As I type this, it’s the morning of Jan. 2 and the Blues are in Denver, preparing for Thursday night’s game against the Colorado Avalanche.
It’s a terrific time to pause and reflect on the last 12 months of Blues hockey. Exactly a year ago — on this forever notable Jan. 2 date — the Blues had the fewest points (34) among the 31 NHL teams. The team’s 2018-2019 season was circling the drain … or so it seemed.
The Blues rallied. They saved the season. They demolished their decades-old negative postseason history and karma, created a new identity, and dramatically changed the narrative and the course of the franchise.
Beginning on Jan. 3, the 2018-2019 Blues went 30-10-5 over their final 45 regular-season games, won four scintillating postseasonrounds, and seized the Stanley Cup after a 51-season blight.
What could the Blues do for an encore?
We’ll have to hold for the answer. The 2020 postseason doesn’t launch until early April.
For now, the good times are still rolling. And so are the Blues.
Since skating into that bottom-point rut that had them stuck in 31st place on Jan. 2 of 2019, the Blues have:
1. Won the first Stanley Cup in franchise history.
2. Jumped out to a brisk 26-9-6 start to the new season. Their total of 58 points is No. 1 in the Western Conference and tied for second overall, one point behind Washington.
3. Posted the NHL’s No. 1 record, 21-7-3, since losing star scorer Vladimir Tarasenko to a shoulder injury on Oct. 24.
4. Emerged from last season’s early standings sludge to rise up for a 56-19-11 record in regular-season play. That’s good for 123 regular-season points, tops in the NHL over the last calendar year. The Blues’ 123 points are 25 more than the No. 2 team (Arizona) in the West during the last 12 months.
5. The Blues have owned the NHL Central division. Just take a look at the NHL “standings” in regular-season competition since last Jan. 3, when the Blues began their stretch of amazing and blazing excellence:
–St. Louis, 123 points
The Blues are a championship-caliber team as long as they maintain their sturdiness in goal and continue to improve in their 5-on-5 metrics.
The truth is …
Over their first 41 games — the precise halfway mark of their regular season — the Blues haven’t been as robust as perceived in their game-control metrics at 5 v 5.
They’ve been fine, solid, etc … just not as dominant as we witnessed during their surge in the early weeks and months of 2019 while charging their way to the Cup.
So far this season (again, at 5 v 5) the Blues are 17th in the NHL shots-attempt percentage, 14th in shots on goal percentage, 15th in scoring-chance percentage, and a lowly 26th in high-danger shot percentage.
Needless to say, it’s more challenging to win games when your opponents are controlling roughly 53 percent of the high-danger shots on goal. And that’s been the case with the Blues.
But the Blues are overcoming their underlying vulnerability because of the superb play being provided by goaltenders Jordan Binnington and Jake Allen.
At 5-on-5, the Blues rank fourth in the league with a .932 save percentage. But that’s just a sliver of the brilliance. Binnington and Allen have combined for the league’s best save percentage (.901) on scoring chances. They’ve teamed for the NHL’s best save percentage (.872) on high-danger shots from the slot and crease.
This is exceptional.
The early-season Blues didn’t have that a year ago. Allen was mired in a horrendous slump that eroded his confidence. Binnington was still parked in the minors. Through Jan. 2 of last season the were ranked 28th in the league in 5-on-5 save percentage (.906), 26th in high-danger save percentage (.791) and 25th in save rate on scoring chances (.851.)
Binnington’s arrival and instant-star hero turn made a huge difference. He repeatedly snatched wins for the Blues, and displayed an admirable bounce-back quality after a terrible performance. (Ask the Boston Bruins about that.)
Not only that, but Binnington’s presence gave Allen a chance to rebuild confidence. The Allen turnaround began last season after Binnington stabilized a precariously weak position.
Allen carried his revival over to the new campaign. Among 51 NHL goaltenders that have logged at least 625 minutes at 5-on-5 this season, Allen ranks second in save percentage (.945), is first in high-danger save percentage (.892) and is fifth in Goals Saved Above Average (8.85.)
The Blues are generally doing a swell job at limiting shots, allowing 29.6 per game at 5-on-5. That’s ninth best in the NHL. Their average of scoring chances allowed per game is 12th, and they’re 13th in high-danger chances permitted per 60 minutes.
And those trends have gotten better in recent weeks.
Bottom line? Based on the metrics, the Blues should be allowing 2.27 goals per game at 5-on-5. That ranks 14th. But in reality, they’re giving up 2.02 goals per game at 5-on-5, and that ranks third in the league.
And despite giving up the same amount of shots on goal as opponents at 5-on-5 through 41 games — and yielding more high-danger chances than their foes — the Blues rank 5th in the NHL with their share of 54.7 percent of 5-on-5 goals scored compared to opponents this season.
That tells us a lot, eh?
The Blues have many attributes. And we are familiar with their many plusses. But it’s important to emphasize the primary reason for their sensational record.
Their goaltending is truly special.
And the Blues’ goaltending — an enormous liability during the depressing days of last season — is clearly the No. 1 reason for their smashing success so far in 2019-2020.
Thanks for reading …