Friday, October 31, 2014

(11-1-14) BLUES NOTEBOOK

Backes back on ice, questionable for Saturday; Oshie, 
Stastny ruled out; CDC false rumor; fourth line prominent Thursday

By LOU KORAC
ST. LOUIS -- Get them back one by one is all the Blues are looking for. 

If they can even get one player back from the rash of injuries and sickness that has ravaged the team in recent weeks, it's a step in the right direction.

Captain David Backes, who missed the 2-0 victory Thursday against the Anaheim Ducks and the final two periods of a 4-3 overtime victory against the Dallas Stars on Tuesday, was back practicing with Friday with a couple handful of teammates.

Backes, who was dropped by a hit by Stars defenseman Trevor Daley, passed all concussion protocols and was able to ride a bike and get in a skate. His status for Saturday against the Colorado Avalanche is questionable. 

"I skated today. I don't know," Backes said without elaborating too much. "... I don't have any definitive results for you or anything like that."

Coach Ken Hitchcock did.

"We'll evaluate him in the morning," Hitchcock said. "He got through today, so we'll see how he feels in the morning and make the decision. It's a fluid situation with him."

T.J. Oshie, who also sustained a concussion against the Stars, did not practice. Paul Stastny (shoulder) did, but both are ruled out against the Avalanche.

"Oshie's not going to play; obviously Stastny's not going to play and the two or three guys that went down today from yesterday, we'll get you a better evaluation in the morning whether they feel good enough to play either," Hitchcock said. "... We'll get further evaluation, but it's nice to see David back on the ice with us. How he feels in the morning will determine that. 

"He was able to get a bike ride in and get a skate in today, so that's Step 1 and then how he feels throughout the day is going to be the determining factor. Obviously if he feels 100 percent, then he'll be able to play. If not, we'll just keep moving it forward."

Backes wasn't particularly pleased in the manner in which the play went down in the Stars' zone.

"All of the sudden, I was getting hit when I wasn't expecting to get hit," Backes said. "There's no puck around and I've not played in five periods. That's all I know.

"If you can hit guys when they don't have the puck, then that's legal, that's great for my game. But I don't think we want that in the game. That's my take."

Hitchcock said concussions are in no way easy to determine. He was just glad to have Backes quick.

"You don't know," Hitchcock said. "You just follow the procedures. If the procedures are all met and he feels fine, then you go. If he doesn't, then you go with that. That's always the stuff with concussions, you don't know whether it's day to day. A guy like 'Osh' hasn't been around the facility yet."

* Fourth line prominent -- A group that normally gets anywhere from 5-13 minutes of ice time was asked to grab top-line minutes in the Blues' victory against the Ducks.

Being shorthanded by four guys that play top-nine roles, guys like Maxim Lapierre, Ryan Reaves, Chris Porter, Magnus Paajarvi and even Steve Ott, who will get top-nine minutes more so than the others, was asked again to fill voids created by the losses of Backes, Oshie, Stastny and Lindstrom.

The difference with the way they were used, according to Hitchcock, was getting them on the ice "on the fly." There was even a meeting and some video to dissect some advantages of how to get that message across on the ice.

"They want to do the right stuff," Hitchcock said. "For them, if they manage with their size and their skating ability and they physicality, if they manage the game the right way, they're really effective. We were able to get them out a lot yesterday on the fly, which I think really helped them. I think that gave them a chance to really have an impact in the game because we followed it up quite a bit with a shift that kind of ended up in the offensive zone, so they were able to come out a lot of times in the offensive zone and they were able to re-establish another forecheck, which helped us manage the minutes pretty well. I know Lappy played a lot, but there was a lot at the end of the game when we got down ... between Lappy and Bergie, they shared that fourth line spot. That line really with Ott and Revo really played as a third line yesterday. They gave us good minutes and then they scored.

"That was what the meeting was about. The meeting was, 'what good is physicality if you're just chasing checks?' That was what the meeting was about. It's never a question of work with those guys, but they're smart work, and that's what I think they did yesterday. They worked really hard, they had great sticks, they picked off passes. This is two of the last three games where they've picked off passes. You've got to be smart, you've got to have a great stick and that's what they did. They really did a nice job there."

Reaves, who scored his second goal in three games after going without a goal for 54 straight games, said it's more than just throwing their bodies around.

"I think we knew we were going to be getting more minutes because of the bodies we were missing,"said Reaves, who played 7:59 with two shots (one on goal) and only one hit. "We discussed over the last couple days just playing a little bit smarter and not running out of position to get hits. In the Dallas game, we were trying to generate momentum by strictly playing physical and not playing in the offensive zone, wearing them down. I think that's sometimes when we get in trouble and teams just kind of throw it out of the zone and we're all caught deep because we're all trying to get a hit in. You just play a little calmer, a little smarter, getting our hits when we can. If they're not there, just making sure we're not running out of position and go hit something that isn't there.

"I think we can still play physical and definitely get our hits when the opportunity arises, but I think we've got to chip in and help the offense a little bit. Over the first five games, we have no points. If you're going to roll four lines, we've got to chip in once in a while. That was a big discussion with us. We need to start helping out, playing a little smarter and not getting caught running in and backchecking and making it a track meet with our line."

Lapierre, who logged the most minutes (19:40) since donning a Blues uniform, said it's no big deal. It's what they expect from themselves.

"I think we're kind of making a big deal about it right now a little bit," said Lapierre, who was 8 of 11 in the faceoff circle, one assist, four shots, two hits and two blocked shots. "We're all guys that used to play a lot. We're accepting our role here and it's OK like that, but I don't think it's that much of a deal. We just have to go out there and do our job, which is what it's supposed to be every night. Hockey's a tough game and you're going to miss players all the time. There's never excuses. Yes, we're happy with our effort we had yesterday, but it's supposed to be like that every night.

"Whatever you play, 20 minutes or five, you've got to do your job on the ice. We all took a step in the right direction last night. We've got to build from there. ... It was a simple, team win. Everybody did the details."

