Saturday, April 18, 2015

Tarasenko hat trick fuels 4-1 victory in Game 2

Series tied 1-1 as teams shift to Minnesota for Games 3 and 4

By LOU KORAC
ST. LOUIS -- Blues right wing Vladimir Tarasenko could see the hats reigning down from the sellout crowd of Scottrade Center. 

It never phased him one bit. 

"It was nice," Tarasenko said, who was more concerned to satisfying the 19,243 that came to see the Blues even their best-of-7 series against the Minnesota Wild on Saturday afternoon.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Vladimir Tarasenko celebrates one of three goals
scored Saturday against the Minnesota Wild.

Tarasenko will get his pick of the hats, many probably very nice and expensive, but the best way he can repay loyal hockey fans in this city?

"Our city waiting for a Cup for a long time," Tarasenko said. "I think we can do this."

Tarasenko helped the Blues get off on the right foot when he scored his first Stanley Cup Playoff hat trick, and the Blues defeated the Minnesota Wild 4-1 in Game 2 of the Western Conference First Round to even the series 1-1. 

The series shifts to Minnesota for Game 3 on Monday (7 p.m.; FS-MW, CNBC and KMOX 1120-AM).

Tarasenko, who made his playoff debut last season against the Chicago Blackhawks with four goals, now has seven in his past eight playoff games. His two goals in the first period set the tone for what the Blues wanted to accomplish after losing 4-2 in Game 1 on home ice Thursday.

Tarasenko didn't have a shot on goal in Game 1. He became the first Blue to score a playoff hat trick since Mike Sillinger did it April 12, 2004 against San Jose.

"This is a win. This is 100 percent win," Tarasenko said. "There’s no time to celebrate. We have a tough couple games coming. Just bring the good part and make the next step right now. We just win. It doesn’t matter how many goals you have."

Patrik Berglund scored, and Jake Allen made 24 saves for his first playoff victory. Alexander Steen and Kevin Shattenkirk each had two assists. Shattenkirk has four assists in the series.

"We took a big step," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said. "We know we have to play better. Now we've got to go steal a game. We've been a good road team all year, actually we've been a great road team."

Tarasenko gave the Blues a 1-0 lead with a redirection off Steen's wrist shot inside the blue line 14:18 into the period. He scored his second of the period on a power play with 1:59 remaining in the period after he took Steen's cross-ice pass and banked a shot in off Wild goalie Devan Dubnyk, who peeled off the near post, for a 2-0 lead.

"I think the chemistry with Steen and Tarasenko is off the rush," Hitchcock said. "They can find each other."

Steen added: "We do a lot. We constantly talk -- mostly in English -- trying to work out details in our game and, yeah, tonight was good." 

Dubnyk took blame for the second goal.

"That’s just a mistake by me. It’s not a good goal," Dubnyk said. "I came off my post on a guy (who) likes to shoot, who's got a pretty good shot and he made me pay for it. That’s a mistake by me that cost me a goal against. Make sure it doesn’t happen again."

Defenseman Marco Scandella scored for the Wild and Dubnyk made 23 saves. 

"I thought we played two good games," Wild left wing Zach Parise said. "You find yourself down 2-0 here early, but we got ourselves back in the game. It was just a couple that we couldn’t capitalize and put in the net. 

"Overall we’d love to be going home 2-0 but it’s 1-1. There’s a lot of things we can feel good about. Of course there are areas for improvement, but there’s a lot of things that we’ve been doing pretty well."

The Blues played a better first period than in Game 1. There were 18 hits in the period, led by David Backes (four), Steve Ott (three) and Ryan Reaves (three).

Establishing a good forecheck was what the Blues were looking for to offset the Wild's speed transition game.

"Yeah, I thought we came out, we had a game plan in Game 1 which was similar to that but it didn't show up and in Game 2, it did," Ott said. "That's the difference, that's the team that we are and who we've been all year, and it's no secret that that's how we have to play to have success. I thought to a man, from our goaltenders out, everybody played their role and extremely hard."

Allen made several big saves, but the biggest was off a harmless dump-in off the stick of Wild deenseman Ryan Suter, who threw the puck off the glass. The puck took a strange carom and fell at Allen's skates, nearly going in the net. With 4:49 left in the second period, Allen made a glove save of a sharp-angle Mikko Koivu shorthanded shot while sprawled on the ice after Jason Zucker shot wide on a 2-on-1.

"Me and Schwartzy both got a piece of it," Allen said. "My glove was there, I sort of didn't want to move because (Koivu)didn't have an angle so he was trying to get close to me and Schwartzy made a heck of a back-check to get back there and we both sort of got a piece of it and he swatted the puck away. He's one of the best back-checkers in the League, so credit him for that."

Dubnyk kept Tarasenko from getting a hat trick earlier with a save off a Steen pass with 52 seconds left in the second period. 

Scandella scored 1:46 into the third period to make it a 2-1 game on a slap shot from the left point, breaking his stick on a shot that had eyes and beat Allen on the near side after a drop pass from Thomas Vanek. 

The Wild continued to press for the tying goal  in the third period, and Charlie Coyle nearly tied it with 8:37 remaining but his wrist shot from the slot hit the cross bar, off Allen's back and Backes saved the puck from going in, clearing it off the goal line.

"I hate to see a guy who walks in uncontested with a lot of speed, you're hoping Jake can make a save, see it off the bar and just keep momentum back to the net hoping to clear out bodies," Backes said. "You see it trickling in behind him and just try to whack it out of there, hopefully you got it before it crossed the line and that was the case."

Allen joked: "I'll go talk to him, buy him a beer for that one. That was a great second effort by him, like Schwartzy, coming back, doing whatever it takes."

Berglund gave the Blues a 3-1 lead with 1:58 remaining after stealing puck in the neutral zone, skating in and beating Dubnyk with a wrist shot.

It turned out to be a huge goal with the Wild pressing for the equalizer.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Blues' T.J. Oshie (74) works with the puck as the Wild's Zach Parise (11)
gives chase in Game 2 Saturday at Scottrade Center.

"It was a goal-scorer's goal," Hitchcock said. "If you're going to have an odd-man rush, he's not fast enough. He's going to shoot, which is good for us."

Tarasenko completed the hat trick with an empty-net goal with 16.1 seconds remaining.

