With the opening faceoff of Game 1 Thursday night inching ever closer, it’s now time to take a look at one of the more unpleasant aspects of facing the West East St. Louis River Rats: their special teams.
While much of what comprises the power play is contingent on the health of the battered Blues’ top 6, the word from practice today is that only Timothy Leif has the potential of missing tomorrow’s action, and that includes Vlad Tarasenko. During the regular season, the Blues ranked 8th in the league, scoring 56 power play goals on 283 attempts, which ended up being the sixth most tries league-wide. So while it’s not exactly an automatic, it’s certainly formidable.
#stlblues PP units: 9-17-42-20-22 …. 12-10-91-19-27 … remember, Oshie is not on the ice.
— Jeremy Rutherford (@jprutherford) April 16, 2014
The biggest threats come on the first unit, specifically from the point men of Kevin Shattenkirk and Alex Steen. Shattenkirk has the natural offensive instincts to dictate the play from the blue line, with a vision and puck control to change his angle from a fronting defender whether he chooses to shoot or pass. And with 26 points on the power play (7 G, 19A), he clearly knows what he’s doing. More often than not he finds his partner Steen waiting and drifting into the right circle for a one time attempt with Captain Punchy camped out in front. Steen is tied with Shat with 7 goals, and Backes’ ample ass leads the team with 10. And now that the unit has an added threat in Jaden Schwartz working a half wall, one of the few Blues’ forwards that can get creative if given space, it makes it that much more difficult to defend against. Vlad Sobotka will fill in for Oshie should he not be able to go.
The second unit obviously figures to get a boost with Tarasenko’s return, and certainly both Petro and Jabe are more than capable point men at getting shots through traffic, but do not have the preternatural gifts of Shattenkirk. And when it’s what’s left of Brenden Morrow standing in front of the other goalie, they’re probably better off trying to pick their corners from a distance.
Either way, it’s best for the Hawks to not tempt fate and have to rely on a PK that did not allow a goal in the first round last year against Minnesota, this team has far more weapons and actually moves the puck rather than just let Ryan Suter hold it and peruse the landscape. The Hawks were shorthanded 248 times this past year, good for 5th fewest, but the Blues will undoubtedly try to physically goad them into something stupid, and the longer the game and series stays 5 on 5, the better equipped the Hawks will be to win it.
It’s been hammered home many times during the last few years, but in the post season it’s been shown time and again that with all things being equal, capitalizing on a power play isn’t as necessary as having diamond-tough PK. While this might sound like before-the-fact rationalization for a clown-shoes performance by the Hawk power play, it is based in fact. And if the Hawks can carry their edge in 5 on 5 possession and scoring over basically everybody into the post season, piercing holes in the opposition’s kill doesn’t become as dire, even if that sentiment isn’t gratifying in the least.
Because the Blues were shorthanded the fifth most frequently in the league at 294 times, there will be ample opportunity for the Hawks to even fall ass backwards into a goal or two, if only to prove as a slight scare tactic to keep the game 5 on 5 for themselves. But the Blues do possess many able bodied PKers in Backes, Steen, Oshie, Schwartz, Lapierre, Ott, etc, and were second best in the league with an 85.7 kill rate, along with 6 shorties.
Since his arrival in St. Louis, Ryan Miller has been less than impressive on the kill, allowing 11 goals and bosting a save percentage of .855. To put that in perspective, his backup sports a .921 on the kill, and predecessor Jaro Halak was at .879. While a certain portion of this can be attributed to many of the Blues forwards dropping like flies in front of him, there’s the old war horse of a goaltender needing to be a team’s best penalty killer, as well as the Blues bringing Miller in as a “big game goalie”, and the numbers say to this point he’s been neither of those things.
The Blues run a high pressure kill with aggressive starts and stops to front a puck carrier, and they’ll do so with extreme prejudice against the point men of the first unit of Duncan Keith and Patrick Sharp. Keith is not a natural power play quarterback and has difficulty recognizing when to change his angle prior to launching a puck into shinpads, and Sharp is set up as a trigger man that can be caught flat footed going the other way. Keeping the puck at the half wall and below the goal line with Toews and Kane figures to be the best strategy.