Ott (17:05 time on ice, 4 of 7 in the faceoff circle and two blocks), Porter (7:29 time on ice, two shots and one hit) and Paajarvi (10:15 time on ice with two shots -- one on goal -- and one hit), all got time on the power play, some were asked to kill penalties and play in prominent situations and take important faceoffs.

But more importantly, if the Blues are going to roll three lines, they want to figure prominently in scoring chances.

"I think when you're only rolling three and you're only leaning on those guys to score, they can't do that every game," Reaves said. "You can't just lean on six guys to score every goal. You've got to chip in and help out once in a while when you're on the ice. That's what you're there for. Obviously you're not going to asked to score 50, but I think it's always a bonus when a team can roll four and be successful.

"We've had a couple meetings with just us three and then we had one with Hitch a couple days ago after the Dallas game, talking about some things we can correct, some things that will work to our line and playing to our strengths. I think it worked yesterday."

* Berglund line shines -- The task at hand for Patrik Berglund's line with Jaden Schwartz and Dmitrij Jaskin was a great challenge: neutralize the Ducks' big guns with Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry along with Matt Beleskey.

Not only did they blanket that trio, but they had eight of the Blues' 29 shots on goal while creating multiple scoring chances.

"I wish we could just bottle the first period," Hitchcock said. "The first period was perfect. The first period was exactly the way the line and Bergie in particular needs to play. That's a real building block. 

"If we can have that every night, every shift, if we can have that level of consistency and that level of execution, that's what we're looking for. There was a lot of really good performances there. It's a good sign."

Schwartz led the trio in time on ice at 20:42, followed by Berglund (20:00) and Jaskin (13:36).

* Notes -- There was some commotion at Scottrade Center leading up to the Blues' optional skate, where it was reported that the Center for Disease Control (CDC) was in the building looking for answers to the recent rash of bacterial infections that's affected multiple Blues players.

Hitchcock was interviewed on the radio station for Hockey Night in Canada and made a joke about the CDC should be in the building, but the false rumor was not taken as a joke and and reports that the CDC was at Scottrade Center went rampant, with Twitter and emails to club officials seeking confirmation.

The Blues hosted "Friends of Kids with Cancer" to the rink today to watch practice and visit with players in the locker room but those plans were squashed.

Saturday is "Hockey Fights Cancer" night at Scottrade Center.

. . . Brian Elliott will get the start in goal for the Blues against the Avalanche after Jake Allen stopped 24 shots for his second NHL shutout on Thursday.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Undermanned Blues rise to occasion, blank Ducks 2-0

Without four of their top forwards, St. Louis 
wins third straight; Allen earns second NHL shutout

By LOU KORAC
ST. LOUIS -- There comes a time when one backs a rabid dog into a corner, it can turn out to be a dangerous situation.

The Blues were backed into a corner with a quarter of their forwards out of the lineup. And the big, mighty Anaheim Ducks, with their NHL-leading 16 points, were in town ready to prey.

No David Backes, no T.J. Oshie, no Paul Stastny and no Joakim Lindstrom. No worries for the Blues.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Jake Allen (left) and Maxim Lapierre (right) played a key role against Corey
Perry (middle) and the Anaheim Ducks in the Blues' 2-0 victory Thursday.

The Blues found a way to persevere against the Ducks on Thursday despite playing without four of their top nine forwards, players who had accounted for 19 percent of their offensive production through the first eight games and roughly 25 percent of their payroll. 

Nobody was going to feel sorry for the Blues for missing such key pieces, and neither were they.

Alexander Steen's first-period goal proved to be the difference, and Jake Allen stopped all 24 shots he faced to earn his second NHL shutout in the Blues' 2-0 win against the Ducks at Scottrade Center, the Blues' third win in a row.

The Blues' most impressive victory on this young season came without their top two centers and two of their top three right wings.  

So instead of relying on their captain (Backes), assistant captain (Oshie), prized free agent signing (Stastny) and another of their free agent signings (Lindstrom), the Blues relied on the likes of Ryan Reaves, who scored his second goal in three games after going without a goal in 54 straight games; Maxim Lapierre, who played the most minutes (19:40) in a regular season games since playing 20:12 for the Montreal Canadiens against the New Jersey Devils on March 17, 2009; Chris Porter and Magnus Paajarvi, both healthy scratches Tuesday, played key minutes.  

"You lose those four key offensive additions and key parts of our team, our captain, but to be able to see guys from my perspective step up, watching them out there -- watching Ports, Mags, Lappy, Revo -- those guys filled those guys roles. … I had to do my part," Allen said. "Every team in the league is going to have losses all season long and unfortunately we have them right now. So just to see everyone step up and stick together, they are one of the best teams in the League with so much firepower, guys were sacrificing themselves tonight and it was a big win."

The Blues (5-3-1) were missing Backes and Oshie, each of whom was diagnosed with a concussion earlier Thursday after they sustained injuries Tuesday against the Dallas Stars. Stastny (shoulder) missed his fifth consecutive game, and Lindstrom became the latest to fall prey to a bacterial infection the Blues have dealt with over the past two weeks. 

It didn't matter. 

Those players were replaced up front by Paajarvi and Porter, and Jordan Leopold, a healthy scratch against Dallas, played as the seventh defenseman.

And then there was the line of Patrik Berglund, Jaden Schwartz and Dmitrij Jaskin, which had the daunting task of shadowing the Ducks' dynamic duo of Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry.

Mission accomplished.

"I just think we managed the game the way we had to," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said. "... I thought we did a really good job of managing the lines on the ice. This is really eight of the last nine periods we've done a better job of managing the lines and when we do that with our work ethic, we can take advantage of it." 

John Gibson stopped 27 shots for the Ducks, who fell to 8-3-0 and were shut out for the first time since Feb. 5. The Ducks play in Dallas on Friday.

On paper, the Ducks had a tremendous edge with their key pieces in the lineup and tried to stay cautious of the Blues' situation. 

