Blues Lead Central Division at Season's Halfway Point
Every year I plan a post at the season's halfway point. It's a time to reflect on the year's first 41 games and look ahead to the 41 games to come. In previous installments this post has been a means of mostly pointing out areas the Blues need to improve in. In a refreshing and somewhat surprising development, the Blues sit in first place in the Central Division after 41 games and are looking more and more like a true contender in 2011-12.
This is kind of crazy, isn't it?
After 41 games in 2011-12 below is how the Central Division shapes up.
Detroit and Columbus have yet to play their 41st game of the season but you get the idea. The NHL schedule can be a bit wonky at times, with certain teams already having played in 43 games (Colorado and Calgary for example) while others have only appeared in as few as 38 (San Jose).
Schedule technicalities aside, the Blues have taken the Central by storm and have gone from being on the fringe of playoff contention to being one of the division leaders in the West.
What's driving the Blues rise to the top? Take your pick.
The Blues currently have the best home record in the NHL with a line of 17-3-2 at the Scottrade Center. This outstanding home record has all but masked an average record on the road of 7-9-3. To put their home record in perspective, the next highest win total at home is 15 - a mark held by Detroit.
Remember when the hot topic of discussions was the Blues dreadful power play? Gone are those days. The Blues have made the most of the man advantage in recent weeks, climbing from 30th in the NHL to their current spot at 22nd. Most recently, the Blues converted on two power plays in their 4-0 win over Colorado, with a third goal coming just as a power play expired.
Then there's the team's goaltending and defense. I won't even try to debate which has performed better or which is more responsible for the Blues having the third best goals against average in the league (2.05). To summarize without writing a novel, the goaltending has been solid when it has needed to be and spectacular when it has needed to be. Certain games, like last night's domination over the Avalanche, have seen the St. Louis goaltender barely get involved.
Overall, I feel the St. Louis defenseman haven't received enough credit for the great work they have done so far in 2011-12. They are more than just partially responsible for the team's tiny GAA and they have done a great job of shutting down even the most potent offensive stars. They have clogged passing lanes, blocked shooting lanes and frustrated nearly every attempt the opposing offense has thrown their way. To date, the Blues allow the fewest shots per game in the entire NHL (26.6). It's pretty easy to figure out that when the opponent isn't taking shots they won't be scoring goals.
In the past I've done a middle of the year report card for various Blues. This year will be a bit different. This time I'm going to grade the team as a whole during two drastically different stages of the year.
Davis Payne Stretch - 13 games
It was brief and not very memorable compared to the fun we've all had in recent weeks. Some believed Payne's dismissal was a bit too hasty, but following the resurrection and inspiration Ken Hitchcock has given this team I imagine you'll find very few Payne supporters against the decision.
Under Payne, the Blues earn a C
. They were the definition of average. They looked like a team going through the motions after a long season of disappointment - a strange sight to see at the start of a brand new year. Whether it was the scheme, the planning or simply the motivational tactics used, Payne could not get the Blues to be consistent in any area of the game.
Ken Hitchcock Stretch - 28 games
Honestly, it's tough to find many negatives since Hitchcock arrived. The Blues have ascended up the standings, maintained solid defense and goaltending and improved their power play. Their offense may need a bit more work but it has been coming around in recent contests.
There have been games where the Blues have completely dominated
. They haven't just been in control of the flow but have made the opposition look like a group of pee-wees just taking the ice for the first time. When was the last year you heard someone say that about the St. Louis Blues? As a result of all their hard work and success, I have no choice but to give the Blues an A
under Hitchcock. I'd love to see someone argue that this grade hasn't been deserved and earned since Hitchcock arrived.
41 Games to Go
The first half has certainly been a wild and fun ride. Before we all start enjoying the recent success a bit too much, it's important to realize we are only at the 50% mark. There's a lot of hockey left. The Blues are looking like a legitimate playoff threat, no argument there, but they are far from being a team that can shift into cruise control the rest of the year. The Blues need to follow the formula they've been using while continuing to make minor adjustments as teams try to crack their strategy.
Hopefully, the second set of 41 games is as entertaining as the first 41. Hopefully the Blues can patch their weaknesses, avoid major injuries and keep their focus as the year marches on. If they are able we could all be in for a lot of fun this spring as the Blues make the leap from playoff contender to Cup contender.