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Blues Off to Hot Start With Improved Scoring Weapons
With just a week for training camp and no pre-season games as part of regular season preparation, every NHL team was unsure of what to expect in the early going. Teams making major off-season changes were certainly at a disadvantage over those who made limited roster moves. An effort to rekindle or bolster chemistry among players was the best the League’s thirty teams could expect in this shortened, 48-game season.
After six games, the St. Louis Blues hold a 5-1-0 record with their only blemish coming with a 3-2 loss to the division-leading Chicago Blackhawks, one of two undefeated teams in the league. Dig a little deeper into the numbers, though, and you will really see much better improvement over prior year, one in which the team contended for the League’s top spot up until the final weekend of the 2011-12 season.
While defense will always be the anchor of this squad, offense was an area targeted for much improvement this season. A year ago through six games, the Blues were 2-2-2, scoring 13 goals while giving up 16 for a negative 3 differential. This season, the 5-1-0 record comes largely due to increased scoring by netting 24 goals this season while giving up 13 for a positive 9 differential and more than 1.5 goals per game more.
St. Louis sits third overall in goals scored, a nice change from their 21st rank overall last season. The early improvement in the Blues’ attack comes by having several players step up over prior year.
Start with Chris Stewart who arrived at camp 25 lbs. lighter and faster, but still with increased strength and that ever-present mean streak. He sits tied for the team lead in goals scored with 4, but in being one of two players in negative minus territory at -1 will need to balance his new penchant for scoring with improved back-checking in his own end of the ice.
Still, Stewart is an improved player from last season, exactly what they expected from him when they acquired from Colorado several years ago and nothing like the disinterested, less than intense player from last season.
In the way of new snipers joining the attack, Vladimir Tarasenko, the much-anticipated rookie Russian winger, is tied with Stewart with 4 goals and tied in team scoring and plus/minus with Defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk with 8 points and +5 respectively.
Tarasenko started with a bang with three goals and seven points in his first two games and although he has tailed off a bit, look for his energy and speed to create more scoring opportunities as the Blues skate deep into the season.
The improved performance of Stewart and the contributions from Tarasenko have complemented the expected balance in the Blues attack in nearly doubling the goals scored over prior year. With a little help from a few of the snipers who proved they could tickle twine last season,
The top line of the David Backes centering David Perron and T.J. Oshie has produced 5 goals and 14 points. The second line of Alex Steen centering a line with Andy MacDonald and Vladimir Tarasenko has netted 6 goals and 17 points. There third line of Patrik Berglund centering a line of Chris Stewart and Jaden Schwartz has produced 7 goals and ten points.
Collectively, the Blues assemble an attack which teams fear with trepidation on the past of opposing defenseman seen in the last game, a home overtime victory over Minnesota. In that game, after squandering a lead and falling behind 3-1 to the Wild, the Blues staged a confident comeback effort where attackers crossed into the attacking zone with speed and strength as opposed to the dump-in efforts long suffering fans in St. Louis had grown accustom to watching.
Defensemen have played a huge role in the offense this season contributing 4 goals and 21 points. Two of those goals come from newly signed Wade Redden whose parole from a heavy and burdening contract in New York with Rangers banished him to the AHL’s Connecticut Whale. At the same time, the backliners are improving shots against and goals against over prior year in a big way.
Last year, the Blues led the NHL in shots against per game with 26.7 just ahead of New Jersey at 26.8. This season, the Blues still the league in shots against with 19.8 per game and hold a much greater margin over the second best team in Anaheim at 25.4.
In goals against, the Blues have given up just 13 this season or 2.17 per game compared to 16 last season or 2.66 per game. Last year Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott combined to win the Jennings Trophy for lowest goals against as each pretty much split netminding duties and neither dominating play over the other.
Although early, this year may eventually prove a little different arrangement. Halak is 3-0-0 with two home shutouts, 1.69 goals against average and a 0.902 save percentage while Elliott is 2-1-0, 2.75 goals against average and a 0.875 save percentage. It’s early, but something could be said for Halak in emerging as the top goaltender for this solidly balanced Blues squad.
As the Blues head into Columbus to face the Blue Jackets on Thursday and to Detroit to battle the Red Wings on Friday, St. Louis will be eager to return home for a few off days before a valued home stand. Tuesday, February 5th is the first of four consecutive games at home as the Blues face Nashville before games with Detroit, Anaheim and Los Angeles every other day thereafter through Monday, February 11th.
Meanwhile, arch nemesis and division leader Chicago begins a 6-game, 12-day road trip where they will face Minnesota, Vancouver, Calgary, San Jose, Phoenix and Nashville. Perhaps the quarter pole is where St. Louis can take control of the division lead.