Monday, March 23, 2015

Blues' penalty kill paying off despite rash of minors

Team would like to cut down on numbers 
despite jumping to 10th in NHL in efficiency

PITTSBURGH -- The Blues' penalty kill has been so good of late, it's taken them into the NHL's top 10 for the first time this season.

The Blues entered Monday 10th in the league with an 82.8 percent efficiency rating, and they're in a stretch of killing off 40 of the past 43 opponents' power plays in 13 games.

That's all good, but when the Blues (45-21-7) get set to face the Pittsburgh Penguins (40-22-10) on Tuesday, what they'll be focusing on more than anything is cutting down on the penalties they've taken in the last stretch of games.

Despite the "Stickgate" goal in Sunday's 2-1 overtime loss against the Detroit Red Wings, in which Justin Abdelkader scored on a continuing power play into OT, two of those goals allowed came off a Blues stick following a centering pass and off Abdelkader's broken stick.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Steve Ott (9), shown here engaging with Detroit's Marek 
Zidlicky Sunday, said the Blues have been working on 
the penalty kill and  it's paying off.

"From the get-go, our penalty kill out of the whole structure of game, that was probably out weakest point of our team," said forward Steve Ott. "Now for us to grab it in here and really kind of go downhill with this and be a top penalty killing team in the last few months, that's important. Key to stay out of the box? Yes; that's the importance of killing those penalties at a premium."

The Blues are doing all the right things when it comes to thwarting the opposition's man advantage. There are plenty of X's and O's involved that are going right, but continuity and with playing with consistent partners comes into play.

From a forward's perspective, David Backes and Alexander Steen are paired together on the 5-on-4's, T.J. Oshie and Paul Stastny are together and  Ott gets paired with either Olli Jokinen or Marcel Goc. Jaden Schwartz also gets minutes killing penalties along with Vladimir Tarasenko and Jori Lehtera. Defensemen Alex Pietrangelo, Jay Bouwmeester, Barret Jackman and Zbynek Michalek are key to the backside, and Kevin Shattenkirk will be once he returns from injury.

Along with ... "Because we're working on it," Ott said. "Coach (Brad) Shaw, he's instrumental. It's his baby. We put a lot of time and effort, a lot of video, a lot of talk with structure of the penalty kill. Now with the reads, we're finding sets that really work well together. 'Stas' and 'Osh,' 'Steener' and 'Backs,' myself and 'Jok' or 'Gocher.' You get chemistry with guys you're playing with on the penalty kill like you would 5-on-5."

However, the Blues are putting themselves in vulnerable positions. They come into the game against the Penguins fourth in the NHL in average penalty minutes at 11.07 per game. Coincidentally, the Penguins are No. 1 at 14.31 penalty minutes per game.

But during this stretch of 13 games, the Blues have been on the penalty kill four or more times in a game six times, and it's wearing down their top players and limiting their ability to have enough energy when offense is needed later in games.

"It's the reason we've only got seven skaters on the ice today," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said after Monday's optional skate at CONSOL Energy Center. "After a while, it falls in my court. ... We haven't been guilty with this at all, all year, but we have been in the last five games. These are issues that fall in my court now. This now becomes ice time, playing time, lineup time, consequences. You talk about it a couple times. This isn't like the beginning of the year; this isn't like the start of the season; this is like we don't have time to work on the things that need to get worked on. This is pretty much a responsibility for the individual."

And it's the same players that are taking stick foul penalties from a lack of proper execution.

"The penalties are the same that we're taking," Hitchcock said. "The penalties are poor checking angles, wrong side of people so you're reaching. They're all the same. The good part is there's no gray area. It's not like undisciplined penalties from a retaliation standpoint. There's none of that going on. It's 95 percent the same thing: poor checking angles, wrong side of people, reaching and you get caught. That's pretty much on the individual because you've got to move your feet to check, you've got to create proper body positioning so that your angles are set. So when you're on the wrong angle and you're gliding or you're reaching, that's when you get in trouble, and anybody that has quickness or speed when you're on the wrong angles, you're in bad position. Bad positioning is one thing. That's not fun to be a part of, and the other part is when you're stick's on the wrong angle and it's across the body, bad things happen.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Blues defenseman Alex Pietrangelo (left), leads the team on a regular
basis in penalty kill minutes. He had 7:32 against Detroit on Sunday.