"They were a hungry team tonight," Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau said of the Blues. "We talked about it before the game. Teams that are down some of their best players, they dig deeper and they played as hard as they could. If you are not ready to meet their work ethic, then you are not going to have success. They just worked harder."

Ducks captain Ryan Getzlaf agreed.

"We didn't work," he said. "It doesn't matter what you do. If you are standing still in this League, you can't make plays. It's a pretty simple explanation. We were standing around watching. It's all mental. Our responsibility as professionals is to be ready to play. You can make mistakes on the ice but not moving our legs, not being mental between the ears is our fault."

Steen's goal, his second, came off a deflection of a left-point shot by Carl Gunnarsson. Despite being tied up by Anaheim defenseman Mark Fistric, Steen got in front of the shot, and the puck got past Gibson off Steen's body 4:29 into the first period to give the Blues a 1-0 lead. 

"It's basically the way the team played tonight," Steen said, describing his goal. "... I thought we played a pretty solid game. We got back to playing our style. ... We played a simple, extremely smart hockey game tonight."  

It was the Blues' first goal against the Ducks in 129:58 dating back to Jan. 18 of a 3-2 Anaheim victory in St. Louis.

The Ducks had a great opportunity to tie it late in the first when the Blues turned over the puck in their zone while on the power play, but Getzlaf fired a wrist shot high from the slot in the waning seconds. 

The Blues took advantage of a Cam Fowler turnover, as he fanned on his outlet pass from his own zone, and Reaves fired a wrist shot from the slot past Gibson 2:02 into the third period for a 2-0 St. Louis lead. 

The Ducks had 20 seconds of a 5-on-3 power play midway through the third period, and Allen robbed Corey Perry from the slot with 10:54 remaining to preserve the two-goal lead. 

Once the Blues gained the two-goal advantage, they felt like they wouldn't be denied. 

(St. Louis Blues photo)
Patrik Berglund (21) looks to fend off a Ducks defender 
Thursday night at Scottrade Center.
"I thought we played the third period the way we needed to ... on our toes," Hitchcock said, "and we kept up the pressure right until the very end when they were able to pull the goalie and then took the power play there."

Maxim Lapierre, who got an assist on Reaves' goal, saved the Blues from surrendering the Ducks' first goal by pulling a shot off the goal line after it trickled past Allen with the Anaheim playing with a sixth attacker with less than two minutes remaining.

"I thanked him after the game," Allen said of Lapierre. "There was a screen. I think [Ryan] Kesler shot it and I just saw it at the last second and got my glove on it and I didn’t really want to move in case I knocked it in my own net. Great second effort by him. Those guys are sacrificing, paying the extra price."

After allowing 13 first-period shots, the Blues limited the Ducks to 11 the rest of the way.

"We were skating out of our zone, using our speed, using our feet, our smarts and that's the way we want to play -- it doesn’t matter who's in the lineup," Allen said. "But we played great. It was great to see. We've been making a lot of strides lately so it was great to see."

* NOTES -- The Blues were unable to recall a player at this time because of salary cap implications. According to capgeek.com, the Blues are roughly $400,000 under the salary cap, and recalling a player from an AHL contract would kick in their NHL salary, which would be over the cap number they have available.

Even if the Blues put players on injured reserve, they still count against the cap. The only way they would get cap relief is if a player was placed on long-term injured reserve. 

With Stastny ($6.5 million salary, $7 million cap hit), Backes ($4.75 million salary, $4.5 million cap hit) and Oshie ($4.5 million salary, $4.175 million cap hit) shelved because of injuries, the Blues were missing $15.75 million in salary from their 2014-15 roster. The trio account for 23 percent of the team's salary cap.

"I look at it as a high-class problem," Blues general manager Doug Armstrong said. "I think if you had $15 million of cap space, you'd probably (be) wishing you were a cap team and dealing with these issues. So these are issues that we have to deal with. We knew going in that we were going to be close. I think the last time I looked, we were so close to the cap, I think we're 16th in the league. Over half of the league is dealing with these issues on a daily basis. I know teams have already played short this year. I hope we don't have to get to that spot, but we have 24 guys on contracts right now and that's just the nature of the beast when you've got four guys out. ... you play with the 20 you have."

. . . After winning 11 of 14 faceoffs (79 percent), center Jori Lehtera now leads the NHL in faceoff percentage at 63.9 percent. He's won 85 of 119 draws on the season. ... The Blues' shutout of the Ducks is their first since beating them 5-0 on Oct. 17, 2009.

(10-30-14) Ducks-Blues Gameday Lineup

By LOU KORAC
ST. LOUIS -- The early-season adversity, much like the end-of-season adversity to hit the Blues last season, has taken another bad turn.

Blues coach Ken Hitchcock confirmed the worst for his hockey club when he announced that both David Backes and T.J. Oshie are out indefinitely after being diagnosed with concussions and will miss today's 7 p.m. tilt against the Anaheim Ducks.

Backes was injured with 4:49 remaining in the first period after a collision with Stars defenseman Trevor Daley. Backes' left side of his head hit the ice as he went down and needed assistance. He did not return to action and did not practice Wednesday.

Oshie was also injured against the Stars in the second period when he crashed into the Dallas goal after being shoved from behind in the slot in the second period by Patrick Eaves. He finished the game but did not practice Wednesday.

"Backes is concussed, out. Oshie's concussed, out," Hitchcock said following the morning skate. "Oshie has something else going on plus the concussion so we're not sure whether it's the bacterial."

Also, right wing Joakim Lindstrom, who did practice Wednesday, was not part of the morning skate and Hitchcock didn't completely rule him out Thursday.

"Lindstrom's bacterial and out right now," said Hitchcock, referring to the rash of bacterial infections that have plagued the team in recent weeks.

Center Paul Stastny (shoulder) is, "out, not ready," according to Hitchcock. Although Stastny is close to returning. He's missed four games after sustaining the injury Oct. 18 against the Arizona Coyotes.

