Monday, March 2, 2015

Blues trade for injured defenseman

Team acquired Zbynek Michalek from Arizona for reported prospect, 
pick; acquire Bortuzzo from Penguins for Cole, add Jokinen for late-round pick

By LOU KORAC
ST. LOUIS -- The Blues bolstered their defensive corps by acquiring Arizona Coyotes defenseman Zbynek Michalek and a conditional 2015 third round pick for prospect Maxim Letunov.

However, Michalek is currently on injured-reserve, and the condition on the third round pick has been reported as being how many games Michalek plays with the Blues.
(Arizona Coyotes photo)
The Blues have acquired Arizona defenseman Zbynek
Michalek at the NHL Trade Deadline.

Letunov, the Blues' second round pick in 2014. Letunov is currently playing with the Youngstown Phantoms of the United States Hockey League. He is committed to playing at Boston University next season.

The Blues weren't done, as they acquired defenseman Robert Bortuzzo from the Pittsburgh Penguins for defenseman Ian Cole and added veteran winger Olli Jokinen from the Toronto Maple Leafs for a reported conditional sixth-round draft pick in 2016 that can become a fourth round pick in 2015 if the Blues reach the Stanley Cup Final and Jokinen plays a role in it.

Michalek, 32, has not played since sustaining an upper-body injury (believed to be a concussion) on Feb. 14. He's 6-foot-2 and 210-pounds.

"I'm doing better," Michalek said in a phone interview with Sportsnet immediately after finding out about the trade. "I've been able to do some exercises the last few days. Just going through the protocol the trainers have here in Arizona. I've been feeling pretty good. It's been going in the right direction. I haven't been on the ice yet; we'll see when I go on the ice how I feel. But overall, I feel much better."

A right-handed shot, Michalek has 73 hits and ranks 12th in the NHL with 130 blocks in 53 games this season. He’s in the final season of a five-year, $20 million contract.

ESPN and TSN's Pierre LeBrun reported that the Coyotes will retain 50 percent of Michalek's salary.

It is believed that once he joins the Blues, Michalek, who averaged 21:05 ice time with the Coyotes, will be paired with Barret Jackman on the Blues' third defensive pairing.

With Kevin Shattenkirk (abdominal surgery) sidelined week to week, the Blues felt they needed to fortify their blue line. 

Shattenkirk was injured Feb. 1 against the Washington Capitals but has since started skating on his own. His return is still to be determined.

Michalek is a minus-6 on the season but was one of the top Coyotes defenseman with a 51.87 SAT percentage.

"I'm sure it wasn't an easy decision to do for the team," Michalek said on Sportsnet. "I was out for two weeks dealing with (an) injury. I'm sure it's a big risk (St. Louis) is taking on, but at the same time, I've been hearing rumors since Christmas time that I might get traded. It's not really a big surprise to me. It is what it is. Like I said for me, the most important thing is to get healthy. That's what I have to focus on."

Michalek told Sportsnet he's looking forward to helping the Blues in a deep playoff  run after speaking with Coyotes general manager Don Maloney.

"I talked to my agent mostly and he's been talking to Donny," Michalek said. "Donny was pretty honest with us from the get-go. I take it as part of business and the season in Arizona didn't go like anybody wanted to. It's been very frustrating. Management and ownership made decisions to make some changes and wanted to get some younger assets and draft picks. I have to respect that. I appreciate everything they've done for me. It's been a great place for me and my family to play. I really enjoyed it here. I understand that. I have to move on and right now, I'm really excited to join a really good team and getting healthy and hoping to help them make a deep run in the playoffs." 

Michalek has two goals and six assists this season and 38 goals and 129 assists in 696 games over 11 seasons with the Minnesota Wild, Pittsburgh Penguins and Coyotes.

He's unsure when he'll start playing again and when he'll join the Blues.

"It's hard to say," Michalek said on Sportsnet. "With these things, you never know. I don't want to say something or promise something and not being able to play. ... I'm being hopeful that I'm going to be able to play soon.

"... I just found out about 10 seconds ago about the trade. I haven't even talked to anybody or heard from anybody. I'll have to wait to see what the plan will be."

The addition of Michalek likely spelled the end of Cole's tenure in St. Louis. 

A former first round pick by the Blues in 2007 (18th overall), the 6-1, 219-pound Cole, 26, played in a career-high 54 games this season after spending the past four seasons getting in and out of the lineup.
Robert Bortuzzo

He had a career-high four goals this season to go with nine points and has nine goals and 31 points in 167 games in five seasons.

The 6-4, 215-pound Bortuzzo, 25, gives the Blues a physical, abrasive edge to his game who is known more for his physicality than his scoring and is another right-handed defenseman, something the Blues were lacking. He was a third round pick, coincidentally, in the same 2007 draft with Cole.

Bortuzzo has two goals and four assists with 68 penalty minutes in 38 games this season and four goals and 20 points in 116 games in four seasons.

