Monday, February 4, 2013

Blues power play among league leaders early in season

Team trails only Tampa Bay, getting it done with continuity, familiarity

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- Since they took the leap into the conversation with the National Hockey League's elite teams a season ago but fell short of their ultimate goal, the Blues focused in on areas of improvement that they felt could catapult them even higher as they embark on another journey towards the Stanley Cup.

After finishing in the bottom half in the league with the man advantage (the Blues were 19th at 16.7 percent in 2011-12), taking advantage of their talent and skill with a man up was an area the Blues felt like if they polished up, more points could be had with a higher percentage.

So what did the Blues do to change the culture of their power play? Not much at all. Other than adding assistant coach Gary Agnew to add a different set of eyes to it, plus the addition of rookie Vladimir Tarasenko, the Blues felt like continuity and familiarity would best serve its purpose.

(St. Louis Blues/Mark Buckner)
David Backes (left) and Alex Pietrangelo are two important pieces that have
helped elevate the Blues' power play this season. 
"Continuity from Day 1, kind of a feed off last year's playoffs when everything started to work together," said Blues coach Ken Hitchcock, whose team holds the second-ranked power play heading into today's game against Nashville with a 35.5 percent effective rate. "Overall, guys are familiar. We haven't changed personnel. We've stayed with it, and we've also worked that third unit, the (Matt) D'Agostini, (Vladimir) Sobotka, (Jaden) Schwartz unit was the best unit we had at practice (Monday).

"We've worked really hard making sure that there's been strong continuity. They can feed off each other, so I feel guys feel good about going on the ice. They're not apprehensive, they're not nervous, they're not questioning things."

The Blues, who started the season converting on five of six power play chances, are 11-for-31 through their 6-2-0 start. It's as high as they've been since finishing fourth (20.4 percent) during the 2002-03 season. And since the 1999-2000 Presidents' Trophy-winning season, the Blues have finished in the top 10 six times but only once (2008-09) since the 2004-05 lockout.

"I don't know about other teams, but for us, we have two units and both units are hungry to go over the boards and get the job done," veteran Andy McDonald said. "At times, it's been up and down for each unit and the other unit's responded and played well. That kind of balancing out from one unit to the next has made a big difference and that hunger to score goals and have two units competing against one another but hungry to go on the ice to score has been a big difference."

Along with that continuity is Hitchcock using his 5-on-5 forwards together on the man-advantage units. That leaves McDonald with Alex Steen and Tarasenko together and David Perron, T.J. Oshie and David Backes as a group. Throw in Patrik Berglund and Chris Stewart together and there are the makings of guys that can continue momentum even if the group doesn't bag a power play goal.

"I think the chemistry of the players that have been together is really clicking," Perron said. "I think we know the strengths of players that we're with. I see Backs net-front, so I know he's going to be in the goalie's face. I see Bergy in the middle who's got a heck of a shot, and if it's anywhere near his stick, he's gonna have a really good chance of putting it in the net. (Alex Pietrangelo's) so smart, and Osh always coming down the weak side ... he's already had a couple goals doing that. I like to control the puck along the wall and I've just got to make sure whenever there's a hole, I've got to take it. Either shoot it or make a play so we can get a shot on net.

"Their line (Steen's) is together, our line is together. It seems it's just the continuity of our 5-on-5 game. ... It's been working so far."

Patience is a virtue, and the Blues exhibit plenty of patience when they're on the man advantage. Those watching would rather see pucks continuously thrown at the net and from all angles all the time. But that's not always the best-case scenario.

"We've had a good balance of knowing when to shoot and knowing when not to," defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk said. "I think when we recognize pressure, we do a good job of getting pucks to the net and finding those 2-on-1's at the net. We also do a great job of getting the puck on the half wall, slowing things down and just establishing our system and what we want to do and getting our plays set up. We've done a great job of recognizing when the time's right for that.

