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Craig Freakin’ Berube

The Blues Are Killing It in 1-Goal Games and Staying Out of the Box. We Know Who to Thank

NHL: Stanley Cup Final-St. Louis Blues at Boston Bruins Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

This story first appeared on Page 5 (The Five Hole) of the Dec. 18, 2019 edition of the St. Louis Game Time paper, sold outside of every Blues home game. For more information or to subscribe, email gtbradlee@gmail.com

After another Monday night, top-of-the-Central showdown with Colorado, and another resounding victory for the home team, it’s fair to put the doubts to bed: This Blues team has everything they might need to repeat as Stanley Cup Champions. The smothering forecheck is there. The finishing is there. The playmaking is there, especially if Jordan Kyrou (and eventually Klim Kostin) get opportunities to show they deserve regular playing time. The defense is there. The goaltending is there.

Tonight will be a good opportunity to see how they fare against the best player in the world. (Did you remember that he made his NHL debut here, back on October 8, 2015? And that he blew past a younger Jay Bouwmeester in open ice, and we all said: “Whoa?”) But they’ll pass the test. Whatever “it” is, the Blues have it. Keep your May and June open.

Five thoughts, while stuck inside these four walls.

1. If you’re looking for areas to nitpick, the Blues’ record in one-goal games doesn’t bode well. They’re 10-0-6 this season in games decided by one. That’s the second-best mark in the league behind only the Islanders, and the Blues are the only team in the league not to have lost a one-goal game in regulation. I’ll stop short of calling it “luck,” because that’s not precisely true, but it does suggest a certain unsustainability to the Blues’ overall record. The best teams in the league win games by multiple goals, and do so often. But the Blues have won 21 games this season, and almost half of them have been by a single goal. There’s a lot of variance involved when the margins are that thin.

Via Altitude TV

2. On the other hand, it speaks highly of Craig Berube. When margins are thin, the small adjustments a coach makes get magnified. It’s obvious in other sports: In a one-run baseball game, every pitching change, pinch-hitter, every double-switch could be the difference. In a one-possession football game, the decision to punt on fourth down can cost you a game. It’s not as clear in hockey, but the same principle applies, and if the Blues maintain anything close to this pace in one-goal games, Craig Berube should start clearing out room in his trophy case.

3. That said, line combinations are overrated.

With the injuries up and down the roster, we’ve heard a lot about where So and So will play, who’s got chemistry with whom, and so on. It’s a favorite pastime of hockey fans to jot combinations on napkins and to moan about who’s playing on what line and where in the lineup, but there’s a good bit of research to suggest that it’s pairs of players that drive play instead of lines of three. I mean, if you put Vladimir Tarasenko and Connor McDavid together (or, say, McDavid and Leon Draisaitl), Steve Ott himself could be their left winger and it wouldn’t make much of a difference. Good players, over the long haul, will be good players. Bad players will be bad players, regardless of whom they play with.

4. The Blues are among the least-penalized teams in the NHL. Entering tonight’s game, they sit 25th in the league in penalty minutes per game, which is a damn good thing because Edmonton’s power play is lighting the world on fire these days, to the tune of 31.4 percent. David Perron leads the way with 26 PIMs, but when you also lead the team in goals, you can get away with it. It’s no coincidence that last year’s top two penalty takers, Joel Edmundson and Pat Maroon, are no longer around. The bronze medal penalty taker, Robert Bortuzzo, has suited up in less than half of the team’s games.

5. Elliotte Friedman’s 31 Thoughts last week featured a bit about David Perron and his newfound wrist shot that has goalies everywhere shitting their pants.

“His shot’s improved, he now can score from distance, he changed the flex on his stick,” [Doug] Armstrong said [in a Hockey Night in Canada interview]. “The talk about Perron’s stick piqued my curiosity, so here’s some more intel. The winger used a shorter stick for better control, stick-handling and puck protection — but it was always stiff. He’s got a great mind for the game, and noticed how some of the superb young shooters (Patrik Laine, Auston Matthews, etc.) could really fire it with softer sticks. In Vegas, Perron sat next to another terrific shooter, Jonathan Marchessault, who had a 75 flex. Ultimately, he decided during training camp to commit to practicing with one of Marchessault’s sticks for a week. Perron noticed immediate improvement and stayed with it.”

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