Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Par for course, Blues penalty kill among NHL's best again

Unit has killed 31 of 33 chances thus far, good for second in the league, 
doing it with same personnel, no change transitioning to Wilson as coach

ST. LOUIS -- Ken Hitchcock won't talk about it. Maybe superstitions work for him.

The Blues coach may not want to jinx a good thing while it's going, but the Blues' penalty kill, considering the dryness of the offensive production in five of the past six games is concerned, garners attention.

The Blues have gone 2-2-2 the past six games but have scored a grand total of 11 goals (six in one game, one in each of the other five), which begs one to wonder how in the heck have they been able to pull six of a possible 12 points with such little production?
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Jay Bouwmeester (19) and Jake Allen (right) are part of a Blues penalty
kill that's gotten off to a strong start this season.

A number of factors come to mind, but penalty killing is right up there. 

The Blues' stinginess when down a man -- or in some cases, two -- that has seem them yield only two goals on 33 opposition man-advantages in nine games (93.9 percent), which is second in the NHL to the Minnesota Wild (96.2 percent). 

The Blues (5-2-2), who begin a two-game trip today at 6 p.m. at Madison Square Garden against the New York Rangers (6-3-0), have a bend but don't break mentality. There are times when the opposition has significant zone time, which tends to lead to trouble on a number of occasions. But the Blues are able to utilize a number of players on the PK, they keep bodies fresh throughout and position themselves well. Positioning usually also means sacrificing bodies with shot blocks and getting solid goaltending. 

It all adds up to thwarting momentum.

"It's a building block for us, it's a momentum giver, it gives us hope for sure," goalie Jake Allen said. "... We're all just bought in on the same page, guys sacrificing (for) each other. Guys don't try to do too much. A lot of times, less is more in situations like this. You get caught out of position when you're chasing all over the place. You stay tight and you stay in your positions. When a team doesn't do a whole lot, it usually works out."

Last year, the Blues were third with an 85.1 percent success rate, seventh in 2014-15 at 83.7 and second in 2013-14 at 85.7. So this is nothing new.

Brad Shaw has been the orchestrator of the unit for the past nine seasons, but the seamless transition to Rick Wilson, who took Shaw's role after he left to become assistant coach of the Columbus Blue Jackets and coach in the same role there, has been practically impeccable.

"There isn't a lot to change," said Blues defenseman Jay Bouwmeester, who partners up with Alex Pietrangelo not only 5-on-5, but as a defensive pair on the penalty kill, too. "Most teams kill penalties the same. Essentially you're trying to keep chances to a minimum, keep everything to the outside, block some shots and clean up some stuff around the net. One thing we've always been pretty good at is pressuring up the ice and not letting teams come in and setting up in our zone real easy. (Saturday, when the Blues were 5-for-5 against Los Angeles) I think we did a good job on a few of those where they were going back for pucks and that frustrates guys."

Since Hitchcock took over the Blues 13 games into the 2011-12 season, the Blues have a success rate of 85.1 percent, which is tops in the NHL. A lot of that has to do with similar personnel that Hitchcock trusts and the multiple players he uses on each kill.

"Just doing it as a group. Everyone's kind of doing their role," forward Jaden Schwartz said. "We've got quick change, fresh legs and guys take pride in penalty kill here. It's a big reason why we're getting points and winning games. Goalies obviously making big saves, but guys are sacrificing to get in lanes, good sticks, so it's just kind of a collective effort."

The Blues gave up a power play goal on opening night in Chicago on the Blackhawks' first chance of the season to Richard Panik, so they started 0-for-1, and they would be perfect since then had it not been for an uncharacteristic positioning of four guys on one side of the ice that left former Blue Dennis Wideman all alone in the slot against the Flames on Oct. 18. Aside from those, it's been lockdown mode.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Blues left wing Jaden Schwartz is among a crop of
forwards that get time on the PK for the Blues. 

"I think you have all the same guys here. For the last number of years we've always had a pretty good penalty kill," Bouwmeester said. "A lot of that is just kind of ingrained in guys in how we've played in the past. Killing penalties is just work. You've got to be smart and be in the right position, but more often than not, it's work and winning battles and getting pucks down the ice. I think we'd like to take a few less penalties but it's good when you're killing them off. At the end of the day, your goalie is always your best penalty killer and Jake's come up with big saves. It's been so far so good."

More times than not, if the Blues win the special teams' battles, they're on the receiving end of two points at the end of the night, and so far, the penalty kill is holding up its end of the bargain.

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