Friday, December 18, 2015

Blues' special teams trending in right direction

Penalty kill, power play working in unison, 
making difference between winning, losing

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- When special teams are working in unison like they currently are for the Blues, there comes with it a certain swagger.

The Blues (19-10-4), who host the red-hot Calgary Flames (15-14-2) -- winners of seven straight -- Saturday at 2 p.m. (FS-MW, KMOX 1120-AM), are finding life to be good on the penalty kill and most recently, the power play.

Entering play Saturday, the Blues are second (one-tenth of a percentage point behind the Anaheim Ducks) on the PK at 87.4 percent after having a string of 23 straight kills snapped in Thursday's 2-1 victory against the Nashville Predators, and the power play, after getting the game-winner from Vladimir Tarasenko against the Predators, is eighth in the NHL at 20.8 percent; it's 6-for-11 the past five games and has a power play goal in each of the past five games.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
The Blues' penalty kill, starts with the solid goaltending of Jake Allen 
(pictured) and Brian Elliott.

Breaking it down; first, the penalty kill has been a strong point for the Blues going back many seasons.

The past eight seasons, the Blues have finished in the top 10 seven times, including first in 2010 (86.8 percent), seventh four times, second in 2014 (85.7 percent) and third in 2009 (83.8 percent). 

There's a pride factor that plays into being among the best on a yearly basis, and the Blues have it.

"I think the pride comes from the players," said associate coach Brad Shaw, who runs the defensemen and is the penalty kill coach. "I think the pride is we have so many guys that have done it for so many years here and play so many important minutes. David Backes could run the meeting. Alex Pietrangelo can run the meeting. They're probably sick of hearing what I say because it really doesn't change that much game to game. There's a few adjustments here and there. I try and not get it so it's the same every day, but there are certain keys that we have that we try and establish every game and when we do that, we feel like we've done a pretty good job."

Doing a good job includes communicating at the proper time, making the simple plays, positioning properly and of course, getting some breaks along the way.

"Maybe some bounces, but we seem to be following the game plan more now than ever," Pietrangelo said. "There's a lot of hockey sense in our team, too, so when you have to stray away from that game plan, we always seem to find a way to get things done. I think we're able to pick each other up and support each other. Mistakes are gonna happen n the penalty kill; they've got an extra guy, but it's that second effort we have right now to make sure that puck gets out."

The Blues are sticking to the game plan, and they're planning for each team with it's own course of action.

"We obviously establish a game plan for each team before the game," Pietrangelo said. "We seem to execute it pretty well ... they scored (Thursday) night, but when we needed it most there at the end of the game, it stepped up. We're being aggressive, we're making good reads and more importantly, your goalie's got to be your best penalty killer. Jake (Allen) and 'Moose' (Brian Elliott) have been the best penalty killers so far."

Shaw agreed.

"It's really hard to have good PK numbers if your goalie is struggling," he said. "Absolutely, goaltending is sort of the linchpin that holds it all together. We're really blessed with two guys here that understand how we kill, they understand the types of saves that are going to be asked to make and then they're very good at them.

"We've got lots of good players that are good penalty killers, especially from the net out with both goalies. I think when you go on that type of stretch, you need some breaks. Teams have hit posts, they've had point-blank chances where sticks have broken. We've done a lot of good things and we've had a few bounces go our way. But the main thing is we have a lot of guys that take a lot of pride in it and they're good at it."

The Blues would love nothing more than to maintain their current status, or even jump up to the top of the heap. After all, swagger brings out lofty expectations.

"We always aspire to be top-five," Shaw said. "We think we're that good. We think we have that many good penalty killers, guys that really care, guys that are good at it, especially the two guys in the net. That's been our goal since I've done it here for nine years. You have some years where you're right there and then there's been others where we've been top-10, but the difference between No. 1 and (No.) 30 right now is 10 goals. You would think there would be a ton of difference, but one goal can make a big difference, three or four can really change your percentage and knock you for a loop. 

"The toughest thing about penalty kill is you can do everything right and they make one great play and it's in the net and you feel like you haven't done your job that night. You try not to take it from the negative side. We're trying to dictate play as much as we can with one less guy on the ice and when we're sharp, that's what it looks like and we're really disruptive. It's when we're at our best."

