By LOU KORAC
ST. LOUIS -- The numbers represent where the Blues (17-11-4) are through 32 games in the 2016-17 season.
They're only two points off the pace (18-10-4) from last season, which doesn't sound like much.
But in regards to goals scored and goals against, there is a bit of a difference that's reflecting the Blues' play.
The Blues are averaging 2.81 goals per game, which is up from the 2.53 goals per game last season, but defensively, where the Blues, who host Edmonton (16-12-5) today at 7 p.m. (FS-MW, KMOX 1120-AM), have been a staple under Ken Hitchcock, are allowing 2.88 goals per game as opposed to the 2.41 last season.
It marks a significant increase, and it's obvious not having the same veteran team that played into the Western Conference Final last season, including goalie Brian Elliott, but there are a number of reasons why the Blues, who open three games in four days today heading into the Christmas break, are more vulnerable defending despite playing with virtually the same d-group.
"I think it's a little bit of give-and-take with both," captain Alex Pietrangelo said. "Obviously we're happy to be scoring as much as we are, but you wonder if part of that is because we're playing a little bit too risky giving up too many opportunities in our end. I think if we can scale back the goals-against, we won't have to worry about scoring so many goals. I think they work hand-in-hand more than we think it does. That was a topic of discussion and we know taking care of our end is the most important thing.
"Obviously playing a little bit of a different style, more up-tempo than we normally have. A lot of structure than what we've had. The balance for us is not to stray too far away from that, sticking to what our structure is and what's been here over the last few years and finding that offensive balance that works."
Hitchcock feels more offensive zone time may help.
"You can't defend a lead anymore in the National Hockey League unless you occupy the o-zone; that's the only way you can play defense now," Hitchcock said. "You can't back up and expect to shut a game down. It's impossible with the speed and skill and the four-line game that's out there.
"... For us to get better, we've got to get better 5-on-5. There's a lot of elements 5-on-5 that need to get better. We need that to happen. There's lots of little stuff that we can improve on, but the game is still a 5-on-5 game and right now, we're in that 5-on-5 trading chances game, which is win one, lose one. You look like you're playing awful well, but you're not controlling any part of the game. I want us to control more 5-on-5 play where we're making the other team play defense longer. ... The way to play defense is from the red line in. The red line back, you're always going to have good times and bad times, but from the red line in, if you can spend more time there, based on the analytics part, we're not spending enough time in the offensive zone."
The Blues have scored 90 non-shootout goals this season as opposed to 81 last season, but they've allowed 92 goals this season as opposed to 77 games last season.
"We were struggling to score at the start of the year, so it's finally nice to pot some goals," defenseman Joel Edmundson said. "A little bit of a positive there, but the defensive zone, I think we need to compete a bit harder, block some more shots. I think we're giving up too many goals. We know that as a group.
"There's a transition. You'll go through your ups and downs in the year. I think right now, we're just lacking in the defensive zone. We're not too worried about it. We know we'll battle out of it. It's a confident group in here."
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The Blues get back on the horse after a disheartening 6-4 home loss to the Chicago Blackhawks on Saturday.
It was a game in which the Blues lost four one-goal leads.
"It was honest, obviously a good discussion," Pietrangelo said of Sunday discussions. "Obviously frustrated, not happy with the end result. Obviously a lot of talk defensively 5-on-5 and how to clean things up. I think it was a good look in the mirror and expecting a pretty strong effort from us tonight."
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The Blues will go with Carter Hutton in goal against the Oilers on his 31st birthday.
Hutton, who is 2-4-1 with a 2.92 goals-against average and .899 save percentage, last started on Dec. 3, a 3-2 overtime loss to the Winnipeg Jets.
"Nothing really changes for me," Hutton said. "I prepare like I'm always going to play. I think that's what gives me success, playing through long breaks at a time. When I show up here and Jake's starting, I prepare the same way. Obviously you're not getting the same physical aspects in, but that's where I work hard with Jimmy on the ice and with Eric in the gym. At the same time, from a mental standpoint, just maybe a little closer to gametime, you're a little more locked in. For the most part, everything stays the same."
"He never quits on a shot," Hitchcock said of Hutton. "He's just so competitive in there. That competitiveness rubs off on everybody. I think he's a guy that brings out the emotion in everybody because of the way he competes and plays. He's a good goalie."
"I think he's excited, obviously brought some good energy out there," Pietrangelo said of Hutton. "Give 'Jakey' a bit of a break here before we go on the road. These guys play similar styles, so the transition should be pretty easy for us."
Jake Allen, who will start Tuesday in Dallas, started the past seven straight games.
"I don't know that it's much of a break, because he's playing tomorrow," Hitchcock said of Allen. "He needs a break right now. You make the determination that you're going with a young guy in goal and you're going to go through the ups and downs and that's what we're going to do. He's our guy, we're going through the ups and downs with him and that's the growing pains that every goalie goes through. We've got to help him through it. He's taking a breather, catching his breath and working on some technical things, working with (goalie coach Jim Corsi) then back on the bike and running again tomorrow."
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Vladimir Tarasenko has 10 points (two goals, eight assists) the past six games, 11 goals and 17 assists the the past 21 games and points in 16 of 21.
Robby Fabbri has six points (three goals, three assists) the past six games.
Edmundson had a career-high three-point game (three assists) Saturday against the Blackhawks.
* Former Blues defenseman Kris Russell will play in his 600th game tonight.
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The Blues' projected lineup
Jaden Schwartz-Paul Stastny-Nail Yakupov
Robby Fabbri-Jori Lehtera-Vladimir Tarasenko
Alexander Steen-Patrik Berglund-David Perron
Scottie Upshall-Kyle Brodziak-Ryan Reaves
Joel Edmundson-Alex Pietrangelo
Carl Gunnarsson-Kevin Shattenkirk
Jay Bouwmeester-Colton Parayko
Carter Hutton will start in goal; Jake Allen will be the backup.
Healthy scratches will be Dmitrij Jaskin, Ty Rattie and Brad Hunt. Robert Bortuzzo (lower body) is on injured-reserve.
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The Oilers' projected lineup
Milan Lucic-Connor McDavid-Jordan Eberle
Patrick Maroon-Leon Draisaitl-Tyler Pitlick
Benoit Pouliot-Ryan Nugent-Hopkins-Drake Caggiula
Matt Hendricks-Mark Letestu-Zack Kassian
Andrej Sekera-Kris Russell
Oscar Klefbom-Adam Larsson
Brandon Davidson-Eric Gryba
Cam Talbot will start in goal; Jonas Gustavsson will be the backup.
Healthy scratches include Matt Benning, Jesse Puljujarvi and Taylor Beck. Iiro Pakarinen (knee), Andrew Ference (hip), Darnell Nurse (foot) and Mark Fayne (lower body) are out.