Monday, January 26, 2015

(1-27-15) BLUES NOTEBOOK

Spitfires retire Ott's No. 14; no decision from 
Brodeur; Blues back to work; Hitch on Deflategate 

By LOU KORAC
HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- Even though many of his teammates chose warmer temperatures with plenty of sun and fun, veteran Blues winger Steve Ott had a better offer.

Ott had to bring along a winter coat, perhaps some gloves and a sock hat or two, but a chance to go back in time was too good to pass up.

The 32-year-old Ott was on hand Sunday night having his No. 14 retired by the Windsor Spitfires, the junior team in the Ontario Hockey League in which Ott played for from 1999-2002.

Ott received a call from Spitfires owner/head coach Bob Boughner, who played 12 seasons in the NHL for six teams (Buffalo, Nashville, Pittsburgh, Calgary, Carolina and Colorado), about the possibility of doing it over the NHL All-Star break.

There was no hesitation.

"(Boughner) called and filled me in on what they were going to do and asked if I had any All-Star break plans," Ott said. "I said I would be more than honored let alone humbled to have that opportunity."

Ott, who had 116 goals and 121 assists in 174 career regular seasons games, and New Jersey Devils winger Adam Henrique, who also had his number retired, took part in a ceremony at the WFCU Centre.

"It was really neat," said Ott, who had 50 goals, 87 points and was a plus-40 during the 2000-01 season. "They were a first-class organization when I played for them, let alone after two Memorial Cups. The presentation that they put on for my family and my friends, let alone the fans in attendance, it was a really special night for us. It's an individual accomplishment, but to be honest with you, it was more of an accomplishment for all the people that helped me up to that point and I'm just very thankful for that opportunity back then."

Before being drafted in 1999, Ott made a call to then-general manager Mike Kelly, with a nudge from Ott's father Butch. It turned out to be the best call he made. 

The Spitfires, who had Ott on their draft board but not high, took Ott in the second round after he blew them away with a phone call.

"The people that really had a big influence on the situation back then, kind of turning me into from a junior player into a player for that next level, at the time, you don't realize how thankful you are," Ott said. "You just kind of swing by it and 15 years later, you're looking at your junior career and years after. 

"It's completely unexpected in the sense of that if you ask all of us about junior hockey, we all absolutely loved it."

Ott has gone on to a successful NHL career. He was a first-round pick of the Dallas Stars in 2000 and has since played for Buffalo and the Blues.

"Obviously that banner's going to be hanging there forever," Ott said of his No. 14. "Knowing how big and proud kind of community we have back home, it's special because going back there and bringing my kids or my cousins, nephews and they get to look up at that, it's really humbling."

Ott, who has a summer home in Windsor, said his Spitfires teams made it as far as the Western Conference Final. It was his only regret of not winning a Memorial Cup, but ... 

"It's the highlight of my career to this point. Hopefully one day, I can bring a Stanley Cup back to that town as well," Ott said.

* Clock ticking on Brodeur -- The news post All-Star break on goalie Martin Brodeur is ... status quo.

At least for the time being.

Brodeur, who took a leave of absence to decide his future, still hasn't decided if he wants to return to the team as the No. 3 goalie, retire and take a position in the Blues' front office or with another organization (likely the New Jersey Devils), or if he wants to give it a go with another team.

The 42-year-old Brodeur, who went 3-3-0 with a 2.87 goals-against average and .899 save percentage with one shutout, gave the Blues what they needed while All-Star goalie Brian Elliott recovered from a knee sprain.

The Blues, specifically general manager Doug Armstrong and coach Ken Hitchcock, wait for the decision, which the team would like to know prior to starting up play again.

"I don't know. To kind of be honest with you, I'm out of the loop," Hitchcock said when asked about it. "Doug said if when and if Marty makes a decision, he's going to let me know. To show how far out of the loop I am, I'm Marty's neighbor and I don't even know what's going on. I'm not exactly sure what's going on there and Doug said I'm on a need-to-know basis. He's not here, and we wish that he was here, but I'm sure that he's got some career-decisions that he's trying to balance.

"No it's nothing to do with us. It's 100 percent on Marty. Marty wanted time off to think about things so we felt as an organization, he came in and helped us at a real delicate, critical time. We owe him that, so we said, 'Sure, take your time. It's a big decision. Whatever you want to do, go ahead and do.'"

Brodeur's teammates continue to support whatever decision he makes.

"Whatever happens with that, hopefully there's some decisions that make us a better team," captain David Backes said. "I don't know what that is, but that's a management and coaching staff decision. As far as having him in the locker room and practice every day, he sets a great example at 42 for having accomplished really everything there is to accomplish in the sport." 

* Back to work -- After six days to allow the physical and mental state of mind unwind and get away from hockey during the All-Star break, the Blues were back at work Monday afternoon at the Ice Zone inside St. Louis Outlet Mall for practice in preparation for the final 36 games.

The Blues (29-13-4), who ended the break on a 7-0-1 run and playing their best hockey of the season, will kick off their second-half schedule with the last of a seven-game homestand against the Nashville Predators in the first of what will be nine games in 15 days.

Having Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday to practice while most of the league gets underway Tuesday could prove to be beneficial.

"Like I said to the players, we're the team with time," Hitchcock said. "We've got to take advantage of the time we've got because there's 22 teams playing (Tuesday), I think we're maybe one of two or three teams that are not playing in the first two days, so this is our quality practice time. When we start up, we play nine in 15 nights. We are going to have to really get on the floorboard with the pedal right away because we're going to be behind everybody in games and playing catch-up a little bit. These quality practices that we're going to have to get in are important and I thought we had great focus today.

"The break was good. The coach got away from the players, players got away from the coach so it all worked out. We'll get a full load tomorrow. We were missing the three all-stars (Elliott, Kevin Shattenkirk and Vladimir Tarasenko). They didn't have to skate today, so they'll get the full load. Everybody's healthy. We went easy on 'Osh' today. We just put him out for the first session to make sure that he's 100 percent to practice and play at the same time. "

The Blues split practice up in two sessions. The first included T.J. Oshie, who practiced for the first time since injuring himself blocking a shot Jan. 13 against Edmonton. Oshie hasn't missed a game but has skipped the practice sessions.