"Some seasons are smooth and some seasons are scrambles," Hitchcock said. "We're in scramble mode. Nobody's feeling sorry for us; we've got to get points. We've just got to keep pace with everybody until we get a lot of these players back in. 

"We can't get too far away from the pack. That's what's impressive. The last two wins, we had a lot of banged-up guys with a lot of sickness still rolling through the team. But we still got wins. We have another big game tonight."

The Blues, 4-3-1 on the season, have been able to persevere with wins against two formidable opponents (Chicago and Dallas) the past two games. They'll have to rely on a makeshift lineup against the top team in the West in the Ducks (8-2-0).

As of early Thursday afternoon, the Blues did not make any recalls from the Chicago Wolves of the American Hockey League, and depending on Lindstrom's availability, might have to go with seven defenseman tonight.

"We just have to have other guys step up," defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk said. "That's the way we're built, we're deep, we have guys who can do it. They're going to be tough losses. They're hard to fill those voids, but we should be fine with what we have on the back-burner.

"We did a great job on Tuesday night. We didn't have the greatest second period, but we came back in the third and established our game again and were able to win a gritty game on the road against a divisional opponent."

To make matters tougher against the Ducks, the Blues have been blanked by Anaheim goaltending for the past 125:29, including two straight shutouts dating back to last season. Jaden Schwartz was last to score on the Ducks at 14:31 of the third period of a 3-2 loss on Jan. 18.

- - -

Shattenkirk is among the NHL leaders in points by a defenseman with eight, tied with a plethora of others with eight points, trailing only San Jose's Brent Burns (12).

With two assists Tuesday, Shattenkirk has seven assists on the season and will play with Carl Gunnarsson tonight.

"First of all, he's in the best shape of his life so he can play that way," Hitchcock said of Shattenkirk. "He's really helped himself. He tried to play that way last year, but he ran out of energy, especially after the Olympics. He didn't have the energy to play that way. But his conditioning level has allowed him to play. He's a better player when he plays with more risk, and we're not talking about risk with the puck. He's great at anticipating it. 

"Every team's got these players. Anaheim's got a player like him, (Chicago's Duncan) Keith plays this way. Sometimes you can allow the defensemen to attack the rush more when the other team has the puck because they've got great anticipation and Shatty's got that. he knows how to attack and close gaps moving forward as much as he does skating backwards. He's been more aggressive defensively rather than passive,and his energy's allowing him to do that late in games. He couldn't do that last year. He couldn't keep up to the pace we needed him to play at. Now he can."

Shattenkirk talked about his training regimen and diet changing up this past summer, and the rewards seem to be paying off in the early part of the season.

"Just staying very aggressive and picking my spots really well," Shattenkirk said. "I think I've trusted my skating a lot and that's allowed me to really jump in the rush and know that I have the confidence to recover and get back if something does go the wrong way."

And changing defensive partners can make it a challenge to stay afloat, but according to Shattenkirk, it hasn't been a problem.

"Not really," he said. "I've just tried staying with the game that's been successful for me. I think  the other guys have adjusted and they know I'm going to play that way. Even though we've had new D-partners, there's still some of the same faces we've had here over the past few years. Everyone knows how I like to play. It's not getting way out of position. It's doing it the right way."

As for playing with Gunnarsson, it's the first true chance for the Blues' top four defensemen to be on the ice together, although Gunnarsson and Shattenkirk got some time in Dallas.

"He's very solid, very calm and poised, which is great for me because he keeps me level-headed as well," Shattenkirk said of Gunnarsson. "I think defensively I've really noticed something out of his game. He's very strong on the puck and on his stick and very physical in the corners. I think a lot more physical than we kind of anticipated."

Gunnarsson played 12:53 in his season debut Tuesday and Hitchcock said it would take four or five games to get him fully acclimated and up to speed. No such plan now with the rash of unavailable bodies.

"We had a little time in the third period last game," Gunnarsson said of Shattenkirk. "It'll be great. I felt alright. Not the best start but I got better as we went along."

- - -

The Blues' projected lineup (if Lindstrom doesn't play; if he does, slot him on RW with Schwartz and Berglund):

Alexander Steen-Jori Lehtera-Vladimir Tarasenko

Jaden Schwartz-Patrik Berglund

Dmitrij Jaskin-Steve Ott-Magnus Paajarvi

Chris Porter-Maxim Lapierre-Ryan Reaves

Jay Bouwmeester-Alex Pietrangelo

Carl Gunnarsson-Kevin Shattenkirk

Ian Cole-Barret Jackman

Jordan Leopold

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

David Backes and T.J. Oshie are out with concussions. Paul Stastny (shoulder) is close to a return to action but is still on injured-reserve. Joakim Lindstrom has fallen ill with the bacterial infection and is questionable. If Lindstrom plays, Leopold will likely be the healthy scratch.

- - -

The Ducks' probable lineup:

Matt Beleskey-Ryan Getzlaf-Corey Perry

Dany Heatley-Ryan Kesler-Devante Smith-Pelly

Andrew Cogliano-Nate Thompson-Jakob Silfverberg

Emerson Etem-Rickard Rakell-Tim Jackman

Cam Fowler-Clayton Stoner

Hampus Lindholm-Francois Beauchemin

Mark Fistric-Sami Vatanen

John Gibson, coming off a 38-save shutout performance in a 1-0 victory at Chicago on Tuesday, will get the start against the Blues. Frederik Andersen will be the backup.

William Karlsson, Chris Wagner and Josh Manson will be healthy scratches. Ben Lovejoy (finger), Bryan Allen (lower body), Kyle Palmieri (ankle) and Patrick Maroon (knee) are all out with injuries.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

(10-30-14) BLUES NOTEBOOK

Backes, others questionable against Ducks; Allen to get start Thursday

By LOU KORAC
HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- The news wasn't as doom and gloom some Blues fans may have been anticipating regarding captain David Backes on Wednesday.

Backes, who left the 4-3 overtime victory against the Dallas Stars on Tuesday late in the first period with an upper-body injury after hitting the left side of his head on the ice after colliding with Stars defenseman Trevor Daley in the Stars' zone.

