both skating Wednesday but issued, "Until they knock on my door and tell me they're ready to play, don't ask about them. ... But it was a good sign to see them out there."

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