So far this season the St. Louis Blues penalty kill has been less than impressive, however after Thursday night’s game in Chicago there may be some hope on the horizon. Here we’ll look at a few reasons the kill has been struggling, and what can be done to remedy them.
Penalty Kill Problems
The Blues power play has been firing on all cylinders this season, which is to be expected since head coach Ken Hitchcock took over the reigns in late 2011. However, on the other end of the spectrum the Blues are ranked 24th overall when down a man, and own just a 75.9% penalty kill success rate. With the exception of Thursday night’s shootout win over the Chicago Blackhawks, the kill has been a cause for concern allowing 7 goals on 14 attempts over the past 3 games.
Plain and simple, a 50% penalty kill conversion rate is simply not going to get the Blues where they want to be come April 13. Let’s focus on the 10/9/13 Blues Blackhawks rivalry game, as it embodies most of the penalty kill problems St. Louis has had so far this season. As you can see in the video below, there are a plethora of mistakes made on this particular kill, most of them due to players focusing on the puck, and not the developing play around them. At one point in the video you can even see all 4 Blues players staring at Jonathan Toews as he cuts behind the new, shallower nets, before he makes a pass out to the slot on the eventual goal. This cannot be allowed to continue as it gives opposing teams far too much time to find open ice and passing lanes to teammates for easy shots on net. The next problem with the Blues current kill is the tremendous amount of room they give opposing teams in the zone.
The Defensive Collapse
In the above video (courtesy of NHL.com) you can see how the Blues players all collapse to the front of the net, giving the Blackhawks forwards enough space to get free and make any play they wish. This also opens up the net for shooters as they can sneak in closer to the target and find bigger holes to shoot at as the goalie can’t come out and challenge the shooter in this type of situation. If you are going to collapse to the middle as a penalty kill unit you must fully commit to shot blocking and use active sticks to block passing lanes to keep the puck out of the net (something the Blues are good at but could still improve on). Goalies will have trouble finding the puck in these situations as traffic is so heavy in front there is no clear line of sight. Expanding the zone and staying in a true box can fix this problem as it gives opposing teams less space to work with, and allows your goaltender a better line of sight and more room to challenge.
The final problem with the collapsing kill is that it opens up the wings and gives opposing shooters time to unleash one-timers from the low slot area. This is not a high percentage shot as the angle the shooter has is very sharp, however many NHL stars make their living firing howitzers from this very location (Alex Ovechkin and Steven Stamkos come to mind). In this particular kill, Patrick Kane is left alone as the play swings around the net, which allows him to creep into the back door area for an easy tap in; Blues goaltender Jaroslav Halak almost saves the shot, but he really had no chance at it.
Though this was a broken play off of a botched shot from Patrick Sharp, if the Blues players would’ve kept their heads up and on the developing play instead of on just the puck, they would’ve been able to tie up Kane’s stick before he could bury it. The Blues are great at playing as one unit, but need to continue that philosophy on the penalty kill to ensure total success. Communication is always key in these scenarios, and look for these problems to diminish over time.
Hope is on the Horizon
There is a lot of good news, and plenty of hope on the horizon. The St. Louis Blues showcased a slightly improved penalty kill in the next 2 games following the rivalry match we’ve highlighted, but fully redeemed themselves in Thursday night’s victory with a perfect kill percentage (4/4). Friday’s game against the Winnipeg Jets should give the Blues another chance to improve upon their penalty kill numbers and NHL rank, as the Jets are just 21st overall with the man advantage, and are averaging under 17% on the power play.
— St. Louis Blues (@StLouisBlues) October 18, 2013
As the above @StLouisBlues tweet shows, the Blues are eager to remind the fans of Winnipeg how the Blues play hockey, which could lead to plenty of opportunities to show off their recently improved penalty kill. Look for Blues back-stopper Jaroslav Halak to get a night off after shutting down the Blackhawks in his first shootout win of the season last night. Brian Elliott will come in with something to prove and should deliver a solid performance and backstop the kill nicely, giving the Blues another great chance to win their second game in as many nights.
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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.