The Blues held an optional practice Wednesday afternoon and Backes, as well as other players coach Ken Hitchcock said were "banged up," was not a participant.

There was some concern of a potential concussion, particularly with Backes' history of head injuries, and although it hasn't been ruled out, Backes also hasn't been ruled out for a home game Thursday against the Anaheim Ducks.

"There is no health report," Hitchcock said after practice. "We'll give you a better evaluation tomorrow. We had guys take the day off. A couple guys got banged up yesterday and took the day off, so we'll know better tomorrow exactly where the injured guys are at. We really don't know, to be honest with you. 

"I would say nobody's ruled out. A couple guys that got banged up (Tuesday) aren't ruled in yet. We're expecting to be pretty close to the same roster, but we're not sure yet. ... There's a chance our lineup won't change one bit other than Jake Allen's the goalie. ... We're hoping that everybody's available. We'll kind of figure it out tomorrow. We got a better evaluation today. Everybody that was hurt last night's feeling better today."

One of 13 skaters (including goalies Brian Elliott and Allen) was Paul Stastny, who has been out of action since sustaining a shoulder injury Oct. 18 at Arizona. It was Stastny's third consecutive day of work with teammates and seventh day overall on the ice.

Hitchcock was asked of Stastny's availability for Thursday, and he didn't dismiss it.

"I'm assuming no," Hitchcock said. "Close, but ... let me get back to you on that one."

* Oshie scare -- Blues right wing T.J. Oshie also took a dangerous tumble to the ice after he was shoved from behind in the crease and into the Stars goal, which resulted in Oshie smacking his face on the goal post.

After being attended to by trainer Ray Barile, Oshie stayed in the game but was one of the skaters given the day off Wednesday.

"That was really a dangerous play," Hitchcock said. "He got pushed from behind. Some of those injuries, too, you don't know ... that's why you wait on things. You don't know in 24-48 hours whether guys are going to be OK or not. Sometimes they recover right away, sometimes it pops up. He hits his jaw, David hits his head ... you don't know that stuff.

"... The one that worried me was Oshie's hit. That's a guy in a dangerous position, and he gets pushed from behind. That one scared me."

* Gunnarsson's debut -- Blues defenseman Carl Gunnarsson's long-awaited debut came Tuesday in Dallas.

Gunnarsson, who was on the ice -- and practically on top of Elliott -- when the Stars scored the first goal of the game, skated with Barret Jackman and totalled 12 minutes, 53 seconds of ice time.

"He was a good sore but sore," Hitchcock said of Gunnarsson, who did not practice Wednesday. "... Let's just leave it at that. We're assuming he's like the rest, he's going to play tomorrow."

Hitchcock said that it will take Gunnarsson roughly five games before he's in top form, and then he'd like to get his Swedish defenseman paired with Kevin Shattenkirk.

* Allen's turn -- Allen will get the start in goal in the second meeting between the teams in 11 days.

The Ducks won 3-0 in Anaheim on Oct. 19, and Elliott was in goal that night.

Allen is 1-1-0 on the season with a 2.02 goals-against average and .915 save percentage.

"I don't know ... it's his turn," Hitchcock said when asked about Allen getting a start. "Like I said to you guys before: we have a schedule that we'd like to stay consistent with on both goalies and we prefer that Jake gets into a regular routine so that he can grow as a player, too. Develop as a player. This allows him to stay in this routine. It's pick your poison. Another good opponent on Saturday night (Colorado) so it's pick your poison. We just felt like if we're going to stick to a consistent routine, this is a chance to stick with it.

"I look at (Allen) as a veteran player, because he's been with us for so long. He's been up with us for a period of time. I know there's some growing pains that you go through with some of these guys, but that's how we treat him. Our expectations for both guys are pretty high."

* Scouting the Ducks -- The Ducks (8-2-0) come in off a 1-0 victory against the Chicago Blackhawks, the start of a four-game, six-day trip that will also see them go to Dallas on Friday and Colorado on Sunday.

John Gibson stopped all 38 shots and Devante Smith-Pelly scored a shorthanded goal in the third period that proved to be the difference in the game. 

"It's a good test for us," Hitchcock said. "We've got a chance to build some momentum now. We've got two big wins against significant opponents. We get another significant opponent. We get a chance to build some positive momentum if we can just keep going. The last two games have been playoff games and that's what it's felt like. It's felt like you coached in a playoff game. Every shift matters, every play matters, every mistake gets magnified, every good play is embraced. The caliber of opponents that we've started the year with has made it feel like the playoffs already. Just got to keep getting points when you can."

The Blues improved to 4-3-1 with the win Tuesday, and they did so against a potent Stars lineup minus Stastny and Backes.

"We talk about it all year how we've got so much depth," center Maxim Lapierre said. "We've got to use it when it's time. Last night was the time. 

"I think it's good news because we showed a lot of character coming back in the game, missing two great players even though we know not everybody played their best games. I think we're getting better every night, but we still have a long way to go before we're what we think we are."

A humbled attitude, Tarasenko aims to elevate game

Stopping short of settling, Blues right wing aims to be among best, 
continues to work on craft night after scoring first hat trick of career

By LOU KORAC
HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- The day after scoring the first NHL hat trick and with an optional skate on the table more times than not would be reason for a player to take advantage of an off day.

Not Vladimir Tarasenko.

If it weren't for Alexander Steen stepping onto the ice Wednesday at the Ice Zone inside St. Louis Outlet Mall for an afternoon practice that didn't yield an entire team following a 4-3 overtime victory in Dallas, Tarasenko would have been first on the ice.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Vladimir Tarasenko (left) celebrates with T.J. Oshie after scoring his third
goal of the game in overtime in a 4-3 victory against the Dallas Stars. 

And instead of going through the motions of a workout that included 12 of his teammates, the 22-year-old Tarasenko -- who became the first Blue to score a hat trick in overtime since Brett Hull did it Oct. 9, 1997 -- was working on what makes his craft of pinpoint accuracy so good.

