Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Balanced scoring catching up to goaltending, defensive structure for Blues

Team ended March averaging 3.5 goals per game, 
head down stretch tied for first in Central Division

ST. LOUIS -- For large chunks of the season, the Blues have relied on their goalies to not only perform at a high standard but to steal games.

Brian Elliott and Jake Allen have obliged, but there have been too many occasions where the Blues' goalies have been asked to win games with the Blues scoring two goals and at times, one goal. Well, one can do the math there and see there's not much wiggle room, but Elliott and Allen have done more than asked in those areas.

A small sample size was Jan. 20 through Feb. 18 when the Blues played 11 games. They scored two or fewer goals nine times. Their record: 7-2-2 overall, but it was 5-2-2 in those games scoring two or fewer goals.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Center Paul Stastny (26) battles for puck possession against Colorado on
Tuesday. Stastny has 14 points the past 10 games.

Why? Goaltending.

Scoring 21 goals in 11 games, averaging 1.9 goals per game, leaves the games in the hands of the goalies, who surrendered 15 goals in 11 games.

The Blues have scored two or fewer (non-shootout goals) 38 times this season and are an impressive 16-17-5, with points in 21 of 38 games.

"They've been the story all year," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said of the goalies. "They're whats kept us afloat all year and they're doing it again." 

But now the Blues wrapped up their schedule for March 10-2-0. One thing that hasn't changed is the stellar play of the goaltending, which set franchise records with four straight shutouts and consecutive scoreless minutes at 258:39, but what has coincided with the stellar goaltending and defensive work is the offensive output.

The Blues averaged 3.5 goals per game in March and scored four or more goals eight times, three or more 10 times.

Believe it when Elliott said the goalies appreciate what has to feel like a plethora of goal support. There is some wiggle room and it can be beneficial when things aren't going so well between the pipes.

"It feels good when you're down there and the pressure's a little bit off your shoulders," said Elliott, who is 10-0-1 with a 1.41 goals-against average and .951 save percentage his past 12 starts which includes a 4-0-0 record with a ridiculous 0.25 GAA and .989 save percentage since returning from a knee injury. "When they score anything over two is usually a win in the NHL here. Jake and I kind of pride ourselves if we do get a lead, we're not going to give it up."

Balance and depth among the lines has been the key contributing factor, but in order for all that to come to fruition, the Blues have been getting healthy up front, including the return of Alexander Steen (upper-body injury), who missed 15 games.

They've received great  scoring from the Paul Stastny line that includes Troy Brouwer and Robby Fabbri; Stastny has 14 points (three goals, 11 assists) the past 10 games and leads the Blues in points (21) since the All-Star break. Fabbri, who was injured in the third period during a 3-1 win against the Colorado Avalanche on Tuesday, has 11 points the past 13 games and 19 points in 24 games since the All-Star break and Brouwer has picked his offensive production up with points in seven of the past 10 games (four goals, five assists).

The "STL Line" with Vladimir Tarasenko, Jaden Schwartz and Jori Lehtera explains itself with the leading scorer in Tarasenko on it, and now that Steen is back -- Dmitrij Jaskin held down the fort well with Steen out -- with David Backes and Patrik Berglund, options are aplenty.

"We have the potential for four lines," Hitchcock said. "I know this is coach-speak, but if we can get a higher level of execution on a consistent basis, that's what we're going to need. We've got real potential with even 14, 15 forwards here now who could really help us. But I think we have to get ... first of all, there's the mental part about sharing ice time, which I think is a little bit of an adjustment going on now. Guys that were playing 18 minutes are now playing 15, 16 and you've got to get used to that. The second part for me is we can really wheel these lines and play deep with four if we get execution with the first three, so to me, our execution with our first three sets up our fourth line. If we can get that, then we're going to be in good shape. If you're limping along and having poor execution on one of those top three lines, it takes us out of our rhythm because we're kind of a hard-working group that can do a lot of damage in-zone and wear you down, and when we have that execution going, we're very very effective."

