The true mark of a great team is how they respond to setbacks. In the St. Louis Blues’ case, it’s taking penalties. The Blues currently find themselves surging to the top of the NHL, in part thanks to a stifling penalty-killing unit that has only allowed one goal in the last nine games (29 for 30).
The feat is even more impressive considering a major penalty killer, defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, has been out for the last five weeks after abdominal surgery.
Kevin Shattenkirk and Zbynek Michalek are out here on the ice this morning. #stlblues
— Lou Korac (@lkorac10) March 10, 2015
In his absence, the Blues have looked to defensemen Alex Pietrangelo and Barret Jackman, along with forward Alex Steen to lead the way and shut down opposing power plays. Penalties are going to happen, but the Blues are ready to accept the challenge and overcome these setbacks.
The newfound success on the penalty kill is a much different story from earlier in the season, when the Blues struggled in that area. On Jan. 1, the Blues’ penalty kill ranked in the lower half of the NHL (20th overall), but since then, they are creeping into the top ten (11th overall). There are several reasons for the turnaround.
Winning a faceoff and clearing the zone is a great way to shave at least 20 seconds off a team’s power play. The Blues rank second in the NHL in faceoff win percentage (53.4%).
Paul Stastny won over 70% of his draws last night. 25th time this season he's won over 60%. Now 4th in #NHL in Faceoff % #stlblues
— Andy Strickland (@andystrickland) February 28, 2015
Although Paul Stastny may not be scoring like the Blues expected when they signed him to a big free agent contract, he is earning his money at the faceoff circle. Coach Ken Hitchcock is using his best faceoff man more often, especially on the penalty kill and also for critical faceoffs in the offensive zone.
It was Stastny that won a huge faceoff against Tampa Bay in early February, that puck going straight to Vladimir Tarasenko, who did the rest. The big goal tied the game for the Blues, who eventually won it in overtime.
The Blues have done a solid job of looking out for their goaltenders, making sure they are in a great position to see any shots through traffic. That makes saves much easier for Brian Elliott and Jake Allen. The duo has combined for eight shutouts this season and has provided stability in net no matter which one of them starts.
There is also a collective effort between the goaltenders and defensemen to clear any rebounds out of danger. Both goalies work hard on containing rebounds, but their defensemen are there to get pucks out of danger areas.
The Blues are showing their true toughness when they put their bodies in the line of fire. In the past few weeks, the team has picked up the effort to block shots, and opposing teams are taking notice.
I'm pretty sure the Flyers couldn't get shots at the airport bar without the Blues blocking them.
— Dan D Bradley (@DanDBradley) March 13, 2015
The Blues have also recently bolstered their shot blocking with the addition of defenseman Zbynek Michalek. Michalek has the most blocked shots in the NHL since 2005, with more than 1,500. Michalek just returned from a concussion but will eventually see time on the penalty killing unit.
The Blues have helped their PK with the addition of Marcel Goc from Pittsburgh. Since acquiring Goc on Jan. 28, the Blues have allowed only eight power play goals (57 for 65).
More Skill on the PK
There’s a growing trend in the NHL to use star players more on the penalty kill. Often times the grinders kill penalties while the scorers rest for a few minutes, but that’s not the case anymore.
The New York Rangers notably have started using Rick Nash on the penalty kill and it has paid off with several shorthanded goals.
Likewise, the Blues have begun using Jaden Schwartz, TJ Oshie and David Backes on the penalty kill unit, joining Steen. The move is rewarding, but also risky, putting players in front of bruising shots from the point. Schwartz actually missed several games earlier in the season after blocking a shot and breaking a bone in his foot.
Of course the best case scenario is to not take any penalties at all, but often times penalties happen in the heat of battle. The Blues have shown they are ready for anything, and their penalty kill can be one of their big driving forces to finally getting beyond the first round of the playoffs.