Thursday, January 19, 2017

Allen's struggles continue in 7-3 loss to Capitals

Goalie pulled for third straight game, fourth in six; Blues fall for third straight time at Scottrade Center, fifth in six games here; Steen, Schwartz have three-point games

ST. LOUIS -- The Blues felt they saw enough from Jake Allen this past week to feel he's ready to take the cage again.

Allen had been pulled from his past two starts and three of the past five and watched Carter Hutton have two solid outings before he lost on Tuesday.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Blues goalie Jake Allen crosses paths with teammate Carter Hutton after
being pulled from Thursday's 7-3 loss to Washington.

As far as game action is concerned, nothing changed for Allen on Thursday; he was pulled for a third straight game after allowing four goals on 10 shots, and the blazing-hot Washington Capitals feasted on the Blues and their shoddy goaltending in a 7-3 victory, sending St. Louis to their third straight home loss and fifth in the past six at Scottrade Center.

In the past three starts, Allen has allowed 10 goals on 36 shots and has a .722 save percentage, and in losing three straight at Scottrade Center, the Blues (23-18-5) have allowed 18 goals, or six per game. 

"I don't know how far it sets him back, but everything we needed to see we saw at practice," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said of Allen. "There's a lot going on right now. There's a lot in his head. He's kind of locked up mentally and he's going to have to fight through this. It's like any athlete, he's going to have to fight through this. What we see at practice, we like. That's why we put him in quite frankly. 

"We know right now we're going to need way better just to be competitive. They know that, we know that. Beating it up any more isn't going to do us any good, but we've got to get him unlocked. He's just locked right up. If we can get help him get unlocked, then that's what you do. That's part of coaching. Nobody anticipated this. Nobody on our team, nobody in our city anticipated this, but we've got it and we're going to have to figure it out because there's no help wagon coming. We're going to have to do this ourselves to figure it out. He's going to have to figure it out to make himself stronger, and we're going to have to figure it out how we can help him, but right now, he's locked up."

Players refuse to lay blame on strictly goaltending.

"This is a team. There’s no individuals," Blues captain Alex Pietrangelo said, not pointing fingers directly at the goaltending. "This is a team. It’s got to come from in this locker room. It’s a collective effort. Right now, it needs to be better."

The Capitals, 10-0-2 in their past 12 games, got goals from seven different players and chased Allen twice from the game. It was the second straight game that Washington scored seven goals; the Capitals lost to the Pittsburgh Penguins 8-7 in overtime Monday.

Allen allowed two goals on three shots in the first 7:41 of the game and was replaced by Hutton for 2:22; he re-entered the game and departed again after allowing his fourth goal to Brett Connolly 7:33 into the second that made it 4-1. It was the third straight start Allen was pulled from.

T.J. Oshie and Evgeny Kuznetzov each had a goal and an assist, and Andre Burakovsky, Jay Beagle, Marcus Johansson and Justin Williams also scored for the Capitals (30-9-6). Braden Holtby made 22 saves.

The Capitals have scored five or more goals in five straight games and in eight of the past 11.

Alexander Steen had two goals and an assist, and Jaden Schwartz had a goal and two assists. Hutton allowed three goals on eight shots, and now combined with Allen, the Blues are last in the NHL in save percentage at .878, and they're 26th in goals allowed at 3.07.

Players won't admit it, but when their last line of defense continues to spring leaks, there becomes a trust factor with the skaters on the ice, and when that happens, it tends to overcompensate things in other areas.

"I think one of the things that happens when you're not trusting yourself defensively is that you overwork from the red-line in and you underwork from the red-line back," Hitchcock said. "And I think that's the one thing we've been guilty of. We're overworking, we're trying to keep pucks in, we're forcing a lot of things to try to keep it from coming into our end and then when it is, we don't have the energy to play defense. If you look at three of the goals today, they were scored in the slot with time. Bizarre things, people losing sticks, trying to stay on the forecheck, trying to not let it come in, somebody falling down on a simple 1-on-1. A lot of it is because we're just trying everything we can to not get scored on, or shots on goal. One of the things we're doing that's not helping us is we're trying to throw the big bombs from the red-line in. We're just flat overworking and not allowing ourselves to be patient in our positional play from the red-line back."

Burakovsky scored at 5:37 of the first period to make it 1-0 from a bad angle that got through Allen, and by allowing the first goal again, it marked the eighth straight game in which the Blues have allowed the first goal on home ice, which forces their hand at playing catch-up hockey.

"You never want to see a guy struggle like that," said Holtby, who improved to 5-0 in his career against the Blues. "He's not going to break down. He'll be back on the top of his game. As a fellow player/goalie, you want to win, but you don't want to see mental struggles like his."

But when Beagle made it 2-0 at 7:41 on a shot from the slot after Carl Gunnarsson lost the race and puck battle behind the Blues' net to Tom Wilson, Allen was pulled for Hutton, who made one save before re-entering with 9:57 remaining in the period.

And it was a period the Blues, who had 20 shot attempts to the Capitals' nine, were the better team.

"First period's the best period we've played in a long time," Hitchcock said. "Outstanding. Every aspect of it was everything we wanted. And ... the goals go in and then you start pressing."

Schwartz cut the Washington lead to 2-1, 19 seconds into the second in a seemingly harmless wrister through traffic, including Steen in front, but Oshie scored at 3:57  off a passing play after Patrik Berglund lost his stick in the offensive zone, tried to get to the bench to retrieve another one instead of simply getting another forward on the ice and was late in coverage. Robert Bortuzzo poke-checked Ovechkin, but Nicklas Backstrom found Oshie in the slot and he made it 3-1 before Connolly chased Allen with a breakaway goal after Gunnarsson fell down trying to retreat into position after an outlet pass off the boards, and Hutton was promptly greeted 11 seconds later with Johansson's goal from the slot after Berglund lost it in the zone after he fell down.

The goals came at 7:33 and 7:44 to make it 5-1.

"There's not much I can say other than we have to go to value ... if we continue to play the way we did until the fourth goal goes in, we've got to be happy with that," Hitchcock said. "It's a good team we played against, but it went south when it went to 4-1."

Williams added a power-play goal at 13:30 of the second to make it 6-1 on a shot from the slot, giving the Capitals, who had 18 shots and seven goals for the game, six goals on 16 shots through two periods.

Kuznetzov made it 7-1 at 6:20 of the third period, but Steen scored at 10:00 to make it 7-2, and again at 16:25 to make it 7-3.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Blues captain Alex Pietrangelo, being chased by the Capitals' Daniel
Winnik, said the Blues need more from everyone after 7-3 loss.

The Blues, who don't have any options right now other than to perhaps recall a goalie from the Chicago Wolves, have to find a solution, and do so fast. With Nashville's 4-3 win at Calgary on Thursday, the Predators trail the Blues by just two points for that important third place position in the division.

"This is the NHL; we're in for points," Hitchcock said. "We've got to figure what our next step is, but first we've got to get the unlocking going on. We've got to get that figured out."

