St. Louis Blues: 6 Keys to Deep Stanley Cup Playoff Run

Michael Sprague@@msprague14Contributor IIFebruary 9, 2012

St. Louis Blues: 6 Keys to Deep Stanley Cup Playoff Run

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    Some teams can define a successful season by whether or not they make the playoffs. In recent years, the Blues could be considered one of those teams. However, when you find yourself battling for not only the top spot in your division but the top spot in the entire NHL, different standards apply.

    This is exactly where the Blues find themselves. With 69 points, the Blues are currently fourth overall in the Western Conference standings, and tied for the fifth most points in the entire league.

    While a trip to the playoffs will be great for St. Louis, a first round exit will result in a disappointing season. 

    The Blues have shown they can hang with the best the NHL has to offer. If they want to be the best, a few things need to happen.

Road Warriors

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    Scottrade Center has been a nightmare for visiting teams. The Blues lead the league in home victories, posting a record of 22-3-4. While this is outstanding, their road record poses a lot of questions moving forward.

    Just 9-11-3 outside of St. Louis this season, the Blues have not exactly been rude guests. 

    The Blues will play 18 of their remaining 30 games on the road. Headlined by trips to New Jersey, Chicago (3), Nashville, Vancouver, San Jose and Los Angeles, the final two months of their season will not be easy.

    Outstanding work by the goaltending duo of Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott has been a little less consistent on the road, but is still deserving of more victories. The real problem lies within the offense. St. Louis averages a mediocre 2.8 goals per game while at home. On the road, they are scoring a horrendous 2.0 goals per game. 

    This may not seem like a big disparity, but for a team that relies on the strength of its defense, an extra goal would make a world of difference. 

    Sooner or later, the Blues are going to have to win on the road. If they can't find a way to get it done in the regular season, their chances of obtaining the Western Conference's overall No. 1 seed is in jeopardy, and they'll have to do it in the playoffs.

Improvement on the Power Play

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    It makes sense that a team that only averages 2.5 goals per game will probably score less power-play goals than other teams. What does not make sense is that a team like the Oilers—currently 14th in the Western Conference—post a 22 percent success rate on the power play, while the Blues convert on just 13.1 percent of their chances.

    For a team that plays a fair share of one-goal games, improving on man advantage opportunities will make a huge difference.

    Hitchcock will continue to shuffle the power-play units until he finds two that work well. David Backes leads the team with five power-play goals, followed by Jason Arnott who has four. The other six players tallying power-play goals have tallied only 14 goals combined.

    Everyone has their own assumptions on how to fix the problem, but in reality, this is a problem that can't be fixed overnight. The Blues will continue to tinker with it until they stumble on something that works. Hopefully this will occur sooner rather than later.

Strong Goaltending Duo

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    Sitting in the bottom third of the league in goals per game, St. Louis has had to rely on their strong goaltending. The Blues currently sit atop the National Hockey League in goals against, allowing opponents an average of 1.92 goals per game.

    Much of their success is due in part to Brian Elliott. An NHL All-Star this year, Elliott was the talk of the NHL in the first half of the season. He leads the league in goals against average (1.66) and is tied for first in save percentage (.939). While Halak struggled in the early part of the season, it was Elliott that kept the Blues afloat.

    While Elliott has been great, the Blues number one—Jaroslav Halak—has found his game.

    After starting the season with a record of 2-6-1, Halak has been on a tear, posting a 13-3-4 record since. As the goaltending duties will continue to be shared, it is clear that Halak has regained his number-one form.

    Both goalies are in the NHL's Top Five in goals against average, and together they lead the league with a combined 10 shutouts (five apiece).

    While both men bolster impressive numbers, expect Coach Hitchcock to continue on with the split time. After all, it has gotten the Blues to where they are thus far. 

Discipline

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    Hockey is far from a gentleman's game. While rough play is part of the game, there is a fine line between playing hard and playing stupid. Much like they do in power-play percentage, the Blues sit in the bottom third of the league in penalty kill percentage at just 81.2 percent.

    When you don't kill off as many penalties, it would make sense not to take excess penalties, right? The Blues do in fact do that, only allowing 176 power-play opportunities—11th fewest in the league— for their opponent.

    What hurts the Blues is the timing of their penalties. Trailing 2-1 to the Detroit Red Wings with about three minutes remaining, Blues defenseman Carlo Colaiacovo was whistled for a blatant roughing call. Niklas Kronwall ripped a slap shot past Halak just 30 seconds later, putting any chance at overtime to rest. In a division that could come down to a point or two, giving up games this way could come back to haunt the team.

    Furthermore, during a six game stretch in late December, the Blues were whistled for penalties five times while on the man advantage, forfeiting valuable power-play time in each instant. With an already embarrassing power-play mark, giving up extra time is costly.

Health

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    In recent years, injuries have been a concern for St. Louis. While this year's team has seen minor injuries here and there, only a couple notable ones have impacted the Blues.

    They have played all but three games without veteran Andy McDonald, who suffered a concussion on October 13 last year. On a young team like the Blues, having the added veteran presence that McDonald brings will certainly be welcome.

    Alex Steen—out since December 28—has also missed significant time as a result of a concussion. Having missed 16 games already, Ken Hitchcock remains optimistic that this is not a season-ending injury. Steen adds depth to a Blues team that shuffles its lines seemingly every night.

    Veteran presence and offseason defensive acquisition Kent Huskins played in just nine games for the Notes before suffering an ankle injury. Added defensive health will only help an already solid defensive core.

    While all three seem to be progressing, expect Kent Huskins return sometime in the next week. It is hard to put a timetable on the other two, as recovery time following a concussion varies from player to player—just ask David Perron. 

A Spark

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    The Blues are at the point in the season where they are no longer shocking opponents. Teams take them for what they are—one of the NHL's top teams. That being said, the Blues will no longer take teams by surprise.

    From this point forward, the Blues will not come across many "easy victories." They'll need to start scoring one way or another.

    While trading for a prominent goal scorer is in the realm of possibilities, Hitchcock holds firm to the idea of getting healthy. Risking the team's chemistry may not be the answer when you have forwards like Steen and McDonald inching towards a return.

    Hitchcock has gone on record, saying that he wants improvement to come from the current roster. Added production from Chris Stewart, Patrick Berglund and even David Perron could provide the spark the Blues so desperately need.

    The most likely of those candidates to step up is David Perron.

    Perron missed a full calendar year as a result of a concussion, including the first 25 games of this season. The best word to describe his career thus far is "streaky." We saw a bit of this Tuesday night when Perron registered two goals in a 3-1 win over Ottawa. Blues fans are hopeful that this game was a sign of things to come.

    More consistent play from any of the forwards is key. The more players that step up and start lighting the lamp, the better.