"We played great from start to finish. We were ready for their pushes," Shattenkirk said. "They’re a good team, they’re not going to go through a full game without getting some solid chances. We were able to weather the storm a little bit, especially in the third when they were applying a lot of pressure on us. We were able to just take a deep breath and settle things down a little bit."

"It was huge," Allen said of the win. "It was crucial to get a win in our building where we're comfortable in front of our fans. Now we go into their barn, their territory, and try to do the same thing."

Friday, April 17, 2015

Blues not panicking but urgency there to even series

After losing Game 1, St. Louis can ill-afford to go down 
two games having to go to Minnesota for Games 3 and 4

By LOU KORAC
HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- Yes, it must be the Stanley Cup Playoffs if the Blues are down in a series, and early panic has set in with their longstanding frustrated fan base.

But in light of a 4-2 loss to the Minnesota Wild in Game 1 of the Western Conference First Round series, the Blues understand the importance of winning Game 2.

For one, they have only won once in 19 tries in playoff history when falling behind 0-2 in a series (in 1972 against the Minnesota North Stars in seven games in the quarterfinals), and of those 18 series defeats, they've been swept 10 times.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
The Blues could use some offense in Game 2 on Saturday from Vladimir
Tarasenko (91). 

Not exactly favorable odds heading into Game 2 on Saturday at 2 p.m. (NBC, KYKY 98.1-FM).

But knowing that they're a win away from evening the series before heading to St. Paul, Minn. for Games 3 and 4 on Monday and Wednesday, the Blues aren't in any sense of panic.

Yet.

"I think you just have to remember what the formula was," defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk said of beating the Wild. "We were chipping pucks in, we were hard on our forecheck, the d-men were getting shots to the net, that's important. They seemed to be playing passive in their zone, getting into shot lanes, not allowing anything to the inside, it's going to be hard ice to fight for, but when we did it, that's when we're successful. That's what we need to work on."

The Blues, who scored twice in the third period, need to get to their game early and often Saturday. If they do, they'll get what is expected to be another raucous crowd behind them.

"We know how to win at home," Shattenkirk said. "We still have the advantage on our side that we have a home game tomorrow. I think that's how we're approaching it. The first one slipped away from us, that's for sure. Today we came with a fresh attitude. Tomorrow is important absolutely but we can't put too much pressure on ourselves."

The Blues knew this series wouldn't be an easy one, and why would it? They seem to draw some of the tougher first-round series opponents than any in recent memory.

Going back to facing Los Angeles in 2013 and Chicago last  season to the Wild, who finished with 100 points this season, the Blues should strap themselves in for a long series.

"I think they make you earn your stripes," coach Ken Hitchcock said of the Wild. "It's our job to earn our stripes. They make you earn your ice, whether it's in the d-zone or in the neutral zone; they make you earn your stripes. They check well. They're well-coached. 

"I thought we had times where we let them off the hook (Thursday) when we didn't have to and that fed the engine that fed the odd-man rushes. We gave up too many odd-man rushes, but it was a lot of the time when we had the puck. It was us having the puck in the offensive zone getting checked off the puck turning it over, forcing offense and them boom, they're gone. They've got the foot-speed to go. We fed that engine a little bit too much."

One way for the Blues to counter Minnesota's speed: better puck possession and get in on the forecheck.

"That and not turning the puck over in those crucial areas, at their blue line, when we have possession in the neutral zone, making strong plays, that's what's key to really not feeding into that team speed they seem to have," Shattenkirk said. "... It's the playoffs. They played to the best of their abilities and I think that's what every team does at this time of year. We knew they were fast, they showed it, they proved it, now we adjust to it, we know what it is, we know how to handle it."

The Blues fired only 21 shots at goalie Devan Dubnyk in the loss, 10 in the third period. A larger layer of pucks at the Minnesota goalie should create more rebound chances and opportunities to go hard to the net.

"I think it's extend the zone time," Hitchcock said of getting more shot opportunities. "The shots will come if we extend the zone time. If we're impatient, then it will be like yesterday, one and done. ... When we're engaged and we're in a routine, we're pretty good. But we've got to get back to that routine, so we'll be back into it tomorrow."
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Alexander Steen (20) celebrates after scoring a shorthanded goal against
Minnesota on Thursday with Vladimir Tarasenko (center) and Kevin
Shattenkirk (right).

Jaden Schwartz's goal was the perfect example of getting quicker shot attempts towards the goal. Shattenkirk quickly fired Patrik Berglund's pass and Schwartz was in front for the tip. Too many times the Blues were hurting themselves with hesitancy in shot attempts, and when they did, they usually were blocked or never got to the goal.

"There was the opportunity to shoot pucks early and I was guilty of it early on, was having it on my stick too long and then trying to get it to the net," Shattenkirk said. "They were packing it in pretty tight, so when we get those pucks on the point we have to get it there quickly so they can't set their defense again. That goal was a good example of it."

Wild double up Blues, grab series lead

Minnesota takes St. Louis out of its element, grab Game 1

By LOU KORAC
ST. LOUIS -- The second season started for the Blues and Minnesota Wild on Thursday. Game 1 of the Western Conference First Round series went according to script.

Not for the Blues.

The Wild did what it does best: utilize its speed, keep the Blues from playing their physical forecheck game, clog the middle of the ice and force the Blues to play on the perimeter.

It all resulted in a 4-2 Minnesota victory Thursday before 19,671 at Scottrade Center.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Blues captain David Backes (left) gets wrapped up by Wild defenseman
Jonas Brodin during Game 1 of the Western Conference First Round.

The Wild, which leads the best-of-7 series 1-0, will have a chance to take command of the series Saturday with a win in Game 2, which is slated for 2 p.m.

The Blues, limited to 21 shots on goal, were their own worst enemy. Players hesitated to shoot pucks, and when they were taken, shots were blocked -- the Wild had 19, including 12 in the first period -- and the layers of funneling pucks at Devan Dubnyk, who was making his first playoff start -- as was the Blues' Jake Allen --  were non-existent.

"I think there was traffic. We didn't get the shots," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said. "They boxed out; they did a really good job in the first and third period boxing us out. We had a lot of zone time the first period. They did a better job clogging up the middle; they gave us the top of the zone and challenged us to get pucks through and we didn't get them through."

