Alex Pietrangelo and the St. Louis Blues have had some tough battles over the past 3 games, going back to their win over Buffalo just last Thursday, but they still gained valuable points in that game before dropping 2 straight to bring some worry back to the St. Louis area. Though the team is on a 2-game skid, there are a lot of positives to take away from those games, and Pietro already has the answer to the team’s recent, and most prominent, problems.
— St. Louis Blues (@StLouisBlues) February 6, 2015
Team Defense Needs to Tighten Up
This has been the biggest concern from the team and the fans as of late. The Blues seem to be getting bogged down in their own zone too often, and for lengthy periods of time that have led to multiple scoring chances and goals against them. As shown in the video below, the Blues have seemed a little sluggish on the back end due to zone coverage being too lax, and players missing assignments in front of the net, at the back door, and even at the point from time to time.
Though this play doesn’t illustrate the full scope of the Blues’ recent defensive zone faults, it does show the in-zone turnovers and missed coverages that are a big reason the team is in the middle of another mini-slump (if you can even call it that, especially with Arizona coming in town Tuesday night). The Note will need to focus on being more aggressive in their own zone, while still maintaining their coverage to mind gaps in their opponents play, but without sacrificing an aggressive in-zone fore-check. This means the team needs to keep their feet moving and their sticks active in their own zone to force the opposition to make tough (low-percentage) passes, and more importantly they need to gap up (close spaces between themselves and opposing players), to eradicate any extra time the opposing forwards have in zone so they can’t make those pretty passes that ultimately lead to a lot of the previously mentioned goals that have been a sore spot for the club as of late.
Alex Pietrangelo and His Teammates Know What’s Needed
When the Blues number 1 defenseman was asked about the team’s recent efforts he knew exactly what they need to do moving forward, and he explained it well during his post game interview on Sunday. A lot can be said about a leader on a team stepping up, and not beating around the bush about where he and his team are lacking, and that’s a sign of a good team that will only get better. When asked about the Blues play against Chicago on Sunday in comparison to their play against Buffalo (last Thursday) and Columbus (last Friday) he was quick to note that the team played much better overall on Sunday, but still had some work to do in their own zone.
“We played a lot better (Sunday), a lot better than (we did) Tampa, than Buffalo, and Columbus. Obviously we still have some work to do, but we have some things to build off of. We are tightening up defensively and I thought we did a lot of good things…just (need to) manage the puck better. We got caught playing a little more east-west than we wanted to, if we play a little bit more straight lines we would’ve got them (Chicago) back on their heels and it seems when we do that we have the most success.”
The guys in the locker room know they were a little sloppy going into their 9th period in 4 days which is to be expected, and it cost them 2 tough points (as the captain Backes put it). However, as stated earlier, they have not made any excuses about their play and are focused on moving forward to start a new winning streak against Arizona on Tuesday evening. With the leadership core being so strong, and Ken Hitchcock’s systems being so defensively minded (even though he is employing a lot more of a wide open game this season), fans can be sure that the Blues won’t continue to have this defensive zone problem moving forward, and it should be a speck in the rear-view of a great playoff run.
Fluid Play and Positioning are Keys to Successful Quick Transitions
What Alex Pietrangelo is talking about when he said the Blues are tightening up on defense is exactly what was previously stated about keeping active sticks and quick feet in their own zone. What he hints at when he said they need to manage the puck better and play a more ‘straight line’ game is not allowing opposing fore-checkers to cut in and break up the quick transitions the Blues are trying to construct to have a more wide open scoring game while keeping a composed defensive core.
This means every player on the ice at any given time has to know exactly where they need to be to create an outlet pass for their puck carrying teammate, and they must communicate efficiently to make sure any surprises don’t go undisclosed as well. In addition, the puck carrier needs to know where his options lye before he even has the puck so if he does need to make a quick decision, he may do so accordingly. Finally, what Alex Pietrangelo was saying is that if they do this first part, and everyone is in position, the last piece of the puzzle is to make sure they are capitalizing on catching the opposition in transition. This will be accomplished by playing that more north-south game that coach Ken Hitchcock has talked about so often throughout this season, and what Pietrangelo reiterated on Sunday. They will need more focus on that initial drive to the net hard to create that backdoor play, or to pounce on a rebound from a quick shot off of a transition instead of excessive ‘tic-tac-toe’ passing that often leads to missed opportunities.
— St. Louis Blues (@StLouisBlues) February 8, 2015
If Alex Pietrangelo and the Blues can manage to bang more bodies in their own zone quickly and effectively, they will leave this small stretch of play behind them, and be back to their incredible winning ways shortly. This will allow the group to begin to focus on the postseason, and how to make that deep run fans have been expecting. The team should have no qualms with continuing to tighten up in their own zone as they already know it’s what is needed to be successful for the rest of the season and into the playoffs, and they should start a new streak on Tuesday night against Arizona.
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Mike has covered the St. Louis Blues and Tampa Bay Lightning in depth for The Hockey Writers since 2013. He is also a contributing writer for KSDK News Channel 5, the St. Louis area NBC affiliate, and has been a credentialed media member of the Blues since 2014. Follow him on Twitter @pep30.