Saturday, December 3, 2016

Little's OT goal gives Jets 3-2 win over Blues

St. Louis extends home point streak, plays 
sloppy game, ends 17 seconds into extra session

ST. LOUIS -- The buildup had been there from the past few games, and the Blues got away with points on each occasion during this five-game homestand.

Saturday, the Blues got a point, but in coach Ken Hitchcock's words, they were lucky to get one.

The Blues looked sloppy, lethargic and slow, played sideways when they had the puck, which was not often.

Bryan Little's goal 17 seconds into overtime gave the Winnipeg Jets a 3-2 victory against the Blues before 19.362 at Scottrade Center.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Blues left wing Dmitrij Jaskin (right) chases Jets defenseman Paul Postma
during action Saturday. Jaskin scored, but the Blues lost 3-2 in overtime.

Little was the beneficiary of rookie Patrik Laine's backhand bass through the crease on the backdoor past Alexander Steen and Little, who along with Laine had a goal and an assist, slammed the shot home past Carter Hutton to end a six-game road losing streak (0-5-1).

The play started off the opening faceoff when Little won the draw from Steen back to Dustin Byfuglien, who started with it behind his goal. Byfuglien fed a streaking Laine, who had all sorts of room on his forehand before pulling it to his backhand by Alex Pietrangelo before feeding Little.

The Blues never touched the puck in the extra session.

"'Vladdy' (Vladimir Tarasenko) and I got a little mixed up at the front and we gave them a little bit of space," Steen said. "He made a nice play back door.

"We got mixed up in front and that gave Little that little bit of space. I was trying to back check."

Hutton, who made 20 saves, had to respect Laine coming down the left side looking at his right.

"I didn't think we were going to get beat backdoor because it looked like a 1-on-1 to me, so I'm just playing the player and it's not really my guy," Hutton said. "Obviously it's frustrating, right? If I know he's going to get beat, I know that, but it's one of those things. 

"I'm not sure. I'm going to have to look at it again obviously. Laine is the best goal-scorer in the league, so I'm just doing my job. I don't know, it sucks obviously, right? Away she goes."

Little said: "All I had to do was put it in the empty net there."

Chris Thorburn scored shorthanded for the Jets (12-13-2). Michael Hutchinson made 20 saves.

"I don't know where the two Blues guys were," Laine said. "That was a good find from 'Buff' and that was a 2-on-1. I saw Little going backdoor and I just wanted to pass it to him and it was an awesome finish." 

Steen and Dmitrij Jaskin scored for the Blues (14-7-4), who earned a point for the 12th straight home game (9-0-3) but had their six-game winning streak at Scottrade Center come to an end.

The Blues also ended a streak of nine straight games scoring three goals or more.

"I don't know if we thought the opponent was something different than what they were," Hitchcock said. "We certainly didn't want to play the way we have or the way we're supposed to. We played slow, east-west, not skating.

"I think we looked like a distracted team again. We looked like a team that's won a lot of hockey games and wanted things to be a little bit easier and you get that sometimes. ... I think we were fortunate to get a point, so we'll take the point and move on."

Right from the get-go, something just didn't seem right with the Blues.

The Jets were putting pucks behind the Blues, who in turn were not crisp on zone exits, nor were they sharp with the puck in the neutral zone and putting them behind the Winnipeg defense.

"It's not weird. It's back to the beginning of the year game," Hitchcock said. "We want to play a different way. ... We grabbed it a little bit in the second, but we didn't want to play the game we had to play out there against them, so they looked faster than we did."

The Jets capitalized on a took a 1-0 lead on Thorburn's shorthanded goal at 12:27 of the first period, which came off a 3-on-1 after Tarasenko whiffed on a wrist shot from the right circle.

The Jets' penalty kill unit was on its toes and was ready to move quickly up ice after Tarasenko's whiff on the power play, and Blake Wheeler's saucer pass was perfectly in stride for Thorburn to finish off.

It was a sign of things to come for the Blues, who allowed multiple odd-man rushes.

"You have to engage and you've got to move your feet," Hitchcock said. "We wanted to play the game flat-footed and sideways and slow it down. We were caught in this rut earlier in the year, got out of it and did a great job, went back in it today."

The Blues finally grabbed the game, scored twice and appeared ready to seize control.

Steen's 200th NHL goal was at 5:16 and came off an outlet pass from Pietrangelo and ensuing slap shot that may have glanced off defenseman Jacob Trouba's stick past Hutchinson to tie the game 1-1.

Jaskin's first of the season came 2:10 later. It was his first in 35 games and came after he kept a puck in the offensive zone after coming off the bench, then had possession of it for eight seconds before getting into the middle of the ice, turning and firing a slap shot through traffic.

"It was a good shift," Jaskin said. "Sometimes it happens. Keep the pucks on our sticks. Have good shifts.

"... It's been a while. I'd be happier if we won. It's nice."

But the Blues' bubble burst when the Jets and Laine tied it at 9:18 of the second on a give-and-go with Little.

Laine's goal, which tied him with Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby for the NHL lead, was a build-up for the rookie from three-quarters of the ice, in which he perfected a give-and-go with Little, who split Blues defensemen Kevin Shattenkirk and Carl Gunnarsson before beating Hutton between the pads.

"I think if you look at their second goal, that was our game," Hitchcock said. "A chance to go north with the puck and we turned it over twice on the line and it's in our net. That was the game for us. Got beat back up the ice too many times."

And to make matters worse, the Blues' power play, which was 0-for-4, had a chance with 2:22 remaining to perhaps steal the second point in regulation, but much like the three they got in the first period, very little rotation, ineffective movement and insufficient zone time.

