Saturday, March 27, 2010

No Goal Patrol tops in league at its trade

Blues' PK unit has been one constant
in a season of unfulfilling expectations

ST. LOUIS -- The Blues, in a season where hopes and dreams of following up last season's playoff team are currently on thin ice, have certainly had their share of ups and downs.

The one glaring down -- to the surprise of the team, it's fans and the entire city -- is the team's paltry record at home. It will be the primary reason this team doesn't follow up on another playoff entry when they're mathematically eliminated.

But one constant this season -- and in season's past -- is the job that the Blues' penalty killing unit has done.

It's been nearly impeccable.

Call it the 'No Goal Patrol.'

The unit has been stingy on a consistent basis for much of the season -- aside from a few hiccups here and there. But after slamming the door shut on Los Angeles on six of seven tries Thursday night, the Blues are atop of the league in penalty killing percentage.

It enters today's 5 p.m. game against the Edmonton Oilers as the No. 1 unit, slamming the door shut at a clip of 86.1 percent. They've allowed 43 goals on 309 attempts.

Going back to last season, they were third in the league at 83.8 percent, and in 2007-08, they were seventh at 84.4 percent.

It's been an area that the Blues have thrived in, and one they take no prisoners in. They just seal the deal.

What makes this year's unit even more remarkable is the games in which the Blues have killed off four or more penalties. They've accomplished that feat in 39 of their 74 games. Their best for one game is eight, done twice (against Vancouver on Dec. 31 when they were 8-for-9 and against Toronto on Feb. 12 when they were 8-for-8).

They're equally as good when killing off 5-on-3's. Considering the percentages of scoring when a team is playing with a two-man advantage, the Blues have allowed only four goals on 15 attempts in 10 minutes 54 seconds of time. That says something in itself.

Is there a technique to it? Not really.

Is there a special formula? Certainly not.

So then why has it been so successful?

"As a penalty killing unit, we're sticking together," said defenseman Mike Weaver, a mainstay on the PK unit. "I think we're on the same page. We're getting key saves by our goaltender and getting the puck out (of the zone). When we get a handle on the puck, we want to get it out ASAP."

So that's it. Getting the puck out as soon as possible.

Sounds logical.

"They have the one-shot-and-out kind of mentality," goalie Chris Mason said. "They clear rebounds, let me see the puck. When I tell them I can't see, they do a great job of clearing the guys out or stepping out of the way or blocking the shot. ... The PK has been good all year."

Several guys take it as an honor to be a part of this team's PK unit, which is led by assistant coach Brad Shaw.

At any given time, it can be Weaver and Barret Jackman, along with Alex Steen and Jay McClement. Or it can feature Roman Polak and Eric Brewer, to go with T.J. Oshie and David Backes. Erik Johnson takes his turn at it along with B.J. Crombeen. Even Paul Kariya and Andy McDonald have had their dibs at killing penalties.

For the Blues, it's a collective effort that has them atop the league.

"That group takes a lot of pride," Blues coach Davis Payne said. "Shawsie's got them extremely well-prepared. As far as understanding when the opportunity is to pressure, when the opportunity is to take away next options, they're very much an in-sync group. We really try to get the pairs and the groups of four out there on the ice at the same time so that we have that consistency. They generally read off each other very well. To this point, it's the strength of our hockey club."

It's a strength that sees the Blues thriving in when at times, scoring goals and succeeding on the power play has been inconsistent often.

Guys like Brewer, Polak, Weaver and Jackman are the masters at blocking shots, McClement, Oshie, Backes and Steen reading the plays on the point and disrupting the passing lanes and putting pressure on the opposition.

The Blues may allow entry into the zone, but they don't give you a whole lot of room to operate. There's times where they bend but don't break. That's been the key.

"I think everybody on the team really appreciates the job those guys do and the sacrifice it takes," Payne said. "... It's work. No. 1 (it) is work. And you've got to use your head and you've got to sacrifice. Those guys have a high level of all three of those things and those don't go unnoticed within the group.

"They generate momentum moments for us, whether it's a block or a read or a denial or a great save. All of those guys are working together, along with the goaltender. There's lots of different structure that's designed to enhance that. These guys have done a great job in their units and as pairs, making sure (that when) the arm goes up and the group goes on the ice, and we've got a pretty high level of confidence in those guys going out there."

The success doesn't just come with stepping on the ice and killing off a penalty. The Blues and Shaw spend countless time at practice perfecting their trade.

The communication efforts go hand-in-hand and allows the group when on the ice at all times to positionally know what each other is doing.

"I think it starts with Brad Shaw, heading it up," Weaver said. "He's got us on the same page and everybody is buying into the system. Obviously key saves at the right time are huge, and our goaltenders have done that for the last two years. It gives us a chance."

Had it not been for an unfortunate turnover in Thursday's 3-1 win over the Kings, the Blues would have been a perfect 7-for-7. They've been perfect in 38 of 74 games this season.

"We gave up that one (Thursday), but all-in-all, the PK (has been) a success," Oshie said. "We didn't let them get too many opportunities and when we did, Mase was there to slam the door shut."
Slamming the door shut is the nature of the business for the Blues when it comes to killing penalties. Most teams dread it. The Blues relish the challenge.

"When we get a penalty called against us, it's actually great momentum for us," Weaver said. "We know that we're going to kill it off. It's great to have that feeling that every time we have a good chance of killing it off."

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