The St. Louis Blues find themselves in familiar territory early on this season. They currently sit atop the Central Division and the Western Conference with a record of 5-1-0, and are riding a 4-game road winning streak into Tuesday’s contest with Montreal (who are 6-0-0).
Regular season success is pretty standard in St. Louis, and alas so is the Note shuffling lines. However, unlike season’s past, this year’s line-shuffling has been more injury related rather than due to coach Ken Hitchcock trying to find varying on-ice chemistry. But through all of this the team still finds ways to battle for wins, a great sign early on this year.
What Has Made this Year Different (So Far)
Though 6 games into any NHL season is hardly enough to make fans sit up and take notice, it’s very refreshing to see that the Blues continue to beat tough Western Conference rivals on the road, despite missing key pieces like top-line center Paul Stastny and All-Star defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk. In recent year’s past these injuries, along with those sustained by fellow Blues Robby Fabbri and Patrik Berglund, would have been enough to send the team into a scoring drought and a losing streak as well. However, this season the team on the ice hasn’t missed a beat thanks to balanced play, and more fluid offense led by standout sniper Vladimir Tarasenko (5G, 4A, 9P plus-6).
Tarasenko isn’t the only reason the Blues are off to such a great start, much of the success is due to a revitalized defensive core and solid goaltending from Brian Elliott, and Jake Allen. They have been very effective so far, posting a .901 SV% (Ells is at .918), a 2.52 GAA (Ells is at 2), and already have 150 saves between the two. The steady goaltending is also a result of the younger defensive core stepping up in Shattenkirk’s recent absence, which was a bit of a question mark heading into the year (Shatty left last Tuesday’s game against Calgary in the 2nd period after blocking a shot).
Young Guns on Defense
New NHLers Colton Parayko and Joel Edmundson are loving their first taste at the National, and are quickly winning over fans with their physical play and scoring prowess. While Parayko has garnered most of the attention because of his booming shot and towering presence, Edmundson has been a great compliment to toughen up the D-core and make it more difficult for the opposition to find scoring lanes in the Blues’ zone. He even registered his 1st NHL point on Sunday as he set up Scottie Upshall’s 2nd period tally to give the Blues the lead.
Another newer Blue, Robert Bortuzzo, has stepped in and been a difference maker to the back-end since Shatty went down, adding another tough, gritty element to the Blues’ blue line. He wears down opposing forwards and makes it tough for them to settle in to a rhythm in any situation, which keeps teams guessing. With these young defensemen showing their varying skill sets every game it helps the rest of the team’s D-core relax and play their style effectively. This was very evident recently as Carl Gunnarsson recorded his 1st career back-to-back multi-point games over the Blues last 2 contests (1G, 3A, 4P, plus-3 over that 2-game span).
Crafty Vets Stepping Up
The Blues were able to secure two crafty vets this off-season in the Scotties. Scott Gomez and Scottie Upshall have provided the team with a different type of depth than in previous years. They are able to lead in the (locker) room alongside captain David Backes, and have been able to stay focused on their roles on the ice which has led to increased scoring chances for the club. So far this season Upshall has a 2.82 points-per-60 minutes played ratio (P60), and a Corsi For percentage (CF%) of 63.29 (anything above 50 is desirable). Gomez has an even higher P60 at 3.26 (due to his lack of game time until recently) and an incredible 70.59 CF%, which is currently best on the team (he also leads the team in PDO at 116.67).
How about the pass from Scott Gomez to Tarasenko. Depth signings paying off for the #stlblues.
— Cristiano Simonetta (@CMS_74_) October 18, 2015
In addition, Gomez has been instrumental in changing the pace of the play for the club, and has an uncanny knack for dictating plays, allowing him to regularly make a positive impact while on the ice. This should come as no surprise to any who have followed Gomez throughout his illustrious career, as he won the Calder Trophy and a Stanley Cup in his rookie season with the New Jersey Devils (1999-2000). He helped the Devils return to the finals 2 out of the next 4 seasons, and won the Cup again in 2003. He certainly has a high hockey IQ, and is the perfect addition to the Blues bottom-6 as he can set up a lethal play at almost any time. Though he’s only played in 2 games thus far, he may be one of the best pick-ups GM Doug Armstrong has made in his tenure, should his current play keep up.
All-in-all the season is still young, but the Blues have already made a big statement with their 5-1-0 record, scoring an average of 3.5 goals-per-game, and a plus-7 goal differential in 2014-15. If they can manage to stay out of the box more moving forward (they’ve already been shorthanded 27 times, which averages out to 4.5 penalties a game) they have the depth to make another regular season impact, which very well could carry over into the playoffs this season (fingers crossed). So far it’s been a complete team game with fairly balanced scoring, and that should continue as long as the players stay focused yet loose, and Hitchcock stays flexible. For a fan base thinking the Blues would have to battle through this season it’s been a welcomed start, and shows there’s hope on the horizon this year in the Gateway to the West.
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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.