"It didn't surprise he," Hitchcock said. "I think the power play was a reflection of our whole game, slow, methodical, unaware. We had a lot of culprits out there today. 
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Blues defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk (22) slides the puck by Winnipeg's 
Mathieu Perreault on Saturday at Scottrade Center.

"We had a lot of ... other than (Patrik) Berglund and Jaskin, you wouldn't be overly thrilled with some of the performances today. I think we were fortinate to get a point, so we'll take the point and move on, but we didn't want to engage in the elements that we had to engage in. Therefore we looked out of sync."

Jaskin said: "When I was out there in first period, I think it was great, had bunch of shots, didn't go in, think as game went on, ice not at best, couldn't keep in on sticks. Couldn't get it in.

"I was more pissed about my penalty. That was stupid. It was a great time to score but we didn't and they got one after."

The Blues, 3-0-1 on the homestand, wrap it up Tuesday against the Montreal Canadiens.

* NOTES -- Defenseman Robert Bortuzzo left the game early in the second period with a lower-body injury. Hitchcock said Bortuzzo is day-to-day and with the team off Sunday, no further update will come until Monday.

(12-3-16) Jets-Blues Gameday Lineup

ST. LOUIS -- The last time the Blues made a prominent player a healthy scratch (Robby Fabbri), it made a difference.

They're hoping the same happens for center Jori Lehtera, who will sit out today's 6 p.m. game against the Winnipeg Jets (FS-MW, KMOX 1120-AM).

Lehtera will be a healthy scratch for the first time this season and in his career in a move coach Ken Hitchcock said is a situation the Blues (14-7-3 and winners of seven of the past eight) feel they need more from that position.

"We just need more from that position," Hitchcock said. "That's a three position or a two position. It doesn't matter who grabs it, we need more from that position. And we don't need more points, we need more playing through the competition. So whoever grabs it, whether it's 'Bergy' (Patrik Berglund) or whatever I decide, 'Lets' will go back in right away here, but we just need more from that position. We need more definition, more identity, more determination, whatever. We need to know that that position on our team is a very important position and we need to see the other team pay more attention to it.

"... He's a really effective player, when he plays the way he can play, he's a really effective player. But we saw it at the start of this year and we haven't seen it since he came back from the injury. So we've got to see it at a higher level."

With Lehtera out, Nail Yakupov, a healthy scratch in eight of the past 13 games, will step back in and play with Berglund and Dmitrij Jaskin in an ever-going battle to find consistency from that line.

"He's had three good practices," Hitchcock said of Yakupov. "He's getting better at understanding what it's like to be a player on this team. I've seen a real emergence here in the last three practices where the things that are important for us are becoming very important for him."

Which are?

"Positional, structure, spacing, all those coach words," Hitchcock said. "But we're starting to see it now, so it's a real good sign."

- - -

Blues goalie Carter Hutton will get the start tonight, the first in four games and second in the past nine.

Hutton, who is 2-4-0 with a 2.98 goals-against average and .891 save percentage this season, will give starter Jake Allen a breather.

Allen has won his past seven starts and is 9-0-2 on home ice but has allowed 10 goals the past three games.

"Jake's been outstanding," Hutton said. "It's obviously nice to get the nod and I couldn't be more excited to get in there."

- - -

It's the first meeting between the Blues and Jets (11-13-2), who are 2-6-0 the past eight games. 

And it's the first chance for the Blues to get to see in person rookie Patrik Laine, the No. 2 overall pick in this past summer's NHL Draft.

Laine is second in the NHL in goals (15) behind Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby.

"Whoo boy, he's right at the top," Hitchcock said of Laine. "Watching him play against (Connor) McDavid, you wish somebody would give us last place just for a week. He's impressive. That line, I told people after the World Cup, I knew (Mark) Scheifele would go up to another level. He was dominant against men. I knew he was going to go to another level. But to see those three guys play together, if you just make a little mistake through the neutral zone, they're gone on you. They've got the ability to create instant offense off of anything: 3 on 3, 2 on 2, 3 on 2, they just create it right away and there's always a quality scoring chance. When you've got to players with that skill set that can play at that top speed, it's dangerous. You can't afford to make mistakes against those top two lines. With (Bryan) Little back in there now, they've got a lot of dynamite on the first six forwards."

- - -

Blues right wing Vladimir Tarasenko is tearing it up right now.

Tarasenko, who missed practice Friday but will play tonight, has nine goals and nine assists in 11 of the past 13 games.

"There wouldn't be too many teams in the National Hockey League that don't have a special player," Jets coach Paul Maurice said. "His ability to get it off his stick, change directions ... there's a shooter over in Russia named Sergei Mozyakin is almost the same look. He leads the KHL in the history of scoring. ... The longer (Tarasenko) has the puck and the longer that lane is open for him, the chances increase drastically. All the standard stuff you get in a great player, time and space, keep the puck out of his hands and make sure there's not a lot of open people around him."

- - -

The Blues' projected lineup:

Jaden Schwartz-Paul Stastny-David Perron

Robby Fabbri-Alexander Steen-Vladimir Tarasenko

Dmitrij Jaskin-Patrik Berglund-Nail Yakupov

Scottie Upshall-Kyle Brodziak-Ryan Reaves

Jay Bouwmeester-Alex Pietrangelo

Carl Gunnarsson-Kevin Shattenkirk

Robert Bortuzzo-Colton Parayko

Carter Hutton will start in goal; Jake Allen will be the backup. 

Healthy scratches will be Jori Lehtera and Ty Rattie. Joel Edmundson (upper body) is out but close.