Jokinen, 36, will be playing with his third NHL team this season and 10th in all. The 17-year veteran, who started this season with the Nashville Predators before being traded to the Leafs, had three goals and seven points (three goals, three assists in 48 games with Nashville, one assist in six games with Toronto) this season.

Jokinen, the third overall pick in 1997 (Los Angeles Kings) has played in 1,223 regular season games and has 320 goals and 747 points. But Jokinen has only been involved in one playoff series (2009 with the Calgary Flames) and had two goals and three assists in six games. 

DEVELOPING ... Stay tuned.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Blues re-acquire Cracknell

Forward comes back to St. Louis for future considerations

By LOU KORAC
ST. LOUIS -- The Blues made a minor trade on Thursday and brought back a familiar face.

The Blues acquired Adam Cracknell from the Columbus Blue Jackets for future considerations.

Cracknell, 29, spent the first four seasons of his NHL career with the Blues after being drafted by the Calgary Flames in the ninth round of the 2004 NHL Entry Draft.
Adam Cracknell

Cracknell, who will report to the Chicago Wolves of the American Hockey League, played in 65 regular season games in St. Louis from 2010-14, where he had six goals and 10 assists.

Cracknell had one assist with the Blue Jackets this season in 17 games. He played in 18 games with Columbus' AHL affiliate, the Springfield Falcons and had three goals and four assists.

Last season, Cracknell had 12 goals and 25 points in 28 games with the Wolves.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Struggling Blues hit road for tough stretch

Recent stretch of poor performances will be 
tested; 11 of next 14 away from Scottrade Center 

By LOU KORAC
HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- The Blues held a very optional practice on Wednesday before boarding a flight to Winnipeg to begin what will amount to be a five-game trip.

The Blues, who ended a four-game homestand with their third loss to the Montreal Canadiens by a 5-2 score Tuesday, are 38-18-4 on the season, good for 80 points. Only four teams had higher point totals and two were tied with the Blues heading into Wednesday games, which not bad all things considered.

But after losing their fifth in nine games and allowing 14 goals this past homestand (13 in losses to Dallas, Pittsburgh and Montreal), the Blues are no doubt in a funk as a result of poor play. 
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Blues defenseman Barret Jackman (left) said on Wednesday that
the team could help from playing away from home.

They play 11 of the next 14 games away from the all-of-the-sudden not-so-friendly confines of Scottrade Center, and why not try and take what ails them and fix it on the road, where the Blues have won seven of the past eight.

"I think a road trip could help," defenseman Barret Jackman said. "You've got to do things a lot simpler on the road and compete harder to win those matchups. That'll be a good test for our team."

"It can," captain David Backes said when asked if a road trip can help. "We can bond on the road and use that to grow as a group and get back to our ways. It's not going to be easy, it's going to take a lot of hard work, but this is why you play a sport, to (face) challenges, to conquer them and to be better on the other side of them."

In losses to the Penguins and Canadiens, two of the quicker teams in the Eastern Conference, the Blues exposed themselves to countless odd-man rush after odd-man rush among other in-game errors, and coach Ken Hitchcock voiced his displeasure over it in his postgame comments after losing to Montreal.

There may not be a simple answer as to why, but center Jori Lehtera had a simple fix.

"Work harder," he said.

"When you're winning a lot, you think you can win a bad game or you don't have to work that much," Lehtera said. "It doesn't go like that. It's weird thing. Everybody knows it, but they can't do anything about it. Now we're in a bad spot again and we have to come back.

"I think it's a good time for us to go on a road trip. We know on the road, you have to play 100 percent every game. ... I think we play a little bit different, yeah. We have to find our way. There's not just one problem. I think we have to find a way. When we get one win, it gets easier."

Jackman said the results are just not translating to what the general ideas are right now.

"We have the right intentions, but the way that we're thinking, we're just not putting it on the ice," Jackman said. "We're a little bit disconnected, we're not talking enough. There's a way to simplify our game and success will come from that.

"We have a lot of turnovers, too aggressive and too close in our forechecks which allowed way too many odd-man rushes. There's a lot of things that we need to clean up. The sooner we get out of this funk that we're in, the better we are looking forward to this last 21 games."

When it falls on effort, that's a player fix. A coach can't solve effort.

"Absolutely, that's the solution to the problem," Backes said of more effort. "It's each individual guy going back, reflecting and seeing how he can be better and help the team win in any way possible. Together we'll be a lot better as a group."

Maybe leaders can voice their opinions and be more vocal at times like this. The Blues met for roughly 45 minutes before departing for the first of what will be a tough three-game jaunt that concludes with back-to-back games in Edmonton on Saturday and Vancouver on Sunday. 

The NHL trade deadline is Monday, and the Blues could very well be in on some activity and then finish the trip with games at Philadelphia on March 4 and Toronto on March 6.