Of course he was shooting pucks. Wrister after wrister after wrister mixed in with a slapper or snap shot sprinkled in. 

"When he first came over, he was just happy to play here (in the NHL)," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said of Tarasenko, who leads the team with nine points in eight games after his first four-point game Tuesday. "Now he wants to be a guy that contributes every night. He wants to be a significant player in the league. It's a big difference. 

"He wasn't really happy when he came back from the (Sochi) Olympics. He was really unhappy with how much he played (for Russia), what role he played, and he really put a strong focus into really becoming a real good player. I think quite frankly, if he doesn't get hurt post-Olympics, I think he's got 35 (goals) in him last year alone. I think he's a 35-goal guy last year if he doesn't get hurt. He just had a whole different focus. He was very determined in his game. He came back and did that in the playoffs. He's been able to move that forward when he's healthy. He's been sick twice now (this season). He's been under the weather twice now since the tail end of training camp. Health-wise, this is the best he's felt."

For a guy that didn't even know hours before the game whether he'd play or not Tuesday because he'd been suffering from symptoms of a bacterial infection that's gone around on the team, Tarasenko, who played at roughly 50 percent healthy against Chicago on Saturday, shook off what ailed him in grand style.

But instead of gloating about how good the previous night was, Tarasenko was already focused Wednesday on how he can be better the next time the puck drops. It's a humbling attitude, and it's easy to notice that there is no "I" or "me" in Tarasenko's vocabulary. That's typically reserved for "team" or "we" or "us."

"It's kind of hard, but I like it when people set high expectations for me," Tarasenko said. "I'm supposed to work twice as hard everywhere. You can't make these people sad. It's good pressure.

"It was a good game (Tuesday). I didn't score for five or six games. I feel a little bit better right now. Probably more confident. Ready to go tomorrow."

Tarasenko's teammates have no problem gloating for him, especially when he's doing things not always talked about  on top of his goal-scoring prowess.

"It's special, but we see it every day," said center Maxim Lapierre, who compared Tarasenko's shot to former Montreal Canadiens teammate Andrei Kostitsyn. "He's got such a good shot. Probably the best shot I've seen in my life. If he keeps playing like that, he's going to get a lot of goals. ... It's one thing to have a hard shot, but he puts it anywhere he wants. It's easy for him to score goals, let's put it that way.

"We see the three goals, but guys like me see the shot he blocked with 16 seconds or whatever last night in the game. Every guy that scores three goals doesn't throw his face in front of a puck." 

After the game, usually on the bus to the airport or on the plane prior to takeoff to the next destination, Tarasenko does what he normally does after he plays a game: he telephones his father Andrei and grandfather Vladimir, who the younger Tarasenko is named after.

It's become a routine occurrence.

"I talk to them all the time," Tarasenko said. "My grandfather watches all my games. We talk after every game."

And what do they say? 

"Same what I tell you ... it's only one night," Tarasenko said. "We're happy for you, but try to stay on the same level."

Which is why "tomorrow" is always the next obstacle to tackle for Tarasenko.

But on Tuesday, Tarasenko, as Hitchcock described it, scored goals three different ways. All were shots with tremendous accuracy and in ways that can't be taught. They were instinctive and they come from repetitive actions.

"I know he's a great player, that's why I want to pass him the puck every time I get it," said teammate Jori Lehtera, who was a linemate of Tarasenko's with Sibir Novosibirsk in the Kontinental Hockey League. "It's simple.

"He can pass, shoot, challenge 1 on 1's at the same time. You don't know what he's going to do. The defenseman doesn't know."

On Tuesday, Tarasenko had the eye of a player thinking with a shoot-first mentality. He would get it and he would release it. It's something the coaching staff has tried to instill in Tarasenko in the past, as Hitchcock has said before that Tarasenko tends to "defer" shooting pucks.

Don't tell the Yaroslavl, Russia native that though.

"No, I never think like this," Tarasenko said. "I always look around for somebody else in a better position to make a play. I don't care about my shots. If somebody else is open, I will make the pass."

The game Tuesday  was very reminiscent of Tarasenko's four goals in the playoffs against the Blackhawks last season. Hitchcock agreed.

"I thought yesterday was the same as what we saw in the playoffs," Hitchcock said. "He was really engaged (Tuesday). He played strong, he played tough on the puck. That's what we expect. 

"He's been under the weather for three or four days like the rest of the guys. That's why you see such a variance in energy on some guys. We've gone through it. We're still in the process of cleaning it up. But I think his energy was higher. He felt better physically and showed it in his performance, to be honest with you."

And the chemistry of working with Lehtera is unmistakable, even though Tarasenko has been used with Paul Stastny at times.

"The Stastny combination with Tarasenko was good," Hitchcock said. "We're not opposed to that at all. It was really good, too. In a lot of ways to be honest with you, Lehtera and Stastny are very similar players, very similar. They're similar in the way they approach the game, they're similar in the way they see the game, they're similar in what their strengths are. They're very similar players. Vladi and Lehtera work well together, but as time moves on, we're not opposed to playing Stastny with Vladi either.

"I think where you see it is Lehtera knows where Tarasenko is at the end of shifts. Tarasenko's second goal was scored with Lehtera on the bench. But he knows where he is at the end of shifts. That comes from playing a lot together. You don't get that chemistry without playing well together. That to me is a telltale sign that, hey, these guys know. That's significant for us. It's similar to (Ryan) Getzlaf-(Corey) Perry or (Jamie) Benn-(Tyler) Seguin."

Tarasenko, who scored from distance on two of his three goals, has been compared to having a Hull-like shot, along with a few other's Hitchcock knows well.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Building chemistry with Jori Lehtera (12) in the KHL has helped Vladimir
Tarasenko (91) elevate game so far in 2014-15.