"We can't really put the finger on one specific thing," defenseman Colton Parayko said. "Obviously giving up seven, there's more than one thing. I think it's a collective effort and it's something we're going to have to figure out here if we want to turn this around and become a contender."

(1-19-17) Capitals-Blues Gameday Lineup

ST. LOUIS -- If the Blues want to get back on the ball and have their attention focused in the right direction, there should be no other team than tonight's opponent that will get the Blues' radar on high alert.

The Washington Capitals, 9-0-2 their past 11 games, come in with a 29-9-6 overall mark and make their only visit to Scottrade Center (7 p.m.; FS-MW, KMOX 1120-AM).

The Blues (23-17-5) are coming off a discouraging 6-4 loss to the Ottawa Senators, a game in which was there to be had, but the Blues, who had won their previous two games, lost it in the third period after winning back-to-back games at San Jose and Anaheim.

But it seems that when the Blues get matched against some of the best teams in the NHL, they tend to bring their best game.

"If you look at the games we've played well against over this last stretch, it's against teams you know you have to play well against or you're not going to stand a chance," defenseman Jay Bouwmeester said. "Obviously tonight, we know who these guys are, so hopefully that's the case. I think that's been a little bit of our problem, too, those games against teams you maybe don't know as well like Ottawa, a team like Carolina that comes in here ... you don't want to say you take them lightly but you're not as kind of on as when you play a team like Chicago or San Jose or someone we know so well."

"They're playing the best of any team in the league right now," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said of the Capitals. "To think we're going to come in here and outscore them is unrealistic, but our 'A' game, for two of the last three games, we've had our 'A' game and our 'A' game can beat anybody. That's our attitude. If we can play our 'A' game, it's a lot different than Pittsburgh's or Washington's or anybody else's. Our 'A' game has got a strong dynamic and if we can play that way, we can beat anybody."

The Capitals are coming off a run-and-gun 8-7 overtime loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins on Monday.

"It sure is fun to watch," Bouwmeester said with a grin. "Coaches are having nightmares. Sometimes you like those if you're on the right side of things. Both of those teams have a lot of skill and a lot of firepower. If you let them run, that's what happens."

The Capitals are averaging 4.36 goals per game during their 11-game point streak while only allowing 1.91.

"And they've been beating really good teams handily," defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk said. "I think even that game against Pittsburgh the other day, it was a wild game and that's what you have to expect out of them. No lead for us is going to be safe against them especially if we're not playing the right way. They're a team that can score two, three goals in a matter of minutes. Every shift is going to be focused on and fun. These are games where we don't see this team too often, but these games grab your attention and focused to play their best game."

Hitchcock called the Caps-Pens game "fun, as long as it's on TV and you're not standing behind the bench. It's a little bit like a guy jumping off a 10-story building. So far, so good and then oops, I might hit the ground. That's what it felt like." 

- - -

The Blues will turn back to Jake Allen in goal after Carter Hutton started the past three games.

Allen has been pulled in three of his past five starts, including a 5-1 loss to the Los Angeles Kings last Thursday.

"I think we've made the conscious decision to go with him," Hitchcock said of Allen. "He needed a break mentally and physically. We needed to get some things adjusted and like any other young guy, you get a chance to work on those things and you've just got to live with. So regardless of what happens, we just live with it. We really think he's going to take some steps in the right direction. That's part of making the decision to go with a young guys, give him the ball and let him run with it.

"There's just some things technically that we want to see him get a little bit better at and we saw those in the last two practices," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said. "If we didn't see that, quite frankly, we wouldn't have played him. We wouldn't put him out there until we see those things. But we saw them and I think our confidence that they're going to really impact the way he plays and get back to where he was in the first 20 games, we think he's capable of doing that."

The Blues will do everything in their power to help Allen gain his confidence back.

"The thing we did well for Carter over the weekend was we did a tremendous job of getting pucks out of our zone quickly," Shattenkirk said. "I think that helps any goalie when you're not seeing 1) Grade A chances, and 2) we're making possession plays out of our zone and we're keeping it out of there quickly. I think this is a team that we're facing that produces a lot of offense and they're going to produce a lot of scoring chances. We're going to have to be on top of our game. They're not chances that Jake just has to worry about, they're chances that every goalie in the league has problems with. We have to make sure we're ready for those because they're dynamic offensively, but if we can hold them pretty tight, they're going to give us a bunch on the other end."

- - -

The Blues want to get right wing Vladimir Tarasenko going. 

Tarasenko, who is still on a point per game clip with 45 in 45 games, hasn't scored the past five games, the second-longest stretch of the season (he had gone seven games earlier this season). Hitchcock will implement Dmitrij Jaskin on the left wing with Jori Lehtera.

"We need to be consistently a better checking team and create more space for ourselves in zone," Hitchcock said. "Our feeling in playing Jaskin is in four of the last five games he's played awful well and he's created space for whoever he plays with. We had this line together in the last Washington game (a 4-3 loss on Nov. 23) and it was a very good line for us, probably our best line. When we started watching the tape, it just tweaked us in saying, 'We need the line that 'Vladi' plays on to be a better line for us and this gives it an opportunity to have a little bit different type of onset where it can maybe control the puck a little bit more in the offensive zone rather than just be a rush-attack line.

"Ninety-one, quite frankly is getting checked to death and other people are responsible for creating the space for him. He's trying to play against four guys right now and we need more participants in order to help him." 

- - -

The Blues have shuffled their defensive deck again, putting Bouwmeester back with Alex Pietrangelo, moving Carl Gunnarsson, who's missed seven games (six because of a lower-body injury and the last one as a healthy scratch) back in and taking Joel Edmundson out for the first time in 21 games.

"Looking back on 'Petro,' he's gone from minus-12 to minus-4," Hitchcock said. "So he's been plus-8, which is very significant, so we're not afraid to go back on that. We just feel like ... we're not looking at just this game, we're looking at the next four games before the break and we feel like we're going to have defined matchups in order to be successful. We've got some really significant opponents coming up and we need some great matchups and we feel like 19 and 27 are going to have to carry the ball."

And from that perspective, looking for more consistency.

"That's kind of been the theme here for a while is to be more consistent," Bouwmeester said. "You go back, you had a good finish to that road trip and come back and those games, for whatever reason, sometimes they're hard where you have a lapse or whatever. We still had a chance to win the game the other night, but it just got away from us. Now we try to grab that momentum back. It's little steps right now. The team that's coming in here, they're a real good team. You've got to have your best game against them no matter what. Focus on that, hopefully have everyone on the same page and away you go."

Edmundson has played the past 20 games and gets to sit back and hit the proverbial reset button.

"More alert," Hitchcock said. "Young guy on the learning curve and we just ... we need him to be a little more alert, so hopefully this is like anything else with these guys, it's a reset and get right back in it and get going again."

- - -

Capitals right wing T.J. Oshie returns for the second time after being traded in the summer of 2015. 

