There is no quick and easy way to define the importance of defenseman Alex Pietrangelo to the St. Louis Blues.
One measurable is ice time, wherre Pietrangelo’s average of 29 minutes, 56 seconds is third among all NHL players during the playoffs. He was on the ice for 35 minutes, 37 seconds in Sunday’s 4-3 overtime win in Dallas, tied for the team lead with 43 shifts.
His average ice time has increased by more than three minutes a game from regular season to the playoffs.
“In the back of my mind I knew it was possible they were going to lean on me even more than than they did in the regular season,” Pietrangelo said Monday with the Blues-Stars second-round playoff series tied 1-1 before shifting from Dallas to Scottrade Center for Games 3 and 4. “That’s OK with me. You get in a groove. You don’t realize sometimes how much you play until you look at the scoresheet after the game.
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“Sometimes it’s easier when you’re playing more minutes.”
The 26-year-old Pietrangelo also serves as a calming influence, clearing or skating loose pucks out of trouble or being the trigger man on the Blues’ transition game with accurate passes and an ability to read plays quickly.
It might be a little chip off the boards and out of the zone to relieve pressure. Or it could be clearing a puck near the goal line out of danger as he did to help preserve the Blues’ Game 7 win after a shot from Brent Seabrook hit both goalposts and got behind goaltender Brian Elliott.
Another measurable is scoring and Pietrangelo’s one goal and six points in nine playoff games this spring that ranks sixth among all NHL defensemen. That follows a regular season that saw him score seven goals and 37 points in 73 games.
Perhaps an even greater example of Pietrangelo’s value can be found in shutting down the opposing team’s top scorers. With he and defense partner Jay Bouwmeester typically matched against a top line, the pair helped limit Chicago superstars Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews to a combined one goal in the first-round series win.
“Myself and anybody in here, we like rising to the challenge,” said Pietrangelo, in his fifth season of playoff experience. “They’ve got some big guys over there. Look at Kane and now we’re facing (Jamie) Benn ... those are guys that are big offensive challenges.
“We like the challenge, we like rising to the occasion and it’s a good feeling when you’re able to shut them down.”
Plug and play
Pietrangelo, the fourth overall pick in the 2008 draft, said he thrives on being counted on for defense and offense and being on both the penalty kill and power play units. What enables him to play well against some of the game’s top forwards?
“We play them hard. If you limit their time and space ... look, they’re going to get opportunities, they’re good players,” he said. “You’ve got to limit their time and space and limit their second opportunities. If they get a shot and Moose (Brian Elliott) gives up a rebound, it’s our job to make sure they don’t get another one.”
Blues coach Ken Hitchcock compared Pietrangelo to a player taken two spots ahead of him with the second overall pick in 2008, Los Angeles Kings star defenseman Drew Doughty.
“Him and Doughty are both the same,” Hitchcock said. “They both play hard minutes in every avenue, but ‘Petro’ plays 25 to 30 minutes right now and not a lot of it is on the power play. So you have to recognize that those are heavy minutes he’s playing.
“He’s getting challenged, he’s playing against top players, he’s killing all the penalties, he’s doing everything and that’s wearing on a guy. And he’s done a great job in maintaining a high level of play despite being focused on in every game.”
Pietrangelo thrives under a heavier workload.
He played a whopping 39:49 in Game 6 against Chicago and never turns down a chance to get back on the ice.
“I like having the opportunity to play on a big stage,” he said. “I like being able to elevate my game. I’m just trying to go out there and do everything I can for these guys, no matter what they need me to do. Sometimes it’s hard minutes but I’ll take that as long as it’s going to help us.”
What enables Pietrangelo to elevate his game when the games matter most?
“I don’t like losing,” he said. “I just know the coaching staff and my teammates rely on me to be a big part of the game. I also play big minutes, so I’ve got to make sure I’m a leader back there and make sure guys follow.”
Lots of shifts — and lots of chatter
According to David Backes, Pietrangelo also may lead the Blues in another category — non-stop chatter.
“He is go, go, go,” Backes said. “Guys sometimes wish he had a muzzle on him at times, but he’s always active, he’s always looking for the next thing to do and channeling that onto the ice is something that ... I think (assistant Brad Shaw) gets annoyed by him sometimes on the bench.
“Sometimes he just puts him back out there. He just does good stuff all the time when he’s on the ice. When that’s focused in the right direction, he’s a heck of a player and he’s a big reason why we’re still playing right now.”
Are Bouwmeester’s quiet nature and Pietrangelo’s amped up personality the reason they mesh so well together?
“It might be a perfect marriage there, yeah,” Backes said. “Bo’s quiet and doesn’t say much. To me, that’s partly due to Petro talking all the time.”
Pietrangelo admits to being guilty as charged when it comes to his excitability level — and to a burning desire to make critical plays when his teammates need him the most.
“Yeah, I’m still amped up,” he said Monday. “You can ask my teammates, I’m always on the go. I think it’s just that I’ve been able throughout my career, recognize when the team needs a play that’s maybe a little bit more simple, the basic play that’s going to get us out of pressure.
“I try not to make too many mistakes and I think guys look at me to make that simple play under pressure. I’ve been able to do it and it’s kind of been trickling down the lineup.”