The Blues battled it out with the Tampa Bay Lightning on Saturday night, and prevailed, grabbing two points and a playoff spot.
It took the Blues 100 points to secure a spot in the fast approaching NHL Stanley Cup playoffs, and as of Sunday, the Blues were the only team in the NHL to have secured a playoff berth. With this amazing accomplishment completed, now is as good a time as any, to talk about what led to the Blues’ recent rise to the top, and what they will need to continue to do through the last nine games of the regular season, and leading into the playoffs.
The Blues started off the 2011-2012 season on shaky ground and were off to a 6-7 start under head coach Davis Payne when they elected to make a change after seeing their squad underperform right out of the gate. On November 6, the Blues replaced head coach Davis Payne with former Columbus Blue Jackets, Philadelphia Flyers and Dallas Stars head coach Ken Hitchcock.
Hitchcock, 60, came into St. Louis with a resume that consisted of a Stanley Cup championship, and a lifetime record of 533-350-88-70. The man they call “Hitch” was expected to make an impact on the young Blues team, but the impact he has made has been far greater than what was expected.
Under Hitchcock the Blues are 40-12-8, and have climbed to first place in the entire NHL. But Hitchcock was only a small piece of the Blues’ puzzle.
Defense and goaltending……
Hitchcock brought a “defense first” mentality with him that the Blues’ players immediately bought into, and it has turned the Blues into the best defensive team in the league. Last year’s Stanley cup playoffs were a perfect example of what it takes to win, and the two keys to winning in the playoffs are: stellar defense and goaltending. The Blues have found out that they have both of these traits.
The Blues currently lead the league in goals against, allowing only 135 goals in 73 games played. This stat is a testament as to how Hitchcock has changed this team for the better. Rarely are the Blues defensemen in a bad position on the ice, but in reality, the forwards are just as much a reason for the Blues stellar defense. The Blues’ forwards quickly drop back to help defend at the first sign of trouble. This quickly puts an end to most opponents’ offense. Basically the players on the Blues are thinking defense first, and as everyone knows, great defense leads to offense.
Great defense also leads to great goaltending which has by far been the main reason the Blues are the best team in the NHL. Both of the Blues’ goaltenders, Brian Elliott and Jaroslav Halak, have risen to the top of the league in almost every goaltending category. Elliott leads the league in goals against average followed closely by none other than his teammate Jaroslav Halak. Elliott also is atop the NHL in save percentage and Halak is once again right on his tail in that category. Goaltending and defense will ultimately determine playoff games, and it is evident that the Blues are the best in the NHL in both of those categories.
The Blues’ ability to work as a team to overcome the obstacles that they have faced this season has been a huge factor in where they stand today. Once again, injuries plagued the Blues but after the significant amount of experience they faced last season with key players injured, and GM Doug Armstrong’s offseason additions, the Blues have been able to consistently win regardless of the injuries.
The one piece that the Blues do lack is a superstar. They don’t have someone like Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, Pavel Datsyuk, etc. to give them a boost offensively every night. But when you take a look at the Blues’ leading scoring leaders, you understand why this hasn’t really hindered them. The Blues have seven players on their roster with more than 30 points, including two defensemen. Their roster also consists of eight players who have 10+ goals this season. The lack of a superstar hasn’t hindered the Blues, because the scoring has been spread out among every roster member. This is a great quality to have in a team as there is more than one person who can produce consistently.
Headed to the playoffs…..
As the Blues get set to play the last nine games of the regular season, it is important to briefly talk about how they need to play moving forward. The Blues must continue their successful special team play that has picked up lately. Special teams can win or lose a game just as easily as a goaltender can.
The Blues must also continue to play as a five man unit, coming together as one and relying on each other every night. It cannot be left up to one person to produce every night, and the Blues will need a wealth of scoring in the playoffs that will have to come from more than just the first line. Hopefully the team continues to buy in to Hitchcock’s game style and plays for the team and not themselves.
Lastly and perhaps the biggest key, is to get healthy. Obviously this is not something that can be fixed, but having guys like Alex Steen and Matt D’Agostini back in the lineup will be huge down the road.
Hopefully the Blues will continue to play well and will become the most feared team in the league. If they continue to play as well as they have been lately, there is no reason this squad can’t be the first to bring the Stanley Cup to St. Louis.