ST. LOUIS -- A reoccurring thought early in the season was if the St. Louis Blues could add some punch to their punchless special teams, their ascension in the standings would be rapid considering how much goaltending and five-on-five play was carrying them.
It's no secret that the Blues' play at even strength has been stellar the entire season. They're No. 1 in goals-against average per game at 1.88 and even more impressive, they're No. 1 in 5-on-5 goals allowed at 79 in 67 games, or 1.18 goals per contest.
Combined with the goaltending of Jaroslav Halak
and Brian Elliott
, those numbers were the biggest reason why the Blues (42-18-7) were winning.
It sure wasn't because of special teams, which saw both the penalty kill and power play rank 30th in the NHL as late as December.
But as the Blues sit atop the Western Conference with 91 points and tied with the New York Rangers for the overall NHL lead, times have definitely changed.
After killing off all five Chicago power plays in a 5-1 victory Tuesday against the Blackhawks, the Blues are in a stretch of 32 straight successful penalty kills dating to Feb. 14. They currently sit at a season-high ninth in the League in penalty killing and it is all because of simple execution.
"Our penalty kill has been real solid the last 30-something times now," said center Scott Nichol
, who added a shorthanded assist Tuesday night and is a catalyst on the PK unit. "We're all on the same page and it's just about time and space and not giving them much space. You look at our penalty kill, we change pretty quick so we stay fresh and we can out-compete and outwork their power play.
"We take pride in that. That's kind of our baby. We want to see it keep climbing. We put a lot of effort, blood, sweat and tears (into it). We have a ton of meetings on it. It doesn't give you a lot of accolades but it makes you win hockey games."
When Blues coach Ken Hitchcock came on board, one of his first proclamations was that the team's best players had to be on the specialty teams.
That's why the Blues will use David Backes
, T.J. Oshie
, Andy McDonald
, Patrik Berglund
, Alex Pietrangelo
, David Perron
and Kevin Shattenkirk
to go along with players like Barret Jackman
, Roman Polak
, Nichol and Vladimir Sobotka
to try and shut down the opposition's most skilled players.
"I think the penalty killing has discouraged a lot of teams lately," Hitchcock said. "I think it's taken out the top players and discouraged them.
"The penalty killing and the goaltending have been the No. 1 and 2 aspects of our game that have helped us win. When you kill penalties and you take out the top players and they don't get a beat in on the game, they don't get a bite on the game, they get discouraged and then I think the team loses energy."
The veteran Jackman, a stalwart on the team's PK unit for the better part of a decade now, said it's all about confidence.
"Once you have that confidence in the PK, everybody's moving together, we're making the right reads on when to pressure, when to kind of sit back and let them sit on the outside," he said. "I think goaltending's been huge, too. ... It's a team effort when you go out there on the PK."
When the Blues were allowing power-play goals early in the season at an alarming clip, certain elements of the game were noticeably missing.
"No. 1, skating the puck out of trouble. Obviously big saves by the goalie is No. 2 and then (No.) 3 for me is winning faceoffs," Hitchcock said. "We make the other team pull it 200 feet.
"I think the biggest thing is we skate the puck, whether it's 3 feet, 6 feet, 20 feet, whatever. We're not standing still trying to make a 20-foot clear. We're skating to create space for ourselves and I think that that's really helped us. When you see us in the zone, we're not checking with our eyes, we're checking with our legs. It's helped a lot. It's made us close our gaps quicker, it's forced the other team to stand still more, it's forced the other team to make big mistakes. And I think when you're doing it with three pairs like we have right now, everybody knows what their role is. We're able to have one group win it on the right side and two groups on the left. We're able to win faceoffs now on a consistent basis when we weren't before."
As for the power play, a unit that remained dead-last for a long portion of the season, has jumped to a season-best 19th in the League. It's no coincidence that the return of McDonald 13 games ago has helped the Blues' power play soar. They're 11-for-37 (29.7 percent) in that period.
"As far as our power play goes, if we're getting points on the power play, it sparks our offensive guys, all our top guys," said Shattenkirk, who has eight points in six games. "... I think Andy Mac has been a key component to that. He's just a guy who comes out and vocally does it on the ice for us and tells us what to do. Obviously with his play, it's hard to beat. It's nice to have him back."
If the Blues continue to get quality special teams play, combined with the play of Halak (22-10-5, 1.89 GAA, .926 save percentage) and Elliott (20-8-2, 1.63, .937), the top spot in the Western Conference and even the Presidents' Trophy could be within reach.
"I think our power play's really been stepping up and scored some big goals for us," Jackman said. "The PK's really been playing hard and frustrating the opposition's best players. It's definitely a good combo."