The Wild got a goal and an assist from Jason Pominville, two assists from Zach Parise and goals from Jason Zucker, Matt Dumba and Mikael Granlund. Dubnyk made 19 saves.

The Blues, who were shut out for the first 40 minutes, got third-period goals from Jaden Schwartz and Alexander Steen. Kevin Shattenkirk had two assists and Allen made 25 saves.

Despite a first period in which the Blues had a sizeable territorial advantage but fell behind 1-0 on Zucker's wraparound goal 2:47 into the game.

Zucker scored when Allen kicked out Zucker's initial shot from a sharp angle in the left circle. The puck came back to the Wild forward, who had a quick burst of speed and scored on a quick wraparound to give Minnesota a lead. 

"That guy's a speed demon there," Allen said of Zucker. "Good play by him. Wish I could have controlled the rebound a little bit better, but it was a good move by him."

The Wild finished with 19 blocks in the game, 12 in the first. 

Minnesota increased its lead to 2-0 when Dumba scored on a slap shot 4:10 into the second period. 

Blues defenseman Barret Jackman had a chance to clear the puck but had his attempt blocked in the St. Louis zone. The Wild kept it in, and Dumba took a pass from Jared Spurgeon and beat Allen high glove side. 

"They outplayed us in the second period," Hitchcock said. "We outplayed them in the first and for a portion of the third, but they outplayed us in the second. They were quicker on pucks, they were faster in the zone. We took a couple penalties that gave them some momentum, gave them a chance to rest. We didn't build on the good first period.

"... I don't know about killer instinct, but we have not played well off of layoffs all year (1-7-1 with three-plus days off). This is probably another example of that. But we've had another game under our belt; we're going to have to play better. Killer instinct comes in a number of fashions. One of the fashions is you really have to simplify your game in the playoffs. I thought when we didn't get the shots through at the start, we started to play a very complicated game that made us at times look slow. We were into make the next play instead of play it off the goalie."

The Wild dominated the second period, outshooting the Blues 14-4.

"Any time you're taking that many penalties, certainly they're going to feed off of that," Blues defenseman Alex Pietrangelo said. "Usually we use those penalty kills as momentum-changers for us and we're killing them off. We didn't change the tide as quickly as we wanted to."

"I think cleaner through the neutral zone coming out of our zone, just come through the neutral zone with a little bit more speed than we had tonight, obviously being a little crisper when we have our chances," Steen said. "Little more killer instinct when we have our chances. Start burying some of these. I thought 'Jakey' was really good in our net tonight."

Schwartz cut the Wild lead in half when he redirected Shattenkirk's wrist shot from the blue line at 7:12 of the third period. Schwartz was parked in front of Dubnyk for the tip. 

Shattenkirk got the puck and wasted little time in throwing it towards Dubnyk for one of the rare times the Blues executed shooting and getting traffic.

"I think it's a conscious effort by us to go set up shop in front of their net," Blues captain David Backes said. "We finally did. 'Schwartzy' gets a nice tip and scores a goal there from getting there. That's what we need to do. We can't do it again until Saturday, but one game's in the books. They get a 1-0 lead. Now's the time for us to make a few adjustments and find a way to win the next one."

The Blues kept pressing but could not get the equalizer. Granlund's empty-net goal with 1:13 remaining restored the Wild's two-goal lead. 

Steen scored a shorthanded goal with 58.7 remaining to again make it a one-goal game, but Pominville scored the Wild's second empty-net goal with 20 seconds remaining.

"You get down one at home and you hope to pick it up a notch and that'd be a wakeup call," Backes said. "It almost took until the third period until we finally got our legs going and played our brand of hockey. We had great chances and created o-zone time, looked more like our game and we needed that for a full 60 in order to win games against this team and another chance on Saturday."
(St. Louis Blues photo)
The Blues' Paul Stastny (26) looks to maneuver past Minnesota's Jared
Spurgeon during the Wild's 4-2 victory Thursday at Scottrade Center.

"I thought we had a lot of good spurts," Pietrangelo said. "We started pretty well. We had a lot of pressure early on. Took some penalties there in the second seemed to change the momentum there in that period. We had them on their heels. Just got to find more ways to get pucks towards the net and get more traffic."

Allen, who will get the start in Game 2 after Hitchcock called his game "great," said it was good for him.

"I felt good. I felt pretty well out there," said Allen, who allowed two goals or fewer in eight straight starts. "I was seeing the puck well, just felt pretty confident.

"We just didn't play a 60-minute game. We played well in spurts, but we need to play a complete game. They gave us a good game tonight and they came out on top. They did some little things that put them ahead. We pushed there the last 10 minutes of the third pretty hard, but if we can do that in the first two, I think we'll have a lot more success."

* NOTES -- NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman took in the game Thursday night and addressed the media regarding a number of issues.

Among them was the ever-going question regarding St. Louis as a potential destination for an outdoor game.

"I think at some point we should be here with an outdoor game," Bettman said. "I'm not prepared to make a formal announcement or a prediction as to the date. It would make sense. This is a great sports town and it's a great town for Blues hockey. At some point when the timing is right and we can work it all out, we should probably bring an outdoor game too."

Thanks to the ownership group led by Tom Stillman, those plans are in motion.

"There have been lots of different ownership groups here over the years," Bettman said. "This ownership group has been terrific. Tom and his partners, they're local, they're committed, they have strength. The franchise is as stable as it's ever been and it's performing very well both on and off the ice."

Thursday, April 16, 2015

(4-16-15) Wild-Blues Game 1 Gameday Lineup

By LOU KORAC
ST. LOUIS -- Jake Allen didn't do anything different. It was just another day for the Blues goalie. 

And Thursday apparently is just another day for Allen, who will be making his first NHL postseason start when the Blues host the Minnesota Wild in Game 1 of the Western Conference First Round series (8:30 p.m.; FS-MW, NBCSN, KMOX 1120-AM).

"No. Nope. Another game," Allen said. "More exciting game, more meaningful game; that's all. I'm looking forward to it."

The only difference is the 8:30 start time, which allows for some extra zzz's.

"It's awesome actually. Great sleep last night, maybe even a longer nap today since it's an 8:30 start, which is a little odd," Allen said, who said preparation doesn't change. 

