Friday, December 10, 2010

Blues appear to be trending upwards on special teams

Both power play and penalty kill crucial to team's success

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- As is the case for all teams playing through the rugged 82-game schedule in the National Hockey League, there will be ups and there will be downs on special teams' play.

For the Blues, they are currently hoping to be trending upwards on both the power play and penalty kill as the month of December kicks into full gear.

The Blues' power play was solid early, then went through a stretch of six games without a goal, then went on another five-game burst with at least one man-advantage goal before becoming anemic again for seven games.

The Blues came into Thursday's game against Columbus in an 0-for-22 funk that had them laboring in 26th place overall in the league.

But a 3-for-3 night and a 4-1 victory over the Blue Jackets solves some issues the Blues had been having -- at least for the time being. They moved up four spots to No. 22 in the league after Thursday's effort.

The Blues, who last played Sunday in Vancouver before hosting Columbus Thursday, used the three days off between games working on many aspects that had been ailing them. Among those were a power play that had become too stagnant and not supplying the necessary offensive spark.

But don't think one game will cure all that ails. The Blues will not rest on their laurels, but it was a step in the right direction.

"We had to stress execution to possession, which was recovery, which was making sure that our release and our recognition of time and space was accurate, the moving of the puck to the next option and attacking out of the right ice," Blues coach Davis Payne said. "These have all been different areas that have broken down a time or two.

"We haven't solved the riddle. We only got through one question."

The one question that may have been answered was moving some personnel around and getting them into more comfortable and familiar areas, like Alex Steen and Patrik Berglund down low and away from the point and using two defensemen on the point to get off those one-timers that seemed to be sorely missing.

"Moving forward, we'll continue to work on it," said Steen, who is tied with the injured Andy McDonald for the team lead in goals with eight after giving the Blues a 1-0 lead against the Jackets. "(Thursday) was a good step."

It's a step that needs to build for tonight's game against the Carolina Hurricanes, who come in with the 25th-ranked penalty kill in the league.

"We went to an emphasis that had a little bit more motion to a little bit more support to it because we're facing the type of pressure that just finding a soft area and thinking they're going to back off, we haven't earned that from penalty-killing teams," Payne said. "Steener and Bergy executing and supporting down low, EJ (Erik Johnson) finding a way to get shots through (and) step into space (are) all different things. We didn't go out there and say this is the one thing we need to do because there's a number of different things throughout the sequence of those two minutes that we have to do better. We had to do everything better. It was seven (plus) games at it and 22 whacks at it and nothing in the net, we had to do everything better."

As for the penalty kill, it's also been a roller-coaster ride this season.

The Blues have had stretches of five games without allowing a power play goal and another four-game stretch.

The Blues, who were tops in the league a season ago on the penalty kill (86.8 percent) and third in the league two seasons ago (83.8 percent), are currently 13th at 83 percent but on a streak of killing off 14 in a row which includes 8-for-8 Thursday.

A part of that 8-for-8 was killing off three two-man advantages for the Blue Jackets, who didn't get many high quality scoring chances in any of them.

"They had a couple passes backdoor," defenseman Barret Jackman said of Columbus. "You know they're going to try and go through the seam, and Nash is a great passer. He's going to find an option any way he can. You just have to try and be able to take away the most threatening and we were able to do that.

"Jaro (Halak) was a big part of the penalty kill as well. When he did have to stop the puck, he either smothered the rebound or put it in a good spot in the corner where they didn't get a second chance."

How relevant is the Blues' PK when it comes to wins and losses? Consider that the Blues are 11-2-3 when they don't allow a power play goal. They're 3-7-1 in games they do.

"We've had a good run here the last couple games," said Jay McClement, a key contributor on the unit. "Hopefully, we're going in the right direction. It's something we've really talked about a lot. We need it to be a staple in our game like it has been in years past. ... We've been getting better and it's a good sign."

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