November 08, 2010
That the St. Louis Blues are in contention in the Western Conference isn't a surprise; five of the six so-called experts in the Puck Daddy staff prognostications had them as a playoff team.
(The outlier was Sean Leahy, who in fairness has an inherent bias against Budweiser holding him back.)
That the St. Louis Blues are on top of the Western Conference (tied with Los Angeles in points, with a game in-hand) on Nov. 8 is a surprise.
That the Blues have 20 points in 12 games and one regulation defeat has us testing our water supply for hallucinogens, especially now that they're topping power-ranking polls around North America.
Our disbelief shouldn't be read as a slight to the Blues, even if that's going to inevitably feel like for many St. Louis fans. Like the predictions said: This ain't Cinderella, and not just because David Backes(notes) will smash your glass slipper and then feed the shards to Cam Janssen(notes).
But again: One regulation loss in 12 games. For a team that's seventh from the bottom in offense (2.43 goals-for average) and 24th in the league on the power play (11.9 percent).
Granted, when your goalies have combined for a 1.38 GAA and a four shutouts ...
Here are five reasons the St. Louis Blues are atop the Western Conference this season and keeping even the most caustic Blues fans bowing in humility to the Hockey Gods.
1. Their Ticket Sales Department Is The Ultimate Motivator
As the Blues stake their claim to the conference lead, please recall the team's ticket sales staff put their second-half earnings at stake before the season.
Using a new and unique ticket promotion, the Blues are allowing fans who purchase season tickets for select seats to pay half of the bill now and the other half when the Blues make the 2010-11 playoffs.
What if the Blues don't make the playoffs? You don't pay the other half.
At this rate, the Blues can start passing around the hat by New Year's.
We list this item light-heartedly, but know this: NHL players are usually aware when their teams make a bold marketing statement. No one's saying it's a primary motivator, but it's a good kick in the hockey pants to start a season.
Halak's been every bit the goalie he was in the playoffs last year for the Montreal Canadiens, dispelling any notion that he couldn't replicate that performance in the regular season. In 10 appearances with the Blues this season, The Client has posted an 8-1-1 record with a 1.46 goals-against average, .944 save percentage and three shutouts. He's facing 26.6 shots per game. Ty Conklin(notes), meanwhile, has a 0.96 GAA in two starts and a shutout (over the New York Rangers last night). Much to love between the pipes for the Blues, and much for Walsh to crow about on Twitter.
3. An AHL Coach In His Second Year After an Interim-ship Means Good Things
Davis Payne was retained by the St. Louis Blues after an impressive run as an interim coach last season. Now it appears he's found the right message and system for his team ... much like Bruce Boudreau did in a 108-point season for the Washington Capitals in Year 2, a franchise best. Or Dan Bylsma with the Pittsburgh Penguins, leading them the Cup and then a 101-point season. Or Cory Clouston, who followed his 19-11 interim season with a 94-point campaign the following year with the Ottawa Senators.
Bottom line, as assistant coach Brad Shaw told Chris Botta of FanHouse, is that he's the right kind of Payne for the Blues:
"Davis is preaching a skating style, and it's a system ideally suited to our players' talents," said Shaw, who coaches the defensemen and the Blues' penalty killing units that gave the Rangers next to nothing during a five-minute power play in the third period on Sunday. "Davis is not asking our guys to play a lot one-on-one. We always have support when we're on our game."
You can't spell "St. Louis" without "Team." Or without the 's', 'l', 'o', 'u', 'i' and second 's' that are also required.
4. The Personnel Fits for Gut-Check Hockey
While the Blues don't score many goals, they're still scoring enough to win. They have six different players with game-winning goals. When they do score, their defense has made them unbeatable: They're 6-0-1 when leading after two periods, and their goals are evenly distributed: 10 in the first, 8 in the second, 10 in the third thus far this season.
Pizzo and I mixed it up about this team on the radio today, with Pizzo expecting the Blues to come back down to earth and yours truly expecting that offensive players who have yet to get going (like Andy McDonald(notes)) will get going.
While plus/minus isn't the end-all for stats, there's no denying what it tells you something about the Blues: David Perron(notes) and Alex Steen(notes) are both a plus-7 up front. Matt D'Agostini(notes) is a plus-6. The Blues have two regular players with minus ratings: Brad Winchester(notes) and B.J. Crombeen(notes), both just a minus-1. Meanwhile, Jay McClement(notes), of the burgeoning Selke campaign, has been aces:
Their special teams are having a struggle, but their 5-on-5 play has been aces. From ESPN.com and EJ Hradek (sub. required):
Good teams also have a healthy shot differential. The Blues have that going for them, too. In the first 12 games, they're averaging 33.1 shots per game, while allowing 26.5 shots against. That's nearly seven shots more than their opponents per game. That tells you that they're holding a territorial advantage.
The defense has been remarkable, without anyone needing to play a gargantuan amount of minutes. Erik Johnson(notes) (22:25) and Eric Brewer(notes) (21:22) are the top pairing, though Johnson's seen time with Barret Jackman(notes) (20:07); Jackman's also played with and Alex Pietrangelo(notes) (19:35, and a plus-7).
Bottom line: This combination of goaltending, defense, timely scoring and overall grittiness is Brian Burke's wet dream.
5. Finally: It's the Reverse Kovalchuk Curse.
The St. Louis Blues were sniffing around Ilya Kovalchuk(notes) at the trade deadline last year but didn't make the aggressive move the New Jersey Devils did. They then refused to meet Kovalchuk's price as a free agent, which is also a claim the Los Angeles Kings can make.
The Blues and Kings are atop the Western Conference. Kovalchuk and the New Jersey Devils are in the basement in the East.
It's as simple as that!
(For the record, we don't really believe in a Kovalchuk curse or a reverse Kovalchuk curse. Although it should be noted that the Atlanta Thrashers were willing to pay him before trading him and moving on, and hence are in the middle of the pack with a smidgen of bad juju. You know, in theory.)
But seriously, the Kovalchuk thing speaks to a greater point: The Blues, like the Kings, didn't make the big-ticket splash that others assumed they'd make in the last few seasons. They've been patient, built from within and did what was necessary to retain their assets until it was time to make a move. (In the Blues' case, for Halak; in the Kings' case ... well, we're still waiting.)
This Blues' group has played together as young NHLers and, for some, in the AHL; now that the Tkachuks and Kariyas have moved on, it's their time. That can't be overstated.
The Blues may not still be atop the conference next week. They might be the third best team in their division come the All-Star break. But this start tells us that there's something there for St. Louis, something worth paying attention to now and in the postseason.
Because while they may not remain in first place, they aren't going away, either.