- - -

The Jets' projected lineup:

Nikolaj Ehlers-Mark Scheifele-Patrik Laine

Drew Stafford-Bryan Little-Blake Wheeler

Mathieu Perreault-Adam Lowry-Brandon Tanev

Marko Dano-Andrew Copp-Chris Thorburn

Josh Morrissey-Dustin Byfuglien

Toby Enstrom-Jacob Trouba

Ben Chiarot-Paul Postma

Michael Hutchinson will start in goal; Connor Hellebuyck will be the backup.

Healthy scratches include Alexander Burmistrov, Kyle Connor and Mark Stuart. Joel Armia (lower body), Shawn Matthias (lower body), Tyler Myers (lower body) and Nic Petan (lower body) are all out.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Blues still searching for their identity but slowly finding it

Despite recent stretch of winning, team is forging ahead figuring out who they are

ST. LOUIS -- The Blues' third straight victory on home ice Thursday, a wild 5-4 win against the Tampa Bay Lightning, capped off a trio of games of what would be considered an anomaly.

The Blues (14-7-3) aren't known as this run-and-gun, slug-it-out kind of team, nor have they been under coach Ken Hitchcock's tenure.

The Blues have been known more for their structure defensively, smothering the opposition and winning those 2-1, 3-2 type games. 
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Veterans Alexander Steen (left) and Kevin Shattenkirk celebrate a goal on
Thursday in a 5-4 win against Tampa Bay.

But since that 8-4 debacle on Nov. 12 in Columbus, it was the start of nine straight games of scoring three or more goals after going nine straight with 14 goals total (two or less in eight of those games).

So is this who the Blues are? Are they going to try and be this high-powered team that scores a ton but gives up a lot as well?

Hitchcock was asked after the game Thursday what this team's identity is.

"I don’t think we have an identity yet," Hitchcock said. "We're winning hockey games, we don't have an identity yet. We're winning hockey games on spirit. We've got great spirit. I'm not sure if you can call spirit an identity, but we've got great spirit going right now. 

"We're going to have to play a lot better than this, though. A lot better. I think the players know that, too. Two points are two points and we don’t want to take away from that, but I think there's a time to ride and I think we're going to be like everybody else, there's going to be concerns all year. I think it's the first team to put out detailed definition that's gonna end up emerging from the Central Division. Whoever can put that detailed definition in their game is going to end up winning this division. Hope it's us."

Forging an identity for a team that came into this season in transition can be tough. But the Blues, who have won seven of eight since losing to the Blue Jackets and who are 11-1-2 at Scottrade Center, including six wins in a row and points in 11 straight at home (9-0-2) feel like the pieces are there.

Sorting through them and forging them consistently is the challenge.

"Throughout the year, you're going to win different ways," left wing Jaden Schwartz said. "You can flip that and say there's certain homestands where you win 2-1 or we win 3-2 and they're saying we're not scoring enough. There's always different ways to win, different ways to look at it, but it's something that we want to focus on and whether it's special teams or 5-on-5, you want to make sure you've got your guys covered, taking care of the puck and things like that. We're winning games, we're playing really good hockey. There might be some lapses I think in certain games where it might be, whatever it is, 5-, 10-minutes of a certain period where they're kind of bringing it to us a little bit. But that happens. I think we've done a good job of recovering from that.

"I think we've done a good job of finding that lately. We've learned a lot from that early stretch in the season. We've done a good job of responding and playing the right way that we need to play to win. I think guys feel comfortable in their roles and guys are excited coming to the rink. We've done a good job of learning and getting better. I think we have gotten better because of that stretch that we've had."

So for the Blues, who have averaged 3.67 goals per game the past nine, what exactly is their identity in the eyes of the players?

Whatever it is, there is a pulse.

"I think it's starting to come around," said defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, who had a four-point game himself (two goals, two assists) Thursday. "I think when we'll really start to see it come around is if we can do what we're doing at home on the road. If we can make it a consistent effort on the road and do the things that make us so great in tough conditions. We've really, not too much has changed, we always say it every year, there hasn't been too much of a different formula here. Now, we're sticking with it for an entire game. I shouldn't say an entire game. We still have some lapses, obviously, but we're starting to do it more consistently and for a longer period of time. That's why we're starting to get a little more success."

After thinking about it, Hitchcock said the identity for the Blues is there when the score is tight, but once it gets out of whack one way or the other, then it goes haywire.

"I'm seeing us have the identity until the score gets comfortable, and then we revert back," Hitchcock said. "We're seeing the start of it, we just have to stay on task for longer periods of time. 

"One of the problems we're having is we're not putting our foot on the throat. We normally did before and that's something guys are going to have to get used to. We've been a franchise that's done that for years here. It's our first experience as a coaching staff going through this, too. We're winning games, we've got a lot of spirit, a lot of energy, but we need to have a little bit different mindset when we have a lead halfway through the game. We're working on it, but it's not going to happen over night.

But make no mistake, Hitchcock said the Blues have to develop an identity at some point.

"It's the only way you can win," he said. "You have to have something you can trust and believe in. You can't throw your sticks on the ice and play. You've got to be able to have an identity, something you can trust when it's really emotional, hard, very intense. You have to have a foundation. Whatever it is, you have to be able to go back to it right away if you've had a tough outing. You know what it feels like and looks like and you have to get back to it. So we're not there yet, but we're getting closer to it. We're getting more and more minutes into it but we're not there yet and that's why these games end up being scrambly at the end."

Which is why if the Blues tighten the noose in their own end, the identity will forge itself.

"Yeah, I would say that's one of the things you can say, for sure," defenseman Colton Parayko said. "I think that from a defensive standpoint, it's going to be tough winning hockey games going out on the road with getting four goals and three scored against you. If you can limit them to ... obviously zero is the right answer, but two or lower, it just gives us a better opportunity to win hockey games. 