"We had really good energy," Hitchcock said. "We had good focus and I would say we lasted 40 minutes, which wasn't bad. We didn't get to 60. We scaled the second phase of practice back because we felt like with the tempo that we were going at, we were seeing the effects of having too much sand in between our toes instead of in our socks. We got 40 minutes, so definitely tomorrow, we hope to get the full 50."

Nevertheless, the break came at a good time for the players to refresh and get re-energized even though the train was rolling at high speed before the break.

"We got that break, I think we used it well," Backes said. "We came back today, snapped it around and tried to get that sharpness back to our game. It's not going to be there today, hopefully it will be a little better tomorrow and even better Wednesday and hopefully have a full effect on Thursday.

"It was a chance to recoup and re-energize, but now it's getting back into that sort of mindset of how hard it is to win, how hard it is to play the right way and the sacrifice it takes to win games. That's our next focus and getting that sharpness back in our game. That's why we had two sessions today."

The Blues open with the Predators, then fly East to play Carolina on Friday and at Washington on Sunday afternoon, so it will be like playing three games in three and a half days.

"This is really detailed stuff. Today we put a lot of checking detail in at the end of practice," Hitchcock said. "Tomorrow, three of the first four drills are nothing but details. They're either offensive or checking details that need to be part of our game when we get running. Like I said to the players, man this is an opportunity that you just can't pass up because we get three quality practices with good health and good energy. We ought to take advantage of it, so one day in the books; we did a good job. Tomorrow will even be better from an execution standpoint, and if they keep the energy up and increase the execution, then we're starting to move forward on the things we need to get better at. 

"This is really the dialed-up phase. This is the phase where everybody can see light at the end of the tunnel, there's a real race going to happen now. You're going to have two races going on. You're going to have this race that is for the top spot, and you're going to have this race to get into the playoffs. You're going to be looking at a lot of individual playoff games. We've got to be ready for it."

Hitchcock was pleased with the team game prior to the break and would love nothing more than to see the players recapture it.

"Good play before the break came from great focus, great energy and I think really strong leadership," he said. "We expect that to stay the same, but I think you can't dismiss great leadership and great focus. They go hand in hand. I thought we were focused because what we demanded of each other. This came 95 percent from the playoffs. They wouldn't let anybody get too far ahead, they wouldn't let themselves get too far ahead and it led to good play. I thought at the end of the break, we were one of the most focused teams in the league and we want that to be our starting point when we come back."

* Deflategate spills onto ice -- With the subject of the New England Patriots and deflating footballs is on everyone's minds and all over the news, one local reporter decided to gauge Hitchcock's opinion on the matter.

Before the question was asked, Hitchcock was ready: "Please tell me you're not going to talk about deflatable footballs," he joked.

But Hitchcock was indeed talkative about the subject and was asked if anything of sort has happened in hockey.

"I was talking to people about that. Yeah, worse ... way worse," said Hitchcock, talking about his coaching days in junior and midget hockey. "Competitive advantage was the norm ... every day. And there was no strong guidelines set, so you did whatever you could do to gain a competitive advantage. If that meant finding another place in gas for somebody's bus, or painting a locker room or putting sand on the bench or turning up the heat in the locker room that happened to go from 60 to 90, you did whatever you could. The rules needed to get changed because quite frankly, it was getting out of control. So whatever's going on with these inflatable footballs is nothing compared to what I saw and witnessed. I was a perimeter participant on it at times."

Hitchcock thinks the whole matter in the NFL is a big deal but overblown.  

"It is, but it was 45-7. Like, come on," he said. "I don't care if you're throwing a frisbee, it's 45-7 and that's a helluva football team with a helluva coach and a helluva quarterback. You've got to give them that. 

"If they're thinking in that way, then that might be illegal but that's pretty sharp. But I don't know if you can think that far ahead. For us in the competitive environment and witnessing what's going on, I think you've got to follow the rules and the rules are a lot more strict than they used to be. But you can't dismiss the fact that it was 45-7."

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Elliott gets call for All-Star Game

Blues goalie replaces injured Bobrovsky, joins teammates Shattenkirk, Tarasenko

By LOU KORAC
ST. LOUIS -- An injury to Columbus Blue Jackets goalie Sergei Bobrovsky opened a door for Blues goalie Brian Elliott.

Elliott, who missed roughly five weeks with a knee sprain, was headed for a vacation with many of his Blues teammates before his plans were re-routed.

Elliott is headed to Columbus instead, and will participate in the 2015 NHL All-Star Game.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Blues goalie Brian Elliott will be making his second All-Star appearance
after being named a replacement on Thursday. 

The NHL made the announcement Thursday afternoon that Elliott will replace Bobrovsky, who sustained a lower-body injury during a 4-0 loss at Winnipeg on Wednesday.

Elliott, who will join teammates Kevin Shattenkirk and Vladimir Tarasenko this weekend, will be making his second career All-Star appearance (2012) and joins Jacques Plante (1969, 1970) and Glenn Hall (1968, 1969, 1970) as the only goalies in franchise history to earn multiple All-Star selections as a Blue.

After Monday's 3-1 victory against the Colorado Avalanche, Elliott went into the All-Star break with the top goals-against average in the NHL (1.86) and is fourth in save percentage (.930). He is 13-5-2 with three shutouts in 22 games this season.

He talked about getting away and enjoying the time off. 

So much for that thought after Elliott seemed to be shaking the injury time off and getting back into a groove.

"We'll get a good break and fuel up for the stretch," Elliott said. "... Just take the positives from it, get refreshed, try to comeback even better.

"We've got a workout plan (during the break). You try to enjoy it as much as possible, try to get away from the game as much as possible but also be prepared to comeback and work hard. Maybe I'll juggle some stuff while on vacation."

