Less is more: Minimizing penalties goes a long way for Blues

Minimizing penalties shouldn't be confused with eliminating them entirely, something enforcer Ryan Reaves knows better than anyone.

Adam Hunger/Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

ST. LOUIS — When the Blues’ penalty-kill issues began costing them valuable points, they adopted an added emphasis on a strategy that never fails.

Just stay out of the box.

It’s a foolproof method St. Louis didn’t need nearly as much a year ago, when it ranked second in the league by killing 85.7 percent of 293 opponent power plays, more than all but four other teams. But when the unit had killed fewer than 80 percent of its shorthanded opportunities and struggled to even stay in the top 20 of the NHL through December, bad penalties stood out quite a bit more.

"You can’t be a detriment to your team, especially your fourth line," says Steve Ott, who trails only linemate Ryan Reaves for the team lead with 48 penalty minutes. "I don’t think we’ll all ever be in trouble for a physical penalty, but it’s more of the hookings or the trippings that I’m sure the team will have problems with."

Coach Ken Hitchcock says he and his staff also don’t like to see stick penalties, something the Blues did far too often in the first half of the season. When all those mistakes reached their peak in mid-December, it didn’t take long for them to prove costly.

St. Louis weathered the storm through six power plays apiece in wins over Los Angeles and Colorado, both of whom converted only once. But when the Blues gave up 20 more power plays and eight goals in the next four games, it led to a four-game losing streak and the start of a dismal 1-5-1 stretch.

"When you’re going through a time when you’re not killing all the penalties, (not committing them) has been the real emphasis and I think we’ve done a better job of that," defenseman Jay Bouwmeester says. "It seems like you take a whole bunch and eventually it’s going to come back and bite you."

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A dominant 3-0 win at Colorado on Dec. 29 with only one penalty provided a good lesson, and the emphasis really took hold with a 6-0 rout of Arizona a week later. Dating back to that game, a 3-2 overtime loss to Detroit was the only time St. Louis allowed more than three power plays while racking up six big wins.

It didn’t hurt that the penalty kill has hit another hot streak, preventing goals on 32 of 34 power plays in its last 11 games to improve to 81.2 percent for the season. Hitchcock credits a bigger investment by players in special teams meetings and Bouwmeester notes forwards are making big contributions by playing aggressive enough to disrupt entries into the zone.

The league’s most successful power play has gotten plenty of deserved credit for the Blues’ impressive record, but the penalty kill clearly plays a role as well. It’s no coincidence that the only real stretch of games in which they’ve both been at their best was the NHL’s first streak of three straight wins by five goals or more since 1988.

"It’s one of those things where it can be an equalizer, can be a momentum builder on either side of the ledger," says David Backes, who is tied for fourth in the league with nine power-play goals. "We need it to be a positive one for us whether we’re killing a penalty at a critical time or we get a power play that someone’s been able to draw."

A power-play goal in Monday’s 3-1 win over Colorado improved St. Louis to 12-0-2 this season when outscoring opponents on special teams. It’s clearly a huge advantage, though the Blues have managed five wins in 11 games when outscored on power plays.

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Minimizing penalties shouldn’t be confused with eliminating them entirely, something Reaves knows better than anyone. His 73 penalty minutes are 25 more than any of his teammates, even though he understands too many can hurt his line’s rhythm or tire out some of St. Louis’ scorers.

"I think penalties always matter, even if you’re killing them, you’re still killing your momentum," Reaves says. "Any time you go two minutes and you can’t use some of your bench or you have a little momentum, you take a penalty, now you’re hemmed in your end for a while."

Still, that’s not going to change his physical play or his role as an enforcer, and he even earned the Third Star against Colorado despite not scoring any points thanks to six big hits. Bouwmeester and others note thwarting a power play can produce momentum, and Hitchcock points to a pair of successful penalty kills as the turning points in recent wins over San Jose and Arizona.

As with so many other things in hockey, it’s all about finding the right balance.

You can follow Luke Thompson on Twitter at @FS_LukeT or email him at lukegthompson87@gmail.com.