Oshie, whose dad Tim is on the trip for the Capitals' annual dad's trip, spent the evening Wednesday with former teammates Barret Jackman, Ryan Reaves, Patrik Berglund and Jaden Schwartz.

"It's little weird still," said Oshie, who has 15 goals and 13 assists in 36 games. "It's been a while, but always great coming back and seeing good friends. I've got a lot of good friends over there. I had some dinner with them last night and go out there and battle them tonight.

"I was over at Jax's house last night. A couple of the boys come over, 'Revo,' 'Shwizz' and 'Bergy.' 

"... I imagine it will always be a little awkward being on this side, but after you get that first one out of the way, you settle down a little bit and it's fun to come back."

Oshie, who was traded for Troy Brouwer and Pheonix Copley, said he'll make sure he doesn't get too close to Reaves.

"I'm going to steer clear of Revo," Oshie joked. "You can bet a lot of money on that."

- - -

Center Paul Stastny has seven points (four goals, three assists) the past seven games.

Right wing Alexander Steen has nine points (three goals, six assists) the past eight games.

Berglund has 10 goals in 15 games after starting the season with one in 30.

Left wing Scottie Upshall returns after being a healthy scratch the past three games, and Nail Yakupov will be scratched for the first time in seven.

- - - 

The Blues' projected lineup:

Jaden Schwartz-Paul Stastny-Alexander Steen

Robby Fabbri-Patrik Berglund-David Perron

Dmitrij Jaskin-Jori Lehtera-Vladimir Tarasenko

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 Joel Edmundson. The Blues report no injuries. 

- - -

The Capitals' projected lineup:

Alex Ovechkin-Nicklas Backstrom-T.J. Oshie

Marcus Johansson-Evgeny Kuznetsov-Justin Williams

Brett Connolly-Lars Eller-Andre Burakovsky

Daniel Winnik-Jay Beagle-Tom Wilson

Karl Alzner-Matt Niskanen

Brooks Orpik-Dmitry Orlov

Taylor Chorney-Nate Schmidt

Braden Holtby will start in goal; Philipp Grubauer will be the backup.

The Capitals report no healthy scratches. John Carlson (lower body) is day-to-day.

Blues can't find element of consistency

Fail to build off two straight wins on West Coast, now 
have to face red-hot Capitals; Tarasenko in scoring funk

ST. LOUIS -- When the Blues typically go on a West Coast trip, it involves playing big teams with a heavy presence.

That means getting accustomed to a certain style, one the Blues have known quite well the past handful of seasons or so under coach Ken Hitchcock. So when they finally felt like they had a pulse on something, a winning streak -- albeit a modest two-game streak -- that perhaps had the Blues on the verge of putting together a string of wins, became a reminder of what has been the past month and a half: consistency, followed by inconsistency, rinse and repeat.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Blues defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk (right) battles Ottawa's Chris Kelly
for a loose puck on Tuesday in a 6-4 loss to the Senators.

This is who the Blues (23-17-5) are these days after returning home, where they have been dominant. But in losing 6-4 to the Ottawa Senators, a game certainly there for the taking, the Blues find themselves going back to the drawing board with a plethora of questions.

The Senators came in with a different brand of hockey, one which involved an element of speed, which the Blues have maintained that they've tried to incorporate into their game more so this season, with what Hitchcock called a team that checks hard.

But what led to the Blues allowing five or more goals for the ninth time in 45 games (they only did it eight times all season last year) was glaring mistakes again, ones the Blues say normally wind up in their back of their net.

"A few of those same mistakes like you say that we’ve been making, they play an interesting game in that they’re not as physical," Blues defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk said of the Senators. "We just came off the road against three physical teams. We’re used to guys finishing every check. These guys are a little more, not passive, but they keep their speed. They kind of cheat on the pass instead of taking the body first. That sort of anticipation was what broke up a lot of plays for them and allowed them to turn pucks over on us. Like you said, we did a lot of good things. I thought we possessed the puck really well in the offensive zone. We really seemed to manhandle them there. Not enough time doing it. We need a little more time doing that."

The Blues, who will entertain the red-hot Washington Capitals (29-9-6 and 9-0-1 their past 10 games) on Thursday, built momentum throughout this game even after falling behind 3-1. Given the way they were playing at that point, there was a sense that this was a game they could win, and after Shattenkirk scored with under a minute left in the second and Alexander Steen scored 1 minute, 35 seconds into the third, the game was there on a platter.

But then came the mistakes, four chances, including the fatal one by Jaden Schwartz after failing to clear a puck falling down, that led to Ottawa's go-ahead goal exactly one minute later and it was the "oh no" feeling again.

"I’d like to see us be more overwhelming for longer stretches of games than just periodically," Steen said. "We were generating chances all game. They got a few as well, though. We gave up some pucks in the neutral zone, and against a team that’s looking to just counter you, that’s tough."

Building off good play seems to be a real sticking point, and Tuesday was a perfect example.

The Blues, tied 1-1 at that point, had great, lengthy shifts in the Senators zone but scoring chances at the net were minimal at best. And instead of taking the game over there, they allow a couple fluky goals, including one by Bobby Ryan the Blues felt should have been whistled dead after goalie Carter Hutton had the puck pinned under his right skate, and now it's back to chasing hockey.

"We built a lot of momentum off of that," Hitchcock said. "We had some great shifts in the second and we've got to build momentum off that, but we didn't. The second goal was kind of fluky, and then the third goal allowed them to sit back more. They front pucks a lot, so we didn't get a lot through even though we had zone time. This is a frustrating loss to mount a comeback, to come all the way back like that, it's a frustrating loss right now."

As it should be, because the Blues are down to 37 games remaining and looking to gain some traction in the playoff race.

"It was tough," Shattenkirk said. "It definitely, like you said, it seemed like we worked to get the momentum back in the right way. That’s what we have to keep focusing on. We went down 4-3, we had some good chances after that. I wish I had a better play on that fifth goal. I kind of lose my guy there. But that was the bad breaker really. The 4-3 goal, it hurt but we’re still in the game there. We have the momentum and it’s just a tough game because I think when we look back on it and we wake up tomorrow, we’re going to feel like we had it. We played a pretty good game and again just some mistakes that bite us."

* NOTES -- Blues right wing Vladimir Tarasenko went without a goal again, the fifth straight game without one, which is the second-longest stretch without a goal this season after going seven straight Oct. 20-Nov. 3. And playing the past three games with Jori Lehtera and Nail Yakupov, it's been tough generating Tarasenko any scoring chances, and it's something Hitchcock and the coaches have noticed.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Blues right wing Vladimir Tarasenko (left) battles two Senators for a puck
Tuesday. Tarasenko has gone five games without a goal.

"He's not getting any chances," Hitchcock said. "He's not getting near enough chances either. Something we've got to talk about. Not scoring is one thing, but he's not getting any Grade A chances, he's not getting any quality chances, there's no second chances. That's something we've got to talk about how we construct things."