"(Mark) Recchi used to shoot like that. Wouldn't give it away, kept the blade square," Hitchcock said. "Glenn Anderson did it. That's the way Andy was, too. He had that ability, too. But when you're face-to-face ... how many players in the league can score from distance? Not very many. Seguin, he can. He can score from distance. Not many people have players that can score from outside of 15 feet ... (Steven) Stamkos. A lot of the stuff, I would say Glenn Anderson. Andy could get a little bit of 1-on-1 space and all of the sudden, boom! Here comes the shot. You don't know if it's heavy or if it's quick or what it is. Is it both? I don't know."

Which is why Tarasenko is working on his craft day after day. He wants to be among the best the game has.

"It's not enough to play one good game and play five bad ones after it," Tarasenko said. "It's really tough sometimes to stay focused. When you can do this, you can play a lot of really good games. You can relax after three goals. I need to (keep) working."

But when asked what was the most pressure he faced, the game Tuesday or the postgame interview with Fox Sports Midwest's Darren Pang, Tarasenko had a clever comeback.

"Most pressure was turbulence in the plane," Tarasenko joked, referring to the trip back to St. Louis following the game. "That was most pressure for me last night."

Monday, October 27, 2014

(10-28-14) BLUES NOTEBOOK

Gunnarsson will make season debut Tuesday; 
Stastny back at practice; Tarasenko, Reaves questionable

By LOU KORAC
ST. LOUIS -- This time, Carl Gunnarsson didn't hide, as coach Ken Hitchcock joked about recently when it came to approaching the Blues' defenseman about playing.

Gunnarsson, who's missed the first seven games while rehabbing from off-season hip surgery, declared himself fit and he will make his season debut when the Blues play the Dallas Stars on Tuesday.

"He's good to go. He'll play tomorrow," Hitchcock said of Gunnarsson after practice Monday.

Gunnarsson was acquired in a trade with the Toronto Maple Leafs at the NHL Draft for defenseman Roman Polak. He finally gave the Blues the green light that he is healthy enough to play after skating on Sunday.

"I told them whenever they want, it's up to them right now if they want me in," Gunnarsson said. "It feels good. It's a different feeling. I just want to get back in there ...  a little nervous if I'm back in. That's how it should be."

The Blues were off Sunday but Gunnarsson skated and ran into Hitchcock at the rink.

"I caught him in a bad spot," Hitchcock joked about Gunnarsson. "We had the session yesterday. I was the only guy at the rink and he got stuck walking in the door the same time as me. We had the conversation and he was already anticipating that he wanted to play on Tuesday. He's ready to go."

Gunnarsson was told what Hitchcock said.

"I was kind of hiding in the shadows," Gunnarsson joked. "We talked a little bit about it, but he knows it takes time too. I hope that he was happy with me giving him the green light." 

Gunnarsson, who has 15 goals and 86 points in 304 games (all with the Maple Leafs), was operated on six months and is on target with what was originally the time frame for his return.

"I don't like watching games. It's kind of a weird feeling. ... It'll be good to get back in.

"I did a lot of skating too and extra conditioning. That's what we've been doing for the last two weeks. ... It feels pretty good. Once you get into games, that's when you really know how it feels. Our here in practice, it feels good. I've been doing a lot of extra stuff. First guy in, last guy out of the rink. I've been putting in those extra couple minutes every day. I've been in here doing more and more contact."

Hitchcock was unsure on Monday who Gunnarsson will play with or who he will replace in the lineup. All they know is that Gunnarsson's minutes will be monitored initially.

"I think this is a little bit different. The season's started," Hitchcock said. "We've got to be smart about this. We know why we traded for him and where we want him to play, but to ask him to go and play that role right now is a little bit unrealistic. Let's be smart about this. Let's work him into the role, let's evaluate it on a period to period basis. He's done everything, we've done everything to get him ready for this, but there's no such thing as trial run once you get into a game. He's walking into a tough opponent and it's going to be significant, but I think if we're patient with him. If we give him four or five games, he's going to get up to speed pretty quickly.

"We don't know (who Gunnarsson will play with) yet. We're more worried about managing minutes and the role we're going to have him in. He's going to play in a couple different roles, but I think it's more managing the minutes."

Gunnarsson's teammates feel like he will  fit in well and fast.

"I think he can do it pretty quickly," right wing T.J. Oshie said. "I imagine coming in and playing defense on our team is maybe a little easier than some because of how well our forwards track back, how disciplined we usually are. Hopefully he gets right in there. It seems like he has good vision, although we haven't seen him in a game except fr playing against him. It seems like he's got good vision out there. It's going to be exciting to see those first passes that he can make and see what he can do."

Gunnarrson said he's past the mental aspect of thinking about the hip while he's skating. Now it's up to executing the system, which he's had ample time to watch.

"I'm not thinking about it on the ice," Gunnarsson said. "The last hurdle, I would say, is to get a game in. That's when you know how it feels for real. It's going to be different at practice and skating around on your own.

"I've seen it, but it's another thing to execute it on the ice at game tempo, too. At the same time, it's hockey, too. Just stick to the system. Don't over-think stuff."

* Stastny skates -- Blues center Paul Stastny, who sustained a shoulder injury Oct. 18 at Arizona, took part in practice Monday for the first time with the team.

After being in a sling the first couple days, Stastny has been on the mend and has skated previously. He was placed on injured-reserve Saturday. According to Hitchcock, the hope is to have Stastny as a full participant by the end of the week.

"This is the fifth day he's skated," Hitchcock said of Stastny, who had four points in the first four games. "... He'll be with the team for the full skate tomorrow. 

"Like we said, he's week to week. Once he's a full participant, which we're hoping is towards the end of the week, he can start participating on a full basis and we can evaluate him from there."

Stastny's teammates are eager to get him back.

"Actually, we were messing around," Oshie said. "Steener threw me a pass in the air and behind (Stastny's) back without looking, he knocked it out of the air. It was pretty cool to see. He must be getting close. ... It was just nice to have him out there."

Added captain David Backes: "Whatever he's dealing with, I'm sure he'll be back the first time they say he's OK to get on the ice. He's a battler, he's a guy that we need to be at full strength. He's a huge part of our team."