All-Star festivities will begin with the skills competition on Saturday at 6 p.m., and culminate with the NHL All-Star Game on Sunday at 4 p.m. at Nationwide Arena

In four seasons, Elliott's .684 win percentage (68-29-9) and 19 shutouts rank second overall in franchise history, and while his 1.86 goals against average and .927 save percentage are both League bests in that stretch.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Blues stay red-hot with 3-1 win against Avalanche

Steen, Backes, Oshie remain on fire with four 
points; St. Louis is 7-0-1 in past eight, 5-0-1 on homestand

By LOU KORAC
ST. LOUIS -- Maybe the All-Star break isn't coming at a good time for the St. Louis Blues.

With the Blues playing the way they are these days, it might not be a good idea to break the momentum built off of arguably the best hockey they've played all season. Players and coach Ken Hitchcock agreed Monday was their best game of the year.

Alexander Steen, T.J. Oshie and David Backes, who account for the Blues' top line, combined for four points against the Colorado Avalanche in a 3-1 victory at Scottrade Center on Monday.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
The Blues' Alexander Steen (20) extended his point streak to 10 games
with two assists in a 3-1 victory against Colorado on Monday night.

"We finished off the right way for sure," said left wing Jaden Schwartz, who had a goal and an assist. The Blues are 12-0-1 in the past 13 games Schwartz has played in and have outscored their opponents 60-27.

"We're happy with how the homestand went," Schwartz added. "Everyone's ready for a little time off to refresh the body and recharge for a big second half."

"Sometimes when you're playing well like we are now, you want to keep going, but the break's going to be nice," defenseman Barret Jackman said. "Going down the stretch mentally and physically, get prepared for the battle.

"The last six or seven games, this has been our best hockey. I think we've been getting contributions from a lot of different people. I think everybody's in sync right now. The forwards are battling and making a lot of smart decisions, getting pucks deep and they're back-checking is making it easy for the D-men to step up and make our transition game pretty deadly."

Steen had two assists to extend his point streak to 10 games (seven goals, 12 assists). Oshie scored a goal and has 16 points in his past 12 games, and Backes had an assist to extend his point streak to seven games (seven goals, seven assists).

"We've been rolling and we wanted to keep it going," Steen said. "Tonight I think was probably our best game this year, from goalie out. Our 'D' I thought were the key to the game, joining the rush and quick plays out of our zone. All six of them were terrific."

The Steen-Backes-Oshie line has 53 points in the past 12 games and the Blues are 7-0-1 in their past eight and 5-0-1 during their seven-game homestand. They won't play again until Jan. 29 to close out the homestand against the Nashville Predators. The eight-game point streak is a season-best.

"I think the break's at a good time," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said. "I think for us, we have to pour a lot into it. A lot of physical labor has to go into the way we play; we need a break. What we do out of the break is important because we play nine games in 15 days and we play significant opponents. Look at the teams we've got right out of the break; that's a four-point game [against the Predators]. We know that the games are going to be important. 

"I think these guys getting away ... we'll get refocused. We've got three full days to get ready to play [starting Monday, Jan. 26]. That's plenty of time. We don't need three full practices to get ready to play; we need two. Our guys will know how to take care of themselves, they're mature. But I think right now with the way we have to play to win, we need a break."

Goalie Brian Elliott made 17 saves and the Blues (29-13-4) finish the season 4-1-0 against Colorado. 

Elliott has lowered his league-leading goals-against average to 1.86 and his save percentage is fourth in the NHL at .930.

"Just take the positive from (the break), enjoy it and get refreshed," Elliott said. "Try to come back even better.

"... We had a good homestand, (now) a good break and we'll fuel up for the stretch."

The Avalanche (19-18-10), who finished a five-game road trip 1-2-2, got a goal from Matt Duchene. Semyon Varlamov made 27 saves.

With the game tied 1-1, Schwartz put the Blues ahead 32 seconds into the second period with a power play goal. Steen gave Schwartz a drop pass in the slot, and his slap shot was blocked by Avalanche defenseman Erik Johnson, which came back to Schwartz, who put the rebound into an open net.

"It was a great play by [Steen] entering the zone there," Schwartz said. "Just tried to find an open spot in the slot and kind of a lucky bounce came back to me and Varlamov was cheating for the first shot, so it felt good when it went in."

Oshie gave St. Louis a 3-1 lead after the Blues' top line and top defensive pairing (Jay Bouwmeester and Alex Pietrangelo) had a lengthy amount of time in the Colorado zone. Steen passed to Backes, whose slap shot from the slot was stopped by Varlamov, but Oshie was on the doorstep for a goal 10:40 into the second period.

The goal epitomized the Blues' period of dominance and play of the top line.

"That goal is every offensive principle that we practice every day, is in that goal," Hitchcock said. "Our positioning, our full-zone activity, everything we wanted to do and everything we practice every day, pregame skates, our practices, that's the concept that we want to see and we put it in. There's five passes with a shot with traffic. We spread them out in the zone; it's exactly what we practice every day.

"... I thought the second period was the best we've played all year. Really managed the game well in the first period, played Blues hockey in the second where we just played defense by staying on our toes."

Defenseman Carl Gunnarsson's second goal of the season and first in 21 games gave the Blues a 1-0 lead after his slap shot from above the blue line deflected off Avalanche forward Alex Tanguay in the slot and past Varlamov 8:06 into the first period.

The Avalanche tied the game 1-1 after Gunnarsson lost control of the puck, and Duchene's blind backhand pass in the slot caromed off Paul Stastny's stick and past Elliott at 13:02 of the first period.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
The Blues' T.J. Oshie (left) tries to get past Colorado's Brad Stuart during a
3-1 St. Louis victory Monday night. Oshie scored the Blues' third goal.

The Blues are an NHL-best plus-37 in goal differential, they're playing at a high level in all three zones, and with this recent stretch of games, have pulled within two points of first-place Nashville in the Central Division. 