It wouldn't be a surprised in the least to see Tarasenko paired with different linemates against the Capitals.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Turnover costly for Blues in 6-4 loss to Senators

Early third-period giveaway by Schwartz breaks 3-3 tie; team 
returns home after winning two in a row in California, can't build on it

ST. LOUIS -- The Blues had just come off a West Coast trip winning two of three, reinvigorating hopes that they were about to go on a consistent winning run.

And even after falling behind to the Ottawa Senators by two goals in the second period despite playing well and occupying ample amounts of zone time, there was a sense the Blues would find a way on home ice.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Blues right wing Alexander Steen (20) tries to escape with the puck past
Ottawa defenseman Dion Phaneuf on Tuesday at Scottrade Center. 

They found a way, tied the game with a goal late in the second and early in the third, built up all the momentum, and then the dreaded mistake came, and that was that.

From the Senators' point of view, it was a fortuitous gift. From the Blues' view, it was an egregious turnover. Any way one cuts it, Senators right wing Mark Stone took advantage after the Blues had built all the momentum; he scored twice, including a tie-breaking goal early in the third period for the Senators in a deflating 6-4 win against the Blues at Scottrade Center on Tuesday. 

The Blues just overcame a 3-1 deficit and tied it 3-3 on Alexander Steen's goal 1 minute, 35 seconds into the third, but the Blues, as they've done too often when they don't need to, made an easy zone clear much too difficult. It was culminated by a Jaden Schwartz turnover that enabled the Senators to regain the lead on Stone's goal one minute later when his shot from the slot got past goalie Carter Hutton after Schwartz's final attempt to move the puck up the ice hit a stick and he fell down trying to make a backhand play again.

The Blues had a chance, according to coach Ken Hitchcock to clear the puck out of their zone three times, but Schwartz's turnover was the last straw.

"The fourth goal was a killer; it was a killer," Hitchcock said. "Had puck support there, left it, didn't clear it, had it on our stick three times. Forwards left the winger, turn it over and that's the game.

"... To come back after the trip we had, to come back and make it 3-3, have the momentum and give it back that quickly is disappointing. We weren't crisp with the puck, but we managed it well enough in the second period to build some momentum and that second goal gave us all the momentum and then to tie it up, then have two chances after that and then ... we just didn't manage the puck very well on the boards today. We weren't as determined and as effort-based on the boards as we were the two games previous."

The turnover is a microcosm of what's plagued the Blues over the past month and a half. When the Blues make the blatant mistake, it's in the back of their net.

"Jaden, I think, is one of our best guys on the wall, one of our best wingers, a guy that we always know we can count on," Blues defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk said. "He’s looking for the right play. The play is -- he has the time there -- hit the weakside D-man coming up on the far side. That’s where all the room is. That’s where the room is to skate. It hits a stick. We talk about execution a lot. That’s what we all need to do. There’s countless times during a game when that’s going to happen. It happened to be him tonight. It’s a tough one because like I said, when he gets the puck on the wall, we’re all pretty confident that he’s getting that puck out."

Mike Hoffman, the menace who created all the havoc that led to the Schwartz turnover, scored twice, Jean-Gabriel Pageau had a goal and an assist and Bobby Ryan scored for the Senators (23-15-4), who opened a three-game road trip. Mike Condon made 19 saves.

Steen and Shattenkirk each scored a goal and assist, and Paul Stastny and Patrik Berglund scored for St. Louis (23-17-5). Hutton made 18 saves for the Blues, who saw their two-game winning streak end.

"We have the momentum and it’s just a tough game because I think when we look back on it and we wake up tomorrow, we’re going to feel like we had it," Shattenkirk said. "We played a pretty good game and again just some mistakes that bite us."

The Senators took a 1-0 lead on Pageau's goal at 3:03 of the first period, the seventh straight home game in which the Blues have allowed the first goal. 

St. Louis tied it when Stastny redirected Jay Bouwmeester's shot past Condon four seconds after a Blues power play at 9:34 of the first period. 

The Blues had stretches of the second when they dominated zone time but didn't score. That would come back to bite them as Hoffman and Ryan scored goals 1:25 apart to make it 3-1.

Hoffman's power-play goal at 13:26 gave the Senators a 2-1 lead after Kyle Turris' one-timer from the left point that hit the backside of Robert Bortuzzo to Hoffman's stick in the right circle, and he made no mistake with an open side, and Ryan made it 3-1 at 14:51 with some controversy as the Blues felt that Hutton had covered the puck at the side of the net after Ryan Dzingel shoveled the puck at the net.

Hutton seemed to have his right skate on top of the puck and pad hovering on top of the puck, but referee Jake Brenk, on the opposite side of the ice in the opposite corner, never blew his whistle and Ryan came in and was able to get one last poke at the puck successfully to make it 3-1.

When Dzingel backhanded the puck towards the post, there was 5:15 remaining in the period. When the puck was ruled a goal, it came six seconds later, which the Blues were so dismayed why the whistle didn't blow.

"I felt I did (have the puck covered)," Hutton said. "We kind of had an argument in the third period about it. He came over to stake his claim he would have liked more pad coverage on it. I thought from his point of view, I don't know how he doesn't blow the whistle. I thought in the third there was a play where we generate the puck at the net and there's a quick whistle. It's frustrating. From his point of view, I don't see how there's not a whistle. There's not much else I can do. I'm trying to stay on the post as best I can and the guy pokes it in. What's done is done now."

Shattenkirk followed Brenk back up ice towards the officials scoring table.

"His explanation, we didn’t really agree with," Shattenkirk said. "I think he said that from his angle, it doesn’t look like Carter has the puck covered. Clearly on the replay it looks like he has his blocker over it. So it was something that I think we still don’t agree with. It’s a tough one. Again, it’s a turnover that leads to that and not putting pucks in the right places. That’s what that team does. They put that puck right back at your net within seconds."

Hitchcock made the opinions unanimous and felt Hutton had the puck covered.

"He had it. Something you'd probably like to talk to the officials about," Hitchcock said. "He said it was not reviewable, they declared it a goal. 'Hutts' said he had it in his pad, he did have it in his pad. Referee said he saw the puck."

But the Blues overcame the deficit, and Shattenkirk's goal with 45.6 seconds left in the second, a wobbly slap shot top shelf made it 3-2 and gave the Blues the life it needed.

And then Steen, who just came out of the penalty box after serving an offsetting minor with Derick Brassard, took Shattenkirk's pass and beat Condon from the slot to tie it 3-3, the Blues seemed destined.

"We had a chance to get it out twice and then the third time was the turnover, but on the third time, we didn't stay patient with the winger," Hitchcock said. "We left him."

"Yeah, obviously it’s disappointing," Steen said. "I think we could have overwhelmed them more throughout the game as opposed to… you know, we tie the game at 3-3 but it’s still… they’ve been getting their chances, we got our chances. I’d like to see us take control of the game a little bit more."
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Blues left wing Robby Fabbri (right) and Senators right wing Mike Hoffman
battle for a loose puck on Tuesday.

