Lighting the Lamp, With Rick Ackerman
With the first quarter of the 2013-14 season complete, now is a good time to take a look at the Blues' overall performance and see what trends have been established so far as the arguably best squad in St. Louis hockey history takes the ice tonight against the up-and-coming Dallas Stars. Through 20 games, the Blues were ranked second in the Central Division and third in the Western Conference with 31 points. Only Chicago and Anaheim had more points with 32 each. However, Chicago had played two more games and Anaheim three more than the Blues at that point, giving the Blues the best record in both division and conference based on a percentage of points per game. At their quarter-marks, Chicago had 30 points and Anaheim had 31
A blazing offense, ranked second in the entire NHL with 3.4 goals per game, has helped the Blues maintain a torrid pace in the points race. At even strength, the Blues scored 49 regulation goals in those first 20 games, an average of 2.45 per game. Alexander Steen led the way (and the NHL) with 17 goals in the first 20 games, followed by line-mate David Backes (8), Vlad Tarasenko (7) and Derek Roy (5). Every other regular has scored at least one goal, with the exceptions of defensemen Barret Jackman, injured Jordan Leopold and Ian Cole. Of more significance is the number of assists generated by T.J. Oshie and Jay Bouwmeester (15), Kevin Shattenkirk (13) and Alex Pietrangelo and Backes (12). A high team-shooting-percentage is evidenced by the Blues ranking only eighth league-wide in shots per game (31.3). Considerably adding to the offense is the Blues' league-leading power play with 19 goals (25.7%). Team-leaders Steen and Backes have each scored four tallies with the man-advantage. However, the fly in the power play-soup is the fact that the Blues have allowed four shorthanded goals against, two on the same penalty against Carolina. Ouch!
Overall team defense has been good. The Blues were ranked tenth league-wide at the quarter-mark, allowing 46 goals in regulation or overtime, an average of 2.3 per game. In addition, they only gave up 27 goals at even strength, an average of 1.35 per game. In large part, the Blues' ability to block and limit shots against has helped. The Blues ranked second (only to New Jersey with 24.75) with fewest shots against, 25.0 per game. Also helping is the penalty kill, which is above average at 83.1%, ranked 13th in the league. The Blues have taken the third most penalty minutes in the league (only less than Philadelphia and Toronto), averaging 16.3 per game. However, a large number were due to the Blues' league leading eight misconduct (ten minute) penalties and 16 major (five minute) penalties. Only Buffalo and Toronto had more major penalties. St. Louis was assessed 79 minor (two minute) penalties, 71 of which resulted in power plays for the opposing team. In contrast, the Blues had 74 power plays in 20 games.
If there is an area for concern so far, it would have to be goaltending, at least in the minds of a large number of fans on message boards and call-in radio shows. Neither Jaro Halak nor Brian Elliott has earned the confidence and trust of many, despite excellent statistics for Elliott (1.94 goals against average, .921 save percentage, three wins in four games started) and decent stats for Halak (2.38 GAA, .903 SP, 11 wins in 16 games started). Pundits chirp that neither can make "the big save" and both are incapable of winning over the long-haul or in the playoffs. They claim Halak looks out of position most of the time and has a terrible glove hand and gives up too many rebounds. They say that Elliott is wildly inconsistent and looks shaky, especially after giving up an easy goal, which he seems to do at least once a game. And it has also been asserted that both have major problems with the five-hole, allowing far too many goals against at inopportune times. Thus, one hears rumors about trading Halak to Buffalo for Ryan Miller or dispatching Elliott to __________(fill in the blank) for a draft choice or a bag of pucks.
And, yes, it is true that Jake Allen is having a great season so far with the Chicago Wolves, winning eight of 12 starts with a 2.24 GAA and .928 SP. Where it counts though, in the minds of the Blues' coaching staff and management, both Halak and Elliott are well respected and capable of maintaining or even bettering their statistical accomplishments at the quarter-mark of the season. It is unlikely either one is leaving town anytime soon.
GM Doug Armstrong has assembled a very, very good team. The Blues won seven of nine games against the East, seven of 11 (with only one regulation loss) against the West, and six of seven games (with no regulation losses) within the division. Coach Hitchcock and his staff have established a superior game plan the players are totally buying into, and that is reflected by the record both at home (9-1-2) and on the road (5-2-1) in the first 20 games. This is the best 20-game start in franchise history and anyone who wants to complain about it is certainly welcome to do so, yet these are probably the same fans who will still complain about missing the net with too many shots and shoddy goaltending after the Blues win the Stanley Cup.