Sunday, January 9, 2011

Players-only meeting more a rallying cry than shouting session

Blues support one another, searching for ways to improve;
host Phoenix tonight trying to kick three-game slide

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- First, it was a players-only meeting Saturday night. Then, it was a Sunday practice that never took place.

It makes for some intriguing drama around the Blues, especially for those fans that came to St. Louis Mills for an 11:30 a.m. practice Sunday, only to be left staring at an empty sheet of ice.

No, the Blues, who fell 2-1 to the New York Rangers Saturday and are now winless in three straight (0-2-1), did not seclude themselves from the rest of the world. They didn't jaunt off to a remote cabin for some retreat time.

They did get together Sunday. This time, coaches got involved in the confines of The Ice Zone inside the Mills, all to discuss how to get back to some winning ways when the Blues host Phoenix at 8 p.m. today.

But it all started Saturday after the loss, one in which the Blues went 0-for-6 on the power play (they're 2-for-29 dating back to Dec. 16) that included a four-minute power play in the third period. A couple turnovers that led to both Ranger goals and it made for a very uneasy conclusion to the night.

Afterwards, the players decided that it was time to make some things known within the walls of the locker room. Nothing controversial. Just some good old-fashioned player bonding time.

"It's more just dialogue, see what we can do as a team to get better," said veteran defenseman Barret Jackman, an alternate captain. "There was no finger-pointing. No complaints. It was more just questions within the group to see as individuals ... as far as what we could do to make ourselves better and make the game easier for ourselves."

Coach Davis Payne wanted to make clear that the meeting was nothing more than guys rallying around one another. No screaming. No shouting. Just some recharging of the batteries and reassurances.

"I don't think it's about letting things off the chest," Payne said. "I think it's about drawing guys closer to the process, closer to what our standard is, closer to how we need to play as a team. I think that's what leadership does, that's what we as coaches do, that's what our team has to do. We know the strength of our team is our team strength."

When this mini losing skid began a week ago Sunday, the Blues (20-14-6) were in fifth place in the Western Conference. Today, they sit in 12th place. It's such a fine line to play in the west these days.

"That type of focus there last night (after the game) from the players, is the same sort of focus we had here this morning as a group to make sure that we understand three games ago, we play a great team game against Chicago," Payne said, speaking of the Dec. 28 3-1 win over the Hawks. "We haven't reapplied that same type of 60 minutes."

The 82-game schedule is a long one, and understandably so, there will be ups and downs to the grind of the regular season. But the Blues' season has been either an extended up or an extended down.

Their season has gone as follows: win two, lose three, win seven, lose five, win three, lose five, win two, lose two, win one, lose two, win five and now ... lose three. They've never been able to nip it after one loss.

"We have those good games, likes the ones against Chicago (Dec. 28) and Vancouver (Dec. 5)," forward Vladimir Sobotka said. "Then we have three or four bad games. ... It's kind of hard to answer (why). I feel like we just have to work harder. We have to do it on the ice and not just say it in the locker room. We have to just go play, win battles and put the puck deep.

"I just think it's about work ethic. Just put the puck deep, have a good fore-check, good sticks and just shoot the puck. We have a great team. We just have to execute on the ice. It's about work ethic. Play hard, work hard, get good efforts, second efforts and good puck decisions."

Jackman says it's all part of the process.

"Sometimes you get on a roll and you get some bounces, sometimes when you don't play well, you find a way to win a game and other times, you play really well and you lose," he said. "It's just the way the game is. Sometimes you run into a hot goaltender, sometimes you run into some different circumstances. It's not really playing bad. It's not getting the results."

The biggest message coaches wanted to get across to the players on Sunday is that they're not far off from turning some of these losses into winnable games and gaining those points instead of wondering how a point here or a point there could help at season's end.

A key power play goal. Maybe a blocked shot. Or good, sustained pressure on the offensive zone, among other things.

"Over the course of 60 minutes, it doesn't take much in this league," Payne said. "The difference between winning and losing is so small that with that small margin, you have to accomplish in volume. It's like a profit margin. You've got to sell a lot of it, which means we've got to sell a lot of our game to our opponent and make sure that we accomplish a 60-minute volume performance in order to get a win."

They hope it all starts with the Coyotes (19-13-9), who the Blues beat here 4-3 on New Year's Eve -- their last win.

"We don't need guys stepping out and trying to do too much beyond what our structure and what our team concept looks like. We'll gain all the success we need from that, and we'll walk away feeling great about that. Sometimes, a team may get the better of you, but it's about how we play as a group that's important to us.

"We've had a couple cylinders missing, a couple cylinders misfiring and the timing has been off here the last few games. We've got to make sure that we brought the car back into the garage, we got her tuned back up and it's ready to roll tomorrow."

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