Even down 4-3, the Blues had chances to tie it, but Hoffman's goal, a one-timer from the high slot after a pass from behind the net from Pageau at 13:53, iced the game.

After Stone's empty-netter, Berglund scored his 10th goal in 15 games with 47.6 seconds left to make it 6-4.

"It was tough. It definitely, like you said, it seemed like we worked to get the momentum back in the right way," Shattenkirk said. "That’s what we have to keep focusing on. We went down 4-3, we had some good chances after that. I wish I had a better play on that fifth goal. I kind of lose my guy there. But that was the back-breaker really. The 4-3 goal, it hurt but we’re still in the game there. We have the momentum and it’s just a tough game because I think when we look back on it and we wake up tomorrow, we’re going to feel like we had it. We played a pretty good game and again just some mistakes that bite us."

(1-17-17) Senators-Blues Gameday Lineup

ST. LOUIS -- The Blues riding the hot hand, and that means Carter Hutton will get a third straight start when the Blues return to Scottrade Center for a quick two-game homestand beginning today against the Ottawa Senators (7 p.m.; FS-MW, KMOX 1120-AM).

Hutton, who has won four straight starts and is 4-0-2 in his last six starts (he's played in eight of the past 10 games) including back-to-back wins over the weekend in wins over San Jose (4-0) and Anaheim (2-1 in overtime), has stopped 45 of the past 46 shots.

"Personally my game, I feel like I've stood by myself the whole time," said Hutton, who is 6-5-2 on the season with a 2.53 goals-against average and .905 save percentage. "I don't think it's been as bad as it seems. ... I feel like I've been pretty confident. I stick by in what I've said (about) myself. At the same time, in this team I think in this dressing room have a lot of confidence in whoever's in net To be a successful team you have to have two goalies that play and for us we're just trying to get points now. Whether it's him or I playing, it doesn't matter, we're a team and we're going to stick in this together."

Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said Hutton deserves the net right now.

"He gives you a chance to win," Hitchcock said. "Your goaltending, especially on the road, has to make saves early, he did it in both games, especially the game in San Jose. The first five minutes they were on top of us pretty hard. He made three big saves, gave us a chance to engage in the game and we took it from there. When your goalie's giving you a chance to win and he's making saves early in the game, I think your whole team gets invigorated. It's a good sign for us."

That means Jake Allen, who has been pulled in his past two starts and three of the past five (one due to precaution because of injury), will continue to refocus and get his game back while working with goalie coach Jim Corsi.

"From a coaching standpoint, the big picture means 10:30 tonight," Hitchcock said jokingly. "Right now, whoever we feel is giving us a chance to win, we're going with. And when that runs dry, we'll go the other direction. Right now, 'Hutts' has played well, he's earned the right to keep playing and we'll continue to play him as long as he continues to play well. If we feel we need to go another direction, we'll go that way. Right now, in the second half of the season, this is about getting points and getting wins. 

"Tryout time is over. He's the guy that got two wins and we want to keep going with him and if he plays really well tonight then we'll look at that again. The time for giving a chance to people is over. You've got to earn your right to play and no matter where you were at the start of the year, no matter what your positioning was you have to earn the right to keep playing. Huts has earned that right to keep playing so we'll go with him. Jake is going to get his chance too and we hope he takes advantage of this off time. He's worked really hard with Jimmy in the technical aspects but then you just have to get in the net and start competing after a while."

But make no mistake, when the goalie makes saves, especially early on, it resonates throughout the team.

"He's seeing that the team needs it right now," Blues defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk said of Hutton. "In my mind, he's been playing well all year. The wins and losses may not indicate that, but he's been playing really solid for us. It's just been good to see him get rewarded now with the last couple games because he's made some big saves for us, he's had to come in a lot of tough games when we're down by a few goals and relieve Jake, but he's had a positive mindset every time he's come in and I think that's infectious in the team as well when we see a guy come in upbeat in the situation that we've been in the last couple weeks has been refreshing for us. More than anything, he's been working really hard and I think that's even better."

It's becoming a similar situation to what the Blues had with Allen and Brian Elliott the past couple seasons.

"We all know in here what it's like to have that sort of competition in the locker room," Shattenkirk said. "I think it's healthy for a team and I think those two guys don't hold anything against each other and we don't hold Jake accountable for really anything. He's someone we have total confidence in and we let him deal with it as he likes to. But for Carter to be playing well right now, it's a good push for him, it's a good way to kick him in the butt and get him going and I think that's something we've had here the last couple years with our goalies. That's what's made it so successful; it's such a big part of our team. It's what we've had throughout our lineup. Guys coming in and when you get taken out of the lineup, it might be a while before you get a chance to play again. That's good for any team in my mind."

- - -

Blues center Patrik Berglund is supplying offense for the Blues (23-16-5) at the right time, and in doing so, will also obtain a milestone tonight.

Berglund, who has nine goals the past 14 games -- including both goals Sunday at Anaheim -- after just one in 30 to begin the season, will play in his 600th NHL game, and all with the team that drafted him in the first round in 2006.

Berglund, who has 10 goals and seven assists in 44 games, has 138 goals and 141 assists in 599 games after the Blues chose him with the 25th pick, the same year they selected defenseman Erik Johnson No. 1 overall.

"That means a lot to me to be here nine years and playing 600 games with the same organization is a big thing for me for sure," Berglund said. "... For me, I think it's really cool that you've been playing that many games for the same team. Hopefully I can give many more."

Berglund's offense comes at a time when the Blues, who haven't had issues scoring for the most part, need contributions from all four lines, and getting scoring from the third line is extremely essential.

"It's a lot of fun to be on the scoresheet obviously," Berglund said. "I feel like I've just been playing the same way; it's just the puck has been bouncing in. Hopefully we can keep this going.

"... I've been around the net probably a bit more and the puck will be around there and chances will come. That's something that I've been focusing on too, to be around the net more obviously, so that's been a good thing."

Although Berglund doesn't feel like his game has changed, Hitchcock said it has.

"It's changed a lot," Hitchcock said. "What's changed is the consistent level. There's no drop off in the emotion of the game, he's consistently competing at a high level for the 60 minutes. There's no dropoff and that's why, quite frankly, if you look at his goals, a lot of them are late in the game. Third period scoring chances, the last one in overtime, he just stays with it longer now than he ever has and it's held him in good stead. He's been a real good player for us because he's stayed with it for an extended period of time. He has not gotten discouraged at all and that diligence and that work has made him a real good player for us right now."

Shattenkirk has been a teammate of Berglund's since 2011 and doesn't feel like it's been that long of a run for the Swede.

"No, it's whenever he talks about how many years he's been here and it seems like he's an old man," Shattenkirk joked. "One, for the most part, he's been able to stay healthy with the exception of last year and I think he plays a big, hard game, but we couldn't be happier. With the way he's been playing lately has been tremendous. He's been a huge boost to our team. Six-hundred is quite an accomplishment. In the old CBA, he'd be getting his own room now I think on the road and a pretty sweet jacket.

