The St. Louis Blues began the 2011-12 season 6-7-0 and fired their coach. Now they have become the first team to clinch a place in the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs — they assured themselves of a trip to the postseason by beating Tampa Bay 3-1 on Saturday night.
How did the Blues engineer such a remarkable turnaround? Here are a few reasons:
1. Ken Hitchcock found the right team: The Blues proved to be a perfect fit for the style Hitchcock wants his teams to play. There are a lot of guys willing to work, but also enough skill to make the Blues dangerous at the offensive end. Hitchcock might not win the Jack Adams Award, but only because pundits incorrectly pegged Ottawa as a lottery team. He has transformed the Blues into an elite team.
2. The best goalie tandem in hockey:Brian Elliott had a terrible 2010-11 and was probably one more bad year from being out of the League. Jaroslav Halak was just OK in his first season with the Blues. Both have had huge bounce-back seasons. Elliott was fantastic early — even before Hitchcock arrived and transformed the team — while Halak has been the best goaltender on the planet in 2012. Halak is 18-3-1 in 23 starts with five shutouts since Jan. 1, and he’s allowed a total of 33 goals in that stretch.
3. Dominance at even strength: The Blues have scored 128 goals at even strength (5-on-5 and 4-on-4), which as a stand-alone stat is not that significant — it ranks them 24th in the League. But they have yielded only 89 goals at even strength, which is by far the fewest in the NHL — no other team is within 20. St. Louis has the second-best ratio at 5-on-5 behind only division rival Detroit. The best eight teams at that statistic — Detroit, St. Louis, Boston, N.Y. Rangers, Vancouver, Philadelphia, San Jose and Pittsburgh — are a pretty good indicator of either a) elite teams or b) teams that should be elite, but have had some bad luck and/or injuries.
4. GM Doug Armstrong got the best player in a megadeal: It is fair to say both Chris Stewart and Erik Johnson, the principals in a blockbuster deal between St. Louis and Colorado last season, have had disappointing seasons for their respective teams. But defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, the “second” guy added in the deal for St. Louis, has been phenomenal for the Blues. He has nine goals, 37 points and leads the St. Louis defense corps in on-ice plus-minus per 60 minutes at even strength, according to the site Behind the Net. Shattenkirk is also third in the NHL in that category behind only the Detroit pairing of Nicklas Lidstrom and Ian White. Shattenkirk has been on the ice for 46 goals for and only 21 against at even strength.
5. Much improved penalty-killing: Earlier in the season, the Blues were surviving on their dominant play at even strength while the special teams lagged far behind. The power play has been a little better, especially since Andy McDonald returned from a concussion, but the big improvement has come on the penalty kill. St. Louis recently erased 51 straight power plays, two short of the NHL record. The Blues are now seventh in the League on the PK at 84.5 percent.
6. Natural progression, with a dash of improved health: The Blues have been building toward being a contender for a while and probably should have made the playoffs last season. Alex Pietrangelo has blossomed into one of the best young defensemen in the League — a group that also includes Shattenkirk. Nearly all of the top forwards, including David Backes, David Perron, T.J. Oshie, Patrik Berglund, Vladimir Sobotka and Stewart are still young — Backes is the greybeard of that group at 27. Perron returned after missing nearly 100 games with a concussion, and Oshie missed 33 games last season as well. The Blues have lost Alex Steen for months because of a concussion, but in general they have been much healthier this season.