By LOUIE KORAC
ST. LOUIS -- It's been more than three months since Ken Hitchcock took over the reigns of the St. Louis Blues, but winger T.J. Oshie remembers a specific point of emphasis.
"When Hitch came in, step one was getting pucks to the net and funneling pucks to the net," Oshie said. "That's the very first thing he said, we're shooting pucks every chance we get. And we've gotten away from that. I think that's the biggest part, getting back to that ... then after that, guys are going to be getting more scoring opportunities."
Following a disturbing 2-1 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets, owners of the worst record in the NHL, on Tuesday night, the Blues (34-15-7), who entertain the rising New York Islanders (24-24-8) tonight, have gotten back to it the last couple days. And the message is funnel pucks to the net, specifically off the goalie's pads.
"It was nothing that was too technical out there," defenseman Barret Jackman said of practice. "It was a lot of straightforward 3-on-2 rushes, 5-on-5 play, getting the pucks on net, battling in front of the net. That's the way our team should play ... very simple, very direct. Getting that work ethic back mentally is a good sign."
And why did things need to be reiterated?
"I think we were trying to move a lot of pucks sideways (Tuesday) instead of just putting the puck on net and letting those guys drive the net and getting rebounds and getting the dirty goals," Jackman said. "I think we were trying to maybe make plays above the d-men where they can get sticks on it or their trackers could come back and be effective. I think it's tough for a d-man when a shot goes in behind you off the pads, you've got to turn around, find it and box a guy out. That's what you need to do.
"Collectively, I think it's the worst game we've played all year. I don't think we played a strong team game, I don't think we won many battles and won clean draws that turned into scoring chances. Our defensive play was not there."
The loss Tuesday thwarted the the Blues' fifth chance at a five-game winning streak this season. They've amazingly had a handful of four-game winning streaks. They have been good at nipping prolonged losing skids in the bud effectively this season.
The Blues have a neighbor roughly 300 miles north in Chicago that is currently living a nightmarish 0-8-1 losing skid. Things can snowball on you quickly, and the Blues have gone no more than three straight games with a loss (only once when they were 0-2-1).
"I think they realize that good teams can go through bad stretches, and you have to recognize it right away," Hitchcock said. "First, know that there's a problem and you're willing to look at the problem right square in the eye and then deal with it.
"I was impressed with the way guys dealt with it (Wednesday). The response at practice was good. It was competitive, guys had fun competing against each other, it was a lot like game-like situations. A lot of competitive scoring and guys really dug in and did a good job. I'm impressed by that. Now it's all about the response. We want to get back on the bike (tonight) and start to play well again."
Added Oshie: "It's been tough on (Chicago) and we talked about that. That's not where we want to be. This could be a step in that direction but hopefully we save it, hopefully everyone bears down. ... (Tonight) is a huge game for us ... character-wise as a team, if we can bounce back from a tough loss."
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Since returning to the lineup Dec. 27, Blues forward B.J. Crombeen has slipped back into his role as a fourth line, grind-it-out, fight-when-necessary type of player. Although the penalty killing duties have diminished, Crombeen has been a player Hitchcock has been pleased with.
Tonight against the Islanders, Crombeen will take a role on the team's third line, playing with Jason Arnott and Vladimir Sobotka.
It's a little more of an increased role, with the third line expected to contribute offensively when given the chance, but according to Crombeen, things stay the same as far as he's concerned.
"It doesn't really doesn't change anything for me," he said. "I've just got to go up and play my game. I don't read too much into the lines. Obviously they change a lot during games and penalties and different things that get switched all around. I think that's the mindset a lot of the guys have. With the group of guys we have, it doesn't really matter.
"You go into every game hoping to contribute offensively and stuff like that. Playing with a guy like Sobe, who I've played with before, and Arny, they've got some pretty good offensive instincts. I can't change my game. I've got to play my same way. Get in there, create some room for them on the forecheck and get to the front of the net and let them do their stuff."
