Team Defense, Goaltending, Work Ethic Add Up for High Flying Blues
NEW YORK -- The St. Louis Blues came into Madison Square Garden on Sunday night and shut out the New York Rangers for the first time in their 42-year history. Their 2-0 victory also proved why they are being taken seriously again in the Western Conference.
So no one can blame Blues head coach Davis Payne and defensive assistant Brad Shaw for being cautious in the early-season summary, but proud of their players for losing just one game in regulation so far.
"Every guy is pushing," said Payne, in his first full season with the team. "We have a strong team commitment. These guys are coming to the rink every day working hard and dedicated to what we're trying to instill."
After the game, Shaw was asked for a breakdown of what's working for the 9-1-2 Blues.
"Davis is preaching a skating style, and it's a system ideally suited to our players' talents," said Shaw, who coaches the defensemen and the Blues' penalty killing units that gave the Rangers next to nothing during a five-minute power play in the third period on Sunday. "Davis is not asking our guys to play a lot one-on-one. We always have support when we're on our game."
That has been most of the time this season, as the Blues' grand total of just 17 goals allowed in twelve games attests.
The Blues may not have a brand-name superstar on their roster, but what they do have is just one loss in regulation through the first 12 games of the season. Showing they have depth and resilience, St. Louis defeated New York with goalie Jaroslav Halak and his .944 save percentage on the bench and David Perron, one of its top scorers, sidelined with concussion-like symptoms after a high hit by San Jose center Joe Thornton.
The Blues also blanked the Rangers for the first time ever after 128 meetings since 1968 with three everyday defensemen -- Barret Jackman, Carlo Colaiacovo and Roman Polak -- out with injuries. Payne elected to dress seven defensemen -- including 21-year-old Ian Cole, the team's first round pick in 2007 who made his NHL debut in a 2-1 win in Boston on Saturday, and a raw, 24-year-old Russian from the KHL with the cool name of Nikita Nikitin.
The difference-maker on D has been 20-year-old Alex Pietrangelo, brought along the right way by team president John Davidson and his hockey operations staff. The fourth overall pick in the 2007 draft, the 6-3, 210-pound and marvelously gifted Pietrangelo was afforded the opportunity to play for Team Canada at the World Junior Championships twice as a teenager. Now he's ready for prime time, with Shaw sending him out on the ice at an average of more than 24 minutes the last four games.
"Petro's development changes everything," said Shaw. "When you have a first pair of Erik Johnson and Eric Brewer, if I'm doing my job right they're out there every time against every team's top line. But now we have Alex emerging as a strong defenseman in all zones. He makes us a much better team."
They also have Halak, stolen by general manager Doug Armstrong from Montreal for a pair of middling forwards. The breakout star of the 2010 Stanley Cup playoffs with the Canadiens, Halak has shown during the first month of the season that his name deserves to be mentioned in any conversation about the game's top-five goaltenders.
"He's been every bit as good as we expected," Payne said of Halak, after watching his backup, Ty Conklin, stop everything in his shutout of the Rangers.
The Blues are on a roll even they know is bound to slow down at some point, but they have every right to set a goal of playing for playoff seeding -- not just making the playoffs for only the second time since the lockout.
"It's a little early to make bold predictions," said Conklin. "But we feel good about ourselves."
And if they start to feel a little too confident, Payne says he has plenty to keep his players at an even keel.
"We're very happy with how the guys have bought in, worked hard and played," said the head coach. "But we've got plenty we can improve on. The season is a long road. As a coach, you can always find a teachable moment."