"Trust me, we've had meetings," Backes said. "You can talk until you're blue in the face. You've got to go out there and do it. As a leader, the first thing I can do is go out there and be the first guy to up my game and be a better player and lead by example."

"We've still got to play for each other," defenseman Alex Pietrangelo said. "We've got to lead by example. The leadership group is here for a reason. We've got to lead by example on and off the ice. That depends on us to do that and we'll take full responsibility.

"... Sometimes you don't always have the matchups that you want (on the road). You don't have a choice. We'll see. We're going to have to play a more simpler game, whether it's at home or on the road. That's all it comes down to right now. Winnipeg will be our first step."

And in that first step, communication will be key.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Blues captain David Backes (right) battles with Canadiens defenseman
P.K. Subban during Tuesday's 5-2 Montreal victory.

"I think it's just collectively all being on the same page in our game," Jackman said. "We have a system that works, that's been proven in the past to work. Right now, we're a little bit off on a lot of things with our checking because we're either too spread out or we're too close. There's a lot of things that we looked at today that we can correct and we'll do that.

"Whether it's a lack of communication, guys not helping each other out with support. A lot of it is communication, just letting guys know what the next play is and having the trust of the guys there and having the patience to make plays. ... It's a dip that happens, but it can snowball if we don't do something about it right now. We've got a lot of intelligent guys in the coaches room and in our locker room and know that we're not playing a winning recipe right now. We're ready to correct that and I think guys are chomping at the bit to prove ourselves tomorrow night."

* NOTES -- Hitchcock did not address the media before the Blues departed but it's expected that Brian Elliott will make the start in goal against the Jets. ... Skaters on the ice Wednesday included forwards Joakim Lindstrom, Chris Porter and Dmitrij Jaskin, defensemen Chris Butler and Petteri Lindbohm and goalies Jake Allen and Elliott.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Blues flounder again in 5-2 loss to Canadiens

St. Louis goes 1-3-0 on homestand, 4-5-0 in past nine games

By LOU KORAC
ST. LOUIS -- Teams go through their ups and downs in a long, arduous 82-game season in the NHL.

It's safe to say the Blues are in one of those down spots that will take some creative posturing from the 23-man roster to get out of what ails them most in this recent stretch.

A team that's been dominant on home ice this season concluded a 1-3-0 stretch in a 5-2 loss to the Montreal Canadiens on Tuesday night at Scottrade Center that has players and coaches alike searching for the solutions.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
David Backes (right) scores past Montreal goalie Carey Price during the
Blues' 5-2 loss to the Canadiens on Tuesday night. 

The Blues (38-18-4), who now trail the Nashville Predators -- who won 5-1 against the Colorado Avalanche on Tuesday -- by nine points in the Central Division and coupled with the Chicago Blackhawks' 3-2 shootout win against the Florida Panthers, the Blues' lead against Chicago for second place in the division is down to three points.

But that's the least of the Blues' worries.

Their game has gone dormant, their confidence is shaken and it's past gut-check time. 

A day after saying all the right things in practice and making more tweaks to their top nine forwards, it was the same old stuff on Tuesday against the Eastern Conference's top team: turnovers, odd-man rushes, no sustained offensive zone pressure, odd-man rushes, poor puck decisions, odd-man rushes.

Oh, and more odd-man rushes.

"What we're doing is not paying any respect to checking," coach Ken Hitchcock said. "We're not paying any respect to defense, to managing the puck, to managing the proper way to playing. I don't care what the shots on goal are. When you give up as many odd-man rushes we we gave up in the last two games, we're showing no respect for what matters in the National Hockey League at this time. And in the offensive zone, the sense of urgency that we're not playing with, that we've played with all year is not there. That's why we don't score, that's why we don't get second and third chances, that's why we don't win the front of the net battles. Those combinations are lethal the wrong way." 

Alex Galchenyuk scored two goals and had an assist in his return to the Canadiens lineup. Galchenyuk, who missed the past two games because of the flu, had his first three-point game since his hat trick Dec. 16 against the Carolina Hurricanes. 

Carey Price made 27 saves and set a Canadiens record with his ninth consecutive road victory. 

Brendan Gallagher scored twice, and Michael Bournival scored for the Canadiens (39-16-5, 83 points), who won in St. Louis in regulation for the first time since March 10, 2007. P.K. Subban and Andrei Markov each had two assists.

The Canadiens moved past the New York Islanders into the top spot in the Eastern Conference with two games in hand, and Price broke a record he shared with Rogie Vachon set in 1968-69.

"It's pretty neat," Price said. "I think that speaks volumes of the character of our team and the way that we compete on the road. We're a very confident team when we go into an opposing team's building and we wind up playing the right way and we've been rewarded for it."

Price leads the NHL in goals-against average (1.91) and is second behind Pekka Rinne of the Nashville Predators in wins (34). Price has allowed more than two goals in a game once in the past 15.