"... He's just playing confident. He's accepted his role. I think that with the way our centers shake out now, he's been kind of bumped around a little bit. Last year he was a little bit of a winger, a little bit of a center. He was kind of asked different things to do. This year, we ask him to just be a solid, solid center for us and I think he realized now he gets into some favorable matchups, especially offensively. You get a guy like (DavidPerron on his line, they possess the puck well and it wears teams down. We see him battle in corners, guys can't move him off the puck and when he feels that, I think he starts to get going and takes some chances and it usually pays off."

- - -

The Blues will try to make it three in a row for the first time since winning three straight from Nov. 26-Dec. 1. 

Back-to-back wins at San Jose and Anaheim on back-to-back days were a welcomed sight since it had been a month and a half since the Blues were able to string together two straight wins, and since teams behind them are pushing in the standings, it's essential to try and gain some separation.

"Going back to helping out each other, working for each other, good forechecks and also we're tracking back hard so we're helping the 'D' out so we can turn the game around on the opponents," Berglund said. "It's gritty play and the competition has been way better throughout the whole lineup and if you're going to win in this league, you've got to compete really hard. Especially the last two games, we've been doing that."

Hutton added: "It was a tough road trip. Obviously California, it's a lot of travel and a lot of good teams out there. We did a good job of taking two of three. Obviously great to be back home."

Even in the 5-1 loss to the Los Angeles Kings to begin the trip, the Blues felt like they started to turn the corner. 

"We really committed to our game," Shattenkirk said. "The LA game, we did some pretty well things in LA, but it seemed like every scoring chance they had against us they scored on and before we knew it, we were down by four goals. That's impossible to come back from against a team like that who's so good defensively. We went to the San Jose game with a really good mindset and with a working mindset. We had everyone committed to our game and I think once we saw that, we saw how successful we were against San Jose, one of the better teams in this league, I think it was a little eye-opening for us to say, 'Let's take this into Anaheim and see if we can do the same thing.' We were successful there, too.

"... We definitely focused on bringing a worker's mindset to both games and it was getting pucks in deep, it was simplifying and especially on the road, you have to do those types of things in pretty hostile environments. We knew we were playing against two teams that are also very good offensively. We stayed out of the box for the most part and didn't hand them any freebies. We came in with a little different mindset and were able to use that to our advantage."

But hitting the reset button was needed.

"Yeah, but we also started to do some really good things in that game, too," Berglund said. "We were actually talking about it and we carried that on to San Jose and kept it going in Anaheim. We did start to do some good things in LA game; it didn't turn out the way we wanted, but at least that was a little bit of a start but also we reset it as well. We brought some good stuff with us."

- - -

The Blues lost defenseman Brad Hunt, who was placed on waivers Monday, to the Nashville Predators, who made a claim.

Hunt had five points in nine games, including his only goal against the Predators on Dec. 13.

"Not really because he's such a good person and a good player," Hitchcock said when asked if it was disappointed to see Hunt go. "When you see a guy get an extended stay in the National Hockey League because he deserves it, it's good. Seeing him go to Nashville hurts a little bit but he's earned the right to play more games in the National Hockey League and I think everyone in that room is happy for him. He's a good person and he's a good player. We're deep there, obviously organizational-wise, and we wish him luck."

The move was necessary with the Blues holding seven healthy defensemen now that Carl Gunnarsson, who will be a healthy scratch tonight, back after missing the past six with a lower-body injury. And since the Blues kept Hunt on the roster for more than 30 days, waivers were required to try and get him back to the Chicago Wolves.

"He surprised me in preseason," Shattenkirk said of Hunt. "That's when I took a step back and said, 'Wow, this kid's good.' He came here and the best part about when he got here was he didn't change anything. He realized he was being extremely successful in the AHL because he was playing the way he knows how to play, and when he came here, I got to see it firsthand with him a bunch. He didn't change one bit of that and that's hard to do when you get called up. Offensive guys need to do that. They need to stay aggressive and obviously he had a good game there against Nashville and it paid off; it helps."

- - -

Center Paul Stastny has six points (three goals, three assists) the past six games.

Right wing Alexander Steen has two goals and five assists the past seven games. 

Left wing Jaden Schwartz has an assist in each of the past four games.

The Blues will stick with the same lineup, so left wing Scottie Upshall will be a healthy scratch for a third straight game and Dmitrij Jaskin stays on the fourth line.

- - -

The Blues' projected lineup:

Jaden Schwartz-Paul Stastny-Alexander Steen

Nail Yakupov-Jori Lehtera-Vladimir Tarasenko

Robby Fabbri-Patrik Berglund-David Perron

Dmitrij Jaskin-Kyle Brodziak-Ryan Reaves

Alex Pietrangelo-Colton Parayko

Jay Bouwmeester-Kevin Shattenkirk

Joel Edmundson-Robert Bortuzzo

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

Healthy scratches include Scottie Upshall and Carl Gunnarsson. The Blues report no injuries.

- - -

The Senators' projected lineup:

Zack Smith-Derick Brassard-Mark Stone

Ryan Dzingel-Kyle Turris-Bobby Ryan

Mike Hoffman-Jean-Gabriel Pageau-Tom Pyatt

Chris Kelly-Curtis Lazar-Chris Neil

Marc Methot-Erik Karlsson 

Dion Phaneuf-Cody Ceci 

Mark Borowiecki-Chris Wideman

Mike Condon will start in goal; Chris Driedger will be the backup.

The healthy scratch includes Fredrik Claesson. Andrew Hammond (ankle) and Clarke MacArthur (concussion) are out with injuries. Goalie Craig Anderson is out on personal leave attending to his wife Nicholle, who is battling cancer.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Allen vows to fix recent struggles

Goalie feels mentally strong, eager to work 
through issues on ice and be "backbone" for team 

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- Jake Allen walked out from behind a workout room for players only with a cast of media members awaiting his arrival in the Blues' locker room.

There was no hiding, no ducking away from any negative questions be was about to answer. Allen was ready to face the music. He's the No. 1 goalie of the Blues and with the good comes the bad.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Blues goalie Jake Allen is determined to straighten his
game out in the second half of the season.

Allen has been struggling, and it isn't just a run of the mill stretch where things have gone wrong, there have been up-and-down stretches in Allen's game throughout season. Early on in the season, it was on the road, much like the team in general. Lately, it hasn't mattered where; it's been there, and too often.

Allen, who does have 17 victories this season among his 17-10-3 record, but his 2.70 goals-against average and .902 save percentage, among goalies with at least 15 starts, is tied for 37th in save percentage and 28th in goals-against after a 2.35 GAA and sparkling .920 save percentage a season ago. Allen was pulled for the third time in five games Tuesday in a 5-3 loss to the Boston Bruins (once because of injury) and four times this season because of his play. 

