As NHL play-offs approach, a different tune plays in St Louis
You will not find many superstars at the St Louis Blues. But that has not stopped them from rising to the top of the NHL standings.
The Blues' season started on a sour note, with Davis Payne being replaced as coach by no-nonsense bench boss Ken Hitchcock after the team limped out of the gates with a 6-7-0 record.
It was somewhat surprising that St Louis pulled the trigger so quickly on Payne but it is hard to argue with the results.
The Blues have gone 37-11-7 under Hitchcock, rocketing up the standings and winning games on the strength of their physical presence, team defence and stingy goaltending.
St Louis are not an offensive powerhouse, with no one among the NHL's top 50 scorers.
TJ Oshie, the rough-and-tumble winger, paces the Blues with 47 points in 66 games, and David Backes, the captain, leads the way with 21 goals.
The team's next top two scorers are a pair of young defencemen, Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk.
St Louis rank about 20th in the league in scoring, which makes their performance this season all the more impressive.
Hitchcock demands top-to-bottom accountability when it comes to the defensive side of the puck, and the Blues have obviously bought in.
Plus, Jaroslav Halak, their No 1 goalie, has been brilliant after a bumpy start, while back-up Brian Elliott has been an absolute revelation, leading NHL netminders in goals-against average and save percentage all year.
Heading into the home stretch of the regular season, Elliott (1.63) and Halak (1.86) are one-two in GAA, while Elliott is first in save percentage (.937) and Halak sixth (.926). If one of them slumps - not that there has been any indication of that happening - St Louis can rotate in the other without missing a beat.
The good news for the Blues - and bad news for the rest of the NHL - is that St Louis appear to be on the way to becoming a more dangerous offensive club.
David Perron, a young and talented winger, has 32 points in 43 games after missing the first two months of the season because of concussion symptoms.
The centre, Andy McDonald, missed nearly 50 games because of yet another concussion, but he is back and has scored three times in his past three outings.
Patrik Berglund and Chris Stewart have been underwhelming this season, but a strong finish by either one - or both - would hardly be surprising.
Jason Arnott might be 37 years old but he is a proven play-off winner - with a Stanley Cup-winning goal in overtime to his credit (in 2000 with the New Jersey Devils).
St Louis have never won the Stanley Cup.
That might not change this season, but they have joined the ranks of the league's elite contenders, and they have got as good a shot at a championship as anyone else.
Published: March 12, 2012 04:00 AM