HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- After their loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets on Nov. 12, the Blues felt like they fixed a lot of what ailed them in a stretch of three straight losses (0-2-1).
The Blues (11-7-3), who host the Minnesota Wild (11-7-2) at 7 p.n. today (FS-MW, KMOX 1120-AM) to begin a five-game homestand, have one area that still continues to be a sore spot.
Overall, and per game.
It's a statistical category a team doesn't want to be at or near the top of, but the Blues are right there. They're averaging 11 minutes, 45 seconds of penalty time per game, which is second only to the Anaheim Ducks (13:02), they're second to the Calgary Flames (112) in total penalties with 108 although the Flames have played two more games, and they're also second to the Flames (102) in minor penalties with 95.
That means the Blues are averaging 5.14 penalties per game, and if you break it down by minors, it's 4.52 two-minute minors.
It really wears down on your penalty killers, which filters to the top players, who are already playing top minutes but add an extra potential four minutes per game of ice time that eventually wear down on those top-line players.
Does it come down to discipline? Coach Ken Hitchcock had an interesting way of putting it.
"That's the symptom for the disease," Hitchcock said of the discipline. "That's a small sampling of what really, I call it the disease that happens on the ice. It's all based on positioning. It's all based on understanding the little details that are involved in proper positioning. If you look at a lot of them, we're working, but we're working from a poor foundation. So we're working from even or behind trying to catch up.
"We know what type of team we have. We just have to be a little bit more patient in positioning. When we're out of sorts that way and we're forcing issues, then if it doesn't work perfect, we get caught from behind and now we're trying to catch up. I would say 75 or 80 percent of the penalties are us trying to catch people from behind trying to still work and not get a scoring chance. You can look at the penalty and you can say, 'You can't put your stick up in the air,' but it's a natural action of you're in the wrong place defensively. To me it's better positioning defensively, so we're not caught out of position. If you look at it in Washington, on two of them, we were on the wrong side of the puck and we thought we were going to be on the right side, but our first step was forward and it should be been backwards. Now you're reaching from behind."
Players feel like they're cutting down on them in recent games, but the ones like delay of game or too many men on the ice penalties come down to discipline.
"It's one of those things where when it's addressed publicly, then it's focused on even more," Blues defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk said. "I think if we wind up toning down our penalties, I still think if we have a stretch in March, people are still going to say, 'Oh well, the Blues are still having their penalty problems.' It stinks because that's the label that we've earned now and shame on us for that. But we're doing a better job with it. I think a lot of them, it's just a matter of getting it into second nature, where instead of reaching for the puck with your stick when you're at a disadvantage, you just have to take two strides and try to get back on the defensive side of it. Once you kind of get that into your game as a habit, once we all get to that into our game as a habit, we'll start to see the penalties go down."
Case-in-point in the 4-3 loss to the Capitals on Wednesday, the Blues flirted with danger. It was the second of back-to-back games after a 4-2 win at Boston on Tuesday, and the Blues got away with three minor penalties in the first period, including a 33-second stretch of 5-on-3, against Alex Ovechkin and Co.
But the fourth, a slashing penalty on Kyle Brodziak was the final pill of the period, and Ovechkin, who scored three goals, buried the first goal that helped the Capitals snap the Blues' four-game winning streak.
Hitchcock, noting that the same people continue to put the team in a bind with penalties, said perhaps sitting some one out or taking minutes away would get someone's attention.
"We've tried that, done that, don't play, sit out shifts, we've done all that," Hitchcock said. "Eventually it has to be done through teaching of positional play. You can go crazy on all the penalties and you're going to turn around and the next game's going to be ... players don't think like that. If you teach proper positional play, you'll be in the right spots, you'll be in the right spacing, you'll be in a good position and you won't take penalties. This is a team with a really good conscience. They really want to do well, but they're pushing to score goals and when you push to score goals and the puck doesn't bounce the right way, you're going backwards the wrong way."
But when you're a team that has the reputation of one that tends to sit in the box more so than others, there's a target there for officials to perhaps see more than meets the eye.
"We get a fair game every time we go out there. ... It's in our control," Shattenkirk said. "The beauty of the refs, the reason they're so good us because they talk to you about it. It's a give-and-take for both sides. I know I (appreciate that) because it's a matter of not having an outburst at that them and screaming at them because then they don't give you anything back in return, whether it's a penalty call on your or just an explanation. As players, the more you get to talk to a ref and get explanations, you start to figure out the game better."