"I think the beginning of the season, we weren't scoring goals, but it was fortunate we were still getting points because our defense was really good. But just things like that, you want to make sure that they kind of balance our, but at the end of the day, we are getting points, that's the biggest thing. I think that when we need to push that extra mile or whatever, we're getting it done."

It's becoming evident that the younger Blues are catching up to their veteran counterparts and formulating the bond necessary to have that consistent identity. And the coaching staff knew it would take time.

"I thought probably closer to 50 (games)," Hitchcock said. "We're ahead of that curve, but we're also greedy. We want it to speed up. I knew it would take time. This is an identity that will stay with the team for a few years now. It's a different group. You're asking young players to play like mature players and that doesn't happen overnight. But we're getting better."

"We've always had good depth, but I think we've got a really good, deep team this year in all facets," Schwartz said. "I think we're taking care of the puck more, which is good. We're getting the puck deep when we need to, but we've got a lot of speed that we can make plays off the rush, whether it's taking it deep and cutting back and finding a late guy or just we've been known to have a big-bodied team to create a lot of o-zone time with our bodies. We're still doing that, but we've got a lot of speed, quickness and tenacity to get on guys quick. I think we're creating a lot of turnovers. Everyone feels comfortable in their role and seems like we've got different guys stepping up every night.

"You don't know what to expect. You want to build it as soon as you can obviously, but some teams find it earlier than others. Some teams change throughout the year, but we did a good job of responding in the right way from a stretch where we weren't playing our best hockey. We weren't really sure the way we needed to play. We've definitely found that the last few weeks."
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Blues defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk said an identity is important
for the Blues to develop. 

All it took was a good kick in the pants after surrendering eight goals in a game.

"I think that would show a lot of character and tell a lot about our team," Shattenkirk said. "I think a lot of teams could have hung their head. Tampa was a team last night that had taken some beatings in a couple of games before. When you have an expeienced team like this, I think it's most important when you're able to realize it in the locker room, not when your coach is coming in and telling you what looks wrong and the things you're doing poorly. When we're able to recognize it as players and then hold each other accountable, that goes a lot longer down the road than if it comes from your coaches.

"I think (an identity is) important because for two reasons. One, so you know what you can fall back on when things do start to stray away and they always will, so in the locker room we can have a set of fundamentals we can go back to and two, so the other team has something to worry about. I think you don't want Winnipeg coming in and saying, this team is really just a mish-mash of players and they don't have a focus. I think for our standpoint we want teams to have to worry about something and that's important."

* NOTES -- Blues right wing Vladimir Tarasenko, fresh off his third regular-season hat trick and four-point game against the Lightning on Thursday, did not practice on Friday but was given a maintenance day and will play Saturday against the Jets.

Tarasenko blocked a shot late in the game Thursday but seemed fine talking to reporters afterwards. 

"He'll play tomorrow, little banged up yesterday but he'll be in tomorrow," Hitchcock said.

-- Blues center Jori Lehtera was in the same colors Friday as fourth-line forwards Kyle Brodziak, Ryan Reaves and Scottie Upshall.

On Thursday, Lehtera centered the third line with Patrik Berglund and Dmitrij Jaskin; he has spent much of the season centering Tarasenko and Fabbri, and at times, Schwartz.

But he has just three goals and four assists in 20 games this season, and at $4.4 million in salary ($4.7 million average annual value), the Blues are looking for more production.

"We need more," Hitchcock said. "We need him to play back where he was before he went down with the injury. We need more.

"I want to sleep on it right now. We're going to need more from him. The position we have him in, we need more from that position."

-- Defenseman Joel Edmundson had another good day of practice, and for the first time since his upper-body injury on Nov. 6, the Blues appear set to declare him fit to be available to play.

"'Eddy' went through today 100 percent," Hitchcock said after practice Friday. "We're going to talk to him later today and see how he feels and then see if we're going to put him into the mix in the next few games, but today was the first day he went right through the whole thing and there was a lot of battling going on and he made out 100 percent, so that was a big step. If he feels like he's available for selection, we'll make a decision on when we're going to put him in. Today was the very first day he's gone through the whole practice no problem."

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Tarasenko hat trick, Shattenkirk four-point game highlight 5-4 win over Lightning

Blues have won seven of eight, gained a 
point in 11 straight home games in wild affair

ST. LOUIS -- The lids were reigning down on the Scottrade Center ice, many of them Blues hats, and Vladimir Tarasenko was on the bench humbled.

But little did the Blues' right wing know that those souvenirs, some new, some now, belonged to him

"(Do) I get (them) after," Tarasenko said when asked what he would do with all those hats after his third regular-season hat trick and fourth of his career including playoffs following a 5-4 win against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Thursday. 
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Vladimir Tarasenko scored three times and finished with four points in a
5-4 victory against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Thursday.

"I don't know. I just want to say thanks to fans for support. It was really a good feeling."

Blues fans were chanting Tarasenko's name after a four-point night that helped the Blues (14-7-3) improve to 11-1-2 at home. 

Kevin Shattenkirk had two goals and two assists for the second four-point game of his career, Alexander Steen had three assists in his return after missing six games with an upper-body injury and Robby Fabbri had two assists for the Blues, who have scored a point in 11 straight games at Scottrade Center (9-0-2) for the first time since going 9-0-2 from Jan. 12-Feb. 19, 2012. 

Jake Allen made 22 saves to win his seventh straight; he's 9-0-2 at home.

But for the third straight game, the Blues found themselves in a pinch late, having to fend off the opposition on home ice. 

Against Minnesota last Saturday in a 4-3 shootout win, they allowed a goal with 1 minute, 8 seconds remaining before winning it. They did come from behind in that game, so it was a different set of circumstances.

