Turning Point: Perfecting The Product

With a rigorous grind ahead, the St. Louis Blues have time to prepare for a critical chunk of the 2013 season.

St Louis Blues v Colorado AvalancheIn essence, these four days off before the Chicago Blackhawks visit are a final tune-up for the remaining 30 regular season games. Starting with Chicago, the Blues open a stretch of 10 games in 17 nights, including long flights out West.

Through 18 games played, the St. Louis Blues sit at 10-6-2 with 22 points. After a hot 6-1 start, the Blues stumbled through a 0-4-1 stretch that started with a bogus, game-changing penalty on David Backes in Detroit. A successful 3-0 road trip had them buzzing again, but then dropped consecutive games to San Jose and Colorado, and worse, a questionable non-call has rookie Vladimir Tarasenko concussed.

It’s been a season of ebb-and-flows. Cup Crazy one minute, pull-your-hair-out the next. That’s hockey, and that’s a frantic fan base derived of Lord Stanley.

The Blues worked on things Monday that would normally take place in training camp: puck movement, line changing, passing under duress. Every team is dealing with these issues as a direct result of the lockout.

Unfortunately for St. Louis, it’s hard not to glance at Chicago’s success. At 16-0-3, the ‘Hawks have collected points in every contest, and haven’t lost in regulation in over 11 months. Chicago is getting consistent effort from all four lines and both Corey Crawford and Ray Emery are playing rock solid between the pipes. They check, they score (3.10 goals per game), and they kill penalties (88.7%).

St. Louis has to find the next gear. They can’t throw weight around and play relentless for 40 minutes and expect to win, especially with the goaltending problems.

“Transition and tempo” is how Ken Hitchcock referred to Monday’s practice. Somehow, players have to push through the toll of a condensed season and outwork the other team. It’s rather easy to sit here and write that guys need to work harder, but I’m not a professional athlete — It’s not my job to will my endurance through a game. 

Watching the Blues from the broadcast perch, a lot of the problems I see start in their own end; defensemen struggling to make the first clean pass to set up the transition offense. It’s obvious that the Scottrade Center’s ice surface plays like the snowy roads after MODOT fails to prepare for 2 inches of snow. Pretty ridiculous.

Timing is so important, and the slightest hiccup ruins the momentum of an entire offensive possession. It leads to the Blues’ top lines getting pinned, wasting the shift to simply get the puck out.

Secondly, every line seems to fall into fatigue at the same time. When the team is looking for a line to break the slump, it just gets worse. It means less time spent in the offensive zone, which leads to less shots, and fewer battles to draw penalties. In consecutive games, the Schwartz-Nichol-Reaves line has been most physical in the offensive zone … that’s not exactly the blueprint formula. Ideally, that honor goes to Perron-Backes-Oshie … but it hasn’t happened all season.

By the numbers …

People keep reminding me that Kevin Shattenkirk has the 2nd most points among defensemen…He’s also a minus 5 in February with 2 points in his last six games. He has one goal all year. Shatty can and must play better.

David Backes has 2 goals and 12 points this season. A year ago he notched 24 goals (8 PP) and was a nuisance in front of opposing goaltenders. Where did this go?

Alex Pietrangelo averages 25:33 minutes on ice each game, good for 10th in the NHL. 

Finally …

It’s good to see Kris Russell and Roman Polak working in tandem again after a horrifically slow start. Neither fed off each other’s strength, which poses as a legit weapon. Russell’s speed is above average, and Polak can land some crushing blows. They were undoubtedly the Blues’ best pair in the postseason last year, and it would take some pressure off Alex Pietrangelo.

Outlook …

Goaltending is very important, and it looks like Jaroslav Halak has clamped down the elephant in the room.

Just as the Blues could be in the upper echelon, they could also be near the bottom. It’s been a strange start…not great, not terrible. If these tune-ups turn into legitimate play, things could get exciting.

 

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