The St. Louis Blues have hit a rough patch after setting a new franchise record for points in 13 consecutive games early in 2015. This is largely in part to the sporadic special teams efforts the team has experienced over the past few weeks, and since late 2014 overall. The good news: there’s still plenty of time to fix this problem as the team gears up for it’s (hopefully) long playoff run in mid-April, but here the focus is on the differences in special teams from 2014 to 2015 (this season only) and why consistency needs to be the name of the game.
Special Teams Throughout This Season
Though the Blues’ penalty-kill has been steadily improving throughout the 2014-15 NHL season, there are still some things the team needs to tighten up to make sure they dominate the special teams’ game come playoff time. Mainly, they need to stay composed and not over commit to the attacking players, in order to maintain proper positioning in zone that will keep passing and shooting lanes filled when that’s necessary. This negates most scoring opportunities the opposition would get otherwise which is why it’s so important to consistently perfect. It doesn’t stop there though, the Note also needs to find that balance between keeping the shooting lanes clear (so Brian Elliott and Jake Allen can see the shot to make the save), and sacrificing the body to block those attempts from ever reaching the net. Perfecting all of this is an art form the team is still learning how to control.
In 37 games form the beginning of the season (October) until the end of the calendar year (2014) the team’s PK was able to average 2.19 blocked shots per game while down a man, but since the beginning of 2015 (and even including their impressive 13 game point streak) the team has played 23 games and the PK has only been able to average 1.66 blocked shots per contest (REMINDER: these stats are only for blocked shots by the Blues while on the PK). This number may seem small but the difference in winning and losing a playoff game (and sometimes even an entire playoff series) often comes down to one special teams opportunity.
The penalty kill hasn’t really been the main special teams issue in 2015 however, as the Blues have decreased their opponents scoring chances while (the Blues are) down a man, from 4.16 to 2.65 chances per game, and have also decreased opponents power-play goals from .73 PPG per game, to .435. That means coach Ken Hitchcock and his crew need to revamp the power-play before tackling the often overly-aggressive penalty kill (see the video below for an example of this).
The Blues Power-Play Misses Kevin Shattenkirk, Really Badly
It’s been no secret that Kevin Shattenkirk was having a career (and Norris Trophy) kind of season before an abdominal tear, that is also being reported as a sports hernia, sidelined him on February 1st. He’s missed the last 11 games due to the surgery to correct his abs and will miss many more before his return. His absence has been felt in all areas of the ice, and in all situations. Mostly because he was the best compliment to Steen’s QB abilities on the Blues’ power-play, and always found ways to get shots and passes through traffic while creating time and space for his teammates to get open for high quality scoring opportunities.
#stlblues PP in 11 games without Kevin Shattenkirk 13.6%
— Andy Strickland (@andystrickland) February 26, 2015
His calming presence also helps his teammates stay focused, and will be a welcome return whenever he is able to play again (he is currently still listed as week-to-week, but has started skating on his own). Shattenkirk’s absence affects on ice and locker room morale, but even with him in the lineup the Blues will need to focus on quick feet, and firing quick shots through traffic to find the success they had through the middle part of the season, while up a man.
Hope is on the Horizon
The Blues were averaging almost a power-play point a game through the 2014 portion of the season (.811 PPG/GP), but have recently found more trouble converting while up a man, which has dropped that percentage to only over half a power-play point per game (.61 PPG/GP). The team is having trouble setting up plays without Shattenkirk, something that’s illustrated by their drop in scoring chances for (SCF), which was at 4.76 SCF/GP through 2014, and has since dropped to 2.65 SCF/GP; a very significant gap. It becomes a lot harder to score with a man advantage when you only get (almost) half as many great looks at the net, and that’s no secret to anyone.
What’s even more shocking is in the past 5 games (all without Shattenkirk obviously), the Blues power-play is a measly 6.6%, and the PK is only successfully killing 78.3% of their chances, which would put them at 26th overall in the NHL if that were their season long rate, thankfully it’s not. This is the main cause behind the mini slump the Blues are in, but there is hope on the horizon.
It’s not all bad news in St. Louis right now, as the team has managed to make the shots they do take, count, by decreasing their blocked shot attempts from 2.35 attempts blocked per game (on the PP) through December, to 1.43 attempts blocked from the beginning of 2015 until now. They have also honed in their accuracy, decreasing their missed shots (shots that miss the net completely) per game from 2.16 to 1.65 (again, while on the PP).
Lastly, their face-off win percentage has decreased overall, but it has increased on special teams from 53.2% over the 2014 part of the year, to 57.7% in 2015. Hopefully this will continue to lead to more controlled play, and will help the Note get back to the high octane special teams fans saw for the better part of this season.
Fancy Stats Aside, the Blues Need Killer Instinct
Taking all of the comparisons out of it, the St. Louis Blues need to find a way to regain their composure and grab that grit, now that they are only a little over a month away from the playoffs. The team needs to regain their ‘Blues’ hockey style by being a heavy hitting, in the opponent’s face type of team every game, all while balancing their quick transition offense so they don’t get caught giving up any more odd man rushes.
This takes a tremendous amount of hockey IQ and skill to execute, which is why fans have seen some inconsistencies at this style of play throughout the season. The players really have to focus on each play as it develops to ensure they know what decision needs to be made in the moment, which isn’t a very easy task by any means. Often, those split second decisions can result in either a goal for or against the team, which is why communication with your teammates is paramount. If the Blues can up their chatter on the ice, there should be less surprises and definitely less odd-man rushes against them, regardless of if the special teams are involved or not.
However, if the Blues can manage to increase their special teams percentages (were at 23.7% on the PP, and 78.6% on the PK in 2014, and are at 21.2% and 84.1% respectively, in 2015 thus far) and find that grit and tenacity in their play, coupled with the urgency of a playoff push, the team should see this little slump behind them starting Thursday night in Winnipeg. Overall the team is still 7-5 in February, and are looking to March with high hopes, so it’s not quite time to panic in the Gateway to the West because this year’s Blues are a different team, and are legitimate contenders.
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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.