As the Blues begin the second stage of the NHL season, there are many ways to analyze the road ahead, many ways the team might improve on its 22-20-7 record and bust down the postseason door.

In the end, after you talk about injured players returning, improving this area or that, one factor trumps all others, the same factor that elevated the club to a 9-1-2 start, the same factor that underlies a 13-19-5 record since.

It's not fair, it's not kind, it might not even be realistic. But if the Blues are going to guide this season down a more promising path, on many more nights than not, they're going to need their goaltender to be their best player.

"It's always that way, it's always that guy," Blues coach Davis Payne said. "It's always the ace of your rotation, it's always the quarterback, the cleanup hitter ... it's always the goaltender.

"When you make a mistake, they turn a red light on. They don't do that in many other sports or with many other positions. And when you play well, you're usually the last guy out of the tunnel, throwing a T-shirt into the stands. That tells you how valuable that position is."

Payne was just stating the obvious, not placing the onus. He expects the Payne Gang to have a team mentality, insists all are in when it comes to responsibility. But consider some background for perspective: The Blues rank 23rd overall in the NHL in goals-for, scoring 2.59 per game. The Blues are 19th in the league in goals-against, allowing an average of 2.90.

The Blues are a pedestrian 10-6-7 in one-goal games, 3-8-1 in games they trail after one period and a convulsive 1-13-2 when they trail after two periods. The team has slid to 26th in the 30-team league in power-play efficiency. The unit has a success rate of 14.4 percent, odds that approach needle-in-a-haystack proportions.

The Blues are the second most penalized team in the league (behind Pittsburgh) and rank 21st overall in penalty-kill success, which pokes holes in the "practice makes perfect" adage.