For a team that's taken pride in its penalty killing in recent seasons, eyebrows were raised when the St. Louis Blues
began 2011-12 on a down note.
The team allowed at least one power-play goal (seven in all) in the first six games of the season and 12 through the first 15 games, going 36-for-48 (75 percent). They were buried in last place in the NHL with no place to go but up.
Times certainly have changed.
When the NHL-leading Blues (45-18-7) lace up their skates against the Chicago Blackhawks
on Tuesday, they'll have a chance to make some history. After killing off all eight Columbus power plays Sunday, the Blues have killed off 47 in a row. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, that's the most consecutive kills by a team since the Washington Capitals
killed off 53 straight during the 1999-2000 season.
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"To be honest with you, I don't think anybody was really aware of that," said defenseman Alex Pietrangelo
, a key cog on the penalty kill. "It would be pretty good to have that.
"I think we're going on the ice with a sense of confidence right now that we're not going to allow teams to score. ... Once you start having success at something, you gain confidence.
Added defenseman Barret Jackman
, another key part of the man-down unit: "We're not looking at any streaks or anything like that. We just want to be consistent and when we have to go on the kill, we make it as tough as possible for the other teams.
"We weren't getting it done early in the season and we knew we were better than that. It was a matter of staying the course. We knew all along in this room the type of guys we have that can get the job done."
Ironically, Nationwide Arena was the last place the Blues allowed a power-play goal, dating to their visit to Columbus on Feb. 14, or 15 games ago. The 14-game streak without allowing a power-play goal is a Blues franchise record, and three shy of the League-high this season, set by the Toronto Maple Leafs
, who went 17 games in January and February without allowing an extra-man goal
The Blues have jumped to a season-best seventh in the NHL, a spot they're more familiar with. As recently as the 2007-08 season, they finished seventh (84.4 percent). In 2008-09, they were third (83.8 percent), and they were first in 2009-10 at 86.8 percent before slipping to 18th a season ago.
Now that they're getting back toward the top, it's the battleground that many of these players are comfortable with, and an area they take much pride in.
"We've gained a lot of confidence on it, and when you have goalies that make saves, it takes some of the pressure off of the unit as well," said Jackman, who logged 10:22 on the penalty kill in Sunday's 2-1 win at Columbus. "It takes everyone involved for the PK to be successful."
It includes the play of goalies Jaroslav Halak
and Brian Elliott
. They are the top duo in the NHL as far as statistics go, with Halak going 24-10-5 with a 1.84 goals-against average and .928 save percentage and Elliott going 21-8-2 with an NHL-leading 1.61 GAA as well as a League-leading .938 save percentage. Halak is 8-0-0 with a 1.45 GAA and .945 save percentage in his last eight starts.
"We just have to keep them in there," Elliott said of his teammates. "We know that giving (the opposition) some time, they're going to put the puck in the net, so we just stand tall, hold them in there and give us a chance to win. I don't think anyone's trying to win the game by themselves out there. It's a team game."
Coach Ken Hitchcock said the Blues' success comes from spending less time in the defensive zone. The less you're in there, the less opportunities the opposition gets.
"I think we're going on the ice with a sense of confidence right now that we're not going to allow teams to score. ... Once you start having success at something, you gain confidence."
-- Blues' defenseman Alex Pietrangelo
"You get in on a roll, you get confidence, you get a bead on teams," said Hitchcock, who mainly uses defensemen Jackman, Pietrangelo, Kevin Shattenkirk
and Roman Polak
and forwards Andy McDonald
, Scott Nichol
, T.J. Oshie
, Vladimir Sobotka
and David Backes
when down a man. "We're just skating the puck in the zone when we get it ... we're not playing flat-footed, we're on our toes. I think we've got three distinct groups that kill. There's a real pride in it. Obviously the goalies make the big saves, but I think the biggest thing is we're not in the zone as much.
"If you take a look at a two-minute power play, I would say we're in the zone probably between 50-55 seconds, which isn't a lot. We're winning faceoffs, we're getting 200-foot clears and when we're under pressure, we're making little plays to make big plays. And that's what we're good at lately. If we keep doing that, that allows you to spend less and less time in your zone.
"You're going to get beat sooner or later. ... I think the other thing people haven't really talked about is we don't take a lot of penalties. When you don't take penalties, your PK guys are fresh and they've got good energy. I think that's what's going on right now."
Pietrangelo agreed: "Once we figured things out, it's been an amazing turnaround for us."