It's no denying that Steen's return is crucial. He's one of the more underrated two-way forwards in the NHL and made an immediate impact with two assists against the Avalanche on Tuesday. And it's no coincidence that the power play was 2-for-3 Tuesday after scoring three power play goals the past eight games on 23 tries. Steen plays a ton of minutes (he played 19 minutes, 41 seconds upon his return) and shifts per game and is among the leaders in the NHL among forwards.

"He was good," Stastny said of Steen. "That first game's always a lot of emotion, a lot of adrenaline so I think that's always the easiest one. He's just got to keep getting his legs under him because it'll take him a couple games to feel 100 percent. For not playing for whatever it was, (five) weeks, I didn't think he skipped a beat. Hitch obviously didn't want his minutes because he played as much as anyone out there, important minutes too. You didn't notice any rust out of him.

"I think when we're playing like that, it's tough to match. We all bring something different to the table. When we're playing well, we're hunting the puck down. I think all four lines can create a lot of chances, a lot of puck possession, and I think that's when we're at our best."

What's really solidified the lines has been the recent play of Kyle Brodziak, Scottie Upshall and Ryan Reaves on the fourth line providing not only grit and energy, but also puck possession and scoring chances.

"I think we've had that pretty much all along," said Steen, who is second on the team with 49 points. "Everybody plays pretty similar. I honestly think that our fourth line's been one of our best lines the last few games, most consistent line. 'Fabs' and 'Stas' and 'Brouw' have been terrific, but I think they've been the most consistent. They played unbelievable, killed huge penalties and played really well."
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Alexander Steen (left), battling with Colorado defenseman Tyson Barrie on
Tuesday, returned to the lineup after missing 15 games.

Five games remain and the Blues and Dallas Stars are neck and neck in the Central Division race with 101 points. Winning the division and earning home ice in the Western Conference would be huge for the Blues, but depending on what happens with some of their injured guys down the stretch (Jay Bouwmeester, Carl Gunnarsson, Steve Ott and Fabbri, who departed in the third period with a lower-body injury), the Blues are rounding into form at the right time.

"Now we're over 100 and that's another feather in our cap," Backes said. "... Hundred points is nothing to take for granted. It's a lot of work, a lot of effort, a lot of battle from the guys in this room. We've had different guys stepping up on a regular occasion. We've got a heck of a group in this room."

* NOTES -- The Blues were off Wednesday and an update on Fabbri's condition won't be known until Thursday at the earliest. He left favoring his left leg after falling awkwardly following a cross-check to the hip by the Avs' Jack Skille. 

"I think the good thing is, he's 20, he's young, he recovers quick," Backes said of Fabbri. "If something is wrong, we've got two and a half weeks until the playoffs begin."

. . . The Blues announced Wednesday they have signed forward Mackenzie MacEachern to a two-year entry-level contract, and forward Adam Musil to a three-year entry-level contract.

The 22-year-old MacEachern was drafted by the Blues in the third round (67th overall) of the 2012 NHL Draft. Maceachern, who is 6-foot-3 and 205 pounds spent the past three seasons at Michigan State University. He led the Spartans with 30 points (14 goals, 16 assists) in 37 games. Overall, he had 68 points (33 goals, 35 assists) in 108 games with the Spartans.

Musil, 19, was drafted by the Blues in the fourth round (94th overall) of the 2015 NHL Draft. The 6-foot-3, 196-pound Musil, the son of former Blue Basil McRae, spent the past four seasons with the Western Hockey League’s Red Deer Rebels. He had 19 goals and 24 assists this past season. In 2014-15, the Delta, B.C., native appeared in the Canadian Hockey League’s (CHL) Top Prospects Game and earned a gold medal with Team Canada at the 2015 Hlinka Memorial Tournament. Overall, Musil has 111 points (45 goals, 66 assists) in 195 career WHL games.

No comments:

Post a Comment