Opening night for the Blues in 2012-13 was a game to remember, a 6-0 crushing of Detroit in front of an overflow crowd of 20,035.
The secret to the six-spot that night was the power play, finishing four for five with the man-advantage.
In the weeks ahead, the unit scored at least one goal in 12 of the Blues’ first 14 games, converting 19 of 53 chances (35.8 percent) and claiming the No. 1 ranking in the NHL.
The Blues would be hard-pressed to match those totals from the outset again, but when they open the 2013-14 season Thursday against Nashville, the team says it’ll be ready.
The Blues scored on just four of 25 power-play opportunities in the preseason (16 percent), but that was with a potpourri of prospects. This week, as the lineup was whittled down to its regulars, the club spent significant time ironing out the details.
“Right now, that’s the main focus,” forward Alexander Steen said, “trying to get to that point so once the puck drops Thursday, everything is clicking.”
Once again, the Blues will be trotting out three groups of forwards and two groups of point personnel.
In training camp, one group was made up of David Backes, Patrik Berglund and T.J. Oshie, another consisted of Derek Roy, Chris Stewart and Vladimir Tarasenko and a third featured Brenden Morrow, Jaden Schwartz and Vladimir Sobotka. Meanwhile, the two-man point crews were Jay Bouwmeester and Alex Pietrangelo, and Kevin Shattenkirk and Steen.
The purpose of having three units, in part, is keeping players fresh, but it’s also designed to give a variety of players a chance to produce.
Stewart led the Blues with six power-play goals in 2012-13, followed by Berglund with five, but if they’re not scoring, head coach Ken Hitchcock has options. Nine other players on the roster had at least one power-play goal last season and that doesn’t include Schwartz, who didn’t have any, and Morrow, who had two with Dallas and Pittsburgh.
“It can’t be just a given that you go out there all the time,” Hitchcock said. “I think sometimes, that’s what we’re guilty of. We don’t trust other people to put them out there to get the big goal. That’s why we’ve practiced with three units from day one and we’re going to keep doing that.
“You’re going to go with what’s having success instead of, ‘Let’s hope these guys can do it.’ I want to know that they’re going to work and give us a chance, and so I’m not going to put people on the ice if they’re not earning that ice time just based on they happen to have skill. I don’t think good teams work that way and we’re not going to work that way.”
Oshie said the topic of competition for power-play ice time has been filtering through the Blues’ locker room.
“We’ve got guys that can step in at any position if someone is not performing,” he said. “There’s been a lot of emphasis on that.”
There’s also been an emphasis on putting players in the proper positions. In the past, Steen has started the season at the point only to find himself moved around out of necessity. Oshie has been at the point and in front of the net, again out of necessity.
Going into the new season, Steen has returned to the point, a situation that Hitchcock likens to having former Blues defensemen Al MacInnis and Chris Pronger at that spot.
“I like the bomb,” Hitchcock said. “He’s got great timing on the one-timer and it’s accurate. It was a little wild two years ago, but it’s not wild anymore. She’s on the net and it’s coming fast and hard and that’s what we like.”
Steen enjoys the role.
“Yeah, I’ve gotten comfortable there over the years, with the one-timer,” he said. “You sort of see everything unfold in front of you. You’re able to jump into holes and things like that.”
Steen has spent the preseason working on his chemistry with Stewart, who will be positioned in front of the net.
“Stewy knows that whenever I get the puck in a certain situation ... if it’s in the middle, if it’s by the top of the face-off circle, he knows where I want to go,” Steen said. “He’s either able to take the goalie’s eyes (away) or get open with his stick. He knows exactly what to do.”
Oshie’s new piece of property is the half-wall, where Andy McDonald and David Perron have played in the past. Oshie hasn’t played there since his days at the University of North Dakota.
“For myself playing a new position, all of this practice has helped me as well,” he said.
But while Oshie’s creativity should make him a good fit there, the Blues will need to continue making strategic changes throughout the year.
In 2012-13, after picking up a goal in 12 of its first 14 games, the unit got on the board in only one of its next nine games and just nine of its last 34. The team closed the season ranked No. 12 in the league (19.5 percent).
“You’ll see that other teams will start sitting on something and you’ve got to adjust,” Steen said. “You just have to talk before the game, ‘We ran that last game, so if they sit on it, this is what we’ll do.’ A good power play always adjusts but stays true to the original plan and structure.”
A good power play also doesn’t worry about its success rate, said Hitchcock, who might be right. A year ago, Chicago won the Stanley Cup despite having the 19th-ranked unit during the regular season. Runner-up Boston was 26th during the year.
“The power play, you just want to score big goals at the end,” Hitchcock said. “Where you are in the league is not relevant, but man, when you need a goal, you’ve got to have it. I’ve seen the best power plays percentage-wise and they never scored when it mattered. It’s when the game is on the line, can you get a big goal when you need it?”