Blues heading into Stanley Cup playoffs on an absolute heater, again

·8 min read
It’s not an identical formula to the one unleashed by the 2019 champs, but this year’s Blues team presents astounding similarities, starting in the crease. (Photo via USA Today Sports)
It’s not an identical formula to the one unleashed by the 2019 champs, but this year’s Blues team presents astounding similarities, starting in the crease. (Photo via USA Today Sports)

History certainly has an odd way of repeating itself and this is certainly true in the NHL, where a mere seven franchises have lifted the Stanley Cup over the past 12 years in a league that ostensibly values parity above all.

As for the red-hot St. Louis Blues, who haven’t lost in regulation since March 27, there are striking parallels to the 2019 team that won it all for the first time in franchise history, going from worst-to-first during the course of the year.

Is this a mirage or a narrative fallacy? St. Louis leads the NHL with a 1.027 PDO percentage — a calculation of a team’s on-ice shooting and save percentages, which has been viewed as a clear determinant of luck. There’s reason to believe that the Blues’ current run of form is unsustainable, but critics also said the same thing about the 2019 team that caught fire and upended the favoured Boston Bruins in seven games.

We’re going to attempt to solve this problem in this piece. Any discussion of the 2021-22 Blues must start with Ville Husso, who supplanted Jordan Binnington from his starter’s perch with a formidable season that should earn down-ballot Vezina consideration. In what may be ironic fate, Husso catching fire to lead a contending Blues team into the playoffs is pretty much the same formula from three years ago, as Binnington took over the crease and never looked back — many were surprised when he didn’t win the Conn Smythe Trophy, although in retrospect, Ryan O’Reilly’s win isn’t an egregious mistake.

Husso, the 94th-overall selection of the 2014 Draft, has been a revelation for the Blues during his second NHL campaign, posting a .923 save percentage and 2.46 GAA to go along with a stellar 24-6-6 record. More impressive are his slightly deeper stats: in just 38 games, Husso has recorded a 16.40 Goals Saved Above Expected, according to Money Puck — the seventh-best GSAx mark in the NHL while playing significantly fewer games than the six netminders ahead of him. Husso's GSAx per game is good for third among qualified goaltenders, behind only Vezina candidates Igor Shesterkin and Frederik Andersen. There’s ample reason to believe that he would've been even higher up both lists if he were the Blues’ full-time starter from the very beginning of the season, too.

But in the words of Kevin Durant, who the f— wants to talk about graphs when having a hoops discussion? Husso’s highlight reel is as good as any goaltender in the league this year, save for perhaps Rangers star and Vezina favourite Shesterkin.

Goaltending is both the most difficult element to evaluate and the component that’s most essential to a deep playoff run, where the Blues harbor genuine ambitions of winning their second Cup in four years. Husso has entrenched himself as the starter, and he’s often the best player on the ice for a Blues squad that has been badly out-possessed at 5-on-5.

Husso’s contract expires at the end of the year, but that’s a problem to deal with this summer. Right now, he’s the man of the hour and has provided plus-value for the Blues who desperately need him.

“He’s been a guy that’s stood on his head for us. Even when we’re not playing well in front of him, he’s found a way to keep us in games,” Blues center Robert Thomas said to The Athletic’s Jeremy Rutherford.

The fact that the Blues can staple Binnington — who can log quality starter minutes on a moment’s notice — to their bench, is a great problem to have, and the strength of their goaltending very well could be the factor that swings the West. But it’s not just elite goaltending masking inferior shot-creation and possession numbers for the 2022 Blues, either.

St. Louis may struggle at 5-on-5 but it’s an entirely different story with the man advantage. The Blues are scorching opponents at a 26.3 percent clip on the power play, and it’s become essential to their ascendance through the Central Division standings. Here are some clips that are optimal examples of their PP success.

Throughout the season, both Blues' power-play units have consisted of four forwards and one defenseman with Torey Krug and Justin Faulk manning the points on each.

The first example is from a Jan. 29 game against the Winnipeg Jets, where the Blues exploit the defense with seamless cross-ice passing. Faulk receives a quick feed from Vladimir Tarasenko, quickly surveys the shooting lane, which is blocked off by two Jets defenders, and sees that they are rotating heavily towards Brayden Schenn. Schenn immediately sees the help coming and that the Jets have overcommitted, leaving Tarasenko wide open as he cuts to the net immediately after giving the puck to Faulk. A quick cross-seam feed to Tarasenko, and the Jets are left helpless here.

It’s not the flashiest goal you’ll ever see, but it shows a series of smart reads, and the ability to create an optimal shot which St. Louis has done so well during their recent run.

This second goal is a more recent example of the Blues’ power play clicking, and it’s a bit flashier. Against the Bruins’ ninth-ranked penalty kill, the Blues get to work and take advantage of a few overcommitments. Faulk slides the puck over to Schenn, and Bruins defenseman Brandon Carlo quickly closes in on him. This is where the Blues completely break down the Bruins’ attack.

Schenn quickly dishes the puck to Jordan Kyrou, who has moved down just beneath the faceoff circle. With his back to the defense, Kyrou fires a no-look pass over to Tarasenko, who quickly finds Pavel Buchnevich cutting to the center of the ice. And it’s too late for the Bruins, with two defenders half-heartedly trying to stick check Buchnevich, who pokes the puck past a helpless Jeremy Swayman. Tic-toe-passing at its finest!

“The big thing is the depth that we have,” O’Reilly said of the Blues’ power play via the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “We have two units that I think are competitive with each other. We want to be the line that goes out there to score it. When you’re doing that, there’s a sense of urgency with that. Each time, a different unit is stepping up and getting a big goal. It’s been so helpful for us, changing the momentum of games, and getting confidence going. It’s a recipe that’s been working.”

It’s not an identical formula to the one unleashed by the 2019 champs, but this year’s Blues teams present astounding similarities. Jordan Binnington ranked 7th in GSAA with just 32 regular season games played, galvanizing the team’s turnaround — although that’s also been largely attributed to the mid-season hiring of head coach Craig Berube. St. Louis finished with a top-10 powerplay (10th, at 21.1 percent) a PDO above the 1.000 mark (13th, at 1.002) and perhaps the only major difference is that the 2019 team was a slightly better possession team, with a 51 percent Corsi For share.

It can be dangerous to rely on a searing power play and elite goaltending to offset problems at 5-on-5, but the Blues have used this formula before. Maybe their shooting percentage is unsustainable, perhaps Husso’s form completely falls off, although he’s shown no indication that he’s bound for regression anytime soon. Combining these traits with the nucleus of a Cup-winning team and the Blues may be the toughest out in the West. The Avalanche are more entertaining, the Flames have better top-end talent, but the Blues are on a mission to prove that this season isn’t a form of lightning striking twice.

*All stats current as of April 20, 2022. Advanced stats are from Natural Stat Trick unless noted otherwise.

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