The Blues (80 points) got a goal and an assist from T.J. Oshie, David Backes scored and Jake Allen made 18 saves.

The Blues fell to 4-5-0 in the past nine games. And now the onus falls on the leadership to be tested as much as it has since this group was put in place. 

"It's a collective group, it's a team game," Backes said. "You win as a team. We had a January that was fantastic, where we were getting accolades and we were spreading that around the team. Now we're in a little bit of a lull and a dip and we're going to shoulder the load as a group, and then the solution is spread between everybody as well. So lean on each other, make sure we're working and getting better every day so that we've got a road trip now where we're going to have to play tough teams on the road in their buildings and we need to bear down and play our game and simplify to get a win."

Galchenyuk gave the Canadiens a 1-0 lead when he deflected Subban's shot from the right point past Allen with 6:38 remaining in the first period. 

The Blues, who have been outscored 11-3 in the first period over their past 11 games, have allowed the first goal in eight straight home games. They failed to score in the first period in seven of those games and have gone nine straight home games without a lead after one period. 

Galchenyuk gave Montreal a 2-0 lead when he took Tomas Plekanec's faceoff win and took a wrist shot from a sharp angle that beat Allen on the short side 3:11 into the second. It was his 18th goal.

Backes cut Montreal's lead in half when he took Vladimir Tarasenko's pass in the slot and redirected the puck past Price 6:01 into the second for his 20th goal.

This is when one would think the Blues would turn the dial up a notch and grab the game. They've done it in the past. 

Key word: past.

Not so much in present time.

The Canadiens scored two goals in 49 seconds to go up 4-1, and it came as a result of careless puck play. 

Gallagher made it 3-1 when he took a snap shot that beat Allen with 4:11 left in the second off a 2-on-1 after Tarasenko's blind drop pass in the offensive zone was behind Jay Bouwmeester. 

Bournival. who was serving a penalty for roughing, came out of the box, took a pass from Galchenyuk and beat Allen upstairs on a breakaway with 3:22 left in the second.

"You have no control over the hockey game because of the scoring chances you give up off these odd-man rushes," Hitchcock said. "You work your way back in the game like we did today and give up the chances on casual puck play that we're giving up ... we're a team that's made a very good ... a lot great in-roads on playing a certain way and now we don't want to play that way, and we're not interested in playing the way that's been successful here. We want to play a different way right now and it's really, really hurting us." 

Hitchcock was asked from a coaching perspective why he feels the team wants to play a different way.

"I don't know. That's probably a question you should ask in the room because those directions aren't coming from us (coaches)," Hitchcock said. "Whatever's going on, since we've come back off the Florida road trip, we have not paid the healthy respect that we need to for what's important for our team to win hockey games. Not one bit."

Oshie's shot from the high slot got through traffic and past Price after a deflection off a Canadiens defenseman at 17:45 of the second to make it 4-2. It was Oshie's 17th goal. 

Gallagher scored his second of the game, 17th of the season, on Montreal's second power play of the game at 15:47 of the third period to make it 5-2.

Allen was left bewildered after the game.

"This time of year, that can't happen," Allen said. "I don't know, not just because I'm a goalie. If I was a forward, I'd say the same thing. You can't give up that many odd-man rushes. That's where they live and die. It's almost playoff hockey time now, time to go back and tighten things up a little bit.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
T.J. Oshie (right) tries to chase down Canadiens defenseman Nathan 
Beaulieu during the Blues' 5-2 home loss Tuesday night.

"It was a weird game, lot of point-blank shots; don't know how many shots they had. Majority didn't create much, but that's their game, that's the way they play, that's why they're the best team in the East."

Said defenseman Alex Pietrangelo: "It's that time of year. If you're a step slow, you're giving up breakaways and odd-man rushes, stuff that's a little bit uncharacteristic of it.

"We're a little slow on our support, a little slow in our puck decisions and other teams are creating turnovers and they're getting those breaks."

When asked about the players saying all the right things after practice, Hitchcock wasn't buying it.

"Proof's in the pudding. Come on," he said. "It's something we need to address now."

(2-24-15) Canadiens-Blues Gameday Lineup

By LOU KORAC
ST. LOUIS -- Blues coach Ken Hitchcock is a believer that eventually, what goes good tends to at times run its course. 

So when the Blues (38-17-4) host the Montreal Canadiens (38-16-5) on Tuesday (7 p.m. FS-MW, KMOX 1120-AM), the Blues will sport a different look when the puck drops. But it's a look that has some familiarity.

Hitchcock will move around his top three left wings in hopes of refreshing the Blues' top nine group.

That means Patrik Berglund, who's been playing with Paul Stastny and Dmitrij Jaskin, will move up to the top line with David Backes and T.J. Oshie. Alexander Steen, who's been playing with Backes and Oshie and putting up lots of points, will slide on the left side and play with Jori Lehtera and Vladimir Tarasenko and Jaden Schwartz will move into Berglund's spot alongside Stastny and Jaskin.