But against Dallas on Monday, the Blues blew a 2-0 lead before winning 4-3 in overtime on a goal by -- who else -- Tarasenko, and on Thursday, the Blues led 3-1 after one period (the first time they've scored three in the first all season) and 4-1 early in the second and appeared to be on cruise control.

The problem is it was set in cruise control and the Lightning shifted into overdrive, twice pulling within one goal before the Blues held on late despite a little bit of drama after Paul Stastny was called for a faceoff violation with 2.2 seconds remaining.

I thought we played better today," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said. "The score wasn’t indicative of the play but the score was indicative at the end of the way we were paying. Just, I don’t know the right way to tell you, I just know where it’s going to take us in a week or so. It’s not going to be comfortable. But we just take the two points and probably move on, but it’s not going to be comfortable in a couple weeks.

"... It's a little deeper than technical. I said that to you before. We need to fix it. But I’m not sure right now. I think we’re just better off riding the horse and seeing when it needs a drink of water. So, I think that’s what we’re better off doing right now. There’s no point in … sometimes you just got to ride out these type of games and we’re doing a lot of great things from the red line in. We’re pressuring people, we’re doing a lot of really good things, but we’re struggling in our own zone. We’re struggling with communication. We’re struggling with tenacity. We’re struggling with the details that have been here for a long time. And we got away from them but we’re not paying the price yet. So now’s the time to just ride it as far as we can go and then let’s see how we do."

The Lightning (13-11-1), who lost their fourth in a row and fifth in six games, got two goals from Cedric Paquette. Tyler Johnson and Nikita Kucherov also scored. Andrei Vasilevskiy made 12 saves before being pulled in the second after allowing four goals. Local boy Ben Bishop replaced him and made nine saves and took the loss because he gave up the fifth goal.

The Lightning was on the cusp twice after trailing 4-1.

"I thought we deserved points," Lightning coach and former St. Louis Bandits coach Jon Cooper said. "I'm not going to sit here and say that we deserved to win the game, but we definitely deserved points out of this game. But in the end, special teams was a factor in the game, but it's tough though. You're kind of battling a few things and ultimately they had ten minutes of power play time, we had ten seconds, so now you're sucking a lot of momentum because you're killing so many penalties and eventually that cost us." 

Tarasenko gave the Blues a 1-0 lead 1:39 into the game after a power move to the net past Lightning defenseman Jason Garrison. Colton Parayko had poke-checked the puck away from Alex Killorn to keep the puck in the zone and enable Tarasenko to beat Vasilevskiy.

"When he scored early, you knew that was going to be there," Hitchcock said. 

Then the Blues went to work on the power play, scoring three times in four tries and finished 3-for-7.

Tarasenko made it 2-0 on the first of three power-play goals on a one-timer from the right circle at 9:37, ala fellow Russian and Washington Capitals forward Alex Ovechkin, after Steen's great fake shot and pass.

"Perry did a great job in front of the net on all our power play goals today," Steen said. "'Fabs' winning the draws obviously and Perry also winning the draws, but I don't think the goalie sees the puck to 'Tank,' which is why I think he has a little space to get that in. 

"We had a few opportunities where I think Parry just took his eyes. He's been playing really well for us, I think carrying a very heavy load. Tonight he was the reason we scored three on the power play."

Paquette got the Lightning within 2-1 at 10:39, but Shattenkirk made it 3-1 with a wrist shot off Paquette's skate at 13:17 from straightaway inside the blue line. 

Shattenkirk scored the Blues' third power-play goal on a slap shot from the high slot at 1:44 of the second period that chased Vasilevskiy. 

"Power-play had great rotation," Hitchcock said. "We almost were given too many power plays where we started getting cute, but the first four power plays were excellent. We really rotated the puck, moved it. We were crisp, hunted it down. Fabbri was great on face offs. Won a lot of face offs, David won face offs on it so we kept the puck there. First four power plays were just a clinic. They were really well organized and we shot the puck at the right time. People were in the right positionings, it was impressive."

"I think from my standpoint more of the same," Shattenkirk said of his game. "I think our power play looked like we were back at it again, having 'Steener' back out was huge. We simplified it but we were able to get a lot of chances off of that. It was one of those nights where things were kind of going our game. When you're playing with Vladi a lot, you just give him the puck on nights like this and you seem to get some points."

Johnson scored for Tampa Bay at 14:25 to make it 4-2, and Kucherov's power-play goal 1:41 into the third cut the Blues' lead to 4-3.

"I think we played well, some foolish things allowed them to get back in the game," Steen said. "But we were able to shut the door, so for the most part it was a good game. I'd say there was a few things we want to clean up."

Tarasenko's third goal and fourth point came at 8:11 of the third against Bishop to give the Blues a 5-3 lead. It was his most difficult one but most impressive. The way Tarasenko settled the puck to get a shot off after Fabbri's tough pass by kicking it to himself and quickly shooting it beat Bishop but hit the post. It did come back and carom off the Lightning goalie's skate and back in.

"Yeah, finally. Thanks for the guys," Tarasenko said of pucks going in Thursday. "They create a lot of good chances for me today. They helped me a lot before when puck doesn't go in so many times. It's a really important win for us. It's always nice to keep winning the homestand."

"He's the best player I've ever played with, hands down," Shattenkirk said of Tarasenko. "... For a player like him to get that first goal early, you could see it just kind of make him settle into the game right away and on the bench we were kind of licking our chops waiting to see what he was going to do with it because he still had 55 minutes to work with. It was just great and they were hard working goals. He had a few other chances where he was just hanging around the net and finding loose pucks. He's one of those guys where loose change seems to find him. He's able to capitalize on a lot of his chances."