So can we expect to see some toe-drags ... maybe a dangle of the puck or whip a shot between his legs?
"If you see one of those, I don't think I'll be anywhere near here anymore," Crombeen said laughing.
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As a teammate, Chris Porter knows what Chris Stewart is going through. He's been through the trials and tribulations of cracking a lineup and sticking in a position. There's also that aspect of struggling, which seems to be the case for the inconsistent Stewart, who will start on the fourth line tonight with Porter and Scott Nichol.
In Porter's case, he'll do all he can to help his teammate get off the ground running.
"I don't think I can really change my game for him, but you just keep positive, keep him going," Porter said of Stewart. "He has a ton of skill obviously. Things may not be going his way offensively, but I think maybe playing with Scotty and I, we can play simple and just try to grind out greasy goals.
"Me and Scotty keep it pretty simple, so I think Stewy knows what to expect. We're obviously going to chip pucks and work. Hopefully we can get Stewy on board. It's not that he hasn't been working. I don't know what it is for a player. I've played with players I've felt more comfortable with. Stewy and I have played together before this year. I thought we played well together."
Porter said he expects Stewart, who has 11 goals and 22 points in 53 games, to play with fire in the gut tonight.
"Nobody wants to be called out for their play," Porter said. "I think he has a little bit to prove. I expect nothing but hard work and a good game from him."
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The good news continues to flow in for the Blues.
The team activated Arnott (shoulder) and defenseman Kent Huskins (ankle) from injured reserve today and both will be in the lineup against the Islanders tonight.
As for defenseman Carlo Colaiacovo, who appeared to injure his right wrist at practice Wednesday, he won't play tonight, but Hitchcock said there was no serious damage after X-rays were taken and he's hopeful Colaiacovo can return to practice Friday.
"Carlo feels a little bit better today, but we're going to hold him out and hopefully get him skating in practice tomorrow," Hitchcock said.
As for Huskins, who missed 46 games blocking a shot Oct. 28 at Calgary, he slips in and will play with Alex Pietrangelo, who he played with for a good portion of the nine games he played in earlier this season.
"He's a real steadying influence," Hitchcock said of Huskins. "The nine games he played with Petro, he played really well. There's not much in a dropoff here. He's look really good now for four days in practice. Games are a different situation, but he's such an experienced competitive guy. He's going to give us big help. He's a guy that manages his game well. He's a real determined, smart player. I think him and Petro have some background. When you get a player like this back in the lineup, it's a big boost depth-wise.
"Adding someone like this, he's been out so long, it's like adding a free player again. Getting him and (Andy) McDonald is like adding free players right now."
Arnott missed six games after injuring his shoulder slamming into the boards following a hit against Los Angeles and winger Dustin Brown on Feb. 3.
"Arnott was playing so well in the game that he got hurt," Hitchcock said. "Him and Sobe have been great together. We'll either use Stewart there or Crombeen or whatever works. Hopefully, we get those guys up and running right away."
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Count Hitchcock as a fan of Islanders sensation John Tavares, the No. 1 overall pick of the 2009 NHL Draft.
Tavares, who has 22 goals and 55 points in 56 games this season, played for Hitchcock last summer for Team Canada at the World Championships in Slovakia. He led Canada with five goals, four assists and nine points in seven games under Hitchcock.
"I think Tavares is an elite player in the league right now. I really liked him as a player in the world championships," Hitchcock said. "He was arguably our best player by the end of the tournament. I think as good a player he is, I think he's still an underrated player.
"Everybody said 'Not sure if he can help you here, blah, blah, blah.' They were worried about his speed on the big surface, which was not relevant at all. They were worried about his quickness ... he pulled away on guys. And he is really strong on the puck. To me, he's Jonathan Toews-strong on the puck. He's a heck of a player and he has puck patience like not very many players do. He's got strength and puck patience where he's able to protect the puck ... I don't think there's maybe five guys in the league that can play like that."