Not exactly what the Blues were looking for when they handed the keys of the cage over to Allen, who gets a boost in pay after signing a four-year, $17.4 million extension last summer, after dismantling the 1A-1B combo with Brian Elliott.

"It's not going my way right now and I need to find a way to be the backbone of this team in here and give the boys a chance," said Allen, who became a first-time father on Friday. "I get a good opportunity this week." 

As the Blues (21-15-5) begin the second half of their schedule tonight against the Los Angeles Kings, whether he or Carter Hutton get the call from coach Ken Hitchcock in goal, Allen will continue to battle and fight through his struggles.

The mental part of a goalie's game is probably the biggest hurdle on a day-to-day basis, not the physical aspects. The goalie is the last line of defense, whether the team in front of him is playing well or poorly, and when the goalie feels like he's fighting his game, like Allen appears to be doing lately makes for a tough challenge.

But Allen has learned to keep an even-keeled attitude, good or bad, and this is why he feels he can come out of his first adversity in the NHL better and stronger than he was before.

"As soon as I leave that rink door, it's over," Allen said. "It's been my protocol my whole life, not since I've just been in the NHL. It's something I started when I was way back in midget triple-A, I had an old coach that told me to do it. I've done it ever since. I don't think about last night unless you go over it with (goalie coach) Jimmy (Corsi) to video, it's the only really time where you go back and say, 'Look, I could have done this or done that or etc., etc.' Once the game's done, it's completely done.

"You can't dwell on the negative and you can't keep leaning on the positive and saying, 'Oh, I did this well or I did that well.' You've got to move on. There's another game right away. I think it's a mindset that you have to have in professional sports, especially as a goaltender, it's crucial. It's something that I've been doing my whole life."

What's puzzling, and at times frustrating, for not only Allen but Blues management and coaches, is he's shown flashes of brilliance with an ability of carrying a team on his back.

And then there's the present, when teams feel like they have Allen figured out, and go out and execute and expose the flaws. It's going to be up to Allen to figure out how to counteract the opposition, but he won't be alone in doing so.

"Jake is like everybody else on our team, we've got to battle this thing together. It can be a real rallying tool if we use it the right way. He's got to rally and we've got to rally around him. So ... 

"I think it's up to Jake. He's going to have to forge a steeliness through this adversity he's going through and he's going to have come out on top. It's on him. We're going to help him along, but at the end of the day, this is what every goalie goes though, you have to dig out yourself. We'll help him along, but at the end of the day we need him to dig out."

"He's fine. ... We've got to find a way to take care of the puck, stop giving glorious chances," Blues defenseman Alex Pietrangelo said. "That's on us. We can't expect him to make every single save every single night. We're giving up really good opportunities, but when we're on our game, we're taking care of the puck and taking care of each other."

Added defenseman Colton Parayko: "I think it's a team game. We're in front of him and if we don't give him the opportunity to make the easy saves, we're making it extremely tough on him. Teams are getting tons of prime opportunities against every game. For a goalie, that's tough. It's something we shouldn't be doing as a team. In a sense, we're almost leaving him hanging out to dry, kind of. I think if we start playing the style we can in front of him, we'll be better."

Allen is only 26 years old, and he has a 74-36-10 career record with a 2.43 GAA and .912 save percentage, so he's shown the ability that he can win. But if he wants to be among the elite goalies of the NHL, it's up to Allen how he deals with the adverse situations and how he uses those experiences to make him a better player.

The Blues had the luxury of having both Allen and Elliott in the past, and whoever came out playing better would get the net. It was a luxury Hitchcock had at his disposal, but that buffer pad is not there anymore where the Blues could play whichever goalie was playing better. 

This is a new experience, and the Blues can only use Hutton for so long before they will need Allen to be who general manager Doug Armstrong thought he would be when he signed him to an extension.

Which is why Allen feels this particular attitude will help him prevail.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Blues goalie Jake Allen (left) makes a save in the Winter Classic on the
Blackhawks' Artem Anisimov at Busch Stadium.

"Don't ever doubt yourself," Allen said. "I got here for a reason. Just be confident in there and trust everything that you've done to get here is going to work. It's tough times right now, but definitely better days ahead.

"... Yeah, the game now, everyone's in great shape. It's not the physical part. It's more the mental grind if you can grind your way through it. Right now, I'm in that challenge and I've got to find a way to grind through it. I've always thought of myself as being a mentally strong, even-keeled person. I think this is where it's going to have to come through and I'm going to have to step up and do something about it. We get a couple teams to chase ahead of us, and we really need to make some ground here."

If Allen makes some ground, the Blues make some ground. Simple as that.


Blues need to pick up slack in second half, searching for 
consistency; Bortuzzo ready to return; Hitchcock undecided on goalie

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- Earlier this season, coach Ken Hitchcock said the goal for the Blues was 25 points in blocks of 20 games.

That's approximately breaking the season down into quarters, which would put the Blues at 100 points and a likely candidate to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The Blues hit that goal right on the mark after the first 20 games but as they finally head West for a three-game swing through California beginning with the Los Angeles Kings on Thursday, the Blues (21-15-5) have 47 points and are short of what they feel their target is.

"We're behind," Hitchcock said. "We're behind three points from where we should be so we're going to have to work hard because more road games than home games, we're going to have to work hard to get there. I think our point total is a direct reflection of our play. I think it's been inconsistent game by game, not so game by game but period by period. I think the five-man unit of hockey that we've become so well known for has been the inconsistent part of the game here and we have to find it."

Why is that?

"Because it's difficult. It's challenging to play that way," Hitchcock said. "It needs to be an all-in mentality. And if you have people that aren't dug in in that aspect or think keeping up is too hard to keep up, you're in trouble. That's what we've had. We've had some body language that, quite frankly, when it's getting really hard, we've had trouble keeping up."

The Blues went 11-6-3 the first 20 games of the season but have since gone 10-9-2 and have alternated wins and losses the past nine games. They're not exactly where they want to be, but nothing will change that except to right the ship themselves. 

"There's no sympathy for us right now," Hitchcock said. "We've been licking on teams for five years now and now teams are getting their licks in on us. There's no sympathy for us. It's all on us to dig in, coaches, players, everybody, to dig in together to become a better five-man unit and if we do, we're going to be very successful. If we don't, we're going to leave points on the table, we're going to leave points out there, we're going to leave games out there. That's the second half challenge for me, we've kind of nurtured it along, sometimes it's turned, sometimes it hasn't, we're past the nurturing stage, we've got to get it done or you don't get the opportunity to play."

What changes drastically the second half of the season is the Blues will play 25 of their final 41 games on the road, where they have one of the worst records away from Scottrade Center at 5-10-1.

"It's one of those things where we've been here for a while and we're almost excited to get back on the road a little bit and get things going," defenseman Colton Parayko said. "We haven't been great on the road. It's a good opportunity, a good challenge. Three great teams in four nights, it's going to be a fun road trip, a good opportunity to bring us together. On the road, it's always just the guys. A lot of time with the guys; it's going to be great.