As for the power play, it's been a little more complex.

The top unit, which consists of Backes, Paul Stastny, Vladimir Tarasenko and point men Kevin Shattenkirk and Alexander Steen, have accounted for all five goals during this run. It's been clicking on all cylinders.

This, after the Blues finished fourth in the NHL last season (22.3 percent) and ninth in 2014 at 19.4 percent.

"The big one is familiarity when you look at the guys coming back from injuries," said assistant coach Kirk Muller, who coach's the power play. "Now we get that first unit that's really on fire. They played together last year and some of them for a couple years now. They're back in sync. That's the No. 1 thing. No. 2, I would say is our puck movement on it has been better than earlier. So that means the pace of it is much faster. That group does well when it's more of a shooting mentality, and they've gotten back to balancing when it's the nice time to make a play and (when to shoot). They're shooting first and making plays second rather than making plays first and shooting second.

"If you look at our power play, we've got a great makeup. David Backes is willing to stand in front, which is huge, and the thing that's really underrated and it's a small thing, but what's really helped the power play is we have 'Stas,' a lefty, and David, a righty, so our faceoff percentage is very high on the power play. What it does is it eliminates your very first time going down losing time breaking in all the time. Since 'Stas' has come back and (Jori) Lehtera's faceoff percentage is going up, all of the sudden now we're spending more time in the O-zone time, and it makes a huge difference."

Now as for that second unit, which normally consists of Pietrangelo and Colton Parayko on the points, Troy Brouwer, Robby Fabbri and Jori Lehtera down low, it's been a level of inconsistency that coach Ken Hitchcock has tinkered with to get it going.

"That's why we're changing the identity of it and strategy," Hitchcock said. "We're not getting near enough. We've got to get a better identity, so we're working on it right now. We've worked hard the last three days on it. Actually showed some life today. It was what we wanted it to look like what we were showing today. We'll just keep putting players in there until we get the identity we need from that unit."

But looking at the body of work, Hitchcock likes what he sees, because the special teams have saved the Blues' bacon on certain nights.

"At one time, when we weren't scoring on the power play, we needed the penalty kill and it came through and when the power play and penalty kill were both working, that's given us the edge," Hitchcock said. "Our power play has been very unselfish and it's worked. We'd like to get a second unit going and finding that identity because you can't continue at this pace over the course of the year. It's physically impossible to do that. And our penalty killing's really given us life all the time. Between the goaltender and the guys blocking shots and killing penalties and getting clears, it's done a great job really all year. It's given us a chance every night."

Muller feels like that group will come around.

"Earlier (in the season), the second unit was buzzing," Muller said. "That was the one that was more in sync and they were together for a while. It's interesting because it gives us a couple different looks right now. ... I think they're going to be fine. I think they're just getting used to (each other). They can move the puck around and create plays and open up stuff for (Parayko), then they'll start getting success. It's just taken a little bit of time. They don't have as many minutes as the other group. The other group's taking up a lot of power play time, so by the time they get out, get set up, they get one good quick run at it. I think they're going to be fine."
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Vladimir Tarasenko (91) is part of the Blues' top power play unit that has
scored in five straight games.

It all comes back to that one word that makes the Blues tick when it's all going right: swagger.

"We're pretty confident," Shattenkirk said. "We're just moving the puck well. We're taking the open shots when we get them, and I think that's the most important thing. We're not trying to over-pass. Guys like 'Vladi' now are shooting the puck and we're realizing that all the plays, the nice backdoor plays and those seam passes that we make come after we shoot pucks and we establish that mentality. Once we do that, we're able to kind of get teams to back off a little bit and give us the space we need to make those really nice plays.

"Now that the power play is clicking again, it's been great for us. I think our penalty kill has been great all year and that's a big reason why we've been in a lot of games because we haven't allowed teams to score that big power play goal to really put us away Now that we're killing penalties off the way we have been all year and finding the power play goals ourselves to get back in games, to win us games, it's just a great weapon to have. Special teams are important; we know about that. It's good to get it going as often as we can." 

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