Heading into their Martin Luther King Day showdown with Dallas, the Blues have played 31 games under new coach Ken Hitchcock, and they’ve gone 20-5-6 for 46 points since their coaching change on Nov. 6.
Since the change, only Boston, with 47 points, has more points than the Blues. Vancouver has also piled up 46 points, and they have the best record in the west, and trail only the Rangers in the overall standings. While the Blues’ won-lost record is impressive, if we dig deeper we can see why they’ve become such a force in the NHL.
When Hitchcock took over for the 14th game, the Blues were converting on just eight percent of their power plays, scoring just three in 13 games. Their penalty kill was woeful, allowing the opposition to score on an astounding 26 percent of their power-play opportunities.
After a slow start, the Blues’ power play has picked things up, converting at a 15.8 percent clip since Hitchcock took over. The power play has been particularly effective of late, converting six of 27 opportunities for a 22.2 percent clip since the turn of the New Year.
That’s important, because the Blues have four home games and one road game in the remainder of January, before the schedule turns against them. Playing on the road, good teams are going to play close games. And the way to win close games is to play great on special teams. With the goaltending among the best in the NHL (the Blues’ 2.02 goals-against average is tied with the Rangers for second best in the league, behind only Boston with Tim Thomas), the power play is going to become paramount in the Blues’ attempt to win the west.
Seven of the Blues’ nine road games in February are against Western Conference teams. That means that, as much as we’d like the team’s snipers to succeed in overtime and in shootouts, the Blues can’t afford to be going to overtime. When taking on the likes of Nashville, Chicago and Detroit, the Blues not only have to win, but they have to win in regulation. St. Louis can’t afford to allow those teams to get a point. They need to pick up significant ground every time they play, and I’m sure Hitchcock would prefer games be two-point games rather than three pointers, which is the case when a game is tied at the end of regulation.
The Blues are playing their most exciting brand of hockey since the days Brett Hull roamed the ice in St. Louis. And it’s not just because they’re winning. They fly up and down the ice to both ends, they compete hard in every game, they have balanced scoring and they have superb goaltending.
With the success, the franchise has maintained their mantra of reconnecting with the community. Players fanned out to 13 different rinks on Sunday, meeting youth hockey players, giving autographs and hockey tips. And while the players do something this group genuinely enjoys, at the same time they’re cultivating new, young hockey fans. That 10 year old that got the autograph on Sunday is much more likely to buy a single-game ticket and head to a game when he becomes a teenager, buy a partial plan when they get out of college, and then buy full season tickets when they can afford it 15-20 years down the road.
While dealing with a sale and some financial hardships, the Blues have built a terrific product. The combination of effort, winning and kindness has made them a model franchise. If they can simply keep doing what they’ve been doing for the last 31 games, they will make the playoffs and be a force to be reckoned with.