The 2013-2014 St. Louis Blues have something in common with their 1969-1970 and 1993-1994 campaigns: a perfect 3-0-0 start to the season. After defeating the despised Chicago Blackhawks, team morale in the Blues locker room is at an all-time high.
However, the Blues aren’t popping champagne after knocking off the defending Stanley Cup Champions. Coach Ken Hitchcock acknowledges the fact that it is still early in the grueling 82-game season, and has his focus set solely on the future.
“I think everybody knows this is the third hockey game of the year,” Hitchcock said, “The players are looking forward to the day off (Friday) and then moving on, getting ready for New York.”
There is still some room for improvement, but St. Louis fans should be excited about their team’s fast start. They are scoring goals consistently, an element that was non-existent from their game throughout the Western Conference Quarterfinals last year against the Los Angeles Kings.
10 out of their 12 starting forwards have already scored this season, including seven different players hitting the back of the net during their 7-0 rout of the Florida Panthers. The scoring is coming from a plethora of players, not just one “superstar.” Ranging from hard-nosed deflections to twine-seeking snipes, the Blues are finding multiple ways to light the lamp. Only three players have put up multiple goals (Alexander Steen, David Backes, and Vladimir Tarasenko).
Newly added forwards Brenden Morrow and Derek Roy have registered a combined total of five points. The core is putting up big numbers, but the offense isn’t the only thing clicking; the Blues defense has also outscored opponents 14-4 this season. All six defensemen are buying into Hitch’s system, but nobody on this St. Louis Blues roster is playing better than Alex Pietrangelo.
Fresh off his monster 7-year, $ 44.5 million contract extension, Pietrangelo is leading the way offensively with five assists. The Blues arguably have the best defense in the NHL, and their ability to shut down top offensive lines showed in their win over Chicago.
However, the biggest difference-maker in the Blues lineup is goaltender Jaroslav Halak. After missing some of last year with nagging injuries, Halak is one hundred percent and is playing phenomenally. He has turned away 73 out of 77 shots thrown his way so far and sports an astonishing 1.33 GAA.
In my opinion, this is the best shape I’ve ever seen him in since being traded away from Montreal in 2010. His conditioning during the offseason is the number one reason why he looks so great. For the first time in his career, Halak spent the entire summer in St. Louis working with the team trainer and dietitian.
He lost fourteen pounds of body fat coming into the season thanks to this routine, attributing to his quick mobility from post to post. Although the spotlight is on him at this point, Halak points to his teammates for his terrific play.
“I’m just trying to stop the puck and have fun out there and help the guys,” Halak said. “Guys didn’t give up; it was just a great job by them.”
If Halak stays healthy, I can’t see him faltering throughout the season. He stood on his head against the Blackhawks in the early going, preventing them from taking the lead. There were many instances where the Hawks could have buried St. Louis in the first period, but Halak stood tall. This reminded me of his miraculous run during the 2010 playoffs with the Canadiens when he knocked off both Pittsburgh and Washington.
When you have a dominant goalie in between the pipes, it’s hard to lose. Let’s see if he continues his stellar play when they face the struggling New York Rangers on Saturday. The Blues have one big problem despite their record: slow starts.
Against both Florida and Chicago, they looked sluggish out of the gate. Luckily, Halak bailed them out. What they need to do is to pick up the pace right when the puck drops. They allowed too many odd-man rushes against the Blackhawks, and need to clean up their play in the neutral zone in order to remain undefeated.
If the Blues beat the Rangers, it will be the first time in franchise history that St. Louis has started a season 4-0-0. This team is loaded with potential, but only time will tell if they can continue to take the next step as the season progresses.
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