Paquette's second of the game at 11:56 made it 5-4, but the Blues were able to win the third of a five-game homestand.

Perron and Jaden Schwartz each had their eight- and seven-game point streaks, respectively, but the Blues could care less at this point as long as the two points are in the bag. But they are living dangerously playing like this.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Blues forward Robby Fabbri (left) fends off Lightning defenseman Andrej
Sustr on Thursday. Fabbri had two assists in a 5-4 win.

"I think so. I think the fact it's happened three games in a row, it's going to become a main focus of ours," Shattenkirk said. "But again, I think the only thing we need to work on is making plays when we have the puck, not just dumping pucks in. It's something we went through last year and we even went through in the playoffs and we just have to have the confidence to do that."

One thing that has been fixed is scoring goals. The Blues have now scored three or more goals in nine straight games after scoring 14 total the previous nine.

"It wasn't like this when season starts," said Tarasenko, who has nine goals and nine assists in 11 of the past 13 games. "We have tough time from you guys and it was so many bad words about our offense, but we just keep working and like I said, we just fight for each other every game and try to stay on our program, and most important thing, we believe in each other. We believe in our game."

(12-1-16) Lightning-Blues Gameday Lineup

ST. LOUIS -- Alexander Steen's long-awaited return to the lineup will happen today when the red-hot Blues (13-7-3), who have taken points in 10 straight home games, face the struggling and injury-riddled Tampa Bay Ligntning (13-10-1).

Steen missed the past six games with an upper-body injury after being hurt Nov. 15 against the Buffalo Sabres. 

The Blues were 5-1-0 with Steen out of the lineup.

"I think we were cautious from the get-go to make sure that I was OK," Steen said. "I think it was a little more complicated than we first thought. Now it's back to where we want it to be." 

With the Blues playing so well, Steen said giving him ample time to recover had nothing to do with the recent stretch.

"No, that didn't have anything to do with it," Steen said. "It was an injury and we wanted to make sure that I was healthy, so we took the time it took."

Steen will play center, between Robby Fabbri and Vladimir Tarasenko.

"I think long-term, it's going to work great for us, but we've got to temper our enthusiasm to see how he gets through the game and how the chemistry of the line looks," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said. "It looked very good at practice two days ago, so we'll see how it looks in the game. We've played this line before and it's very successful, so we're not afraid to look at it again.

"I just think we need an upgrade at center ice. We need to play better at that position, we need more production, we need more puck control. He's our most complete player. He's got a chance to really elevate our game playing center ice. We've been looking for this type of add-on within our group. He's a guy that's played a lot of center. Sure, there's going to be some time getting used to it and things like that, but he has the ability to make plays off the rush, he's great in our own end. I've played him when the games have been on the line, especially in the playoffs. I've used him at center a lot. He played there a lot last year and was very, very effective. We're looking forward to it."

Paul Stastny, who will play in his 700th regular season game tonight, said the addition is big.

"It's huge," he said. "Power play-wise, PK-wise, he does everything. It'll help us out because we've had a few guys play a lot of minutes. There's another guy you can throw out there in every situation. Every guy will play a minute or two less and we'll be way more fresh. It's just another threat to throw out there offensively. We're glad he's back. He's been itching to get back, but he's played it smart."

But with the Blues playing as well as they have (8-0-2 the past 10 games at Scottrade Center), they have to curb the enthusiasm of getting one player back.

"We've got to be careful not to overlook that and realize that he's going to come in and fit into what we've got going here the last few weeks and that's the most important thing, not the other way around," defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk said of Steen. "We can't try to change our game to try to accommodate him and get him back to full 100 percent. We have to make sure that he's jumping on board with us."

With Steen playing on the second line, Hitchcock will drop Jori Lehtera to the third line and move Patrik Berglund to right wing for the first time this season looking for more consistency on the third line with Dmitrij Jaskin. Ty Rattie will be a healthy scratch with Nail Yakupov.

"Weight, size, tenacity on the puck," Hitchcock said describing the third line tonight. "Berglund's skating as well as anyone on our team right now. We need him to get on the puck and get on the hunt, use his speed to beat people. I really like him as a winger because he bounces ahead of the play, he creates separation, he's hard on the forecheck, he can hang on to the puck down low when he's able to take and play with a little more risk in his game than he would as a center. I like when he plays like that. When he's on the forecheck, that's a big load to come at you. That line has a lot of size. If we use it properly, it can be really, really effective."

- - - 

Stastny has 192 goals and 374 assists during his career, including 32 goals and 76 assists in two-plus seasons with the Blues.

"You look at the start of the year and kind of look at it, that's where you look at the only time where you are and what potential milestone you might get," Stastny said. "But other than that, it flies by so quick. I remember it was like 680 at the start and now it's already like 700. It goes by. When you're having fun and the team's winning, I think it flies by. It's just another nice round number to have. You enjoy it. You only get to that number by playing with good guys on winning teams and kind of being successful all the time." 

Stastny has been on a hot line with Jaden Schwartz and David Perron.

"Me and Schwartzy have always played well together and I think with Perry, I think it maybe took him a couple games to try and find his niche," Stastny said. "He was kind of playing in every situation to see what would work out. Sometimes it takes a couple games to kind of get your groove and I think he's found it. He knows what makes him play well and the line's been clicking. We've been communicating a lot on the ice during games and during practices."

Perron has an eight-game point streak (three goals, eight assists), which is a career-high and the longest current streak in the NHL. Schwartz has five goals and four assists during a seven-game point streak and has seven goals and five assists the past 11 games.

Stastny has been a big part of both runs. 

