The St. Louis Blues are the first Western Conference team to have its ticket punched to the Stanley Cup Playoffs. They are also in the running to win the Presidents' Trophy for the first time since 1999-2000, when they finished with 114 points but lost to the San Jose Sharks in the Western Conference Quarterfinals.
Obviously, St. Louis is banking on a better result this spring, but before discussing expectations and potential for Ken Hitchcock's team, let's examine how the Blues got to this point in the season.
Here are five reasons why the Blues are heading to the playoffs for the third straight season with Hitchcock in charge:
1. Dominant defense
The success of any Hitchcock-coached team is based on limiting chances against. The Blues are among the best in the NHL at doing just that.
St. Louis is second behind the New Jersey Devils in shots-against per game (26.2), fourth in total shot-attempts allowed (3,563 according to ExtraSkater.com), and third in the NHL in goals-against per game (2.24). In addition, the Blues' penalty kill has been dominant all season and is currently ranked fourth at 85.5 percent.
It helps, of course, that the Blues have arguably the best defense corps in the League, led by a top-five of Olympic gold-medalists Alex Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester along with Barret Jackman, Roman Polak and Kevin Shattenkirk. They have combined for 147 points and a plus-79 rating.
Pietrangelo, Bouwmeester, Jackman and Shattenkirk have a Corsi rating of 53 percent or better, according to ExtraSkater.com. That means they are on the ice for more shot-attempts for than shot-attempts against.
Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott were holding down the position long before Ryan Miller arrived in a trade Feb. 28. They were faring quite well too, but Miller might be the reason the Blues win the Presidents' Trophy and head into the playoffs as the favorite to represent the Western Conference in the Stanley Cup Final.
In 10 starts with the Blues since coming over from the Buffalo Sabres, Miller is 7-2-1 with a 2.03 goals-against average and .916 save percentage. His numbers have taken a hit in the past two games (both losses), when he's allowed seven goals on 45 shots, but Miller has for the most part proven that he's energized after a couple of tough seasons in Western New York.
It helps, of course, that he's facing 23.8 shots on goal per start in St. Louis after dealing with more than 35 per game with the Sabres.
Elliott has started once since Miller's arrival, but he did his job, making 17 saves in a 3-2 shootout victory against the Minnesota Wild. He has 16 wins, a 2.07 GAA, .916 save percentage and three shutouts in 26 appearances, including 22 starts.
Halak, who was sent to the Sabres in the Miller trade, won 24 games of his 37 decisions while posting a 2.23 GAA, .917 save percentage and four shutouts for the Blues this season.
Between Miller, Elliott and Halak, the Blues' goalies have a 2.15 GAA and .917 save percentage.
3. Spreading it out on the power play
St. Louis' power play has improved in every season since Hitchcock arrived early in 2011-12. It's on pace to top 20 percent for the first time in five seasons.
The Blues' power play is ninth in the League at 20.1 percent. They've spread the wealth as five players have at least five power play goals, including David Backes, who leads St. Louis with nine. Seven players have at least 10 points on the power play, including Shattenkirk, who has a team-high 16 assists and 23 points.
By comparison, the Pittsburgh Penguins, No. 1 on the power play (24.6 percent), also have five players with five or more power-play goals and seven players with 10 or more power-play points. The Washington Capitals, No. 2 on the power play (23.6 percent), also have five players with five or more power-play goals, but are one short with six players that have at least 10 points on the power play.
St. Louis has allowed only five shorthanded goals, which is as good as or better than 24 teams.
4. Four-line depth
This is a necessity for any Cup contender. St. Louis most definitely has it.
Though Alexander Steen would likely be among the League's top-20 point-producers had he not missed 11 games with a concussion from Dec. 23 - Jan. 16, the Blues still don't have anybody who ranks in the top-30 in scoring this season. With 54 points, T.J. Oshie is tied with four other players for 37th in the League's scoring race.
However, the Blues have had 13 players score at least 20 points for them this season, including Chris Stewart, who was traded to the Sabres. The Chicago Blackhawks are the only other team with as many 20-point scorers.
Hitchcock has spread the ice time around as well. Steen is the only forward who averages more than 20 minutes per game. The Blues have seven forwards getting at least 15 minutes per game and four more of their regulars getting at least 11 minutes. Ryan Reaves is the only forward currently in the lineup averaging less than 10 minutes of ice time per game.
5. Score first, win second
St. Louis has scored the first goal in a League-high 45 games. That stat, of course, only matters if the team that scores first knows how to play with the lead and, more importantly, build on it. The Blues do both well.
Not only do they lead the League in scoring first, but they have the third-best winning percentage in games when they score first.
St. Louis is 38-2-5 when it scores the first goal; that's an .844 winning percentage, topped only by the Penguins' .892 and the Boston Bruins at .860. However, the Penguins have scored first in eight fewer games than St. Louis; Boston has done it 43 times to the Blues' 45.
Moreover, the Blues hadn't sustained a regulation loss when leading after the first period until Saturday, when they lost 4-1 to the Philadelphia Flyers after carrying a 1-0 lead into the second period. They are 29-1-3 when leading after the first and 30-0-4 when leading after the second.