Blues cruising along near the top of the NHL

News-DemocratNovember 23, 2013 

It happened while you were wondering why the Cardinals had what seemed like an entire stable of 100-mph pitchers fueling their dramatic run to the World Series.

"Blues off to best start in franchise history at 15-3-3"

It happened while David Freese still played for the Cardinals and while Rams fans were wondering whether receiver Tavon Austin was another blown draft pick or potential game-breaker.

"Alexander Steen tied with Alex Ovechkin for NHL goal-scoring lead, second behind Sidney Crosby in overall scoring race"

And it happened while the Missouri Tigers were looking like major bowl game contenders and the Fighting Illini were looking for a place to hide somewhere underneath the Big Ten standings.

"Halak's strong start pushing Blues"

And while all the late-arriving hockey fans are awakening from their dedicated following of other sports, they suddenly realize that this just might be that Blues teams they've been waiting for.

"Roy's shootout goal carries Blues past Bruins"

This Blues team began Friday with more points than any team except Chicago. They have outscored the opposition 73-49, own the top power-play in the NHL and Steen's goal total is at an incredible 17.

The Blues have two wins over defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago and solid wins over elite franchises Boston (3-2 shootout) and Pittsburgh (2-1). They hammered Colorado, one of the league's hottest teams at the time, 7-3 while turning in perhaps their best 20-minute span of hockey in many years.

That period included four goals and three fights, all won by the Blues.

While there have been some points left on the table -- most notably being unable to hold a 3-1 lead in the third period at Winnipeg -- there's not much to argue with so far.

The much-discussed depth on defense has proven to be a major asset.

Three of the team's top six scorers are defensemen and the Blues' quick transition game makes it tough for opposing teams to spend much time in their zone.

Jay Bouwmeester (one goal, 16 points) was acquired to give Alex Pietrangelo (four goals, 16 points) a top-pair defense partner and that has been a solid fit.

Not many teams have three offensive defensemen who also are solid in their own end like the Blues, who can also trot out Kevin Shattenkirk (one goal, 15 points) in any situation.

An injury to defenseman Jordan Leopold was filled by Ian Cole and the Blues quickly moved to acquire more depth by picking up Carlo Colaiacovo.

There is much more than Steen's head-turning 17 goals and 26 points in 21 games up front.

Notorious slow starter David Backes is cruising right along with nine goals and 21 points in 21 games. The Blues' top line of Steen, Backes and T.J. Oshie (three goals, 18 points) has been dominant.

So has Vladimir Sobotka, whose versatility and intense play creates headaches for every opponent.

The addition of veteran winger Brenden Morrow has been as good as advertised. Along with his four goals, Morrow brings a higher level of accountability to all those around him from his days as former captain of the Stars.

While still searching for a bit more scoring, the Blues have gotten strong starts from newcomer Derek Roy (six goals, 13 points) and second-year wingers Jaden Schwartz (three goals, 11 points) and Vladimir Tarasenko (seven goals, 11 points).

Defenseman Roman Polak --who has never scored more than four goals in a full season --already has three.

If the Blues can figure out a way to get Patrik Berglund and Chris Stewart in the right spots, there could be even more offensive upside.

Determined to ride Jaroslav Halak as their No. 1 goaltender, the Blues have been rewarded with a 12-3-2 start and 2.34 goals-against average.

Halak was at his best Thursday in Boston, turning away three of the Bruins' four shootout attempts and robbing Carl Soderberg late in the third period with the game on the line.

After allowing a goal 10 seconds into the Buffalo game on Tuesday, Halak has stopped 52 of 55 shots including that stingy shootout performance against the Bruins.

His 29 saves against the Bruins were also a season high.

Since being hired near the start of the 2011-12 season, coach Ken Hitchcock has guided the Blues to an 87-35-16 record.

The Blues' sixth straight win in Boston gave them a 32-9-5 record against the Eastern Conference since 2010-11, the best record in the league over that span.

About the only downside is an average home attendance of 16,547, which ranks 20th in the NHL. Give the fans a little more time -- and a few more wins -- and they'll be back.

Norm Sanders has been the Blues beat writer for the News-Democrat since 1995. He can be reached at 239-2454, or on Twitter @NormSanders.

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