"This is about as good as it gets," Schwartz said. "We're playing really good systems, good team game right now. Everyone's involved. It seems like we've got a new hero every night. They're fun games to play in. We're controlling a lot of the game as well. Definitely a good feeling going into the break."

"We've been rolling a little bit lately and wanted to keep it going," Steen said. "Tonight I thought was probably our best game of the year from goalie out." 

(1-19-15) Avalanche-Blues Gameday Lineup

By LOU KORAC
ST. LOUIS -- The Blues know that after their game Monday against the Colorado Avalanche (7 p.m. on NBCSN, KMOX 1120-AM), they won't play another game until Jan. 29, or 10 days, following the NHL All-Star break.

The Blues (28-13-4) remember the last time they played the Avalanche (19-17-10) before a break. It was their last game before Christmas, and Colorado thoroughly dominated a 5-0 victory at Pepsi Center, leaving that nasty feeling of arguably the Blues' worst loss of the season for four days.

"We don't want to fall into that trap again," Blues defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk said. "A game that we really just let get away from us and I think it's a lesson learned hopefully tonight when we go out there and we remember what that felt like. It was pretty embarrassing to get trounced like that. We especially don't want that to happen in our building."

The Blues are 4-0-1 during a seven-game homestand and are focused more on the task at hand than getting a week off before resuming practice on Jan. 26.

"It doesn't matter if (the break) is good timing or bad timing," said captain David Backes, who will play in his 613th career game and tie Al MacInnis for 8th on the all-time franchise list. "We've got one task to finish before we get there, and that's a good two points tonight against Colorado. We've seen that they can lay it on us if we don't bring our 'A' game. 

"Before the last break we had for Christmas, we played them and it wasn't very pretty. Maybe you guys can stop talking about a break and talk about the game tonight, stay focused on it, get two points and then you can call me about the break all you want."

Games will be played Tuesday and Wednesday, so the Blues will get a head start on their mini vacation for a couple days ahead of some teams, and most will take advantage of the extra time by getting away from St. Louis.

Backes is making the nine-hour drive to the Minneapolis area, while Maxim Lapierre is headed off to Orlando for some rest and relaxation.

"No, I don't worry about it," Hitchcock said. "I worry about it when they come back. That's my job. I'm going to need a break from them, they're going to need a break from me. It'll be good for everybody. It's how you take care of yourself in the break. It's the mental and physical rest that's going to be important, but then you don't want to get too far away from it. I'll do the worrying back on the 26th when we practice, but I think the break will do us good as long as we stay in the moment right now.

"A lot of teams don't get their break until even Thursday; some teams are playing Wednesday, so we got these extra two days and we decided, 'Let's take advantage of it. Let's give them a longer break and then lets work a little bit harder when they come back.'"

And what will Hitchcock be doing during his time off?

"I'm getting away from you guys," he joked. "It'll feel real good. Not talking for a few days will feel real good."

With players being off for so long, does the coach have to worry about players indulging during the time off?

"I leave that in my strength and conditioning coach's well-healed hand (Nelson Ayotte) and God help them if they do," Hitchcock joked.

The Blues just want to end on a strong note before resuming on the 29th against Central Division-leading Nashville.

"It's very important," Shattenkirk said. "It's a division opponent, a team that is below us in the standings and we don't want to let them gain those two points on us. I think they've been playing a lot better lately as far as their team goes. They always seem to play a pretty hard game against us too. We always have some chippy games against them and we can't really get caught up in that because when we do, we start to take too many penalties and allow their top players to get power play time and that's when they start to really take off as a team."

- - -

Hitchcock tinkered with his lines again Monday.

He switched Jaden Schwartz and Patrik Berglund, putting Berglund with Jori Lehtera and Vladimir Tarasenko and Schwartz with Paul Stastny and Dmitrij Jaskin, who will return to the lineup after being a healthy scratch for two games.

Hitchcock called it an "experiment," and with T.J. Oshie (ankle/foot) taking another morning skate off (he will play), it enabled the coach to work on some things.

Of course, he made no guarantee that the changes will stick.

"You put the words right there, if it holds up tonight ... if it starts tonight," Hitchcock  said. "I wouldn't read too much into the lineup right now; we'll see. We wanted to see how it looked today. With Osh not taking skates and just playing in the games, it affords us to experiment a little bit. It's looking for now, looking for the future. 

"We'd like to be able to spread out the wealth a little bit. We don't want to interrupt the twosomes. Jaskin played great against Colorado, so we want to get him back in up and running, get him back healthy again and going. I think in the next 10 games or so, we're going to certainly try and put these lines and try them at some period of time. Whether it's tonight or not, whether I risk it tonight, we'll see."

What does Hitchcock get out of seeing different things with line combinations at the morning skate

"Puck movement, chemistry," Hitchcock said. "Whether there's automatic chemistry ... I think when you have automatic chemistry, you see it right away. You can see it in skates, you can see it in puck movement, you can see it in little drills you do, reading off each other. If you see it right away, it usually locks in."

Jaskin will replace Joakim Lindstrom in the lineup, and the two games off gave him a couple days to step back and regroup.

Or did it?

"No, we wanted him to go forward a little harder," Hitchcock said. "I think one of the problems with a young player is you have to play so hard and you have to play so physical to stay in the lineup ... his game is based on physicality, it's not just knocking people off the puck. It's protecting the puck, it's being strong on the puck. Sometimes when a  player gets a little bit comfortable, you start to lose what kept you in the lineup. 

"This is a reset for him. We know we're going to go through these stages with him. The way he has to play as a young player is not going to be the way  he's going to play two years from now. He's going to be able to do things naturally, but to stay in the lineup, he's got to play physical, he's got to be hard on the forecheck, he's got to almost play like a role player. We know at the end of the day, he's going to end up a top six, but right now, there's no room for that, so he's got to find a different way to play. When he plays the way he's capable of, he's very effective."

