Monday, April 29, 2013

Bouwmeester, Pietrangelo have been a perfect match

Blues' top d-pairing have boosted each other's game since Day 1

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- The Blues searched high and low for the perfect fit to pair with Alex Pietrangelo.

They were linked to Edmonton, Alberta native Jay Bouwmeester for months, bordering a year.

But the rumors always seemed to hit a dead end: Calgary wants too much in a trade, the Blues couldn't afford Bouwmeester, etc., etc. It was a list that seemed to be never-ending.

(St. Louis Blues/Mark Buckner)
Alex Pietrangelo is plus-4 on the ice in 14 games since being paired
with new partner Jay Bouwmeester.

When it didn't appear the Blues could find that "legit" top defensive partner for Pietrangelo, they used a carousel of their own guys to fill the void. There was preseason talk of Kris Russell being the guy. They started the season with Ian Cole, and Barret Jackman also filled the void.

But when general manager Doug Armstrong was finally able to pull the trigger to get Bouwmeester and his 25-plus minutes average ice time per game to St. Louis, the Blues finally got their guy.

They've played together as the top pairing now for 14 games, and it's safe to say that both Pietrangelo and Bouwmeester seem to be have found a niche. Call it the perfect match.

As the Blues get set to host the Los Angeles Kings to open the Stanley Cup Playoffs -- no offense to Carlo Colaiacovo -- the Blues finally have a top pairing comparable to some of the best around the NHL.

Pietrangelo, 23, who had his peaks and valleys throughout the course of the shortened season, found an immediate connection with the 29-year-old Bouwmeester. He was a plus-4 in 14 games with his new partner that saw his game become much more complete and steadier.

"I feel comfortable when I'm with him," Pietrangelo said of Bouwmeester, who was acquired for a 2013 first- and fourth-round picks along with prospect Mark Cundari and the rights to Reto Berra. "I feel my game's been elevated since he's been here. His physical attributes ... the way he skates, the way he handles the puck, his smarts ... everybody can see that.

"When he can skate you out of problems, skate himself out of problems, it certainly makes things look a lot easier. It does make things a lot easier for both of us."

Consider the fact that when Bouwmeester came to St. Louis, he was minus-11 in 33 games with the Flames. In 14 games with the Blues, Bouwmeester is a plus-6.

How much has Pietrangelo been a difference?

"It's been really good. He's a big guy, he can skate, he moves the puck," Bouwmeester said of Pietrangelo. "He does a lot of good things positionally. It seems like we haven't gotten in too much trouble out there. We're not spending a whole lot of time in our own zone out there. He's a guy that makes real good plays, plays that you kind of go, 'Wow, that's pretty good.' But he makes simple plays, too. If something's not there, he knows how to play a safe game at times.

"It's been fun. I think we've used each other well. We can move the puck and we're both the kind of guys that if the opportunity's there, you want to jump up in the play. To have that kind of on both sides, I think it helps."

Pietrangelo finally feels he can do things that may have limited him earlier in the season.

"Maybe a little more confidence knowing I've got a guy that's got a lot of skill over there that he's going to make the play if I get it to him," Pietrangelo said of Bouwmeester. "I never doubted any of the other guys on our team but another veteran guy who's been through a lot of situations.

"I think even when Jacks and I were together, I think I started feeling a little more confident having a veteran guy over there that can kind of stabilize you when things aren't going well. I think me and Bouw have kind of found that. When someone makes a mistake, we're able to pick each other up and move on from it."

Bouwmeester and Pietrangelo didn't even get the benefit of a full practice together. When Bouwmeester arrived for the Blues' game in Chicago on April 3, there was one morning skate the following day and on the ice together that night.

The Blues won that game 4-3 in a shootout and Bouwmeester logged 25 minutes, 6 seconds with one assist, while Pietrangelo -- although he didn't register a point -- logged 26:42. But immediately, there was a sense the Blues had something special. Call it instant success.

"I think so," Bouwmeester said. "Usually it's just a matter of communication. As you go, you sort of figure out each other's tendencies. He's a good, smart player. In that sense, he's pretty easy to play with."

Add in the combination of Kevin Shattenkirk and Jordan Leopold, the Blues' top four defensemen can strike at any time while being responsible in their own end.

But it all comes with a trust factor, one Bouwmeester and Pietrangelo have shared with one another from the get-go.

(St. Louis Blues/Mark Buckner)
Blues defenseman Jay Bouwmeester (right) has
been as good as advertised since his arrival. The
Blues  are 11-3-0 with him in the lineup.

"We both like to create offense," Pietrangelo said. "Even with Shatty and Leo, you see we're all trying to make plays and it's made a huge difference offensively for us. Both Leo and Bouw are responsible defensively, too, so not only the offensive side but the defensive side of the game has gotten a lot better knowing these guys can skate themselves out of problems and be smart in the defensive zone."

But looking at the grand scheme of things, Pietrangelo is the Blues' prized defenseman. They're doing whatever -- both on and off the ice -- to make his progression smooth and trending upward.

Bouwmeester is that guy.

"You try to," Bouwmeester said. "I think you try to help each other out. We talk about things and if there's things maybe we're getting in trouble with, we can change and do differently. We're always working together and trying to help each other out."

Against a big, strong, heavy team that will lean on you throughout this series like the Kings will attempt to do, the Blues can use both Bouwmeester's and Pietrangelo's skating ability to help with cleaner exits out of the defensive zone because the Kings will want to smother and punish the Blues into submission.

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