"... Not really," he said. "You've just got to time your nap a little differently I guess. Maybe add an hour and a half for when you start your nap and when you get up compared to a seven o'clock game."

Both Allen and Minnesota's Devan Dubnyk will be making their playoff debut starts tonight, but from the Blues' perspective, they won't do too much to change Allen's demeanor.

"Treat him the same way we do all year, communicate as much as possible," defenseman Alex Pietrangelo said. "That's the big thing for us, especially on puck movement. The guy obviously likes to move the puck. He communicates on the ice; we've got to make sure we give it back to him. 

"Both our guys can move the puck, but any time you have a goalie back there that can move it and help on transition, too, it's going to be a big deal. All that comes in communication between us and him."

Communication apparently is key, but change Allen? Not a chance.

"I don't think so. We just play our game," defenseman Zbynek Michalek said. "I think defend well and communicate. Communication is a huge part and make it easy for him. He's a good goalie; he's going to stop the first puck so we've got to make sure we let him see the puck and if there's any rebounds, we box people out in front and make it easier for him.

"It seems like nothing bothers (Allen) really. He just goes about his business every day and no matter what happens, it's pretty impressive for a younger guy like that. In the playoffs, you're going to go through that, highs and lows. You see him handling it pretty well."

Allen, from Fredericton, New Brunswick, will have the late, late prime time slot on the television set in parents Kurt and Susan Allen's household. When the puck drops, it will be 10:30 p.m. at the Allen's.

"It's going to be late for him, but I'm sure they will (watch)," Allen said of his parents. "He might go into work 20-30 minutes late tomorrow, but I'm sure they'll be up for it and watching it.

"(New Brunswick is) quite a ways away for me. It's tough to get them in (to St. Louis). Hopefully down the road soon."

Allen, who went 5-1-1 down the stretch with a 1.14 goals-against average and .957 save percentage, allowed two goals or fewer in all of them. He's allowed a goal or fewer in eight of his past 12 starts.

"I feel like every game this year has almost been like a playoff game," Allen said. "I'm trying to prove myself to keep my spot in the net. I feel there since Jan. 1, I've been trying to do that and taking those games as experiences. It's another test. We need 16 wins but just one game at a time. That's what I'm looking at, one save at a time, one game at a time. That should take care of itself.

"My job's to keep the puck out of the net. I feel that I've been confident and comfortable lately. The guys have been making it easy on me. I'm not going to try and do anything special, do what I've done to get me to this point. I'm sure the guys will do the same up front."

- - -

Defensemen Michalek and Carl Gunnarsson have close to 1,100 games of regular season experience playing in the NHL.

Their Stanley Cup Playoff resumes have them playing a combined 27 games. That will change playing for a much more experienced and polished Blues team, and they were acquired to give St. Louis the added depth on the blue line that St. Louis was missing in the past.

Both Michalek and Gunnarsson, acquired in separate trades with the Arizona Coyotes and Toronto Maple Leafs, will be in the lineup Thursday with hopes of extended Stanley Cup Playoff runs.

The Blues are healthy, they're deep, and these two veteran defensemen give the Blues an element that was lacking when they were eliminated the past three seasons.

"This is what you play for. You're competing for a Stanley Cup," said Michalek, acquired at the NHL Trade Deadline who last played in the Stanley Cup Playoffs with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2012. "The last couple years, I haven't had a chance to do so. I'm not getting any younger, too, so you don't know how many more chances you're going to get going for the Cup. This is really exciting; I'm really excited. I'm looking forward to getting going tonight.

"This team has been good all season long. Now that everybody's healthy, it's good because if you want to make a playoff run, it's nice to have a deep team like this. Hopefully we can use it to our advantage and make a good run."

Gunnarsson, acquired at the 2014 NHL Draft for a defenseman Roman Polak, played seven games with the Maple Leafs in 2013, but that's it.

"I haven't played too many playoffs. This is going to be fun," Gunnarsson said. "We've got a good feeling in here. Different or not, you get a little extra excited for the game. Everything's kind of pumped up. You know it's going to kind of be a good atmosphere and everything's going to be up to high levels. I'm excited.

"We all feel like we've got great depth. We've been playing well at the end of the year, too. We feel confident about both special teams and all that. I think the whole group is confident on its own."

- - -

After four days of practice and rest in between, both the Blues and Wild are ready to drop the puck. Enough with the practices, enough with the meetings, enough with the passing time. 

Drop the puck already.

"Nah, I'd like to practice some more," coach Ken Hitchcock joked. "The players are really enjoying that. They have now cried 'Uncle.' 

"Yeah, let's get playing, find out what we've got, make adjustments, move from there. Two teams similar paths the last three or four years. Both got good leadership, both got good quality players on the top-end. Both follow in a similar path of trying to get to another level. It'll be good competition."

For the Blues, who will play Games 1 and 2 at home, they want to get the ball rolling early and establish the tempo to their style.

"I think both teams are going to try and set the tempo for the game and the series. or us, we have to make sure we get to that first, get to our game first and then we get that home crowd into it," Pietrangelo said. "We've got to use that as an advantage."

Does the head coach still get nervous this time of year?

"Not in the playoffs," Hitchcock said. "I do in  the regular season because there's so much watching of others. There's too many seams out there and you're watching the standings. Not now. You've got so much time to prepare. It's the fun part for us, I'm sure it's agonizing at times for the players because we're going over details. This is really the fun part for coaches. Then you have to adjust after today's game and make inroads on getting better, whether you win or whether you lose. I think the wake up call for all of us was the road teams won so many games last night. It shows you how even things are. You talk about home ice advantage, it turns on a dime and you have to make adjustments."

- - -

The Blues' healthy scratches include Robert Bortuzzo, who was sensational in his play since being acquired from the Penguins.

But with a glutton of healthy bodies, Bortuzzo will be a spectator tonight.

"We're missing a player that can add to the group," Hitchcock said. "If we need to put Bortuzzo in, he's played very well for us. That's why, a month ago, when 'Shatty' came back, that's why we practice him so much on the left side. We just felt that Bortuzzo was a lot better player than we thought we were getting, which was good for him and great for us. We needed to put things in place so if get to that it's not going to be a surprise. Shatty played a lot with 'Petro,' he played the left side, did very well on it, we're prepared to make that change if we have to."

