After a disappointing October, where they went 5-6 and sat at the bottom of the standings, the St. Louis Blues completely revitalized their game to become one of the best teams in the league as November concluded.
The Blues had the fourth-best record of any team during November, going 9-2-2 and finishing the month tied for third in the league and second in the West in points.
There are many factors involved with the team’s sudden dominance, and in this article, I will discuss, in my opinion, the six most instrumental pieces of the puzzle that is the St. Louis Blues.
The undoing of the St. Louis Blues last season was an unprecedented number of injuries, which put the team in a hole that they ultimately could not climb out of.
It seemed as though, during many parts of last season, that the team consisted almost entirely of beer league bruisers, with all of the pressure put on the two or three uninjured regulars to grind out a win. It was so ridiculous, in fact, that 36 different players were dressed over the course of the season, and only two of them managed to participate in every game.
The Blues have not been without injury this year as well, as both David Perron and B.J. Crombeen have missed every game so far, Andy McDonald has missed all but three and Carlo Colaiacovo, Kent Huskins, Vladimir Sobotka and Alex Pietrangelo have all missed at least one game due to an injury or illness.
The difference between this year and last year is depth.
Replacement forwards Evgeny Grachev, Chris Porter and Brett Sterling have all been excellent for the Blues and have emerged as hardworking players capable of playing strong offensively and defensively.
Defensemen Ian Cole and Cade Fairchild have also proven themselves as valuable call-ups, with Cole seeing time on a first-line defensive unit and Fairchild earning a spot on the Blues after playing outstanding defensively for their AHL affiliate, the Peoria Rivermen.
Peoria is full of talented players, many of whom have NHL experience now and are waiting patiently for their chance to become NHL regulars.
You know the Blues have depth when former 50-goal scorer Jonathan Cheechoo isn’t even their first choice for a call-up.
The young defensemen have been the quarterbacks for this Blues squad, and they combine to be one of the most offensively-dangerous tandems in the NHL.
The two sophomores are the offensive backbone for the team: Pietrangelo is a rushing defenseman with size, speed and incredible stick-handling ability, while Shattenkirk is a supreme playmaker with excellent positioning. They both have an innate hockey sense and play like veterans of this league.
The Blues have not had such a strong offensive presence from the blue line since MacInnis and Pronger were teammates, and their strong play is one of the reasons for the team’s success.
Now I will focus on the defense as a whole, and there is only one word for it: phenomenal.
The Blues currently have the best defense in the league, as their 25.6 shots against per game average is the fewest in the NHL.
This is due to the team having a talented but diverse mix of players in their defensive unit, with Barret Jackman, Roman Polak and Kent Huskins serving as the physical, shutdown defensemen, Ian Cole, Kris Russell and Carlo Colaiacovo are all reliable two-way defensemen and, of course, Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk are offensive defensemen who are more then capable defensively as well.
There is nothing better for a goalie than a defensive squad that can take some of the pressure off of you and make your life easier, and that’s exactly what the Blues are doing.
While the other three forward lines have been struggling for the majority of the season, the first line has been nothing short of amazing for the better part of November.
After more than a month of constant juggling, the line of David Backes, T.J. Oshie and Alex Steen was born and, rightly so, has not been changed since.
Those three players have combined to score almost half of the entire team's goals and have put a goal up on the board nearly every game since the line’s inception.
Without those three players, St. Louis would have very little offensive production from the rest of the forwards, who are almost all on cold streaks.
Davis Payne was a .500 coach, but the Blues needed better than that. They needed a coach who could get them into the playoffs and enable them to make a run while there.
So on November 6, the Blues fired Payne and hired Stanley Cup winner and 13th-winningest coach in NHL history Ken Hitchcock. He has not disappointed yet.
Hitch has gone 8-1-2 with the Blues so far, which is the best start by a new coach in franchise history.
Since he joined the Blues, the team’s power play percentage has increased, penalty kill percentage has increased, shots against per game has decreased, goals against average has decreased and just about every other statistic you can think of has improved.
The most incredible feat since his debut with the Blues is that St. Louis has gone from 14th in the West to fifth.
He is also responsible for creating the Backes/Oshie/Steen line, which has been their most productive line of the season.
I hope, along with every Blues fan, that he can keep this up for the rest of the season.
To have the fourth-most points in the league yet have the ninth-worst goals per game average has to say something about the goaltending, because lucky for the Blues, Jesus Christ has descended from the heavens, thrown on a sweater with the name "Elliott" on the back and started playing goalie for their team.
Brian Elliott, who was signed by the Blues in the offseason as a $600,000 backup goalie, is by far the greatest goalie in the game right now, and the key reason for St. Louis’ success.
Elliott, who had an awful year split between Ottawa and Colorado last season, is 10-1-0 with a 1.31 goals against average, a .951 save percentage and three shutouts. He leads all NHL goalies in goals against average and save percentage, is tied for second in shutouts and is ninth in wins despite playing at least five less games than everyone ahead of him. Because of his unbelievable play, St. Louis now has the lowest goals against average in the entire NHL.
He robbed the starter position during the month of November from Jaroslav Halak, who is 4-7-2 with a 2.44 goals against average, a .898 save percentage and one shutout, and is earning nearly $3 million more than Elliott this season.
Elliott’s most impressive stat is that he is the first goalie since Frank Brimsek in 1938-39 to give up two goals or fewer in his first 11 starts of the season (Brimsek did it for 12 games, which Elliott can tie on Saturday).
Something tells me that his performance so far this season is just a lucky hot streak that will end soon, and he will go back to being an average backup goalie, but I hope that isn’t the case. I hope this will be the start of a Dominik Hasek-like career. You never know.