The St. Louis Blues found a number of problems in their game that led to a first-round exit in the 2014 playoffs. Whether it was lack of a “killer instinct,” or simply that the franchise didn’t receive enough “puck luck” (terms used by general manager Doug Armstrong at his end-of-season press conference), the early exit was scrutinized and debated through the offseason. One aspect of the series could not be denied, though: the Blues’ power play did not capitalize at any opportune time.
“I think both the PK and (goaltender Corey Crawford) won the game and the series ultimately,” Blackhawks head coach Joel Quenneville said after the series. “I think that was the big factor in us getting through.”
The team’s lackluster power play, which posted a postseason-worst 2-29, became a priority in the summer. First, Armstrong hired former Carolina Hurricanes head coach and power-play strategist Kirk Muller as an assistant to Ken Hitchcock in May. Then, free agency struck and the team brought in centers Paul Stastny and Jori Lehtera to fill out the top-six group.
It’s resulted in the roster posting a League-best 26.2 power-play percentage through 42 games played.
“We’re moving the puck quick, getting shots on net and traffic has been good,” left-winger Jaden Schwartz said recently. “Execution has been really good all around. We’re going to need that going forward.”
It hasn’t been without struggles, though. The Blues have skated in 19 games this season where they did not score a goal with the extra man, posting a 9-9-1 record in those situations (not including two games where they did not receive a power-play opportunity). Recently, the team went on a 1-5-1 skid that saw just four power-play tallies in 20 opportunities.
The coaches continued to work on the power play in practice and the results started speaking for themselves. In the past five games, the two units have compiled a 42.1 percent success rate (8-19). This has helped the team climb out of the aforementioned slump and post a 4-1-0 record in that time, including a four-game winning streak in which the club has posted 24 total goals.
“To me, the goals are a result of the way we are playing, not we’re just scoring and winning,” Hitchcock said after a 7-2 victory against the San Jose Sharks last Thursday. “We’re playing the right way and it’s been a big impact on keeping the group together.”
The goals have come from a variety of sources. David Backes, on the team’s second power-play unit, leads the team with eight power-play goals while Schwartz, on the team’s first unit, ranks in second with six.
T.J. Oshie, on the team’s second unit with Backes and Stastny, feels that both groups are starting to click at the same time.
“The power play has been pretty good all year,” he said, “but instead of just the (Vladimir) Tarasenko group scoring all of the goals, Stastny’s group is starting to chip in a little bit.”
The Blues also house the NHL’s top power-play-point scorer. Recently named to the NHL All-Star Team with Tarasenko, defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk has recorded 19 assists and 23 points with the extra man, which is two points ahead of Philadelphia Flyers captain Claude Giroux.
Shattenkirk, who works the first power-play unit as the lone defenseman, posted eight points with the man advantage in December. He followed that up with four power-play points in five January contests.
The strength five-on-four, though, seems to be the ability to roll out two units that can produce at any given time. This is something that may have been lacking just a few months ago.
“If you look at (us) in four stages, there’s been four different times that we’ve had one group carry us,” Hitchcock said last week. “At no time have we had both groups going. If you look at the Stastny group, they’ve been going really hot lately. If you looked at the first 10 games, it was Lehtera (and his linemates); look at the third (stage) and it was Lehtera’s group (again). We’ve never had both groups going. There’s always been one group that’s been really focused, energized and carrying us. I find that really unique; the trade off between one group struggling (while) the other group is picking it up. That, to me, is what has kept us at a high level.”
In April and May, it won’t matter in which stage the Blues are generating offense. As long as there is production, the Blues will likely be in a better situation than they were in last season.