"It's a different challenge for us today, though," Hitchcock said. "I'm more curious ... this is three new lines. Some of these lines have had ancient history together, some of them, this is brand new, so I'm more curious to see how we look energy-wise with these line combinations coming out to see if there's any change that we can create little bit of additional energy from what we've been playing here in the last couple games.

"... I don't think it's a gamble right now. We need to find additional energy. There's probably six, seven, eight teams right now that's talking about the same stuff we are. I know two teams right now in the West that the conversations are exactly the same ones we're having. Let's see what we've got. Let's see if this adds to it. If it doesn't, we can always go back."

How long can Hitchcock expect to see results?

"I don't know to be honest with you," he said. "I don't know if this is going ... I can tell if it's not good, it's going to look not good right away. If it looks like it has potential, we're hoping it shows that. But there was a renewed energy at practice yesterday with different combinations, guys having to speak to each other, talk about stuff. It created conversation, created some more chemistry. That's the good stuff. Now we've got to put it into action."

The Blues will conclude a four-game homestand against one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference. They want to gain a split after losing two of the first three.

"I consider Montreal to be a good measuring stick for us to see where we're at and I'm sure they consider that from our standpoint," Hitchcock said. "I think more than anything, we need to get playing a little bit better early in the games and not chasing the games. We've had a lot of chasing going on the last three games. We caught Boston once, but you're not going to catch good teams. For us, the first period and in particular the first 10 minutes, we want to have a better start in the game."

- - -

Goalie Jake Allen will start against the Canadiens. Allen, who is 6-0-0 with a 1.50 goals-against average and .937 save percentage his past six decisions, played junior hockey in Montreal.

"I've just tried to go back to my basics, trust myself, just play the game, don't think too much," Allen said. "Just be myself, enjoy it. I got away from that the last few games of 2014. I'm back to my old self again."

Allen, who played his first game at Bell Centre when the Blues lost 4-1 to the Canadiens earlier this season, relishes going against the team he grew up following.

"Everyone at home's a Canadiens fan," said Allen, a Fredericton, New Brunswick native. "We had their American (Hockey) League team for numerous 15-20 years in Fredericton. I would say a good 95 percent of my city are Canadiens fans. It's pretty fun to play against them.

"It was great to be able to play in the Bell Centre the first time. Even though it didn't go my way, it was just a pretty cool experience. We get a second crack at them tonight and the best team in the East so it's going to be a challenge."

"In fairness to Jake, he's played really well," Hitchcock said. "The last couple games he's played really well so let's give him an opportunity. This is a big game for both teams. It's an important kind of comparison game. Let's give him a chance and see what he can do."

Allen will oppose Carey Price, who has won eight consecutive road games and can set a franchise record with a victory Tuesday for most consecutive road wins. He shares that honor with Rogie Vachon, who established his mark during the 1968-69 season. 

"I think he's probably the best in the world," Allen said of Price, who is 33-11-3 with a 1.91 GAA and .935 save percentage. "A second chance to face him. It's a pretty cool opportunity. I played junior in Montreal and watched him, watched him quite a bit. He's a guy that I've watched and learned from too so it will be fun to face him.

"I (grew up and) liked (Jose) Theodore. That was sort of my prime, my era. I watched Price when he first started and I was still in junior. They practiced at our game rink. I watched them all the time. (Tomas) Plekanec is still there. It's going to be a fun test. The Canadiens are probably the most famous team in NHL history. It's always fun."

- - -

The Blues' probable lineup:

Patrik Berglund-David Backes-T.J. Oshie

Alexander Steen-Jori Lehtera-Vladimir Tarasenko

Jaden Schwartz-Paul Stastny-Dmitrij Jaskin

Steve Ott-Marcel Goc-Ryan Reaves

Jay Bouwmeester-Alex Pietrangelo

Carl Gunnarsson-Petteri Lindbohm

Barret Jackman-Ian Cole

Jake Allen will start in goal. Brian Elliott will be the backup.

Healthy scratches include Chris Porter, Joakim Lindstrom and Chris Butler. Kevin Shattenkirk (abdomen) is on injured reserve.

- - -

The Canadiens' probable lineup:

Max Pacioretty-David Desharnais-Brendan Gallagher

Lars Eller-Tomas Plekanec-Alex Galchenyuk

Brandon Prust-Jacob De La Rose-Dale Weise

Michael Bournival-Manny Malhotra-Christian Thomas

Andrei Markov-P.K. Subban

Nathan Beaulieu-Tom Gilbert

Jarred Tinordi-Greg Pateryn

Carey Price will start in goal. Dustin Tokarski will be the backup.

Healthy scratches include former Blues defenseman Mike Weaver and Devante Smith-Pelly, who was acquired Tuesday morning from the Anaheim Ducks for Jiri Sekac. PA Parenteau (concussion), Alexei Emelin (upper body) and Sergei Gonchar (upper body).