Gunnarsson is a player that's felt he's elevated his game after a rough stretch a week or so ago. He will play with Pietrangelo tonight.

"The last couple games it's been feeling good playing with Petro here back to where we were a couple months ago," Gunnarsson said. "We've got a good feel; everyone's got a good feel. 

"It'll be awesome. I can only imagine what's going to be tonight, playoffs and everything like that. Everything's going to be at a high level. I think the crowd's going to be there, too."

- - -

Former Blue Chris Stewart will play on the Wild's top line tonight. He was asked if he has any extra motivation playing against the team that traded him.

"I wouldn't say there's extra motivation," Stewart said. "The goal here is to win the Stanley Cup, that's plenty of motivation. If we win, it definitely will be sweeter."

Stewart was acquired by the Wild from the Buffalo Sabres at the NHL Trade Deadline.

"It's been great," said Stewart, who had three goals and eight assists with Minnesota in 20 games with the Wild. "I had an opportunity to play with some good hockey players here and hit the ground running. I feel comfortable and had a chance to produce too, so it's been good.

"I've been to the other side and the grass wasn't greener. To get an opportunity to play in the Stanley Cup, it's amazing. It's a dream come true. This is why you play the game. This is when the most fun of the year starts. ... You can't take that kind of stuff for granted. You never know when it's going to be your last time in the playoffs."

That won't stop Stewart from chirping his ex-mates, including Kevin Shattenkirk and Ryan Reaves, who were both in his wedding recently.

"It's just like brothers. Brothers butt heads and fight and stuff like that," Stewart said. "It's not a big deal. We're going to keep it business during the series and talk about it in the summer."

- - -

The Blues' probable lineup:

Jaden Schwartz-Paul Stastny-T.J. Oshie

Alexander Steen-Jori Lehtera-Vladimir Tarasenko

Dmitrij Jaskin-David Backes-Patrik Berglund

Steve Ott-Marcel Goc-Ryan Reaves

Carl Gunnarsson-Alex Pietrangelo

Jay Boumweester-Zbynek Michalek

Barret Jackman-Kevin Shattenkirk

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

Healthy scratches include Olli Jokinen, Chris Porter, Chris Butler, Robert Bortuzzo and Ty Rattie.

- - -

The WIld's probable lineup:

Jason Zucker-Mikko Koivu-Chris Stewart

Zach Parise-Mikael Granlund-Jason Pominville

Thomas Vanek-Charlie Coyle-Nino Niederreiter

Sean Bergenheim-Kyle Brodziak-Justin Fontaine

Ryan Suter-Jonas Brodin

Marco Scandella-Jared Spurgeon

Jordan Leopold-Matt Dumba

Devan Dubnyk will start in goal. Niklas Backstrom will be the backup. 

Healthy scratches include Ryan Carter, Erik Haula, Jordan Schroeder, Christian Folin, Nate Prosser and Niklas Backstrom. Darcy Kuemper is sick and will be scratched. Keith Ballard (concussion) and Matt Cooke (undisclosed) are out.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Pest-man Schwartz typically finds a way

Blues' left wing may be one of NHL's more persistent puck hunters

By LOU KORAC
HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- Imagine playing against him, listed at 5-foot-10 and 190 pounds. The thought is that at such a small stature, Jaden Schwartz won't put up much resistance.

Think again.

What the opposition has painfully found out time and time again during his short NHL career is that Schwartz is a hunter; he's a predator. He hounds, pesters, prods, pokes and harasses until he gets what he wants: the puck. And in a flash, the Blues are creating a scoring chance after Schwartz picks someone's pocket. If he's not creating a chance, the puck is in the back of your net.

If you choose to encounter Schwartz with the puck, do so at your own risk. It can be dangerous to one's well-being.
(Getty Images)
Jaden Schwartz finished the season second in goals (28) and
third in points (63) for the Blues.

Of course, Schwartz has great skill. One doesn't score 28 goals and add 35 assists in his third full season on luck alone. But Schwartz, the 14th pick in the 2010 NHL Draft -- picked two spots ahead of Vladimir Tarasenko -- doesn't cheat the game. It's all about a relentless pursuit of the vulcanized rubber. And shift after shift, he won't stop until he gets what he wants.

"I think it's something that I've worked on as I've kind of climbed up the ladder in leagues that I've played in," said Schwartz, who began his career with the Notre Dame Hounds of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League, then to the Tri-City Storm of the United States Hockey League before going to Colorado College and then the Blues in 2012. "I used to be more of an offensive guy and can rely on skill a little bit more, but as you climb up the ladder, there's a lot more skilled guys around you and a lot of talent so you've got to kind of find a way to push yourself and be able to be that impact player that can make  difference. That's something that I kind of had to do. 

"Being a smaller guy, I'm not going to physically out-battle guys, but as far as stealing the puck and getting on them as fast as I can, I think that's something that 'Hitch' has worked on with me since I got here but something that I kind of focused on."

That "smaller guy," with his persistent pest-like play, makes his linemates better; whether it was Tarasenko and Jori Lehtera earlier this season, to Paul Stastny and T.J. Oshie now. They will represent the Blues' top line when the Stanley Cup Playoffs open Thursday when the Blues host the Minnesota Wild in Game 1 of the Western Conference First Round.

"He's quick and he's just so hungry," Stastny said of Schwartz. "He doesn't give up and he just constantly wants it, wants it. That's an attribute to him and how hard he's working. He puts the hard work and skill together and that's what makes him a special player.

"It's just creating turnovers. In this game, turnovers happen all the time. It's just a game of mistakes; it's just how you bounce back from it. When you're playing on your toes and you're aggressive, maybe you might get beat here or there, but over the course of time, you're going to put pressure on them, create turnovers and then you get more puck possession. That's what he does a good job of, whether it's off the forecheck or whether it's off a faceoff. That's what the best players out here do, is create a lot of turnovers. Most goals are created off a turnover, whether it's right away or 30 seconds or 40 seconds prior. He gets you the puck back as fast as you can and put the other team on their heels."

That's what Schwartz does, put opponents on their heels. And at times, gives them shock value because of his persistence.