Tarasenko, who blocked a shot off the back of his leg towards the end of the game Saturday, is fine and will play.

- - -

Stastny is not only asserting himself on the scoresheet, he's also been dominating in the faceoff dot.

After winning 13 of 15 on Saturday in a 3-0 win against Toronto, Stastny is third in the NHL (58.1 percent) behind Montreal's Manny Malhotra and Boston's Patrice Bergeron.

Stastny downplayed the feat.

"I've had some better ones, but that was pretty good," he said of his 91 percent efficiency mark Saturday. "You always want to bear down because at any point on the game, faceoffs can dictate a scoring chance for that shift."

His coach was impressed.

"To win 13 out of 15, you've got to win a lot on the right side," Hitchcock said. "He won as many on the right side as he did on the left. That's special. To win them on your non-natural side is special. He's done a great job. I'm comfortable and if you look at the game and it was 1-0, I had him taking a lot of right side faceoffs because he was winning so many, especially in our own zone. To be able to win them on that side of the ice is really helpful for us because now you can put the line out there and not really worry about whether the guy's on his natural side or you've got to put a second center out there or whatever. He can take them and win them there."

- - -

The Blues' seven-game homestand, which will come to a conclusion when they return from the All-Star break to take on the Predators, used this opportunity to gain some ground on their divisional opponents.

Although the feat has been tough with the play of Nashville, Chicago and even Winnipeg, they have taken nine of a possible 10 points thus far.

"It's been pretty good," Backes said. "We've taken steps every game regardless of who the opponent is, we've seemed to bring our game. It hasn't been perfect, but we're making progress and that's what we've said we need to do every game. This homestand's been a good stretch for us."

With the Blackhawks falling back some, the Blues are two points clear of both Chicago and Winnipeg and four points behind Nashville in a cluttered division that has every team over .500.

"It would be a great accomplishment because coming into this homestand, we knew that we had a chance to catch some teams here with this homestand," Shattenkirk said. "You see Chicago drop a couple games; everyone's going to have their little dips in the season. It's a matter of really managing them and making sure that they don't last too long. We were able to turn things around quickly and come home and play some great hockey. It's important that we get these two and when we look back at it in a month or two, we're going to realize how important it was."

- - -

The Blues head into the game Monday with an NHL-best plus-35 goal differential.

They're second in goals scored behind Tampa Bay with 145.

"I don't even know what you're talking about to tell you the truth," Backes said. "That's great. We're even tonight. So far, it's 0-0 and we've got another team to beat. They don't take some of those goals  and put them on the scoresheet before the game starts tonight. For me, that stuff's really irrelevant. Some statistician can come up with some haiku for you that's phenomenal. For me, it's 0-0 and we've got a task to do tonight."

- - -

The Blues' probable lineup:

Alexander Steen-David Backes-T.J. Oshie

Patrik Berglund-Jori Lehtera-Vladimir Tarasenko

Jaden Schwartz-Paul Stastny-Dmitrij Jaskin

Steve Ott-Maxim Lapierre-Ryan Reaves

Jay Bouwmeester-Alex Pietrangelo

Carl Gunnarsson-Kevin Shattenkirk

Barret Jackman-Ian Cole

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

Healthy scratches include Martin Brodeur, Joakim Lindstrom and Chris Butler. Chris Porter (ankle) is out indefinitely.

- - -

The Avalanche's probable lineup:

Alex Tanguay-Matt Duchene-Jarome Iginla

Gabriel Landeskog-Ryan O'Reilly-Nathan MacKinnon

Maxime Talbot-Marc-Andre Cliche-Daniel Briere

Cody McLeod-John Mitchell-Dennis Everberg

Jan Hejda-Erik Johnson

Brad Stuart-Nick Holden

Nate Guenin-Tyson Barrie

Semyon Varlamov will start in goal. Calvin Pickard will be the backup. 

Zach Redmond will be a healthy scratch. Ryan Wilson (shoulder), Jamie McGinn (back), Patrick Bordeleau (knee), Jesse Winchester (concussion) and Borna Rendulic (broken leg) are out indefinitely.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Blues' top line leading by example

Steen, Backes, Oshie making noise offensively; 
the defense is the underlying story in recent weeks

By LOU KORAC
ST. LOUIS -- It's difficult to imagine the offensive run that the Blues' top line of Alexander Steen, David Backes and T.J. Oshie has put together.

Since the Blues' post-Christmas schedule, all three have been red-hot. They've put up 49 points in 11 games, or an average of 4.45 points per game.

It's the kind of production the Blues (28-13-4), who close out their schedule Monday against the Colorado Avalanche before a lengthy 10-day reprieve for the All-Star break, need from the guys they put in important situations, guys that will play in the upper teens in minutes per night and even 20 minutes or more.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
The Blues' Alexander Steen (20) is part of the team's top line that has
been producing on both the offensive and defensive side of the ice. 

But consider this when dissecting what Steen, Backes and Oshie have meant to the Blues: not only are they producing offensively, which is difficult in itself, they're asked to shut down or neutralize the opposition's top line.

Consider the players they've had to face and what they've done to them in even-strength situations:

Dec. 27 vs. Dallas, held Jamie Benn-Tyler Seguin-Colton Sceviour line to zero points.

Dec. 29 vs. Colorado, held Maxime Talbot-Matt Duchene-Nathan MacKinnon line to zero points.

Dec. 30 at Nashville, held Filip Forsberg-Mike Ribeiro-Craig Smith line to zero points.

Jan. 2 at Anaheim, held Devante Smith-Pelly-Ryan Getzlaf-Corey Perry line to zero points.

Jan. 3 at San Jose, held Patrick Marleau-Logan Couture-Tommy Wingels line to zero points.

Jan. 6 at Arizona, held Mikkel Boedker-Antoine Vermette-Shane Doan line to zero points.

Jan. 8 vs. San Jose, held Melker Karlsson-Logan Couture-Joe Pavelski line to one goal.

