The St. Louis Blues are, right now, the best team in the NHL. I realize that's a funny thing for a Blue Jackets fan to say, but the evidence is there: They're tied with the other top four teams in the NHL (LA, Philly, and Washington) on points and have 9 wins in 12 games compared to the 10 wins in 14-15 games of the other leaders. They're a team that is clearly getting it done, including a sparkling 6-0 at home, again tops in the NHL.
It can't even be placed solely on the play of former Canadiens goalie Jaroslav Halak, as Ty Conklin has been quite respectable in his two starts so far this year, with one shutout and one shootout loss in which he only allowed two goals during regulation.
So, the obvious question: How are they doing it, and what can we do about it?It's All About Shots, Shots, and...Shots.
Looking at St. Louis' last 5 games (3 on the road, two at home), every team they faced except for the Bruins was held to under 30 shots on goal. In fact, most of their opponents haven't even cracked 25 shots in a game. That speaks to the level of defense St. Louis is currently executing, particularly when you consider that they aren't blocking that many shots - the team currently averages 13 blocked shots every home game, and 15 shots in every road game. That's in the bottom half of both categories across the NHL. Instead, they've focused their game on one simple thing: Keep the opponents away from the net.
When the Blues give their opponents shooting opportunities, they tend to come at the far edges of the blue line, or the top and perimeter of the faceoff dots. Shots around the crease, more likely to generate rebounds, are rare. The Blues are exceptional at controlling the territory around and behind the crease against almost every opponent - the most notable exception in recent games were the Thrashers, who used the man advantage to force their way around the crease, picking up rebounds off of Halak for two of the three goals they were able to score on him.
The third goal, and the one goal allowed in their game at Boston, were both scored in the slot, directly above the crease, from a player who got behind the St. Louis defense. In Atlanta's case, it was a late period rush by Evander Kane and a whiffed clearing attempt by Eric Brewer that allowed Nic Bergfors to walk in and fire past Halak. In the case of the goal for Boston, you had a 3 on 2 created by a breakout after an intercepted pass by Michael Ryder, and the defense attempting to take away shooting space from Michael Ryder, but opening a great passing lane to an undefended Gregory Campbell, who once again was able to beat Halak one on one.
Given the way opponents have been able to score on the Blues when given chances in the slot, perhaps it's not shocking that one of the Blues non-regulation losses came in an overtime loss where the Hawks created multiple rebounds around the net before Patrick Sharp was able to get the puck away from the defense to the open side of the net, and the other came in a shootout.
The final component of the Blues' advantage is their own shooting, and there has been quite a bit of it. The Blues average 34 shots per game, and have delivered over 35 shots in half their games. (The lowest shot total for the Blues was, in fact, 22 last night in their 2-0 victory over the Rangers.) Even better for the Blues, their shots on goal are heavily weighted to the area around the net - a look at the NHL's Ice Tracker tool for any of their recent games gives the strong impression that the goal crease has a case of blue and gold measles. Even shots from defensemen are more likely to pinch in and come from around the faceoff dots than the point, collapsing the attack around their opponents' net.
By forcing their way to the crease, the Blues have shown a gift for capitalizing on rebounds and pressuring a goaltender until the puck can be rammed past. What is surprising, though, is the fact that the Blues do their damage almost exclusively at even strength - their power play is currently barely better than Columbus with a 11.9% success rate, though it is a bit more respectable on the road, converting 16% of their chances, compared to 8% at home.
Though Jaroslav Halak and Ty Conklin are good goaltenders, and in Halak's case I think he's a great goaltender, the more I look at the numbers, I don't think they're superhuman goaltenders. They're in a situation where their defense does a great deal of work to minimize the opportunities they face, and to put them in a situation where it is easier for them to succeed. There's certainly a great deal of individual talent involved when the goaltenders are asked to make stops against rebounds or breakaways, but the way St. Louis has minimized their opponents' offense would help any goaltender.
So, what do we do about it?
With St. Louis coming in on Wednesday, the Jackets need to keep doing a lot of what they've been doing - take a look at the shot tracker from Saturday's game against the Wild. If you look at the shots from the Jackets, particularly in the attack twice zone, the Jackets did a great job of hitting the net and creating opportunities. Nash's goal in the first was exactly the kind of goal that has been beating Halak this year - an offensive breakout that came up the middle of the ice and a good pass that was too late for the goaltender to react. Kyle Wilson's goal, and the way he and Derek MacKenzie beat the D after Boll's outlet pass, is another example.
The offense has an advantage with players like Nash, Voracek, Umberger, even Jared Boll - players who can use their size to help create plays and get in and around the net. The challenge will be preventing the Blues from forcing them away from the middle of the ice, and creating the space to make plays.
The defense, on the other hand, will need to do the opposite, breaking up the Blues' charges and taking the puck away as often as possible. Clearing St. Louis' forwards out of the crease and preventing them from getting rebound opportunities is equally important.
There's one more key, though: Score goals.
When you take away St. Louis' blowout 5-1 win over Anaheim, their offense has actually been...remarkably similar to Columbus. They've scored four goals once against Chicago, and a 4-3 shootout win against Atlanta. After that, you see a lot of 2-1, 2-0, and 1-0 games. The Blues have scored 30 goals in their 12 games, and are 8-0-2 when they get the first goal.
If the Jackets can score first, it seems to unbalance the Blues a bit. Getting an early lead and turning the pressure up onto the Blues is a recipe for success - again, check out their game against Atlanta. The Thrashers turned up the pressure early and got out to a 3-1 lead at the end of the first, did a good job of preventing the Blues from getting a lot of traffic in the second period, but allowed St. Louis to get back into their "normal" game in the third, and saw the match slip away from them as a result.
In the Blues' loss to the Predators, they were again outscored early - a fast goal at the top of the slot less than a minute into the opening period, two more goals in the first period, and a cap-stone midway through the second right on Halak's doorstep to seal the deal, all scored from the middle of the face-off circles or closer to the net.
Because St. Louis is keeping their GA average down to 1.4 goals per game, they haven't needed to find much of an upper gear. Teams that can break their defensive cordon and ring up more than two goals against the Blues put them on the ropes.
The final piece of hope for Jackets fans is to look at where St. Louis is winning - that 6-0 home record looks very different when compared to the 3-1-2 road record.
It seems reasonable to argue that the Blues depend on having the right guys on the ice at the right times. Without control of last change, it would see the become a much more human team - even more when you consider that two of those victories came against Eastern Conference teams, and two of the losses were against divisional opponents.
With St. Louis coming into our rink, perhaps Jackets fans have more reasons to be optimistic for Wednesday night than we thought.