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Defensive changes played big role in Blues' success

Trade of Kevin Shattenkirk, adjustment to new structure key in reaching Western Conference Second Round against Predators

by Louie Korac / NHL.com Correspondent

ST. LOUIS -- The St. Louis Blues were a question mark to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs when they traded defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk to the Washington Capitals on Feb. 27.

But changes in their defensive structure following the trade have paid dividends and are a big reason they'll play Game 1 of the Western Conference Second Round against the Nashville Predators at Scottrade Center on Wednesday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports).

In their five-game defeat of the Minnesota Wild in the first round, the Blues allowed eight goals (1.60 per game), which is in line with what they allowed in the final 21 regular-season games after the Shattenkirk trade (40 goals, 1.90 per game).

 

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In their first 61 games the Blues allowed 176 goals (2.88 per game), eighth-most in the NHL.

Adjusting to the new system installed by coach Mike Yeo after he replaced Ken Hitchcock on Feb. 1 played a role. So did the return of defenseman Robert Bortuzzo in Game 2 against the Wild after missing six games because of an upper-body injury. 

"I don't want to say that our identity has changed back there but obviously if you take a guy like [Shattenkirk] out and replace him with a guy like Bortuzzo, then they're different types of players," Yeo said. "We've got a big group, we've got a physical group. We've got a group that's going to compete and make it tough on the other team. But our defensive game relies far more than just on our defensemen. I think that from that point on [after the Shattenkirk trade], we were in must-win mode, and when you get in there the focus on all the details of our game has been there. 

"And the forwards, it's their job to make sure they're helping out as well in terms of how we play with the puck and how we play without the puck. If we're doing the right things, then they should help make the defensemen play a better game."

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Alex Pietrangelo increased his role offensively to offset Shattenkirk's loss and Colton Parayko did well in a top-four role.

"We've been doing a good job of different players elevating their games," Parayko said. "[Shattenkirk] is a pretty special player in a lot of different aspects. He's also a special teammate. He was one of the best guys in the locker room and things like that, but it's just one of those things where you've got to realize what you lost and you've got to make sure that everyone comes together, and we just all kind of picked up the lost weight as a group."

Goaltending also played a big role, with Jake Allen and Carter Hutton going from an .895 save percentage under Hitchcock to .941 after the coaching change.

The Blues know their defensive structure will be tested by the Predators, who averaged 3.25 goals per game in their four-game sweep of the Chicago Blackhawks in the first round. Especially dangerous is the Predators' top line of Filip Forsberg, Ryan Johansen and Viktor Arvidsson, which totaled 15 points (five goals, 10 assists) against the Blackhawks.

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"They've got dangerous guys," defenseman Jay Bouwmeester said. "We know how they play. They play with a lot of speed and they want to generate chances off the rush. They present some of the same problems that [Minnesota] does. They were a good-skating team and that one line having success against Chicago, I'm sure they're feeling good about themselves, but you prepare for it. It's the same old story, you try and take away their time and space, the time with the puck. 

"For us to be successful, we're going to have to make sure we're taking care of the puck because they rely on their transition a lot and they're quite good at it. It kind of goes down the line; it's all connected. It's going to be a good challenge for sure."

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