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Vladimir Tarasenko, Mike Yeo keys to Blues clinching

Elite scorer's performance, coaching change set stage for St. Louis returning to playoffs

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

The St. Louis Blues have returned to the Stanley Cup Playoffs amid a year of major changes.

They traded goaltender Brian Elliott on June 24, lost captain David Backes and forward Troy Brouwer in free agency on July 1, fired coach Ken Hitchcock on Feb. 1 and traded defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk on Feb. 27.

After a 3-0 loss to the Winnipeg Jets on March 3, the Blues had lost five straight games and were 31-27-5, fourth in the Central Division and one point behind the Los Angeles Kings for the second wild card into the playoffs from the Western Conference.

But they have gone 11-1-2 since, the best record in the NHL in that span. They clinched a playoff berth with a 2-1 shootout loss at the Colorado Avalanche on Friday and are third in the Central, two points ahead of the Nashville Predators, with five games remaining for each.

[Related: Bracket if the playoffs started today]

The Blues have made the playoffs six straight seasons and 41 times in their 49 seasons in the League.

"We wanted to get into the playoffs," coach Mike Yeo said Friday. "That was goal No. 1, and we're there now, and that's something we should be very pleased about. And now we want to make sure we're on top of our game and we're in a good spot when we go in. … Now we just have to make sure we keep growing our game."

Here are five reasons the Blues clinched:


Vladimir Tarasenko

Tarasenko, one of the NHL's elite scorers, continues to carry the offense.

He has 36 goals, tied for fourth in the League. He is the first St. Louis player to score at least 35 goals in three straight seasons since Brett Hull did it in five straight from 1989-90 through 1993-94.

And Tarasenko isn't relying on the power play, either. He is tied for third in the League in even-strength goals with 27.

He has 69 points, tied for 13th in the League and leading the Blues by 18.

Video: STL@ARI: Tarasenko scores goal for special guest Ari


Coaching change

General manager Doug Armstrong made a difficult decision Feb. 1.

Since the start of the 2011-12 season, when he hired Hitchcock after 13 games, the Blues had earned a .644 point percentage. Only the Pittsburgh Penguins (.656) and Chicago Blackhawks (.648) had been better.

Hitchcock had taken the Blues to the Western Conference Final last season and within two wins of their first Stanley Cup Final since 1970. He had 781 career wins, one short of tying Al Arbour for third in NHL history.

But the Blues had gone 9-14-1 in their past 24 games and were clinging to the second wild card. Armstrong thought they weren't playing as a team.

"We have to regain wanting what's best for the Note on the front, not the name on the back," Armstrong said then.

So Armstrong fired Hitchcock, one of his best friends, and replaced him with Yeo, who had been associate coach and was scheduled to take over next season.

The Blues have gone 18-7-2 since. Only the Blackhawks (20-4-2) and Calgary Flames (19-6-1) have been better during that span.


Improved defense

The biggest difference since the coaching change has been defense.

The Blues allowed 3.12 goals per game under Hitchcock, 28th in the NHL. They have allowed 1.67 goals per game under Yeo, best in the League in that span.

The penalty kill is one reason for the improvement. The Blues killed 82.8 percent of their penalties under Hitchcock, 12th in the NHL. They have killed 88.9 percent under Yeo, second in the League during that span.

Their goal differential has gone from minus-16 under Hitchcock, 21st in the League, to plus-28 under Yeo, best in the League in that span.


Goaltending turnaround

The improved defense goes hand in hand with improved goaltending.

Jake Allen became the No. 1 goaltender after the Elliott trade but struggled so badly that he was kept home from a road trip in late January to clear his head. He had a .895 save percentage under Hitchcock. Only Petr Mrazek of the Detroit Red Wings (.894) was worse as of Feb. 1 among goalies who had played at least 25 games.

But when Armstrong fired Hitchcock, he also replaced goaltending coach Jim Corsi with assistant general manager Martin Brodeur and goalie development coach Ty Conklin. Allen has a .943 save percentage since. Only Sergei Bobrovsky of the Columbus Blue Jackets (.945) has been better since Feb. 1 among goalies who have played at least 10 games.

Video: STL@COL: Allen stones Nieto, Compher with big saves


Alex Pietrangelo

Shattenkirk had 42 points (11 goals, 31 assists) in 61 games at the time of the trade. He was a key part of the power play with 20 points (seven goals, 13 assists).

But he was a pending unrestricted free agent; the Blues received a strong return from the Washington Capitals, including a first-round pick in the 2017 NHL Draft; and the Blues had Pietrangelo, who had taken over for Backes as captain.

Since the trade, Pietrangelo has 12 points (three goals, nine assists), tied for fourth in the NHL among defensemen. He has seven points on the power play (one goal, six assists). Shattenkirk has 11 points (11 assists), six on the power play.

Pietrangelo went from averaging 24:49 of ice time before the trade, 12th in the League, to 26:39 since Shattenkirk's departure, fourth in the League in that span.

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