Thursday, November 18, 2010

Blues facing adversity for first time

After franchise-best start to season, injuries
catching up to team in five-game rut (0-4-1)

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- When the Blues had their seven-game winning streak snapped and dropped back-to-back games last week to Columbus and Nashville, they were thinking maybe it was just a small speedbump during a long season.

After all, teams go through ups and downs throughout the course of an 82-game schedule. It would have been difficult for the Blues to maintain its stretch of games by winning with minimal goal-scoring, stellar defensive play and phenomenal goaltending.

But after Wednesday night's 7-3 loss in Detroit, a game in which the game was tied 3-3 with under eight minutes to play, the Blues limped home with a speedbump that's turned into a deepened pothole.

They open a quick two-game homestand today against the Ottawa Senators (7 p.m. on FS Midwest, KMOX 1120-AM) carrying a five-game winless skid (0-4-1) with them and feeling flummoxed after a franchise-best 9-1-2 start to the season.

How does a team that through 12 games was No. 1 in the league in goals allowed per game (1.42) suddenly see the floodgates open on them? Has the defensive coverage been that bad, has the goaltending turned sour, have the forwards been lax in defensive zone coverage?

The answer is all of the above.

The Blues, who gave up 17 goals through 12 games (minus shootout results), have surrendered 28 in the last five games, upping their goals allowed per game to 2.65 while only scoring 2.47.

The panic alarm doesn't need to be forged, but some cause for concern is understandably justified.

"It's hard to pinpoint anything specifically," defenseman Erik Johnson said. "It's coverage breakdowns, it's communication, it's a lot of different aspects that have broken down and snow-balled. If we had the exact formula, it would be fixed right now. We know what we did in the first couple games. We were giving up one goal a game and we need to get back to that."

Added winger Brad Boyes, who has goals in three straight games for the first time since the 2008-09 season, "I think we've played some solid hockey. The scores really aren't what the games are."

Case-in-point, Wednesday night's game in Detroit, where the Blues played some of their best hockey since their losing slide began for the first 40 minutes of that game. But Detroit grabbed a 4-3 lead that started a four-goal outburst in a span of 3 minutes, 14 seconds.

Just like that, the losing continued.

"Obviously, I think we wish we could replay those couple minutes where we just kind of fell apart there," said Johnson, who led the Blues in ice time Wednesday at 24:27. "It just kind of snowballed on us. We did a lot of really good things in that game, then just a couple breakdowns and they just pounded them in.

"When the first one happened, we just needed to take a deep breath and slow the pace down a little bit and get back to our game. They just kept coming one after another. We couldn't keep up with it."

So in losses to Columbus, Nashville, Phoenix, Colorado and Detroit, the Blues have allowed right, three (counting the shootout winner against the Predators), five, six and seven goals. And Jaroslav Halak, who was making Montreal Canadiens fans cringe every time he would win a game early in the season, has seen his play fall drastically.

The man the Blues anointed the No. 1 goaltender in the present and the future has allowed 19 goals on 95 shots (he's 0-3-1 during that stretch) after only giving up 15 goals on 266 shots to begin the season.

"I'm sure that he would agree that it's not the performances he had earlier in the season, and that has an affect on the team," Blues coach Davis Payne said of Halak. "Any time you get big saves, your team's able to maintain traction and continue to play their game. Now we've gotten into a situation where we've seen pucks go into our net and we've looked to change our formula a little bit. I thought we got ourselves back to that last night in the first couple periods. I know we gave up some chances against a talented hockey club, but we also played a pretty solid team game."

Halak, who started the season 8-1-1 with a 1.46 goals-against average and a .944 save percentage, is now 8-4-2 with a 2.48 GAA and .906 save percentage and is looking very mortal.

"I don't know what it is," Halak said after Thursday's practice at St. Louis Mills. "It's frustrating obviously, but we just need to find a way to keep it simple. If you can do it, let's go game by game and see what happens.

"We just need to keep it simple. ... The same thing for me, I just need to keep it simple, too. Hopefully tomorrow, we can turn it around."

It's no secret the Blues have been decimated with injuries to key players. Defensemen Barret Jackman (knee) and Roman Polak (wrist) along with forwards T.J. Oshie (broken ankle) and David Perron (concussion) are severely testing the mettle of this current group.

Players don't like to make excuses about injured players, but in this case, it's tough to overlook the significance of the missing pieces.

"The obvious is we're missing very, very important guys to our lineup," said defenseman Carlo Colaiacovo, who returned Monday against Colorado after missing seven games with a concussion himself. "But you never want to sit here and make excuses for that. We've got to battle through that and play with the guys that we have. We're confident with the guys that we have. We've just got to find a way to grind out games."

Have the Blues gotten away from what made them the stingiest team in the league, which was play that hard-nosed five-man game that reaped the rewards through 12 games? When the forwards were back-checking and clogging up the neutral zone and ice in the high portion of the defensive zone, the d-men were aggressive enough to close off the remaining gaps that limited the opposition's scoring chances.

In this recent five-game funk, the Blues have allowed too much real estate on the ice and it's costing them dearly. Teams have been able to score goals in bunches.

"That's what made us such a good team," Johnson said. "We had a good five-man return. It's not just the D doing the work, it's the forwards all collapsing the ice and helping us out. They've done a great job of that. Sometimes, you get away from that a little bit.

"In order for us to be successful, we need all five guys pulling the rope. It's a fast game out there and you really have to communicate through everything. We need a five-man return and a five-man game up the ice and back down the ice in order to be successful. It's been frustrating lately, but these are the times you learn from, get better from. It's good that we're going through this now instead of later in the season when we're making the playoff run."

Added Payne, "Any time you reach out and touch something hot, your first reaction is to pull back. I think we've pulled back a little bit in not necessarily being aggressive defensively but in being aware and reading things clearly, concisely and ahead of the play. I think that's really all it takes in this league. You give guys just that little bit of opportunity, and next thing you know, it's in your net.

"Our goaltenders haven't bailed us out like they did in that winning streak. We all know we've got to play a part in it ... forwards, D, goaltenders, coaches, we've all got to make sure our head is on straight and the awareness is heightened and we work through this thing to bust ourselves out of it."

The Blues, who are the last remaining team unbeaten in regulation (6-0-1) at home, need to find those recipes that made them the talk of the league early on.

"Just keep doing things that we are doing well (correctly)," Boyes said. "Keep doing those and we'll eventually get out of it. If we keep working hard, if we keep going to the net, playing in the offensive zone and getting 35-40 shots a game like we are, things will turn around for us. We've played a very tight game and have kind of loosened it up a little bit. If we get back to tightening things up and not giving up as many chances as we have, if we get back to that, we'll turn around."

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