Halak replaced to spark team; Hensick recalled, Cracknell reassigned
By LOUIE KORAC
HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- It happens often in hockey: a goalie gets pulled during a game, whether it's for poor play or the coach is trying to spark a jolt from the rest of his team.
In the case of Jaroslav Halak on Thursday night, Blues coach Davis Payne was sending a message to his team.
The Toronto Maple Leafs had just scored three goals in a four-minute span to erase a 2-1 Blues lead midway through the second period. One might say Halak wasn't sharp, allowing four goals on 19 shots.
Could a save or two been made? Perhaps. But the Blues' lethargic coverage in their own end sparked a change to Ty Conklin.
Although the move didn't pay immediate dividends, the Blues were able to respond with three unanswered goals in the third period after falling behind 5-2 to at least gain a point out of Thursday's 6-5 shootout loss at Air Canada Centre.
"It had nothing to do with the way Jaro was playing. Jaro was fine," Conklin said Friday after practice. "It was just kind of one of those things where maybe you just slow things down a little bit, try to take a deep breath. That's the way to do it other than a timeout. It was just trying to get the team going.
"Obviously in the third period, we carried the play. It was a game where both teams had chances, but we certainly out-numbered their chances. ... I thought we were going to (win) it with the way things were going."
Payne alluded to the fact that the team needed to be jolted when asked if Halak could have made some stops.
"Lots could have been done before it gets to him," he said.
The Blues (20-13-6), who host the red-hot New York Rangers (24-15-3) at 7 p.m. today, can take some comfort in knowing the comeback ability is in them even though it's not the most ideal situation to be in.
"That kind of stuff's important," said Conklin. "You can bank that for later games knowing you can do it, you've done it before."
* Hensick recalled, Cracknell reassigned -- The Blues on Friday recalled forward T.J. Hensick from AHL Peoria and optioned forward Adam Cracknell to the Rivermen.
Hensick, in his third stint with the Blues this season, was leading Peoria with 22 assists and 31 points in 26 games. Hensick got the call late Thursday night while the Rivermen were in Oklahoma City preparing for a game Friday night.
"I wasn't expecting it," Hensick said. "Just from watching from afar, it looked like the team had been playing pretty well. I didn't think they were going to make a change."
On Friday, Hensick was playing right wing on a line with Alex Steen and Patrik Berglund and may see action this time around in a top six role.
"I've been putting up decent numbers with (Graham) Mink and (Derek) Nesbitt down there in Peoria," Hensick said. "Sometimes that doesn't translate to the NHL level, but hopefully playing with a guy like Steen, he's one of the best players I've played with in a while. I'm looking forward to the opportunity.
"I was a center every game in Peoria, but whatever. Wherever they want me to play, I'll play. Hopefully, I get a chance to play with those two guys tomorrow night. Obviously they're high-end skill players that put up good numbers and give me a chance to maybe showcase a little skill."
Said Payne, "We want to take a look and see how he fits on the right side there with Bergy and Steener. Obviously he's got some skills."
* Crombeen to center -- Forward B.J. Crombeen, a winger by trade, will possibly line up at center tonight when the Blues host the Rangers.
With Hensick appeared set to play wing on Berglund's line, Crombeen was down the middle on the Blues' fourth line flanked by Chris Porter and Cam Janssen.
"I have a little bit of comfort doing it," said Crombeen, who was used down the middle for a portion of last season. "It's just something where you go out and do what you're asked to do and go try and do it your best.
"The different responsibilities you have through the three zones is probably the biggest adjustment. The way we play, you're kind of rotating in and out anyway. ... I don't think it should be too hard of an adjustment."
Payne looks at it more as adding some defensive punch to that fourth group.
"He's an intelligent defensive hockey player," Payne said of Crombeen. "This is something he and I have talked about as far as rounding out his role as a checking forward. It adds value to what he can do. As a penalty-killing guy, he's well versed in defensive aspects."
* Winchester shines -- After a three-goal season a year ago and some uncertainty heading into free agency this past summer, Brad Winchester is making the most of the one-year, $700,000 contract the Blues gave him.
After scoring Thursday, Winchester already had doubled last year's goal total with six and the Blues are still not at the midway point in the season.
Winchester's career-high of 13 goals came in his first season with the Blues in 2008-09 and is within reach of that number, and he's doing it playing with a host of linemates.
"I'm just trying to be around the net," Winchester said. "If I can be around the net or take pucks to the net, if I have an opportunity to do that, that's what I'm looking to do.
"Almost everybody here, we've played with each other. Wherever they put me is fine."
Payne says when Winchester is at his best, it's when he's physical and drives the net with authority and regularity.
"He's a big body who skates well," Payne said. "He's finding the right ways to be effective. Credit to him for that. He's a guy that's got a nose for the net. He's comfortable. ... With that type of ability, you make sure his foundation pieces are strong (on the) wall, strong fore-check, strong defensive posture, good reads in any of our coverage situations. How all of the sudden, he can get skating, get hitting and getting to the net. That makes for a tough guy to defend."
Winchester's style of play should rub off on his teammates, according to his coach.
"It should," Payne said. "That type of physical energy, it should take us further into the game physically (and) emotionally. It should take our battle level to a certain place. He needs to make sure he understands he has a leadership role in that category. He needs to continue to make those statements for our club."
Winchester is second on the team in shooting percentage at 15.4 percent, behind David Perron's 17.2 percent, although Perron (concussion) has played in only 10 games.
"He's playing with that consistency every night," Crombeen said of Winchester. "He's going hard to the net. He's a big body. He's tough to contain with his size and his strength. Everyone knew he had the ability to do it. It's good to see him pot a few and hopefully, he can keep it going here."
* Shootout woes -- After allowing three goals on four attempts Thursday, Conklin has now surrendered six goals on seven chances this season.
Conklin did stop Phil Kessel on the Leafs' initial try but then allowed consecutive goals to Mikhail Grabovski, Kris Versteeg and Tyler Bozak's game-winner.
Versteeg's was one Conklin he wishes he could have back.
"If I get down a little bit harder, I stop that," he said. "But that's just the way it's been going in shootouts for me this year."
Payne never considered going back to Halak for the shootout, but as rare as it is, it's been done before. Conklin said it happened to him when he was in Edmonton.
"You play for 65 minutes. It's unfair for the guy that gets put in there," Conklin said. "In all honesty, it really is because you come off the bench and you're cold and sitting there for two-and-a-half hours."
When asked if he was upset, Conklin replied, "Absolutely."
* Odds and ends -- The Blues last lost to the Rangers in regulation was Jan. 22, 2000, a span of 11 straight games in which the Blues have eight wins, two overtime/shootout losses and one tie.
The Rangers, after Friday's 3-2 shootout win in Dallas, are 7-2-2 in their last 11 games and are sixth in the Eastern Conference with 51 points. The Blues are in a tie for ninth place with 46 points but two points removed from fourth in the Western Conference.