All the ingredients are in place for red-hot Blues

News-DemocratMarch 10, 2014 

While there are definite impact players on the roster of the St. Louis Blues, it is this club's collective ability to shut down the opposition that could lead to a long playoff run.

Goalie Ryan Miller is 4-0 since being traded here by the last-place Buffalo Sabres and his consistency has been rock solid. Miller's 1.50 goals-against average and .933 save percentage say a lot about his ability, but also says a lot about the team in front of him.

The Blues (44-14-6, 94 points) rank third in the NHL in goals-against average (2.20) and third in penalty killing (86.2 percent). They also are 18-0-1 vs. the Central Division, tying a franchise record for consecutive division games earning at least a point set back in 1968-69.

Coach Ken Hitchcock's squad took over first place overall in the NHL standings on Sunday will take a five-game wining streak into a Tuesday home game against Dallas.

That attention to detail so prized by Hitchcock has seen the Blues hold their last seven opponents to two goals or fewer while allowing 21 shots or fewer in four of their last six games.

A veteran defense anchored by Alex Pietrangelo, Jay Bouwmeester, Kevin Shattenkirk, Roman Polak and Barret Jackman are eager to prove they are more than a one round and done playoff team.

So is Miller, who made two deep playoff journeys with the Sabres but --like the Blues -- is still looking for his first Stanley Cup.

Blues General Manager Doug Armstrong has been tinkering with the roster for several years, trying to find the right mix that will get this team over the top.

When he saw a chance to make an upgrade in net, Armstrong reeled in Miller, the 33-year-old former Vezina Trophy winner and Olympics Most Valuable Player from the Sabres.

Armstrong does not deal in small, incremental moves. He prefers to make tectonic shifts that alter the landscape.

When he brought in Halak, he traded former first-round pick Lars Eller as part of the package.

Armstrong dealt defenseman Erik Johnson, the first pick in the 2006 draft, to Colorado as part of a trade that brought in Shattenkirk and Chris Stewart.

Stewart and Halak were recently shipped to Buffalo in the deal that landed Miller.

Don't forget another bold Armstrong move on draft day in 2010, trading former first-round pick and defense prospect David Rundblad to Ottawa in a deal that allowed the Blues to select Vladimir Tarasenko in the first round.

Tarasenko was drafted two picks after the Blues chose Jaden Schwartz. Now Schwartz and Tarasenko are among the most talented young forwards in the Western Conference.

Armstrong's patience has paid off with both players. He has watched the duo develop their overall games instead of simply waiting for goals and points.

One day after the 2010 draft, Armstrong acquired Swiss Army knife forward Vladimir Sobotka from Boston in exchange for the rights to defense prospect David Warsofsky.

At the time, the move received scant attention, but now it looks like another move that could end up pushing the Blues that much closer toward the promised land.

Something else that could help them get there is their dogged pursuit of the puck and constant pounding of the opposition. While they aren't blessed with lots of big bodies, the Blues are relentless when it comes to forechecking and creating offense with defense.

Only 18 regular-season remains and the Blues are chasing some of the most lofty numbers in franchise history.

That includes the record 114 points and 51 wins set by the Presidents Trophy-winning club in 1999-2000. Already 23-5-3 at home, the Blues can also catch the club record for home wins (30) set in 2011-12.

Hitchcock and Armstrong have constantly pushed the Blues to sacrifice personal goals for the good of the team and collective success. That's how winners are built.

There are already nine Blues with 30 or more points and eight with 10 or more goals led by Steen's 29 goals and 50 points in 53 games.

Along with experience and scoring, there is a high degree of playoff grit with players like Backes, Steen, Oshie, Sobotka, Jackman, Polak, Ryan Reaves, Maxim Lapierre and newcomer Steve Ott.

Armstrong has cooked up what looks to be a tasty blend of ingredients he hopes will lead to the kind of buffet dinner the Blues can keep eating deep into the playoffs.

Plenty of question marks remain for a team that has advanced past the first round of the playoffs only three times since 1999. Bounced from the playoffs by the Los Angeles Kings the past two years, the Blues feel all the important lessons have been learned.

The final exam is just over a month away when the playoffs begin.

(Norm Sanders has been the Blues beat writer for the News-Democrat since 1995. He can be reached at 239-2354, nsanders@bnd.com, or follow him on Twitter @NormSanders)

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