"Since Steener went out, he's carried a heavy burden here," Hitchcock said of Stastny. "He's had to do everything. He's had to play against the other team's top players, he's had to score points, he's had to be good on PK, he's had to quarterback the power play. It's funny because the more we need him, the better he plays. With added responsibility, it seems to really engage him more than ever and I think that's a good sign. We expect a lot of him, but when we give him that responsibility, in the last year and a half, he's really delivered."

"Great milestone," Shattenkirk said. "I think it just goes to show a lot of people don't really look at him as a superstar, but a lot of things he brings to the ice and brings to the table are things you can't coach. It's things you just have in you. I think that starts with his father obviously, some of the things that he taught him at a young age. But Paul's probably one of the smartest hockey players that I've ever played with. That's why he's been here for 700 games."

Stastny said he remembers Game No. 1.

"Yeah, against Dallas at home. We lost 3-2," he said. "(Marty) Turco I think had the game-winning assist. ... I remember my first one and I remember my 500th. It flies by. The first couple 100 for sure, you're younger in the league and you don't think about it. Basically it's just hockey all the time and as you get older, whether it's injuries or other things going on, it goes slow at times when you're looking at it and then you don't pay attention, it flies by."

- - -

* Goalie Jake Allen, who has won six straight starts, has a 1.95 goals-against average and .933 save-percentage in that stretch; he will start. Allen is 8-0-2 with a 1.57 GAA and a .940 save-percentage on home ice this season. 

According to Elias, Allen is the first Blues goaltender to earn at least a point in 10 straight home games in one season since Jaroslav Halak, who did it in 2011 (13-0-1).

* Defenseman Joel Edmundson (upper body) skated with the team but will miss an 11th consecutive game. Hitchcock said he's close but not ready.

* It looks like native Ben Bishop will not play in his hometown for the Ligntning tonight. Andrei Vasilevskiy will start for the second straight game.

* The Blues' last 10-game home point streak was Jan. 28 - March 27, 2014. They are 10-1-2 at Scottrade Center this season overall.

- - -

The Blues' projected lineup:

Jaden Schwartz-Paul Stastny-David Perron

Robby Fabbri-Alexander Steen-Vladimir Tarasenko

Dmitrij Jaskin-Jori Lehtera-Patrik Berglund

Scottie Upshall-Kyle Brodziak-Ryan Reaves

Jay Bouwmeester-Alex Pietrangelo

Carl Gunnarsson-Kevin Shattenkirk

Robert Bortuzzo-Colton Parayko

Jake Allen will start in goal; Carter Hutton will be the backup. 

Healthy scratches include Nail Yakupov and Ty Rattie. Joel Edmundson (upper body) is out. 

- - -

The Lightning's projected lineup:

Ondrej Palat-Tyler Johnson-Nikita Kucherov

Brayden Point-Valtteri Filppula-Alex Killorn

Jonathan Drouin-Cedric Paquette-Joel Vermin

Michael Bournival-Brian Boyle-J.T. Brown

Victor Hedman-Andrej Sustr

Nikita Nesterov-Braydon Coburn

Jason Garrison-Slater Koekkoek

Andrei Vasilevskiy will start in goal; Ben Bishop will be the backup.

Healthy scratches include Vladislav Namestnikov and Luke Witkowski. Steven Stamkos (knee), Anton Stralman (upper body) and Ryan Callahan (lower body) are out.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Perron signing has brought Blues great value

In second stint with team that drafted him, 2007 first-round pick feels at 
home with organization, producing plenty during career-best point streak

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- July 1 can be classified as the day that the NHL begins its Black Friday.

Unrestricted free agents are up for sale, and teams can line up waiting for some sort of blue-light special, with checkbooks in hand, looking for that big, home run-type signing thinking they're getting a great deal despite ponying up a lot of dollars.

Among some of the top forwards that came off the board on the first day (Andrew Ladd, seven-year, $38.5 million with the New York Islanders; Milan Lucic, seven-year, $42 million with the Edmonton Oilers; Frans Nielsen, six-year, $31.5 million with the Detroit Red Wings; Loui Eriksson, six-year, $36 million with the Vancouver Canucks; Kyle Okposo, seven-year, $42 million with the Buffalo Sabres and the Blues' own David Backes, five-year, $30 million with the Boston Bruins and Troy Brouwer, four-year, $18 million with the Calgary Flames), they cost a cool $238,000,000 million.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Signing David Perron (right) this past summer has been one of the top
value moves of the off-season, paying early dividends for the Blues. 

The Blues didn't get the John Hancock on any of those contracts. They instead chose to spend within, but Blues general manager Doug Armstrong didn't completely stay out of the market, and when he reached out to a familiar name in forward David Perron, it may not have been the home run signing at two years and $7 million, but the Blues have to feel like they got one considering the body of work thus far. 

For 23 games, or a little more than a quarter into his first season of a second stint, the 28-year-old Perron has given the Blues exactly what they were hoping for, if not more.

When the Blues host the Tampa Bay Lightning on Thursday, Perron will look to increase his career-high point streak to nine games; he has three goals and eight assists during an eight-game streak that has him second on the Blues (behind Vladimir Tarasenko's 23 points) in points with 16 (seven goals, nine assists) in 23 games.

And consider that (prior to Wednesday), Ladd had two goals and an assist in 21 games, Nielsen has 13 points in 23 games, Eriksson has 10 points in 23 games, Okposo leads the Sabres with 15 points in 21 games, Backes has nine points in 18 games and Brouwer has nine points in 25 games. Only Lucic (17 points) had more than Perron.