Monday, February 23, 2015

(2-24-15) BLUES NOTEBOOK

Blues juggle lines again; Shattenkirk skates; Allen in goal; Jaskin's strong play

By LOU KORAC
HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- The Blues stepped onto the ice at the Ice Zone on Monday with a bit of a different look.

Again.

Coach Ken Hitchcock, who has seen his team go through its share of ups and downs in February, tweaked three of his four forward lines looking for a fresh approach.

All three changes are on left wing, where Patrik Berglund was playing with David Backes and T.J. Oshie, Alexander Steen was with Jori Lehtera and Vladimir Tarasenko and Jaden Schwartz suited up with Paul Stastny and Dmitrij Jaskin.

The practice had a teaching flavor to it, and the veteran coach is calling for continued balance with 23 games regaining in the regular season.

"We'll take a look at them in the pregame skate (Tuesday before facing the Montreal Canadiens), see how we look and try them out," Hitchcock downplayed. "I don't think anything's cast in stone. I think it all depends on the players and the continuity. We're not gonna wait 10 games to sit on it. If we think there's some energy ... there's a couple lines, they looked very good today. If there's good energy, then we'll continue down that path. If not, we'll make a change.

"... If you look at this thing, this is three balanced lines. This is three lines you can't tell the different in. There's three balanced lines here; fourth line has played solid hockey got a little while now. This is three balanced lines where I'm not worried about who's going against who. They should feel confident they can play against anybody. That's the way we're going to play the game for a little while."

The only line in tact was Steve Ott, who returned to practice after wife Erica delivered the couple's son Saturday morning, Marcel Goc and Ryan Reaves.

"We need a different dynamic in our team," Hitchcock said. "I think the group that played the last game, we've run our course with that group. So let's see if we can find a new bit of energy. A lot of teams are going through it right now. Some are building, some are trying to tread water like us and some are floundering. We want to go from treading water into the top echelon again. Why not try some new stuff that's worked on a very small sample but looks pretty dynamic. There's a couple lines that's looked very dynamic and let's have a look at it, give it a little bit bigger sample a couple games and see how we look."

Of course, the players are doing what they're told despite the feeling they were well-balanced in the first place.

"Coach's decision obviously," Schwartz said. "I played with 'Stas' and 'Jask' for not very long before, but I have played with them and both great players, so I'm looking forward to that. Hopefully I can boost the line and give some energy.

"I thought we were balanced before, too, but just a little different look. Get some chemistry, get a few more goals. We were balanced before, but we'll see how she goes tomorrow."

Tarasenko and Steen have been down this path before.

"He was my first linemate here in St. Louis, he and Andy McDonald," Tarasenko said of Steen. "We had a lot of time to play together and it was a good experience. Happy to be together again.

"... It's a great line. We play like this before. We have some success. It's a pleasure for me to play with every guy on this team. I play with many guys before this season and nothing new, nothing special; just keep going and try to give more energy to our team."

For a guy like Jaskin, playing with whomever is his preference. He's glad to be in the NHL, period.

"I don't really care who I play with," Jaskin said. "All these guys are great players. We'll just try to make it work tomorrow.

"(Schwartz is) a really fast skater and really good on the puck. I'm expecting the same kind of game, maybe a little faster and he's really smart. More opportunities in the offensive zone. ... I think it was OK before, but he's a totally different guy than Bergy; he's a different player, but we still can really protect the puck and make some plays. I'm excited for tomorrow."

* Maverick on board -- Ott's first son -- he has a daughter from a previous marriage -- born at 9:37 a.m. on Saturday, makes it two kids in his household these days.

The veteran left wing missed his second game of the season Saturday against the Pittsburgh Penguins after his wife went to the hospital Friday night and he rushed out to be with her after the Blues' 5-1 win against the Boston Bruins.

"It is the best. Anybody that knows that has a kid in this dressing room or in the world, there's no better feeling that can relate to that moment when you get to meet your child for the first time," Ott said. "At the same token, mama and baby are doing great.

"That's the only reason (to miss a game). No one ever wants to miss a game. During the game (Friday), she went into the hospital and I went over there in my suit, got a change of clothes and we had him at 9:37 in the morning (Saturday), so we pulled an all-nighter and obviously there was no chance in making the (Saturday) game by then in the type of situation I was in. The Blues organization were first class and told me, "Obviously family's your most important and this is my second family.' I'm back at it and strong at it today on a Monday."

And where did the name Maverick come from?

"My wife's a southern girl from Dallas and she came up with a bunch of names," Ott explained. "When she said that's the one, I agreed in an awfully quick fashion. I just wanted a strong name and hopefully he lives up to it."

* Teaching day -- The Blues' practice on Monday didn't have quite the punch -- and demand -- that the practice after a 4-1 loss to the Dallas Stars recently had, but there were moments of high octane.

