Defensive-Minded Blues Find Themselves Atop NHL Standings

Written by Mike Salerno on .

On November 6, the St. Louis Blues were off to a 6-7-0 start and fans began preparing themselves for another frustrating winter resulting in a third consecutive season without playoff hockey.

Jaroslav Halak, in the second year of a four-year extension signed in the summer of 2010, was performing miserably and the skaters in front of them weren't faring much better.

General manager Doug Armstrong had to act quickly before their season spun completely out of control, and in doing so, he fired head coach Davis Payne in his second season with the team. In his place, Armstrong brought in defensive mastermind Ken Hitchcock.

Since then, the Blues have taken off, going 37-11-7 under Hitchcock and wake up this morning with their 93 points good enough for the lead in the Presidents' Trophy race.

This can't be real, can it? The Blues? Tops in the National Hockey League?

Believe it.

Halak has reemerged as the number-one goaltender Armstrong acquired from Montreal, while all-star Brian Elliott has spelled Halak brilliantly to form arguably the league's most formidable duo in net.

Upon arriving, Hitchcock, who seems to be running away with the Jack Adams award, instilled wholesale changes and a committment to defensive zone play that has yielded the fewest goals and shots against per game of all 30 NHL teams this season.

While they still aren't scoring at a very high clip--David Backes is the team's only 20-goal scorer thus far--the St. Louis blue line has improved tremendously. Kevin Shattenkirk is third in the league among defensemen for plus/minus with a +26.

Alex Pietrangelo's emergence as a prolific offensive defenseman, which allowed Armstrong to trade former number-one overall pick Erik Johnson to Colorado last year in exchange for Shattenkirk and Chris Stewart, has been a perfect compliment to the stay-at-home style of Carlo Colaiacovo and Barrett Jackman. Pietrangelo ranks third on the Blues in points (10-31-41) and has become the power play field general they'd hoped he would be when they drafted him fourth overall in 2008.

Halak has been given much praise for backstopping the Blues to their rise up the Western Conference standings. Does he deserve some? Absolutely. After all, he and Elliott are sporting sub-2 goals against averages that are good for third and first in the league, respectively.

But his team's improved play in their own zone has made it easy on the Slovak star to climb out of his early-season funk.

Consider that on average, Halak faces 25.9 shots per game, many of which from the perimeter or low-percentage areas. While the Blues have surrendered a fairly average 33 goals while shorthanded, they've only been scored on 82 times at even strength. The New York Rangers, who are the next closest team, are 17 behind.

Make no mistake, Hitchcock, more than anyone else, is the mad scientist behind this run of success.

Perhaps the greatest measure of the Blues' affinity for defensive zone coverage is in their ability to overcome a severe lack of production from their forwards. Chris Stewart, the main piece brought over from Colorado in the Johnson trade at last year's trade deadline has vastly underperformed. After three straight 28-goal seasons, he has chipped in just 14 so far this year to go along with 12 assists. That's far from the production Armstrong was expecting from the power forward.

Patrik Berglund, who some expected to have a breakout campaign in 2011-12 after a 52-point season last year, has shown flashes of brilliance, but also only has 14 goals and 17 assists.

But the defensive zone coverage doesn't end with the rearguards. Stewart and Berglund have adapted well to responsible play in all three zones and have complimented defensive-minded forwards such as Jamie Langenbrunner and Jason Arnott to form the league's most impenetrable five-man unit.

In a few short months, the question has turned from if they'll make the playoffs to how far they can go in a brutal Western Conference. While they'll undoubtedly need some timely scoring to make a run at Lord Stanley, they've got the pieces that make them a tough mountain to climb for anyone in the league.

Right now, from heights once thought unreachable, those pieces have them looking down at 29 other teams.