Considering Perron, who the Blues drafted in the first round in 2007, started last season with four goals and 12 assists with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 43 games before finding his game again after a trade to the Anaheim Ducks. The Blues did their homework on what he could bring in the absence of some key veteran departures that needed replacing.

"We saw him play last year with heavier players," Armstrong said. "We want to play quicker but we're not the quickest team in the league, and so we felt with the style that we wanted to play, there was certainly a spot for him on either of the two wings in our group of nine, and he's taken advantage of it."

This was a homecoming for Perron, who played the first six seasons of his career before a trade to the Edmonton Oilers on July 10, 2013. And despite entering free agency for the first time in his career, Perron saw a chance to return where it all began.

"I got a sense with Hitch and knowing what he wants from players," Perron said of Blues coach Ken Hitchcock. "If you play the right way and you play hard, you're going to get the right chances, right opportunities. When I came in, people maybe saw me as an offensive guy only, but when I was younger, I wanted to win as much as anybody in this room. ... I want to help out, block shots and make sure I do all the right things."

Perron's production, along with that of Jaden Schwartz (seven-game point streak and seven goals and five assists in the past 11), has been a blessing with Alexander Steen (upper-body injury) sidelined the past six games.

Perron was more known as a player with the offensive flare his first bout with the Blues. But he's grown up, has a family and son (Mason) and has altered his style of play as a veteran of 10 seasons to prolong his career effectively.

"He doesn't cheat to score," Hitchcock said of Perron, who has 148 goals and 200 assists in 593 NHL regular-season games. "He plays the game the right way, on the right side of the puck. He has a base where he understands that part of the game now. He's not fishing for pucks, he's not hoping pucks pop free to create offense, he's not looking to cheat the game. He plays the game real honest right now and I think it makes him a way better player. We use the term loosely, but man, he's a 200-foot player and he's made himself a 200-foot player.

"I really liked him as a player. I watched him play in Edmonton; he played fine. I watched him go to Pittsburgh and he was lost. He didn't play well there and he didn't look like he fit there. The way they wanted to play and the way he played didn't fit. Then when I saw him go to Anaheim, I thought I saw the same player that was in Edmonton. Doug and I talked about it. We both felt like if that's the player we're going to get, we have similar style players to (Ryan) Getzlaf and (Corey) Perry. Our players aren't quick, but they're strong on the puck. David fit that style and we thought he could could fit here. He's grown up, he's 28 years old, he's been 10 years in the league, his game has maturity, he's got maturity in his play, he's really competitive on the puck. I like that, and I trust him. I trust him offensively and I really trust him defensively."

Perron's season started with four points in the first 12 games (three goals, one assist), but they all came in one game at Calgary on Oct. 23. Then he scored Nov. 6 against Colorado and it was four goals and one assist in 15 games; about what one might expect for a player with a $3.5 million average annual value contract. 

But Perron has taken off since, and it's no coincidence. He feels like his game hasn't changed at all. Now he's just finding plays and shots going in more frequently.

"I really do. I had a good game in Calgary points-wise, I felt like my game was there, feel one of my best games was playing with 'Steener' and I think 'Vladi' in Vancouver (on Oct. 18). I'm trying to build and keep building and make sure even when the legs sometimes aren't 100 percent there, the puck making decision, everything is there and playing the right way.

"It's nice for sure. I think coming back here, I knew I would have some good opportunities, just knowing Hitch, knowing the staff, how much he pushed to get me back also. I think I could feel that from the start of free agency there when we started talking. It was a natural for me to come back. I got older, your game started to come together a little more. I was always trying to play that way, even back then and maybe you come in at 19 and people see a certain way and it's tough to change a perspective on a guy even if he's trying to do the right thing at all times. I'm trying to do that, keep improving and certainly I think we have the type of coaches and leaders in this room to make sure everyone's on board to play the right way. Obviously Hitch is never going to go away from that, so we've got to be on board and we are on board with that."

Perron is in a situation now where the Blues are winning and expected to win. That wasn't always the case when he was first here when the Blues were experiencing some lean years in the mid-to-late 2000's when he was on board and reaching the playoffs was not within reason.

He helped get that rebuild off the ground before seeing it through. Now he's glad to be back trying to push St. Louis over the top.

"I got traded a couple times since those years and I don't mean that negatively, but I still don't accept the trade," Perron said. "I wish I had been here all those years. I just know there's a business side of things and I'm just happy that I get a second chance here. Not everyone gets a second shot at something that you like or a place that you like, whatever it is. I'm fortunate for that. I'm happy and I'm glad it worked out. We had different options, but certainly this was one of the tops ones out there and I'm glad I came here.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Not only is David Perron (57) scoring for the Blues, but he's playing the kind
of 200-foot game coach Ken Hitchcock is looking for to make him effective.

"... I know it's different because as you get older, the experience of everything comes together. Sometime, it's just letting go of a mistake more easily. It's also letting go of a good performance quicker and move onto the next game, so that you don't get caught up in, 'Oh, I had a great game.' You want to turn the page as soon as you can on any kind of performance so that you can regroup, refocus and get back to work either in practice the next day or whatever it is that you need to do to get prepared for your next opportunity."

Perron is getting his opportunities often these days, and it's been a shot in the arm for the Blues, who have won six of seven since an 8-4 loss Nov. 12 at Columbus.

"He's come in and done a tremendous job for us, carried a lot of weight, a lot of responsibility and has been playing really well," Steen said.

Lately, playing with Schwartz and Paul Stastny has given the Blues a formidable No. 1 line.

"I think our line is finding a way to find chances on most shifts, and the shifts that we don't get chances we make sure we play defensively and that's the staple that needs to make sure it's there every shift," Perron said.

Music to Ken 'Play a 200-foot game' Hitchcock's ears.