put a right ass kicking on the New York Rangers
last night, posting a 4-1 victory to close out what looked like a pivotal five-game homestand coming in.
I say pivotal because while the Blues had performed brilliantly under new coach Ken Hitchcock the first ten or so games he was on the bench, we've all seen this play before. New coach, new message, everybody sits up and pays attention to the new teacher for a couple weeks. Then, unfortunately, the backsliding begins.
Well, it's still too early to rest easy, but this was a tremendous start. The Blues started off the homestand with their worst game under Hitchcock, a 5-2 shellacking by Chicago in which they simply didn't play well at all, but then rolled off four straight victories to pick up eight points and move into a tie with Detroit for second place in the Central division.
The Blues won last night the same way they've won almost every night since Hitch came to town: they played smothering defense and were opportunistic on offense. There is one major difference to how the Blues have played of late, though, compared to that first stretch under the new coach.
They've been getting along with just enough offense for, well, pretty much the whole season, but I think there's some reason to be optimistic. This team is looking more and more confident all the time on both ends of the ice, playing with a certain swagger they were largely lacking earlier in the year. Too often this team misses scoring chances due to making one too many passes; more and more of late that's no longer the case. These players are attacking, rather than waiting for the absolute perfect opportunity that may never come. It's a far better mindset, and the results are just beginning to show.
Of course, the mindset isn't enough. There has to be more consistent production across the board, not just the top line. Chris Stewart, I'm looking squarely at you. Getting Andy McDonald back at some point in the second half of the season would help too, though how realistic that might be is still unclear at this point.
Bottom line, the Blues beat up on a very, very good Rangers team (albeit one missing a key piece or two), and went 4-1 on the homestand. They've taken it to Eastern Conference opponents in a big way this year, to the tune of a 7-0-1 record. They're tied for second place in the division and are currently riding a four-game winning streak.
As of the 16th of December, 2011, things officially couldn't get much better for the Blues.
- I've said it before and I'll say it again: Patrik Berglund needs to be shooting the puck. His goal last night was just a half step down from his unbelievable slapshot goal against the Red Wings, a wrister from the circle that caught Henrik Lundqvist and was almost by him before he had a chance to properly react. Berglund has the accuracy and suddenness of a sniper, and could really develop into a threat to shoot from virtually anywhere on the ice. Good things happen when Patrik Berglund shoots the puck. We just need to see it every night.
- I keep expecting Brian Elliott to come back to earth, and it keeps not happening. He leads the NHL in both goals against (1.43), and save percentage (.950), and is the proud owner of a 13-2-0 record on the season. He hasn't been proclaimed the starter by Ken Hitchcock yet, but the writing is on the wall. Elliott has been the best goalie in the league this season, and has managed to make Jaroslav Halak's stellar turnaround of late look positively pedestrian by comparison. There's no way Elliott can keep playing at this level, but even when he drops off you have to wonder if the Blues aren't headed for a potentially sticky choice when it comes to their long-term future in net.
- There was only one penalty called in the entire game last night. One. A holding call on the Rangers' Steve Eminger in the second period. That's one way to keep your special teams play from hurting you, I suppose.
- David Perron played close to 19 minutes again last night (18:41, to be exact), and has yet to show any recurrence of his concussion symptoms since returning. We've seen the cautionary side of things recently, with Sidney Crosby back on the shelf in Pittsburgh, but so far things seem to be progressing just fine for Perron. I have to admit I've been both pleasantly surprised and quietly concerned about the amount of ice time Hitchcock has allowed Perron, but it's definitely been a shot in the arm for the team to get him back.
- It was a rare quiet night for Kevin Shattenkirk. He played well enough, but it's unusual you see him play an entire game and not really do much of anything with the puck. Last night was just such a night, though. And, in a way, it was good to see. Players with the puck-handling skills of Shattenkirk tend to want the puck the way wide receivers want the ball. Seeing him find ways to contribute without taking a shot or pulling an assist is, in an odd way, as encouraging as anythng else that happened on the ice last night.