"We did a lot of instructing," Hitchcock said. "You can get upset by the energy level this time of year ... this is the time where the energy level has to come from the players a lot and we've got to find a way to get the technical part of our game back on track. Today was lets get back where we got some continuity going and let the guys take care of the energy level where they want to take it to. Let us do the accountability from a teaching standpoint. So from positional play to just being in the right spots from puck support standpoint, this was a good teaching day.

"This team absorbs well when you really work on things. When there's an actual physical element to what you want to teach, this team really responds in a positive way. It doesn't absorb the visual part as much. This is the physical element to the teaching."

The practice was a reminder of the past.

"There was almost some training camp stuff going on in the sense of reiterating what our strong forecheck is, the strong details in our game, things that maybe we've been lacking a little bit that make us really, really strong to play against," Ott said. "It's our job in here to grab those details and start executing them."

But the demand for games down the stretch seems to be stressed, and the Blues are catching opponents playing desperate.

"It's a big part of the year and everyone knows it," Schwartz said. "Teams are trying to get in that playoff race and teams are trying to move up the ladder. It's like this every year. The level of play and intensity goes up and we need to match it and better it. ... This is the fun time of the year. This is what you play for, exciting games and points go a long ways. The intense games are the fun ones to play in."

* Shattenkirk skating -- Blues defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk was back on the ice, but not in the capacity of skating with his teammates just yet.

Shattenkirk, who two weeks ago had abdominal surgery, skated for roughly 30 minutes, according to Hitchcock, and has skated with trainers the past few days.

"He's skated the last few days. Not with us yet obviously, but it's nice to see him out there shuffling around," Hitchcock said of Shattenkirk. "He's working with the training staff. Things look positive in that direction.

"Everybody's really excited and happy. It's nice to see him part of the team, it's nice to see him back on the ice. He's graduating up to where he's starting to move a little bit more on the ice. I think he was out there for about 30 minutes today."

Hitchcock still termed Shattenkirk "weeks" from returning.

"Until I see the whites of his eyes and he comes to practice, I don't worry about it," he said.

* Allen in goal, Lindbohm's, Jaskin's and Elliott's play -- Goalie Jake Allen, who played his junior hockey in Montreal, will get the start in goal against the Canadiens on Tuesday.

"Jake's a Montreal guy, isn't he? I hope he is because he told me he was ... I hope he didn't lie to me," Hitchcock joked.

As for Elliott, who is 2-4-0 with a 3.85 goals-against average and .876 goals-against average in his past six starts that includes being pulled twice, Hitchcock said, "He's a perfect reflection of our team: up, down, up, down. That's our team right now."

Defenseman Petteri Lindbohm's recent recall has seen the Finnish native play both games over the weekend, and Hitchcock called it a mixed bag.

"Game one was good," Hitchcock said. "He had a couple mistakes in game two that came back and haunted him just like it does any young player. But he has good energy. He brings good energy, brings good focus, he's very competitive. I really like what he brings right now."

Jaskin, who has three goals in the past six games and five in 11, Hitchcock really likes what he's seeing.

"He just plays," Hitchcock said. "He's a big, strong guy. He just plays. Man, he's really playing right now. He's got tempo in his game, he's really playing. Wherever we play him, he brings a lot to a line. He brings a lot of heavy, offensive, on-the-puck, at-the-puck, for-the-puck kind of play. Whoever he plays with, he brings a lot."  

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Blues' slow starts hampering recent home stretch

Team that prides itself on Scottrade Center ice 
allowing opposition to dictate early, looking for right fix

By LOU KORAC
ST. LOUIS -- For a team that thrives on excelling on home ice, and they have backed that play up with solid results in past seasons, it's become quite common recently for the Blues to be slow starters.

For the Blues, Saturday's 4-2 home loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins uncovered even more of what's already been a recent alarming trend: playing catch-up hockey, particularly in the first period.

Entering Sunday's action, the Blues were plus-40 in goal differential on the season, which was No. 1 in the NHL. But they are just plus-1 (46-45) in scoring in the first period, which is in the bottom third of the league. And on home ice, they're plus-8 in 31 games.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Blues coach Ken Hitchcock (top) and players (from L to R) Paul Stastny,
Dmitrij Jaskin, Chris Porter and T.J. Oshie have to figure out how to solve 
recent slow starts on home ice.

But in the past eight games, they're minus-8 and in the past 10 home games, they're minus-7, outscored 10-3 in that span and have not scored more than one first period goal since Jan. 13.

It's a league-wide trend that applies to most teams, but for the Blues, when they score first, they're 26-4-1; when they don't, they're 12-13-3 which isn't bad but getting that early jump gives teams a much higher percentage of pocketing two points more so than not.

The Blues are plus-16 in each of the second and third periods, which enables them to be able to save some of those slow starts.