"It's the same people that are on the wrong side of things. Get on the right side of things; it's pretty simple."

The ones that hurt the worst are offensive zone penalties when the Blues seem to be applying pressure.

"We've got to keep moving our feet," defenseman Pietrangelo said. "A lot of them are stick infractions where we're stationary and reaching. If we start moving our feet ... we got away from it. The penalty kill's been able to step up here as of late, but I guess that's the wrong time to give one up (Sunday)."

Ott added: "We have to tighten our game up, and tighten our game up means taking less penalties, putting ourselves in good positions to win games and not wearing out your top guys on the penalty kill. Obviously there's a heavy load on 'Backs' and 'Steener,' 'Osh' and 'Stas' are top penalty killers as well and when you do so, they're spending useless energy that they don't need to do where they can find offense from. You want your top guys at the top level and top fuel and taking penalties; tanks are empty a little bit that we might need in those third periods. 

"There's nothing more disappointing than getting scored on you. That's something that the guys are committed to do to take a little extra. We definitely want to work for those."

* NOTES -- Jake Allen, who was strong in turning aside 23 shots in the overtime loss to the Red Wings, will get the start in goal against the Penguins.

It's the first time Allen has started in consecutive games since Dec. 23 and 27. He's played in consecutive games since then, having relieved Brian Elliott four times.

"Kind of a reward for really good play more than anything," Hitchcock said. "It's an important game to finish the road trip. Jake's played really, really well, so let's give him, what do you call it, do you give him the carrot or do you give him the stick?" To which Fox Sports Midwest color analyst Darren Pang replied, "Just give him the net." 

"We're giving him the net with the carrot on top," Hitchcock joked.

- - - Defenseman Carl Gunnarsson, who left Saturday's 6-3 loss to the Minnesota Wild with an upper-body injury sustained in the second period and sat out Sunday's loss, did not skate Monday and will be a game-time decision, according to Hitchcock.

"He's better today, Hitchcock said, "but he'll be a game-time decision."

The injury is not related to the concussion Gunnarsson sustained earlier in the season.

- - - Hitchcock did say that former Penguins Robert Bortuzzo and Marcel Goc, both acquired from Pittsburgh earlier this season, will be in the lineup against their former team. And Hitchcock said Chris Porter is "available for selection."

The Blues will face former defenseman Ian Cole, traded to Pittsburgh for Bortuzzo, for the first time since the trade deadline deal.

- - - As of Monday afternoon, Hitchcock said he had not heard from the league regarding the end of the game against the Red Wings and had "moved on to the next (game)." 

Allen wanted to make clear that his initial reaction to play was based off instinct, and not fact. But he clearly changed his mind once he saw the replay.

"It happened so quickly, I didn't even realize it," Allen said. "I thought it was Petro's stick that was being broken. Once I got off the ice and you can actually take a look at it and listen to other people's opinion, you can see clearly that it was (Abdelkader's) broken stick. Personally, I don't think it should have counted and kept playing. But that's the way it goes. It happened real quick for me. At that specific time, I didn't really realize what actually happened. I got to look at it after the game. It's unfortunate."

- - - The skaters that took the ice Monday were Oshie, Pietrangelo, Chris Butler, Ryan Reaves, Olli Jokinen, Goc, Bortuzzo, Porter, Jaskin, Ott, Lindbohm and both goalies (Allen and Brian Elliott).

Defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, who had a hard and aggressive skate before Sunday's game with Shaw, was not on the ice Monday.

- - - The Blues' Easter Sunday game on April 5 at the Chicago Blackhawks will remain at 6:30 p.m. and be televised on NBCSN. There was a chance the game would have been moved up to 11:30 a.m. and be shown on NBC, which elected to take the Penguins at Philadelphia Flyers instead.

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