"... We've got to find ways to win games on the road. It's going to be tough but that's what good teams do, find a way to win. It's going to be a great challenge for us."

The Blues will play six of the next eight on the road heading into the all-star break, and 12 of the next 19 heading into their bye break from Feb. 21-25.

"I look at it from a road trip standpoint, first it will be really good to get on the road," Hitchcock said. "We're too comfortable at home right now, there's too many distractions, there's too many guys that have lost their focus because we've spent so much time at home, it's gotten too comfortable. Now we're going to go into some really uncomfortable barns and have to collect points. 

"If we expect to win and get in the playoffs, we're going to have to two of three for the rest of the year on the road. That has to be the goal. That's what I want to see our players going to is winning two of three every time we come back from whether it's a three-gamer, we're going to have to win over the course of every five games, we're going to have to win three."

* Recipe for consistency -- The Blues tried to pave a level of consistent winning hockey during a season-high six-game homestand, but the 3-3-0 record following Tuesday's 5-3 loss to the Boston Bruins did anything but.

So now the Blues will try again, and it'll have to be against three West Coast heavyweights in the Kings, San Jose Sharks and Anaheim Ducks in a four-day span and moving forward, doing it at the opposition's home rinks will have to do.

And in order to do so, the Blues have to start defending as a five-man unit much better than they have.

The Blues are eighth in the NHL in goals for per game at 2.83, which is up from the 2.67 from a year ago, but after being fourth in the league in goals-against at 2.40 a season ago, the Blues are an alarming 24th at 2.98 goals-against this season.

Yes, goaltending has been an issue, including that from starter Jake Allen, but defending has been an issue all season long.

"I look at it from 41 games, the record is what it is, but it's how you're going to get better," Hitchcock said. "To me, we're going to get better in a five-man unit, we're going to get better with our checking, we're going to get better with better puck management. 

"If we expect to be a playoff team we're going to have to cut down on our goals per game against on average, which means our puck management, our checking, our five-man unit hockey is going to have to improve and become way more consistent. We're too inconsistent at that level, so we're never in control of a hockey game because we've always got part of our game that seems to be in recovery mode. I think we've been like that all year, we show flashes where we're really on the mark, and then we show flashes where the hard work looks like it's hard work, so that's what we're going to do. 

"We're really going to push through on this and see where we are the end of the day and see who's left standing. We've kind of begged and pleaded and tried to work with guys, but now we're at 41 games, we just have to go with the people that are doing the job. It's in those aspects, the guys that are managing the puck properly, the guys that are playing in that five-man unit that we've had so much success with, we just have to elevate those guys' responsibilities and if you're not doing it, then you've just got to the back of the bus."

* Bortuzzo set to return -- Robert Bortuzzo went through another full practice on Wednesday before the team boarded a plane for Los Angeles and both he and Hitchcock declared the Blues defenseman ready to return.

"I feel good," Bortuzzo said. "I've gone through all the steps to make sure we're ready to go, off ice, on ice and everything. Now it's kind of up to them. I feel confident and now we're ready to try and contribute. 

"... Barring any crazy setbacks over the night or how we feel tomorrow, I don't see why if they called my number we wouldn't be ready to go. I feel confident. The biggest thing is just getting back out there with the guys and doing the fun part, which is playing games."

Bortuzzo has missed the past 16 games with a lower-body injury sustained Dec. 3 against the Winnipeg Jets; he was skating with Joel Edmundson as Hitchcock shuffled the d-men around, moving Parayko with Alex Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester and Kevin Shattenkirk rounding out the six, making Brad Hunt the extra defenseman.

"He's a definite option," Hitchcock said of Bortuzzo. "We'll see how he feels getting off the flight but he practiced full yesterday and today so he looks like he's a real option for us.

"We wanted to look at it. These were some pairs we used last year and we wanted to see how they looked this year. So, we'll see if we carry it into the game. There's a good chance we will."

The forward lines remained the same from the past two games, but here's how the practice lines looked Wednesday:

Alexander Steen-Paul Stastny-Nail Yakupov

Robby Fabbri-Jori Lehtera-Vladimir Tarasenko

Jaden Schwartz-Patrik Berglund-David Perron

Scottie Upshall-Kyle Brodziak-Ryan Reaves

Alex Pietrangelo-Colton Parayko

Jay Boumeester-Kevin Shattenkirk

Joel Edmundson-Robert Bortuzzo

Defenseman Carl Gunnarsson (lower body) was not on the ice Wednesday but Hitchcock said he would travel, and Dmitrij Jaskin skated as the extra forward.

* Goalie uncertain -- Hitchcock, as of Wednesday after practice, hadn't made up his mind on a starting netminder for the game against the Kings.

Allen was pulled after the first period -- the third time in the past five games (once due to injury) after allowing three goals on 11 shots -- and was not given the vote of confidence that he would return on Thursday.

Carter Hutton, who replaced Allen to start the second period against the Bruins and actually absorbed the loss because he technically surrendered the fourth and game-winning goal, was strong with a 26-save effort on 27 shots.

"No. Not yet," Hitchcock said when asked if he made up his mind. "How about I take a plane ride and then I let you know?"

* Tarasenko grateful -- One day after being named to the Central Division All-Star team for the third straight season, Blues right wing Vladimir Tarasenko, who leads the team in goals (20), assists (23) and points (43) was asked what it means to him.

"It means I get a couple good days in LA with my family," Tarasenko said. "Thanks for my teammates and Blues organization for making it happen for me again."

Tarasenko, named assistant captain this season, has rounded his game into form since he first arrived in the NHL in the strike-shortened 2013 season, but always strives for more.

"No, there is some stuff to improve for sure," Tarasenko said. "I think we have better chemistry right now with Robby and Jori. We have some stuff to build on and that's what we try to do every game. Not every time it works, but we try to play our best out there."

Asked what will it take to get more consistency in the team's game, Tarasenko said, "We need to believe in ourselves more and stay in our program no matter what happens. Not every time things are going to go our way, but we need to be ready for the games and wins some games when we're down by a goal or two."

* Monkey shed -- Blues defenseman Colton Parayko was finally able to shed that season-long monkey on his back after scoring his first goal of the season, a power-play goal, in the loss to the Bruins.

"It was good," Parayko, who had nine goals and 24 assists in 79 games his rookie season, said. "It was tough with the circumstances at the time. It would be nice to get the win. At the same time, it felt good for myself and I'm looking forward to moving on."

Moving on as in putting more biscuits in the basket.

"Hopefully," Parayko, who has 17 assists, said. "As we talked about with Jake before, I just try to focus on playing defense right and we're allowing too many scoring chances per game against right now. If we can limit that as a defense, that's my first focus of emphasis right now. Worry about that and hope I can … if it's one of those things where it's a breakthrough, great, but focus on (defense) first and go toward that."