"I think what makes him a good offensive player is that he sneaks up on you," coach Ken Hitchcock said of Schwartz. "When you're playing against him, you can't rest. He's going to catch you from behind a little bit like (Detroit's Pavel) Datsyuk does. He's going to catch you sleeping or resting with the puck and that's where he's got a lot of his offense from. He creates more offense from his checking than anybody on our team and he's probably in the top 10 percent of the guys that do it in the league. I think that's why he's such a good player is because he's just as dangerous defensively as he is offensively. Quite frankly, he's given us even a stronger identity of what we wanted to build here, which is a real good sign. He's been excellent at doing the kind of the dirty work so that people can create offense. It's hard to play against a guy like that. You're never safe, you never can get comfortable, he's always nipping at your heels and if he keeps doing that stuff, it's going to help us."

This is nothing new to Hitchcock, who became Schwartz's coach when the Blues first signed him in 2012. But Hitchcock watched this very same player with Canada at the World Junior Championships in 2011.

"No, I saw it when I watched him," Hitchcock said of Schwartz. "First time I saw him extensively was in the World Juniors. I saw him do it in the world junior and guys were saying he was doing the same thing in college. He's done the same thing in pro here. I saw him as a 19-year-old do it and nothing's changed. It's a good sign."

If opposing players talk about Schwartz in a negative way, it's a good thing in the Blues' eyes. It means they hate him; it means they hate playing against him.
(Getty Images)
Jaden Schwartz (17) battles Calgary's David Schlemko (3) for the puck in
a recent game this season.

It means he's doing his job.

"I don't know about under the skin, but I try to make it hard on them, make sure that they're looking over their shoulder a little bit," Schwartz said. "That's part of my job on the forecheck or checking the puck back. I take pride in that. That's something that I kind of have to do in order to be successful and help this team out. I'm looking to do it even more going into the playoffs."

Some players like to get under one's skin with their physical play in order to gain an edge. Schwartz finds other ways that are equally as successful.

"In order for me to help this team out, that's something I've got to do," Schwartz said. "Basically make it tough on the d-man. I'm not going to really hit a bunch of guys and scare them that way, but I'll try to find other ways to do it."

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

(4-15-15) BLUES NOTEBOOK

Blues have to balance when to be physical, when to play the game; 
off-ice Tuesday; no goalie revealed; proving themselves in the postseason

By LOU KORAC
HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- When it comes to ratcheting a team's physical play and intensity level, there's obviously a fine line between knowing when the initiate and knowing when to curb back.

But this is the Stanley Cup Playoffs, where two teams can potentially play one another seven times over a span of two weeks. The teams don't like one another to begin with; after all, the opponent stands in the way to getting closer to the ultimate goal of winning a Stanley Cup. 

But when the Blues play the Minnesota Wild, beginning with Game 1 on Thursday at Scottrade Center, including the physical play will be part of their MO.

"That's going to be a key factor," left wing Steve Ott said. "We're a big, strong team. We want to play a heavy checking style of game and when you do so, you have to ride that fine line of discipline. For us, we want to be on the right side of the power play percentages and for us, we have to keep our cool and play whistle to whistle as best as possible.

"The emotions can get the best of you in a playoff series. You can never be too high, you can never be too low. You have to find consistency in your game and as an individual. When you do so, your emotions usually stay in check."

Even though the Wild finished the season as the NHL's top penalty-killing team (86.3 percent), the Blues would rather be the ones testing it with their fourth-ranked power play (22.3 percent) instead of the other way around, even though the Blues' penalty kill finished tied for seventh (83.7 percent). But that means knowing when the push, and knowing when to back off.

"I think in any series, you've got to play with a little bit of an edge," right wing Ryan Reaves said. "You've got to play physical. You've got to try and get on their main guys just like they're going to try and get on our guys. I think playoff hockey definitely ramps up a little bit in the physical department. You've got to make sure you keep it going for as long as the series goes.

"You can't get carried away with it. You can't go out and run somebody and take a penalty because one goal can cost playoff games really quick. I think it's something that for sure I'd like to lead the team in. I've tried to all year, but you've definitely got to stay disciplined."

Having the presence of players like Ott and Barret Jackman to lead the way in that area makes a big difference.

"You've got to play with energy, especially right at the beginning of the game," Jackman said. "You've got to come out and get everybody involved touching the puck or getting hit, getting over the nerves of the playoffs. Different circumstances call for different things and we'll take every one as they come.

"We've got a lot of guys that are leaders on this team. I definitely gotta be one of them that plays on the edge but plays within the system and doesn't get running around. A lot of the guys are the same. The juices are flowing. You've got to keep things in check but also be at a level above the opposition."

Coach Ken Hitchcock can say all the right things. It's up to the players to execute what's necessary in order to succeed.

"We all talk about whistle to whistle, but it's hard to do," Hitchcock said. "When you play a team from the same division, you don't have to worry about where the rivalry's at or where the edge is at; the edge is already there. The edge is from the regular season. So the edge in the games is going to be there; it's not going to be any different. You don't have to manufacture that. 

"If you're playing an opponent that, say, was from the Pacific (Division) or something that you haven't seen for three months, that's a different animal. But there's freshness here. We played them in Game 68, 72 and 82, plus the playoffs now. They know us, we know them, there's no surprises and there's an edge to every game. It'll make for good hockey."

* Something to prove -- Past playoff experiences have been painful for the Blues, who have gone on to have a strong regular season for the fourth consecutive season with 51 wins.

It's the third time in franchise history (and in back-to-back seasons) in which the Blues have won 50 or more games in a season, but it's a situation where the players would like to make the fourth time a charm, and not have a repeat of past playoff performances. The Blues have not gone past the second round in any of the three past seasons.

"Well you learn from it," left wing Jaden Schwartz said. "Take what you can and take that moving into this series. Haven't turned out the way we wanted it to the last couple of years -- same with 29 other teams -- and we've got to learn from it. We've got a good challenge, a good opportunity in front of us.

"We certainly want it to be (a deep run), that's our goal. Got lots to prove. We've been having a great season, put ourselves in a good spot going into the playoffs with home-ice and different things like that. We're all hungry. We know what happened the last few years. So I know for me, I've been looking forward to this since last year. We're hungry, we're excited ... it's a big challenge, but we believe in ourselves in here and we believe the experience the last few years is going to help us."