* Scouting the Stars -- The Blues (3-3-1) get back into Central Division play when they face the Stars (4-2-2), who are coming off a 7-5 loss Saturday against the New York Islanders.

The Stars bolstered their loaded forward lineup when they traded for Jason Spezza this past summer along with Ales Hemsky.

Dallas has scored 25 goals in the past six games and have scored three or more goals in five of those six. But they have given up 22.

"They've got tons of speed. They fly around," Backes said of the Stars. "They've got that top line with all three all-star caliber players. We've got to do a job against that line and find matchups that we're winning. Special teams always comes down to who can win that battle. It's going to be a full 60-minute, hard-nosed Central Division matchup against a team that if you're not playing on your toes or playing your 'A' game, they can put up crooked numbers in a hurry."

The Blues went through a fast-paced hour-long practice in anticipation of the Stars' speed and for the potential of a track meet.

"That's not what we like to do," Oshie said. "We tend not to do too well in games like that even though we do have some skill players that can play that way. But we've got to limit their speed and that's with us playing with the puck on our stick in the o-zone, getting pucks deep and tracking back well."

Hitchcock didn't call it a practice to necessarily get geared up for the Stars.

"No. It's reflective on our game," he said. "We have the ability to create way more from things in our game that are very ingrained in us and very solid. We needed to get building on that stuff. It feels at the start of the year, like you've got 50 things to work on. We're into specifics now. We've got elements in our game. We don't want to take them for granted. We can touch on those subjects like we did today a little bit, but there's certain elements in our game that have to be improved. We've just got to do a better job on some of the things with the puck, on managing it and being able to create more offensive zone presence. We need the puck in the offensive zone more. There are elements in our game that we can really take advantage of with the way our team's built. That's what we did today. We practiced a lot of that, and we tried to work really hard today on playing a little bit faster defensively too so we can spend less time in our zone and not get bogged down."

Forwards Vladimir Tarasenko and Ryan Reaves did not practice Monday and are questionable for the game against the Stars.

Both are examples of players who have been affected by a bacterial infection that has hit the team in the past week.

"When I said we're in good shape (after the game Saturday), I should have shut up," Hitchcock said. "I shouldn't have said that because we're back into the same issues again."

There's a chance the Blues could play with seven defensemen, and that will depend on the health of players.

Brian Elliott will start in goal.

Taveras death hits home with the Blues

Players, Hitchcock shocked when news broke of 
Cardinals' outfielder's passing, reflect on how precious life is

By LOU KORAC
ST. LOUIS -- The St. Louis sports community is in unison again Monday but for reasons they'd rather not have to deal with.

When news broke Sunday night of the tragic death of Cardinals prized outfield prospect Oscar Taveras, it was shock to everyone, including Blues players and coaches.

Captain David Backes said he was watching the World Series between the Kansas City Royals and San Francisco Giants and saw Taveras' picture and news flash on his TV screen and Backes said he had, "Just chills down my body.

"You're reading stuff on twitter ... I couldn't even muster out a tweet," Backes said after practice Monday before the team departed for Dallas. "A 22-year-old kid with a world in front of him ... you can forget the baseball stuff. He had a lot of life to live. Just terrible news. It hits home when it's in St. Louis and the St. Louis family. Thoughts and prayers to him and his family and the Cardinal family. I've thankfully not been in the position like that, but you're empathy and sympathy is definitely with those guys right now trying to make sense of it."

Taveras, along with his 18-year-old girlfriend, died in car crash outside his hometown of Sosua in the Dominican Republic. He had returned home to spend time with family and friends before heading out to play winter ball prior to spring training next season.

Taveras homered in his first big-league game against the Giants, and what turned out to be his final at-bat at Busch Stadium came in the National League Championship Series against the Giants, a game-tying home run in Game 2 in the seventh inning.

"It's terrible, it's terrible news," Blues' T.J. Oshie said. "I was shocked. I didn't realize how young he was. It's tough times in St. Louis right now. Thoughts go out to his family and teammates and friends. It's got to be a tough time.

"I lost two family members this summer as well. It's been an up-and-down, roller coaster type of year, but you never want to see something like that, especially with how young and promising as he was."

Not only is Ken Hitchcock the Blues' coach, but at 62-years-old, he's in many ways like a father figure to the players on the team.

"As you get older, you get a little more paranoid about it," Hitchcock said. "We'll come off a charter and I'll worry about if somebody drives by me on the highway. I worry about that stuff. I worry about it every time I get off the plane. We get off planes at two, three, four o'clock in the morning ... you don't know. You feel secure when they're in the environment coming to the practice or they're going to the game rink or they're at home. But there's all kinds of situations where ours is a business late at night and you worry about that. As you get older, you worry about it more and more. When I first started coaching, I didn't worry about that stuff, but as you mature and you see things that happen, you definitely have your antenna up all the time now.

"That's tough. That's tough on anybody. A young player like that who's so highly thought of. Obviously, your career's in front of (you). It's kind of a family's organization's worst nightmare when you see something like that. It's devastating. I think from our standpoint, you pause and reflect and know that we've got players the same age as him. It's a tough pill for anybody to swallow. We feel terrible for the family, his girlfriend's family and things like that. When you're on a team and something like that happens, it just affects everybody. It's kind of heartbreaking to be honest with you."

The Blues know a thing or two about deaths in the team family, with most recently, Pavol Demitra coming to mind, along with Doug Wickenheiser and Bob Gassoff

"A new guy that's just breaking into the league, people are talking about losing a great baseball player," Backes said of Taveras. "For me, this goes well beyond that. Baseball ... sports is a small window in our life. We're very grateful to be playing, but in the end, he had a girlfriend, obviously a family he cared enough about to go back to his hometown in the off-season. You can't even think of words to say to make it any better.

"It's yet another reminder how short life can be and not to take any days or things for granted that you're able to have. We've got another great day today, a beautiful day outside. Unfortunately, we're one short in the St. Louis sports family today."