Jan. 10 vs. Carolina, held Eric Staal-Jordan Staal-Elias Lindholm line to one goal.

Jan. 13 vs. Edmonton, held Taylor Hall-Ryan Nugent-Hopkins-Jordan Eberle line to zero points.

Jan. 15 vs. Detroit, held Henrik Zetterberg-Pavel Datsyuk-Justin Abdelkader line to zero points.

And this past Saturday vs. Toronto, held James van Riemsdyk-Tyler Bozak-Phil Kessel line to zero points.

So in the past 11 games, not only has the line produced 49 points and helped the Blues to the best plus-minus differential in the NHL (+35) through the games Sunday, but it's held 11 opponents' top line to a total of two goals and without a point in nine of 11.

Perhaps there is more pride in that department than in what Steen, Backes and Oshie have been able to do at the offensive end.

"I don't know if I look at it that way," said Steen, who has a nine-game point streak (seven goals, eight assists). "It's just playing the game. You want to outwork the other line anyway, it doesn't matter who it is. Lately, I think we've been working hard, that's been the key. All three of us have been down low in our zone, been down low first guy on the forecheck in their zone. It's been a pleasure playing with those two."

The chemistry and camaraderie is quite evident when they step onto the ice. It's been a combination that's worked in the past, and coach Ken Hitchcock finally said enough was enough with trying them with different components. It's best to leave what's best alone.

"I would say the word is 'necessary.' That's the way we've decided to build the team," Hitchcock said. "They have to be productive. They don't have to check the other team, they've got to outplay the other line. That's the risk. When you put three good players like that together, that's the risk you've got to win. You've got to win that (matchup) because if they just check the opposition and draw even, it doesn't help us. They're good players that play the game the right way. They trust their checking, which is how they again got chances (Saturday), lots of them. And when you trust your checking and you've got good players who can finish, hopefully you're going to end up on the right side of things. When we put these three guys together, they've got buy into that and they've pretty much bought into it now."

When players that lead by example are going in the right direction, it's hard for the rest of the team to not follow suit.

"They step up," Blues defensemen Alex Pietrangelo said of the group. "They’re the leaders of this team up front for a reason. They step up on big occasions. When we need them to score a goal or make a defensive play, they’re always there for us.

"Their checking is creating that offense. The odd man rushes, the opportunities in the other zone. We’re out there quite a bit and we see how easy it is for us to stay in the offensive zone when they’re creating turnovers the way they are. The way they forecheck, it’s going to make the defense be on their heels."

Steen is a plus-7 on the season, but he's plus-8 since Dec. 27; Backes is plus-4 on the season but plus-10 since Dec. 27 and Oshie is plus-10 on the season and plus-10 since Dec. 27. It's safe to say better defense leads to better and more offense, and the three have grasped it firmly these days from the early games in the season.

"I don't think they were checking," Hitchcock said. "I think they were wrapped up in trying to create offense because that's kind of what we trying ... we spent too much time talking about offense. They were trying to help the team by trying to score more and in the end, we were getting less. Then when they started to manage the game properly, they're a terrific line when they play predictable to each other. They look faster when they play that way, they are faster, and you've got to have a real disciplined group of five to play against them because they're willing to work for that one good chance and not give you very much in the meantime."

Backes is on a six-game point streak and has seven goals and six assists (13 of his 32 points on the season), and Oshie has points in nine of the past 11 games (seven goals, eight assists). He has 27 points on the season.

"I think we were maybe satisfied with trying to play a defensive role and just sit on our heels and try to check someone off the scoresheet rather than putting up numbers ourselves," Backes said. "We've gotten back to playing defense by playing in the offensive zone, keeping people on their heels by being a threat and that's really been effective for us."

The fact that they weren't playing together on a line had something to do with the inconsistent play among them, but all three can agree that they do what's best together.

"I just think we're really playing unselfish," Oshie said. "That doesn't just mean passing the puck to the other guys. It means doing a lot of the little things that are hard to do on a consistent basis. A lot of little things like puck placement, backchecking, covering for the guy, when a guy makes a mistake, backing him up. I think it's just adding up to positive offensive play and positive defensive play.

"We weren't playing together (early in the season), but I feel like before, we were over-backchecking, we were over-forechecking, we were trying to make too many plays. It was getting a little frustrating. Steener was still doing a pretty good job, but me and Backes just weren't really getting the offense. I think lately once we got back together, we got back to the little things. When the other two guys are doing the little things right, it makes the game a lot easier, you don't get as tired, it's not as much backchecking."

With the game on the line and the Blues leading by the slimmest of margins (1-0)Saturday, it was the Steen-Backes-Oshie line which took the game over and helped the Blues secure the two points.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Blues captain David Backes (42) pursues Detroit's Justin Abdelkader in a
recent game at Scottrade Center.

There's just a good sense that the Blues, who are 6-0-1 in the past seven games and 4-0-1 during their seven-game homestand, know when the trio decides when it can and will take a game over.

"My feeling is, with their work ethic, if they stay with it, it's going to turn out fine," Hitchcock said. "As long as they stay with it. Then at the end of the day, we all get rewarded. The team gets rewarded and they get their personal rewards, which is necessary ... because they're not like a third line. A third line in the hockey before was a checking line. They might be 25-30 point players. These guys are productive players that just have to outplay the other team's top group."

And recently, that's been exactly what the Blues have received.

"I think we just work hard and read off each other," said Steen, who has 38 points in 43 games, "and the rest kind of takes care of itself."

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Elliott, top line help Blues blank Leafs 3-0

Steen, Backes, Oshie lead offense with combined five points

By LOU KORAC
ST. LOUIS -- Brian Elliott was extremely busy in the first period Saturday against the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Maybe it was exactly what the Blues goalie needed, because once the Blues settled in, the game eased up for Elliott, and he was on top of his game.

Elliott made 27 saves for his 28th NHL shutout and the Blues defeated the Maple Leafs 3-0 at Scottrade Center.