Captain David Backes said there's lots to prove for the deeper, more experienced Blues.

"We've got plenty to prove, there's no question about it," he said. "We've had shortcomings in the past few years. We feel we have a deeper team, a more prepared team, a team that's playing better hockey, and healthier than we have been in the last few years in the playoffs. So it's time to put all those things to fruition and show what we can do.

"... We've got additions, we've got guys that are more seasoned, we've got guys with experience with postseason hockey and I think everyone's had fuel added to their fire to win in the postseason after last year's early exit. All those things combined with being healthy with playing better down the stretch, we should hit the ground running on Thursday."

But Hitchcock doesn't want the players to forget the long, arduous hours of work put into having a terrific regular season.

"I think any time you de-value the season, you make a huge mistake," Hitchcock said. "Playoffs are playoffs. It's a different animal. You don't know want it takes to get in there, you don't know what it takes to ... what your fitness level's like or your injury level's like to get there. But to not value nine months of work is ridiculous. I've always believed that since the day I was in Dallas. I learned that from people who are a lot smarter than I who had a lot more Cups. To me, we put real value in the regular season because it sets up the playoffs; we want to do well. We want to do as well as we can, but I'm not going to lose value for the sacrifice these guys put in for 8 1/2 months.

"(Players) feel that (pressure). They feel like this is a real opportunity. You've got two teams on similar paths, us and Minnesota. We feel like to grow to the next level, we want to do some damage. But I've said this before, that's for the players. This time of year is for the guys. Our job is to support them, to guide them along, but the emotion, the accountability, it's in with the guys. They want to prove to each other, not the rest of the hockey world; they don't care about the rest of the hockey world. They care about themselves. They've worked really hard together, the big core of this group. There's 15-16 guys that have been around for a little while. They want to do some damage. I think that's really good of them. I think it's smart on their behalf to want to accomplish more than they've ever wanted to accomplish. We're going to support them, we're going to be there for them, but we also got to view this thing that it's not a one-month season, it's a nine-, 10-, 11-month season; who knows."

* Off ice Tuesday -- After a hard-working day of practice on the ice to begin layoff preparations Monday, the Blues opted for having players come in for off-ice work before getting at it again with fury on Wednesday ahead of Game 1 on Thursday, with the puck drop at 8:30 p.m.

"Every team works different," Hitchcock said. "Minny skates for three days and we opted not to. We base it on what we've done all year, and that is we work, then we rest and we work again. We have a schedule that we follow and we opt with our group not to skate at practice two days in a row. We feel like with the way we play and the way we have to play to win games, we need to recover and the way we practice, which is at a very high tempo, we need time off from having a good hockey practice." 

There was the option of taking the ice today, and some forwards Olli Jokinen, Chris Porter and Ty Rattie and defensemen Chris Butler and Robert Bortuzzo. 

"We scheduled two days of skating," Hitchcock said. "We opted to have two hard practices and a rest day in between. Today everybody came in and we had a group off-ice program that everybody followed and then we gave the option for anybody that wanted to skate was able to skate today so (assistant coach) Sean (Farrell) ran the cardio part of it on the ice if you wanted or you could do the bike ride if you wanted."

* No goalie update -- Another day, another crickets moment when it came to Hitchcock announcing a starting goalie for Game 1.

Not that an announcement was expected, but Hitchcock, who in all probability knows who he's going to start, was asked about it again Tuesday.

"No, not yet," Hitchcock said before being asked if he was going to wait.

He said with a laugh, "We'll follow the same routine we followed all year. We'll let him (Brian Elliott or Jake Allen) know the day before and then I'm sure somebody from this pile (of media members) will ask that question. We'll have to answer that question tomorrow. We'll follow the same schedule that we followed all year and we're not going to change that schedule."

Teammates again reiterated that no matter who it is, the confidence is no different in one over the other.

"Both are capable. They've been phenomenal for us all year," Ott said. "They've been a crutch. 'Moose' has carried this team on his back throughout the tough times and the good times. 'Snake's came in and done the same. He's played extremely well the last little while. Both guys are tremendous teammates."

"It's not my call. Two great goaltenders for us, they've proven that," Schwartz said. "We feel confident whoever's in, that they're going to get the job done. So we believe in both of them and that's up to the coaches really."

When asked if more is being made out of this outside the locker room, Ott smiled, "That's for you to ask Hitch. You like those types of questions, not me."

Backes added: "We could discuss that all day and truthfully I don't know who it's going to be. Whoever it is, they'll give us a great chance to win. Both Jake and Brian have had great years and whoever it is, we'll be behind them.

"I don't know what the mentality of goaltending choices is. That's above my pay-grade and I don't hope to divulge or investigate any further anything that goes on in those guys' heads."

* Former Blue passes away -- Former Blue Mark Reeds, who was an assistant coach with the Ottawa Senators, passed away early Tuesday morning. He was 55.

Reeds, who battled cancer, played for the Blues and Hartford Whalers in his career. He had 150 points in 365 career NHL games. He was also coach of the Peoria Rivermen from 1996-99.

Among those who coached Reeds, who played for the Blues from 1981-87, included Red Berenson, Barclay Plager, Jacques Demers and Jacques Martin.

He played for former Blues general manager Larry Pleau with the Whalers.

Reeds had been battling cancer for the past couple years and recently was diagnosed with inoperable cancer.

Reeds is survived by wife Mary and children Kyle and Kelsey.

"No, I did not," Hitchcock said when asked if he knew Reeds. "I coached against him when he was with Paul (MacLean), but I didn't know him personally. 

"That's a really sad situation for his family. A lot of the older guys obviously knew him, played with him. He was very close to a lot of the alumni here, so it's a tough situation."

Monday, April 13, 2015

(4-14-15) BLUES NOTEBOOK

Blues will take lessons from past and apply to present; 
Monday practice lines; Rattie to stay; Backes going home

By LOU KORAC
HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- From a results perspective, the Blues would soon rather forget the past two playoff experiences. 

But from a lesson-learned standpoint and if they can draw experience from the agony, then there's something to be said.

The Blues, who open their best-of-7 Western Conference first round series against the Minnesota Wild with Game 1 on Thursday (8:30 p.m.; FS-MW, NBCSN and KMOX 1120-AM), have won one playoff series in the past three seasons despite winning 130 regular season games (29 in the 48-game lockout 2012-13 season) and another 51 this past season.