"What we've been doing really well is when we're starting to get away from our simplicity, I guess, and trying to start making some cute plays, we kind of come back down to earth in a sense and I think both units kind of feed off each other in that regard. When we see the other unit going out and we see them shooting and we see the success they're generating off of it, it just shows us that it works. That's been the best part for us so far."

The Blues' ability to add more of a net-front presence is paying off extremely well. With big bodies like Backes, Stewart and Berglund clogging the middle that can apply screens on netminders, pucks seem to be getting to the net more or tip drills are applied in a positive fashion.

That's where Agnew comes into play, and that's an area the Blues' assistant coach felt like could make a difference. Call it his personal tweak.

"For me in watching the power play last year, the number of goals that they've scored and the percentage was high is when they had someone hanging around the front of the net," Agnew said of last year's Blues team. "I think it was just a matter of making that part of the system. (Former Detroit power forward Tomas) Holmstrom of course made a living at it. Certainly we can take a page out of that book. We've tried to sort of compliment that and add to it.

"The way teams block shots now, front people and get out in shooting lanes, you can't just wire it every time. But having said that, if you find a seam, you better take it because they don't come along very often. If you've got a shooting lane regardless of what's going on, take the shot. ... But you've got to find the seam and then create the seam."

The players certainly understand that concept.

"The goalies are so good in the league," Perron said. "When you're outside a certain area and there's no one in front, it's pretty much impossible to score on a clean shot unless you're Steven Stamkos or something like that, and even him, I think he still needs people around the net.

"It's about finding the hole. If there's one, then you shoot it. You don't shoot it quick just to shoot it quick. You see Shatty back there, he's so smart. He doesn't shoot it just to shoot it quick. He's shooting for a stick, he's shooting for something. You can see Petro doing the same thing. Osh is doing the same thing, Steener is doing the same thing."

In the end, simplifying what they want to do has been the best medicine. It's why Hitchcock, who had Agnew on his staff in Columbus, brought the veteran assistant here to keep simplicity in the cupboard.
(St. Louis Blues/Mark Buckner)
The Blues' Chris Stewart (25) has made a difference on the power play by
simply going to the front of the net more.
"Where Ags is really good is staying the course," Hitchcock said. "He's very demanding on making sure guys get back to task, so if guys leave the net too early or there isn't enough work put in, he's very demanding on making sure the work gets put in first."

Agnew added: "Hitch and I over the last four or five years, we did a lot of research and looked around at different power plays and tried to come up with sort of the right ideas and concepts. We've tweaked and fooled around with it a little bit, but it's worked well. It's the net-front presence, it's shooting the puck, it's attacking it ... it's all kind of the simple core values that we need to have in a power play. But you've got to have guys that are willing to do it and can execute it. It's not easy standing in front of the net while there's a 90-mile-an-hour slap shot coming in at you or retrieving pucks. The personnel here has done a great job with it."

There will certainly be peaks and valleys throughout the course of the season, but at the clip they're converting, if the Blues can stay among the league leaders, they'll certainly benefit in the standings and it'll add a component to the rest of their game.

"For us, we know we're capable of being a good power play, but we know that we're not the Evgeni Malkin/Sidney Crosby power play where you can use two guys to get you goals," Shattenkirk said. "I think for that reason, us recognizing that and sucking it up in a way and being humbled by that ... just stick to what we know works for us all the time will work out best in the long run."

* NOTES -- Tarasenko, who leads the Blues with 10 points (five goals, five assists) was named the NHL's rookie of the month for January. He edged out Tampa Bay's Cory Conacher, Edmonton's Nail Yakupov and Justin Schultz and Montreal's Alex Galchenyuk for the honor.

For me, this is a big step up," said the 21-year-old Tarasenko, who picked up five points in his first two NHL games against Detroit and Nashville. "I'm really happy about it. Thanks for my linemates and my team. They really helped me with this."

Tarasenko, the 16th pick in the 2010 NHL Draft, became the second player in Blues history (Doug Palazzari in 1974-75) to score a pair of goals in his first game and was the first Blues rookie since Wayne Babych (1978-79) to record five points in his first two games.

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