ST. LOUIS — A St. Louis Blues team that had to win a lot of 2-1 games to make the playoffs last year has come out smokin’ offensively this season, winning its first three games by a combined score of 14-4. Ten players have produced those 14 goals, including three by Alexander Steen and two each by David Backes and Vladimir Tarasenko.
That’s no accident.
The Blues knew they needed to improve their scoring. They finished 17th in the NHL in goals per game last season, and teams that finish near the top of the league offensively tend to go deep in the playoffs. The Chicago Blackhawks finished second overall in goals and first in five-on-five scoring en route to the Stanley Cup last year. The Boston Bruins, the Stanley Cup champions two years earlier, finished in the top five in goals and first in 5-5 scoring. Sandwiched in between were the Los Angeles Kings, who finished next to last in goals but rode a goaltending performance for the ages by Jonathan Quick to the title. The Kings were the exception to the rule.
So, over the summer, Blues coach Ken Hitchcock and his staff studied the most successful scoring teams in the league. What is it that separates the Pittsburgh, Chicago and Boston offenses from everyone else’s? Sure, Sidney Crosby, Patrick Kane and Patrice Bergeron have something to do with this, but so does the mentality of the entire team. These teams love to score.
And they are smart about it. They focus on puck possession. They are patient. Above all, they are creative. They look to make plays, capitalizing on the skill on their rosters.
The Blues have offensive skills up and down their roster. After three games, those skills are being demonstrated on the ice.
“We want to play with the puck,” Hitchcock says.
This offensive mentality requires 200-foot players — guys who play hard from one end of the rink to the other. Part of being a 200-foot player is being able to control the offensive end of the ice. Typically, the best defensive clubs are the ones that spend the most time in the offensive end of the rink anyway.
“The best teams in the league have the most 200-foot players,” Hitchcock says.
The message being sent to the Blues kicking off the 2013-14 season has been music to the ears of guys like Steen, T.J. Oshie, Patrik Berglund and Jaden Schwartz — guys who came into the league as offensive players and are far more comfortable playing in a system that encourages playmaking and creativity.
There are times when it’s necessary to get pucks deep in the offensive zone or chip it off the glass when caught defensively, but the Blues are a skilled, heavy team that plays with pace. You ask any coach in the league what they want in their forwards and most will tell you size, speed and skill. Few rosters bring all three up and down their lineup.
The Blues do. They have the luxury of being able to roll four lines. Obviously, there will be times when the bench shortens up, but their ability to come in waves makes them a difficult matchup for every team in the league.
It helps when the mentality on the back end matches the hunger up front.
“The coaching staff wants us leading the rush and being involved in everything we do offensively,” defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk says.
The Blues activate their defense as much as any team in the league. This isn’t limited to Jay Bouwmeester, Alex Pietrangelo and Shattenkirk. Even guys like Roman Polak and Barret Jackman are asked to force the issue offensively. Through the first three games, Polak has played as aggressively in the offensive end as we’ve seen since he became a full-time NHL player in 2008. It might not lead to impressive individual numbers for Polak, but it keeps the puck in the offensive end, where the Blues want it.
There will be plenty of games when the Blues will need to rely on defense and goaltending to win. That’s hockey, and the Blues are built to win any brand of hockey the opposition wants to play. We’ve seen this already, in both a 7-0 blowout of Florida and Wednesday’s 3-2 win over the Blackhawks. Goaltender Jaroslav Halak has been strong in all three games, especially when he made one big save after another against Chicago.
But what we’ve seen thus far indicates the Blues should feel pretty confident in their ability to control the offensive end of the ice. Playing a fast, puck-possession game doesn’t mean being reckless or loose defensively. There shouldn’t be any worry for the Blues when it comes to playing a responsible defensive game. It’s a big part of their identity, but so is scoring — and the Blues have shown they can fill the net.
You can follow Andy Strickland on Twitter at @andystrickland or email him at email@example.com.He also writes about the Blues and the NHL at truehockey.com.