Elliott, who leads the NHL with a 1.90 goals-against average and is fourth with a .929 save percentage, faced 15 of his 27 shots in the first period.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Brian Elliott (1) makes one of his 27 saves on Toronto's Daniel Winnik in a
3-0 shutout victory by the Blues against the Maple Leafs on Saturday night.

After sustaining a knee sprain Nov. 25 against the Ottawa Senators that sidelined Elliott for roughly five weeks, he's played in seven games and looked like the Elliott of old for the first time, according to his coach.

"I thought he had a lot of work to do," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said of Elliott. "This is, for me, the best he's played; not just because he got a shutout, but this is the best he's played since coming back from the injury for sure. He had work today because we gave up odd-man rushes. We don't normally do that, but we gave up some. They were interesting odd-man rushes because that's the first time in a long time where we played a team that was able to create turnovers in their own zone that led to odd-man rushes. He had some saves he had to make today."

Elliott challenged shooters, and his rebound control was obvious from the first save.

"I just wanted to kind of take the no prisoners approach," Elliott said. "Just go out there and worry about my own game and everybody else takes care of the rest outside of me, and I was able to do that."

Elliott has 19 shutouts with the Blues, one less than the franchise record held by Jaroslav Halak. He received help from the top line of Alexander Steen, David Backes and T.J. Oshie, which combined for five points. Steen led the way with a goal and an assist, Backes had two assists and Oshie scored a goal. The line has 49 points in the past 11 games and the line held Toronto's line of Tyler Bozak, Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk to six shots.

"They step up," Blues defensemen Alex Pietrangelo said of the group. "They’re the leaders of this team up front for a reason. They step up on big occasions. When we need them to score a goal or make a defensive play, they’re always there for us.

"Their checking is creating that offense. The odd man rushes, the opportunities in the other zone. We’re out there quite a bit and we see how easy it is for us to stay in the offensive zone when they’re creating turnovers the way they are. The way they forecheck, it’s going to make the defense be on their heels."

Elliott, in his teammates' minds, also stepped up.

"'Moose' was real solid in the net, I thought," Steen said. "Our 'D' played really well tonight as a corps."

"We’ve had no questions inside this room," Pietrangelo said of Elliott. "We know what he can do. Tonight’s a prime example. Outstanding performance by him. 

"I thought we did a great job, too, as a group eliminating second chance opportunities. He’s pushing pucks where they can’t get them and we’re clearing in front of the net. It’s a good overall effort defensively."

Kevin Shattenkirk also scored for the Blues (28-13-4), who are 6-0-1 in their past seven games and moved two points ahead of the Chicago Blackhawks for second place in the Central Division.

The Blues have outscored the opposition 33-13 in the seven games. They are 4-0-1 during a seven-game homestand. It was the first meeting between the two teams since the trade that sent Roman Polak to the maple Leafs for Carl Gunnarsson and a 2014 fourth-round pick.

Hitchcock moved into sole possession of fifth place on the NHL all-time wins list with 685. He passed Pat Quinn on Saturday.

The Maple Leafs (22-21-3) went 0-4-0 on their four-game trip and were outscored 12-1. They are 1-5-0 since replacing Randy Carlyle with interim coach Peter Horachek.

Toronto has been shut out five times this season and in three of the four games on its road trip. The Maple Leafs have scored one goal in the past 241:13.

Goalie Jonathan Bernier made 30 saves and lost his third straight start and fifth in six games.

Shattenkirk's eighth goal of the season came off when he split two players, then backhanded a shot that went off the stick of Toronto forward James van Riemsdyk, off Bernier's glove and inside the near post with 3:20 remaining in the first period to give St. Louis a 1-0 lead.

The goal was Shattenkirk's 39th point, tops among NHL defensemen. Mark Giordano of the Calgary Flames had 37 points prior to facing the San Jose Sharks on Saturday.

It was a strong finish to the first period by the Blues, who outshot the Maple Leafs 7-1 after being down 14-6 for much of the period.

Steen, a former Maple Leaf, gave the Blues a 2-0 lead 1:38 into the third period when he waited out Bernier before lifting a backhander high into the net. 

"He’s extremely patient as a goalie, and doesn’t really bite on a lot of stuff," Steen said of Bernier. "I was just trying to wait as long as I could."
(St. Louis Blues photo)
T.J. Oshie (left) and Ian Cole (right) celebrate a goal scored by Alexander
Steen (middle) on Saturday night. The Blues blanked Toronto 3-0.

Oshie made it 3-0 when he converted Steen's pass on 2-on-1, beating Bernier with a wrist shot from the slot with five minutes remaining.

The Blues tightened up the defense and helped Elliott post his second shutout of the season and the team's fifth.

"I thought the second half of the second period and then as we ground down the game in the third, I thought we really started to get on top of our game and start to play really well there in the third," Hitchcock said. "[Toronto] poured a lot into it too early. They really wanted these points badly. They poured a lot into it and it forced us to really compete at a high level. 

"I didn't think we were at the level we needed to be at the start of the hockey game on our 1-on-1 puck battles, but as the game went on, I thought we got better and better with it."

(1-17-15) Maple Leafs-Blues Gameday Lineup

By LOU KORAC
ST. LOUIS -- When teams consummate a trade, the thought is that teams are hopeful that it will work out for both teams.

In the case of the Blues and Toronto Maple Leafs, it appears -- at least at the outset -- that both teams are satisfied with the trade that sent defenseman Roman Polak to Toronto for fellow defenseman Carl Gunnarsson and a 2014 fourth-round pick, which the Blues used to select Finnish goalie Ville Husso. The trade was completed at the 2014 NHL Draft.

The trade will come full circle Saturday when the Maple Leafs (22-20-3) end a four-game trip against the Blues (27-13-4) at 6 p.m. today (FS-MW, KMOX 1120-AM).

For Gunnarsson, who spent the first five seasons of his NHL career with Toronto and had 15 goals and 86 points in 306 regular-season games, he's getting into the swing of things with his new team.