"The onus is on the players," right wing T.J. Oshie said. "We've just got to step up and play with some fire, especially out of the gate, especially in our own barn in front of our own fans. Other teams are bringing it and we're not, so we've got to improve in that area.

"... It has a lot to do with the start. When another team in your own rink comes out and starts better than you and picks up the momentum right away, I think the confidence lacks a little bit. It all comes down to working hard for each other, working back, giving guys support all over the ice whether it's in the d-zone, neutral zone or in the o-zone. We're getting too spread out right now, and that's because guys aren't working for each other, so that should be a staple of our game that we play with every night."

The Blues (38-17-4 on the season and 22-7-2 at home), are just 3-3-0 at Scottrade Center this month and two of those wins (2-1 in overtime against Tampa Bay and 2-1 at home to the lowly Arizona Coyotes) came as a result of great goaltending and the other (5-1 against the Boston Bruins on Friday) came against a goalie (Malcolm Subban) making his NHL debut.

"We recovered the game (Friday), but it was a young kid in goal that helped us along," coach Ken Hitchcock said. "(Saturday), we didn't recover the game. There's too many team errors with execution, puck errors ... we're not ... it's too much."

Added defenseman Jay Bouwmeester: "The first two shifts of the first period and the second period (Saturday) were good, then we kind of let them take over and dictate. That's not what we wanted to do playing a good team, they take advantage of the chances they get. We're kind of getting what we deserve.

"We've been talking about it, we've got to find a way to get playing here more consistent. We've been playing good teams too. They did to us what we wanted to do to them. That's what happens."

And why are the slow starts happening?

"I don't know. If it were an easy answer it would never happen because you would do what you have to," Bouwmeester said. "But, that has to be a focus for us to get off to a good start and try to get off to a good start and set the tone and gain some momentum from that and not play catch-up."

Maybe it's the unnecessary or untimely turnover, perhaps it's a bad or poor line change, or an ill-advised penalty. But the slow starts aren't attributed to just the skaters in front of the goaltender, but Blues goalies haven't been making that "timely" save early on that can be game-changers.

"Well yeah, that's your goal obviously, every game is to come out and try to dictate and play our style of game," said goalie Brian Elliott, who is 2-4-0 with a 3.85 goals-against average and .876 goals-against average in his past six starts that includes being pulled twice. "But we've been getting behind and partly that's loose structure or a lack of focus or a bad goal on our half on the back-end. It's a whole team thing that's kind of in a funk. 

"I think it's been there for a while but we've been able to grind out some wins. So it's a matter of trying to dig ourselves out and get back to the structure and the discipline that we know how to play."

Does it start with the goalie?

"I mean, it's hard to say but it doesn't really matter how you feel, it's how you come out and play for the guys," Elliott said. "It's making that big save at the right time. I didn't feel like it was there (Saturday)."

And when the Blues fall behind like they have been, they seem to get away from doing the things they do best and not stick to the game plan, which tends to convolute the game plan moving forward.

"We're playing a lot of teams that are playing that swarm in their d-zone," Oshie said. "You've got to move the puck quick and you've got to stay ahead of them. Typically we're a team that likes to shield guys with the puck and hold onto it. It's a little style for us, but it's something we've got to adapt to and something we should be able to do. We'll get better in that area, we'll get better in a lot of areas. We've got a really good core group here, we've got a lot of good players. The season's definitely not over; we've just got to clean up a few things."

In order to stick with the game plan, can every guy give a little more or remain patient? That seems to be the looming question.

"Yeah, but when we get away from what we do well, that gets frustrating and we kind of pile it on ourselves a little bit," Elliott said. "It's staying with that patiently persistent attitude that we can keep grinding away and play our game and our chances and goals will come. I think we haven't had the same patience and confidence in our game that we can do that. Like I said, it starts from goaltending and defense and forwards out and it's a thing that we all have to work together."

Oshie suggested that teams coming into their building lately are in "hockey playoff mode" and the Blues are "a step behind."
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Right wing  T.J. Oshie (74) said after a 4-2 home loss to the Penguins on
Saturday that the Blues "have to kick it into gear here."

Hitchcock was asked if he felt the same and cautioned, "One of the mistakes you make in this business is if you get too far ahead of yourself. I think if you get a week ahead, you're too far ahead. If you get two days ahead, you get too far ahead and it takes a lot to keep your focus singular.

"If we use this properly as a real eye-opener, then I think this will help us if we use this the proper way. We have to use it the proper way. This is a real eye-opener, a lesson and how we deal with it is going to determine the next level that we can get to."

With 23 games remaining in the regular season and the playoffs not locked up yet, the Blues seemed to have straightened some quirks out on the road. Now they have to get back to that home dominance. Fast starts can fix a lot of those issues.

"Collectively as a group, we've really got to kick it into gear here," Oshie said. "We want to be rolling, we want to be playing our best hockey come the postseason. We've got to find a way, especially the leaders. It starts with our goaltending and hope that can funnel on to the rest of the team."