Blues have won with defense, then with offense, but rarely both at once
ST. LOUIS — It’s easy to forget this Blues team once struggled to score and survived by limiting goals from opposing offenses.
Since Thanksgiving, they’ve had the league’s most productive offense by a wide margin, posting a 14-7-2 record while averaging 3.65 goals per game. Defense has been their weakness, and some occasionally shaky goaltending has contributed to 2.78 goals allowed per game during that stretch, tied with Anaheim for 18th in the 30-team NHL.
That’s quite a difference from the first 22 games of the season, when St. Louis jumped out to a 14-6-2 record while holding opponents to a league-best two goals per game. But despite Vladimir Tarasenko’s red-hot November, the Blues ranked 19th with 2.59 goals per game after a 3-2 shootout loss to visiting Ottawa on Nov. 25.
"I think we know we have a deep team and we can attack teams in different ways," defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk says. "We can be a strong defensive team, which I think is what we pride ourselves in first and foremost because we know we can put pucks in the net."
So what happened to the elite defense St. Louis played early in the season? Why did it take so long for all the Blues’ scoring weapons to start heating up? Although few significant changes have been made to the roster or game plan, several different explanations provide some answers.
Any conversation about the defensive woes must begin with goaltender Brian Elliott, who held a 2-0 lead in the second period against Ottawa when a collision forced him out of the game. The Senators rallied back to win against Jake Allen, and the Blues’ defensive numbers began to fall as Elliott missed five weeks with a sprained knee.
Opponents scored at least two goals in every game for more than a month, and frequently things got much worse. Allen’s impressive early-season play deteriorated as he was asked to do more, and 42-year-old Martin Brodeur could do only so much to stop the bleeding.
Both made some mistakes, but they’re far from the only players who deserved blame for an inability to keep the puck out of the net. St. Louis hit a new low in late December, when it gave up 18 goals during a four-game losing streak, including its only two games of five or more goals allowed all season.
Just about everything went wrong, from too many penalties to turnovers in the defensive zone. Opposing forwards found a few more scoring chances, many of which left the Blues’ goaltenders no chance.
"The biggest area for me is we’re too quick to get out of the zone to get up on offense and so we leave the guy kind of stranded and our layers of offensive support aren’t there on exits," coach Ken Hitchcock says. "We’re working on it and we really get better as the game goes on."
When they do successfully get out of the defensive zone, though, the Blues have often done more than enough to atone for their errors. Three lines made significant contributions for an explosive offense buoyed by a remarkable 5.6 goals per game during a five-game win streak earlier this month.
Captain David Backes says part of the reason may be a tendency to focus more on defense early in the season, when many opponents are playing a more "free-flowing" offensive game. As that "summer hockey mode" dissipated, Backes says St. Louis increased its attack and began finding more goals.
His line has led the way in January, scoring 41 points in eight games. T.J. Oshie is on pace to surpass his career high of 21 goals, Alexander Steen needs just eight more assists to tie his career high of 31 assists, and Backes leads the league’s most successful power-play unit with nine goals.
"What we struggled with the first 35 games of the year is thinking that we’re all of a sudden a cutesy skill team, and that’s not the case," Backes says. "We’re a hard-nosed, blue-collar team that’s got a lot of skill that when we create those chances through the same way we’ve created (on) this team for three, four, five years now, we’ve got the skill then to finish those at a much higher rate than we did perhaps in the past."
Hitchcock and fourth-line forward Steve Ott say the three veterans make it easy for everyone else to follow their example. More checking and straightforward simple play is less of a change in strategy than the team just finally applying the message Hitchcock has been preaching all season.
If they combine that with a return to their early-season defensive form with Elliott back looking sharp in net, it’s almost scary to think how good they could be. In the end, though, only one thing really matters to the second-place Blues as they try to keep climbing up the standings in the NHL’s toughest division.
"We don’t care if it’s 1-0 or 6-5," says Shattenkirk, another St. Louis player on pace to shatter his career high for points. "But as long as we get the win, we’re pretty happy."