The St. Louis Blues are unbeatable.
In one game, sure, anything can happen. But in a seven-game playoff series? Opponents don't stand a chance. Even the Los Angeles Kings, the team to end the Blues' last two seasons, are in for a tough test this time around.
Even before the trade deadline, the Blues were cruising along at a division-leading clip, a couple of points up on the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks in the Central Division and second in the league overall. Standing pat would have been a reasonable thing to do. Nobody would have faulted them for it. They had no serious holes to fill.
Instead, Blues management decided to make one of the biggest deals of the year by grabbing goaltender Ryan Miller and veteran forward Steve Ott to strengthen an already impressive squad. Since then, the Blues have gone undefeated in regulation through six games and find themselves alone at the top of the league's point standings and a clear-cut favorite to claim the Stanley Cup.
With a deep pool of scoring forwards, a stellar defensive group, a star goaltender and an incredible head coach, the Blues are poised to claim the Cup for the first time in nearly 50 years in the NHL after joining as an expansion team in 1967.
Jaroslav Halak was doing a decent job between the pipes. His statistics were solid. He was winning games. Some things in hockey aren't quantifiable, but the general feeling on Halak is that he was occasionally prone to letting in bad goals at inopportune times and, conversely, couldn't make a big save when it was needed the most.
Basically, according to Jeff Gordon of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Halak was a good goaltender, but the Blues wanted a great one.
Well, they got one. Miller's start in St. Louis speaks for itself. He's the kind of netminder who can change a locker room's feel. If the Blues players were confident they had the kind of team that could make a deep run in the playoffs with Halak or Brian Elliott in goal, they expect it now that Miller is between the pipes.
Big save with a game on the line? Check.
Calming presence in the room and on the ice? Another check, according to head coach Ken Hitchcock via Associated Press writer Pat Graham: “His whole disposition calms everybody down,” Hitchcock said. “He’s good. There’s a reason he’s won so many games.”
Despite the fact the team lacks offensive star power, the Blues average 3.20 goals per game—second most in the league. It's done by committee, without a single player among the NHL's top 30 in scoring but a league-best seven players with at least 40 points so far this season.
Three defensemen are over the 30-point plateau. Again, that's more than any other team. And two of those—Kevin Shattenkirk and Alex Pietrangelo—are defensemen with at least 40 points, placing them among the top 10 blue-line scorers in the NHL.
When Ott, Derek Roy and Patrik Berglund constitute your third line, you've got some solid depth.
David Backes is a punishing player. When he's not scoring or setting up a goal, he's battling for position by laying into an opponent in the corners or setting up an open-ice check. Ott is equally as vicious, giving the Blues two of the top four forwards in the league in hits.
Backes has 216 checks to his credit, and Ott has dished out 210. While they set the pace up front, there are others willing to help wear down opponents. Ryan Reaves has thrown 155. Defenseman Roman Polak has more than 100, and Barret Jackman, Vladimir Sobotka, Brenden Morrow and Berglund all have more than 80.
More than the hitting and fighting, the physical game comes from swarming the puck and working hard to take it—and keep it—away from the other team. The Blues may do that better than anyone, leading the league in takeaways on the road, which is a stat less likely to be inflated than the numbers for home teams.
It takes a special group of players to commit to coach Ken Hitchcock's system, which happens to be the same one he and Mike Babcock employed in the 2014 and 2010 Winter Olympics for Team Canada. It's all about aggressiveness on the forecheck, covering up for aggressive defensive pinches and being aware of your positioning while going full speed for your entire shift.
The results show in certain team numbers. The Blues are third in shutouts with seven and third best in the number of shots they allow on average, at 2.23 per contest.
It hasn't affected their offense, either, with their 211 goals being the third highest behind only the Blackhawks and Anaheim Ducks.
So many games are decided by a single goal that potting one on the power play or keeping one out of your net on the penalty kill could be the difference between a win or a loss. As important as that is in the regular season, when every point counts in the standings for positioning and home-ice advantage, it's even more critical in a seven-game playoff series.
The Blues are among the top in each category. The power play is fifth overall and the penalty kill ranks third.
Losing to the Los Angeles Kings—the team most similar to the Blues in the Western Conference—has been a difficult experience, but it's something the Blues players can draw from.
Hitchcock planned to send that message to his players following the loss in Game 6 last season, via John Hoven of Mayor's Manor:
What I’m going to tell them is that it’s not good enough. If you want to be a champion, it’s not good enough. You can’t allow the goalie to outwork you if you want to be a champion; you’re going to have to find a way. ... I hope our players when they pause and reflect on it are really pissed off and disappointed in the opportunity that we missed here because we didn’t finish; we took everything to the beach but we didn’t finish putting it in the water and that’s going to be disappointing and we’re going to have to live with that for the rest of the summer.
After missing the playoffs altogether previously, the Pittsburgh Penguins lost in the opening round in 2007 and in the Cup Final in 2008 before winning it all in 2009. The Chicago Blackhawks lost in the third round in 2009 before winning the Cup in 2010, then fell in the first round in two consecutive postseasons before winning again in 2013. The Boston Bruins lost in the opening round in 2008, then in the second round in 2009 and 2010 before becoming champion in 2011. The Kings lost first-round series in 2010 and 2011 before claiming the Stanley Cup in 2012.
The sting of losing sticks with a core group of players, who also learn what it takes to win in the painful process.
The Blues' pattern fits with that of the past few champions.
Hitchcock is a smart systems coach, but it takes more than a man with a plan to pull it all together.
He, of course, needs great players willing to buy in. In the end, though, it's up to Hitchcock to make sure they play the up-tempo, grinding and exhausting pace necessary more often than not for the team to be consistently good.
And it's not easy. Hitchcock said so himself to St. Louis Post-Dispatch writer Jeremy Rutherford:
Our team expects a lot from our forwards. You can’t play the way we play without having the forwards do most of the work. The players that played for us in the Olympics saw that this is pretty much the same system and saw success with that, so I think the buy-in for them was easy. But it’s not easy playing this way. It’s a tough way to play, but obviously very successful.
The Western Conference is stacked with top-tier teams. The Blackhawks, Ducks, Avalanche, Kings, Sharks and Blues have created a lopsided look at the East vs. West argument. But the Blues have fewer holes and less of a dependency on top players. And when you boil down all these ingredients, it says here St. Louis will be tasting a Stanley Cup victory this spring.
Unless otherwise noted, all stats are courtesy of NHL.com.