Gunnarsson, 28, has missed two separate stints totaling 17 games with the Blues. He missed seven at the start of the season recovering from off-season hip surgery, then missed 10 games after sustaining a concussion Dec. 6 against the New York Islanders.

"I don't think the surroundings or system's been the problem," said Gunnarsson, who has one goal and six points in 27 games with St. Louis. "I think it's been me coming back and coming back from injuries, being in game shape. It now feels good from the concussion to come back for whatever games we've played and it's been good."

For the 28-year-old Polak, who spent the first eight seasons of his NHL career with St. Louis and had 13 goals and 79 points in 424 games, he's established a career-high in goals (five) and gets to play a more prominent role with the Maple Leafs playing on the first and second defensive unit. In St. Louis, he was regularly on the third unit.

"I can join the rush a little bit," said Polak, who missed 10 games with an ankle injury. "Actually, all the goals I scored was from joining the rush.

"It's kind of weird feeling being on the other side of the rink. It's the first time for me here, [eight] years to be on the other side. It's different, but it's going to be an exciting game tonight."

Most players tend to downplay the revenge factor and that they get a little more juice to face the team that traded them. Deep down, it matters.

"Sure, but we look at it like any other game and not get too emotional about it," Gunnarsson said. "Just try and play your game, go out there and after 60 minutes, hope you have those two points. It's going to be special, so you try and get that out of your head a little bit."

Gunnarsson said he got to spend some time with some of his former Leafs teammates. Polak, on the other hand, not so much, even though he has a plethora of friends among the Blues.

He joked, "I tried to, but I guess the guys don't like me anymore. Everybody was busy. I don't know what's going on there."

Polak's former Blues teammates are thrilled to see him back again, but admit it will be different.

"The guy's a beast. He's a close friend on the team here,"  former D-partner Barret Jackman said. "We had a lot of fun together. it's going to be tough seeing him in a Maple Leafs jersey with that heavy shot coming towards me instead of away from me.

"I can speak from (Toronto's) perspective. I know Roman is unbelievable. You know exactly what you're going to get from him every night. He's big, strong, physical on the ice. He's actually got pretty quick feet for a big man. Carl adds a little different dynamic. He's really good at eluding checks. He's been really good for Shatty as well."

David Backes was one of Polak's closest friends here in St. Louis.

"Romy's a good friend of mine. It's tough not to have his character in the room," Backes said. "We'll get a chance to run each other over a couple times, I'm sure.

"You're good friends, but once you're on opposite teams, you're going to lay it all on the line and there's a little bragging rights on the line too. Good, clean, hard battle on the line and we'll shake hands afterwards. ... We've fired it up (at practice before). He's an ox of a man. I've tried to hold my own, too."

Gunnarsson was back on familiar ground with media attention Saturday. He joked that it's an element that he "missed."

"I can probably count the interviews on one hand since I got here," he joked. "That's been the biggest difference.

"It's going to be a little bit different, I guess, but I try to see it as any other game. It's is going to be a little bit weird being on the other side of former teammates and guys that have been there as long as I was. I'll just try to forget about that and play your game."

- - -

Polak, who was best friends with Vladimir Sobotka, talks with Sobotka on a regular basis, whether texts, Skype or Facebook.

Polak said Sobotka loves it in the Kontinental Hockey League, where he's playing for Avangard Omsk.

"Sobe's doing pretty good. He's happy there. He's happy in the KHL," Polak said. I talk to him once in a while. He's happy."

Sobotka has eight goals and 36 points in 48 games. He signed a four-year contract to play in the KHL after rejecting the Blues' arbitration offer of one year and $2.7 million.

Sobotka, who has hinted through reports that a return to the NHL is something he desires, was confirmed by Polak. 

"I hope so, we still talking about it," Polak said. "... All the time here, he was like an underrated player. Basically we talk every week chatting on the messages, Facebook, Skype, whatever. We're still in touch."

However, Polak didn't want to talk about whether Sobotka would return to the Blues, which leads one to believe that he wouldn't. But the Blues own his NHL rights until he completes his arbitration contract.

- - -

T.J. Oshie, who did not participate in the morning skate, will play, according to coach Ken Hitchcock. 

Oshie blocked a shot in a 4-2 victory against the Edmonton Oilers on Tuesday and played Thursday against the Detroit Red Wings despite being questionable. 

Dmitrij Jaskin, who Hitchcock hinted on Friday might play, looks like the odd player out.

Alexander Steen, a former Maple Leaf, is riding a career-best eight-game point streak (six goals, eight assists). Backes is on a five-game point streak (seven goals, four assists). Backes had a hat trick in the teams' last meeting, a 5-3 Blues victory last season.

- - -

The Blues' projected lineup:

Alexander Steen-David Backes-T.J. Oshie

Jaden Schwartz-Jori Lehtera-Vladimir Tarasenko

Joakim Lindstrom-Paul Stastny-Patrik Berglund

Steve Ott-Maxim Lapierre-Ryan Reaves

Jay Bouwmeester-Alex Pietrangelo

Carl Gunnarsson-Kevin Shattenkirk

Barret Jackman-Ian Cole

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

Healthy scratches include Dmitrij Jaskin, Chris Butler and Martin Brodeur. Chris Porter (ankle) is on injured reserve and out indefinitely.

- - -

The Maple Leafs' projected lineup:

Daniel Winnik-Tyler Bozak-Phil Kessel

James van Riemsdyk-Nazem Kadri-Mike Santorelli

Richard Panik-Trevor Smith-David Clarkson

Matt Frattin-Sam Carrick-David Booth

Dion Phaneuf-Cody Franson

Morgan Rielly-Roman Polak

Jake Gardiner-Stephane Robidas

Jonathan Bernier will start in goal. James Reimer will be the backup.

The healthy scratch will be Korbinian Holzer and Troy Bodie. Joffrey Lupul (lower body), Peter Holland (upper body) and Leo Komarov (upper body) are out with injuries.