Monday, April 18, 2016

In 5-on-5 play, Blues feel they can overcome anyone

Keeping shifts short has enabled team to 
limited Chicago to one goal in series in that area

CHICAGO -- Blues coach Ken Hitchcock was to the point and spot-on in his pregame message before Game 3 on Sunday against the Chicago Blackhawks.

In order for the Blues to play to their strengths and perhaps win the Western Conference first round series against the Blackhawks, keeping the game at 5-on-5 would be to the Blues' benefit.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Blues left wing Jaden Schwartz (17) said the Blues are good in all
situations because they don't overextend shifts. 

"We've got to help ourselves by not going in the box, keeping it 5-on-5 and building it to our strengths," Hitchcock said before the Blues rallied for a 3-2 win Sunday to take a 2-1 series lead, "because we feel 5-on-5 we've got a deep team. But we need the deep part of our lineup to be able to play and contribute and you've got to play 5-on-5 to do that."

The Blues found themselves in a pickle having to kill three penalties in the game's first six minutes. They were only be down 1-0 getting through all that.

In the series, the Blues have outscored the Blackhawks 3-1 in those 5-on-5 situations, and for some that may be surprised that Chicago has one 5-on-5 goal, don't be.

During the regular season, the Blues were second in the NHL (behind Los Angeles) in 5-on-5 goals allowed (124). Chicago was 20th with 134 5-on-5 goals. 

What's been the Blues' recipe for success? Keep players fresh and at a minimum at average ice time per shift.

The Blues didn't have a player average more than 47 seconds (Alex Pietrangelo) per shift in the win Sunday. Joel Edmundson had the shortest shift average at 23 seconds.

"I think this year more than ever, our depth has really come into play," Pietrangelo said. "You just look at the way (Scottie Upshall) and (Kyle Brodziak), (Ryan Reaves) and now (Steve Ott), they've given us a little extra element, that depth that we've wanted. They've been playing all situations and we need that from them. We're rolling four lines right now, we have a good balance of offense and taking care of our own end. We seem to be resilient in how we're coming with our four lines. They don't seem to be able to tire us out because we have that sense of fresh legs on the bench and everybody is hungry to get out there."

Despite just the one goal, the Blackhawks like the opportunities they're getting in the 5-on-5 situations.

"Well, we are getting some chances," defenseman Duncan Keith said. "Obviously, we want to be as best we can on 5-on-5. I thought we did a really good job last game of generating chances and drawing penalties, especially early on. Sometimes it just comes down to bearing down and burying some chances. Their goaltender’s playing well, and that can be easier said than done. Five-on-five, I think the goals that are going to come are going to be goals getting it to the net, come playoff time, where we have traffic in front and guys going to the net and getting the shots through on to the net, and those greasy goals that always get talked about during playoff time." 

Chicago's skilled players thrive off tired legs, and with the Blues keeping shifts at a minimum (the top nine forwards fluctuated from a low of Jori Lehtera at 30 seconds per shift to a high of David Backes at 42 seconds per shift), there was never an issue of tired legs. 

"Penalty kill, 5-on-5, power play, you don't want to extend your shifts," said left wing Jaden Schwartz, who averaged 33 seconds per shift Sunday. "They've got some players over there that can make you pay if you're playing on tired legs. You're not able to cover them like you would if you got fresh legs. We've got a deep team. We trust everyone that goes on the ice. The more you can get guys playing and into the groove a little bit and touching and feeling it, everybody doing their job, it just gets everyone more involved. I think short shifts is key, especially with how fast it is out there right now."

It's precisely why the Blues' stat sheet from Sunday read: Lehtera, 30 seconds per shift; Robby Fabbri, 35 seconds; Schwartz, 33 seconds; Alexander Steen, 37 seconds; Patrik Berglund, 39 seconds; Paul Stastny, 34 seconds; Troy Brouwer, 34 seconds; Backes, 42 seconds; and Vladimir Tarasenko, 34 seconds among the top nine forwards. Kyle Brodziak (33 seconds), Scottie Upshall (32 seconds) and Steve Ott (29 seconds) were balanced out as the fourth line.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Blues players Troy Brouwer (36) and Alex Pietrangelo (27) battle with
Chicago's Andrew Shaw for possession of the puck in Game 3 Sunday.

"I think the thing that we’ve been really good at -- 5-on-5 we were one of the top two or three teams in the league in o-zone possession," Hitchcock said. "So I thought from a possession standpoint, we’ve done a really good job all year and that’s being our forte as playing defense. We’re not maybe as structured detail-wise or as defined detail-wise as we were in previous years defensively. But we’ve done it in a different way. We’ve activated our defense. We’ve included our defense. 

"We’re asking a lot. We started the season with a reckless play. We’ve continued it, all with the mindset that how much more time can we spend in the offensive zone. That’s the only way you can win in the league. You play defense by occupying the offensive zone. You can’t play it on three-quarter ice game. Can’t play it on a counter game. The other teams are just too good, too quick. So we’ve tried that and it’s been very successful for us. It didn’t manifest offensively as much as we thought it would. Our numbers, we were 25th or 23rd in the league. But then we really stepped up since the All-Star break. We’ve been in the top five in the league since that time. And it’s our timing. We’ve been able to continue to grow spending as much time in the offensive zone. It’s no different than playing Chicago. If we’re on our heels or we’re trying to counter-attack, we’re not going to be successful. We’re not going to score that way. We’re going to have to spend more and more time in their zone and that’s the way we’ve been structured since Day 1."

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