Blues relying heavily on transition game and depth to raise scoring level

News-DemocratJanuary 4, 2014 

— When deciphering the St. Louis Blues' increased scoring this season, don't forget to factor in the defense.

That's where puck-movers Jay Bouwmeester, Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk and others are doing some of their best work by fueling the transition game.

With 144 goals and averaging 3.5 goals per game (only Chicago has more with 160), the Blues (28-7-5) are finding the back of the net with increased regularity.

"I would say we've always believed that we were a team that scores by committee," said Blues General Manager Doug Armstrong, whose team has more points (61) than all but two other NHL teams (Chicago with 64 and Anaheim with 63). "The addition of Bouwmeester a year ago has really helped our transition game. Now we really move the puck with authority out of our defensive zone and that leads to more offensive chances.

"The less time we spend in our end and the quicker we get our transition game going, the more offense we're going to produce."

Even better, the Blues have been piling up goals with scoring leaders Alexander Steen and David Backes and their combined 40 goals out of the lineup.

It's because of their increased depth, the Blues can somehow lose two-thirds of their top line and continue to win thanks to larger contributions from do-everything center Vladimir Sobotka and feisty winger Jaden Schwartz.

The Blues have scored five or more goals four times in the last seven games, including a 5-0 victory Thursday over the Los Angeles Kings.

In their last 51 games at Scottrade Center, the Blues are 50-0-1 when scoring three or more goals. They play host to Columbus on Saturday.

Lacking one true dominant scorer, although Steen had 24 goals in 35 games before suffering a concussion, the Blues continue to spread the offensive wealth.

T.J. Oshie has four goals in his last three games after scoring none in the previous 15, yet has been an offensive catalyst all season on the No. 1 line with eight goals and 35 points.

The Blues have five players with 13 or more goals and eight with 26 or more points.

Oshie's value to the team lies in his ability to affect games with his offense, defense, speed and energy. The U.S. Olympian's average ice time of 19 minutes 36 seconds is second among all forwards to Backes (19:50).

"He's a tenacious player, which I think is infectious to the rest of our group," Armstrong said of Oshie. "The greatest compliment a player can get is the way the coach uses him. It's how a coach uses a player ice-time wise that really dictates how they view the player's ability to help the team."

Youngsters and former first-round picks Schwartz (14 goals, 31 points, seven-game scoring streak) and Vladimir Tarasenko (13 goals, 22 points) have blossomed into scoring threats while the addition of veteran center Derek Roy (eight goals, 28 points) continues to pay dividends.

"They're top draft picks and they were projected to be able to play an offensive role in the NHL," Armstrong said of Tarasenko and Schwartz. "They're just fulfilling what their projections were, but it's nice to have that kind of depth."

The Blues also have three of the NHL's top 10 scoring defensemen in Shattenkirk (six goals, 29 points), Bouwmeester (three goals, 26 points) and Pietrangelo (four goals, 26 points).

"That's the way that our team has been constructed, we're the sum of all the parts," Armstrong said. "We don't have a (Sidney) Crosby, an (Alex) Ovechkin or a (Jonathan) Toews or a (Patrick) Kane that are asked to supply the majority of the offense. Our team is built on spreading that throughout the lineup -- and we need consistent scoring."

Don't overlook the importance of the kind of coaching experience provided by Ken Hitchcock. Since taking over for Davis Payne on Nov. 7, 2011, Hitchcock's teams are 100-39-18 record in the regular season.

While that hasn't translated into playoff success, the Blues seem to be trending in the right direction.

"This isn't something that's fallen into our laps over the last eight weeks, it's been there for the better part of three seasons right now," Armstrong said. "We're happy with where we're at. The players have done an outstanding job of putting themselves in a great position, but there's a lot of heavy lifting to do."

Another important factor has been the hot goaltending of Brian Elliott. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Elliott's 15 shutouts since 2011 are more than any other NHL goaltender --and Elliott got them despite making only 69 starts.

Expected to start again Saturday at home against Columbus, Elliott is 11-1-2 with a 1.84 goals-against average and .928 percentage.

The Blues reassigned goalie Jake Allen to the minors late Thursday, which means Jaroslav Halak (flu) should be feeling well enough to serve as the backup.

Defenseman Jordan Leopold, who missed 26 games with a ligament injury to his right hand, on Friday was activated from injured reserve.

Contact reporter Norm Sanders at 239-2454, or on Twitter @NormSanders

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