Winning in the regular season hasn't been the problem. It's the 8-13 record in the postseason that has to change and the players are anxious to be better playoff performers.

Winning five of the last six games to end the regular season and going in with positive momentum helps, but having a healthy lineup on the ice Monday for the first practice before the postseason at the Ice Zone as opposed to last season, there's a different vibe coming from the room.

"First off, you look at we won five of our last six games, right? Last year, we lost the last six going into the playoffs," defenseman Alex Pietrangelo, who sat out the final game of the regular season, said. "We knew we'd start turning it up a notch here going into the final stretch and into the playoffs. I think we took care of that. You've got to take what you learned from last year. We know how hard it is to win, obviously. We know we're the higher seed and they're going to be coming out as hard as they can. It's the playoffs. You get into these playoffs, there's a chance for everybody. We certainly feel like we've got the best chance. 

"We always feel like we've got a chance going in, but when you win five of your last six, obviously you're going to feel confident going into the first round here. We have a lot of guys chipping in in different ways."

The biggest lesson the Blues need to learn: if they go up 2-0 in this series, on home ice mind you, like they did the past two season against the Los Angeles Kings in 2013 and the Chicago Blackhawks last season, put the pedal to the metal and stay relentless, because the Blues do not want a repeat of six-game losses both times.

"I think we know what it takes for the first two games at home; we've done that the last couple of years," defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk said. "We've won our two at home. But past that, we need to get some road wins (the Blues are 1-9 the past three postseasons). We had a very good road record this year (24-12-5)and that's something we focused on. We wanted to become a good road team. It's hard to go into another team's building and keep that momentum and gain it, but I think we know what it takes now and we have to be able to bury teams."

Yes, this Blues team is different from last season's, or the season before than and so forth, but the results happen to be the same, and until those change for the better, the guard will always be up in regards to the fan base.

"I don't know what you learn. It's a new team, new players," coach Ken Hitchcock said. "I think the only thing you learn is how difficult and hard it is and how well you have to play just to remain competitive. The only experience you want the players to absorb is to embrace how difficult it's going to be and how challenging it's going to be and really enjoy and have fun with it. I think the teams that have players that have gone through that experience, that have had success in that experience, they have a benefit. If you've got players who know what the price is to pay, the way you have to play and how you move on daily and not get absorbed or overwhelmed knowing it takes four games to win a series, that's usually where you're able to maintain a level and not get too emotional about it. You really have to take it as one day, separately from the next in the competition because you're going to go through lots of emotional upheaval and you're just going to have to learn to deal with it."

No matter how hard of a front the Blues tried to put up last season, it became clear it was too much to overcome the injuries and subsequent losses at the end of the regular season. So they go in this time around with a clear head and playing well.

"We knew how important it was not to limp into the playoffs," Shattenkirk said. "I think we not only did a great job of preserving guys and not over-extending ourselves the last few games. I think that was something that kind of hurt us last year; we lost a lot of bodies. But we just knew that playing the right way and having that kind of momentum going into the playoffs is so important and we did a great job of it down the stretch."

* Practice lines -- After a Sunday off day, the Blues got back after it at practice Monday, and the forwards and defensemen looked pretty similar to what's expected to suit up for Game 1:

Jaden Schwartz-Paul Stastny-T.J. Oshie

Alexander Steen-Jori Lehtera-Vladimir Tarasenko

Dmitrij Jaskin-David Backes-Patrik Berglund

Steve Ott-Marcel Goc-Ryan Reaves

Carl Gunnarsson-Alex Pietrangelo

Jay Bouwmeester-Zbynek Michalek

Barret Jackman-Kevin Shattenkirk

That left forwards Chris Porter, Olli Jokinen and Ty Rattie along with defensemen Chris Butler and Robert Bortuzzo as the extras, but Hitchcock said they'll look at another group on the practice ice Wednesday after an off-ice workout Tuesday. 

"That's the one we practiced (with)," Hitchcock said. "We'll change it up for Wednesday; we want to look at something different on Wednesday. We'll move two or three players around on Wednesday and see which one we like the best."

That includes Bortuzzo, who many feel has earned his way into he top six.

"I don't know that I'd go to the bank on that or some other options," Hitchcock said of Bortuzzo being on the outside looking in. "We'll make some changes on Wednesday, we'll tweak a few things and see which combos we like; not only defense pairings but forwards, too.

"I want to see what the opposition has for a lineup and see what they've got. That's going to affect the way we play our team, our players also. I want to see what (Wild coach Mike Yeo's) got going. (Who) he plays with (Mikko) Koivu will determine a lot who we're going to play on the wings."

It was a great relief for Hitchcock, who had no idea who he was going to have at practice or play last season against Chicago.

"I was telling the coaches today, the first practice we had last year, we had a day and a half off and missed seven players," Hitchcock said. "So we are a completely different group. We had five lines, we had eight defensemen and two healthy goalies going at it. Everybody survived the practice and did fine. We'll be healthy to go Wednesday and be healthy to start on Thursday. It's such a different feeling because we were in this question mark, gray area last year up until the pre-game skate. We're not there. We know what's going, so we're able to prepare a lot differently, which I think is going to really help us."

* Rattie staying -- With 25 ready, willing and able bodies on the ice Monday, there was some question whether forward Ty Rattie would get assigned to the Chicago Wolves, who will be in the postseason and Rattie could be available for their remaining season. But Hitchcock confirmed Rattie will stay with the Blues for the remainder of the season.

"Yeah, he's a potential player if we have a problem in this series injury-wise or whatever; he's a potential player," Hitchcock said of Rattie. "We've really liked his game. We've really liked the way he's competed. We really like his board play and vision on the ice. It looks like he's a guy that can help us in the future for sure."

* Backes going home -- A native of Minneapolis, Backes is one player that is as motivated as anyone to play in this playoff series.

Or is he?

"It's going to be more expensive buying away tickets, that's for sure," Backes joked. "For me, it's Year 9 in the league and it's time we do some real damage in the playoffs. Whether we're at my hometown or in some foreign country somewhere, it doesn't really matter. We need to win games, that's really my focus."