Tavares said he learned a lot under Hitchcock.
"He was very thorough," Tavares said of Hitchcock. "For young players, that can be really helpful understanding parts of the game. He understood managing the game. Coaching the game, you could tell what he expected from you and how we wanted to approach every game and what he expected out of us. He pushed the right buttons at the right times and did the right things in giving us a chance to win. It's good to see him doing well now.
"When I go to a tournament like that representing my country, it's a chance for me to learn from not only my teammates but a guy like him that's got so much knowledge and experience in the game. I definitely tried to learn from him and find some things that can make me a great player."
Tavares' play in Slovakia certainly has carried over to his third season in the NHL.
"I just think it's the overall mindset of the player, a player that wants to be an all-star, that wants to put the team on his back," Islanders coach Jack Capuano said of Tavares. "How do you do that? It starts in the summer, starts with his training, his preparation, how he prepares for the season. He's finding his way through this league now.
"He is an elite player. He's going to continue to get better. He's a lot stronger on the puck now, playing with more confidence and the ability to make some plays."
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When No. 16 of the Islanders steps out onto the ice tonight, there may not be many Blues fans that remember, but Marty Reasoner was the Blues' No. 1 pick (14th overall) way back in the 1996 NHL Draft.
Reasoner, who played parts of three seasons with the Blues totaling 95 games (17 goals, 30 assists), is on his sixth franchise now after signing a one-year deal to play on Long Island this past summer.
"It's a story of survival trying to hang on," Reasoner said. "When I came in coming out of college, I was scoring a lot of points. I was an offensive guy. Even here, I was put in that role a little bit on and off. I had short spurts of success. It was definitely a big learning experience, learning to become a pro and how to play. It's that evolution of a player: you start out one way and you get chewed up and spit out totally different. I look at myself now and that was like I was a different person."
Reasoner credited current Director of Hockey Operations Al MacInnis and team color analyst Kelly Chase as being most influential on his career and mentioned players like current assistant coach Scott Mellanby, Pierre Turgeon and Scott Young as players he enjoyed here.
"Starting as a young guy, it was an exciting time," Reasoner said. "We had some pretty good teams and some pretty good memories. I learned a lot as a player. At times it seems like a long time but other times, it seems like it was yesterday. It was definitely a fun time and it's good to see this organization come full circle and back to its winning ways. It's definitely a great sports town.
"There's a lot of range of emotions as far as it being your first team, good memories. It's definitely a special place. It's always fun to come back and play and relive old times. There's not much of that team left. There's been a lot of turnover. I don't know if that's just me being around too long or there's been that much turnover. It was definitely a great time, played with some great players and learned a lot from some very good players in this league."
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Sticking with the Blues reunion theme, current Islanders Sr. Advisor to the general manager and assistant coach Doug Weight is back in St. Louis as well.
Weight, who spent parts of six seasons and two stints with the Blues, playing in 364 of his 1,238 games (75 goals, 220 assists), retired from the game after the 2010-11 season after19 seasons in the game.
"It's been fun, it's been educational and I've learned a lot in helping (general manager) Garth (Snow) on the managerial side and certainly being on the bench, these coaches have been good to me, and it's been very educational," Weight said. "To be around the game, and what we're trying to build here, it's exhilarating. It's never going to feel like when you're walking out of the tunnel, going on the ice and competing, but certainly the next best thing."
Weight was traded twice by the Blues, once to Carolina near the trade deadline in 2006 before resigning here in the off-season, and again in 2007 to Anaheim that netted the Blues McDonald.
"They seemed to have found their ground and the way they have to play," Weight said of the Blues. "Of course they've had some great goaltending and that's been a key for them. But they're battling and they're committed ... it's going to be great to see the fans and it's going to be a great atmosphere tonight."
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The Islanders, eight points in back of Toronto in the Eastern Conference, know their challenge is great tonight despite a 4-0-1 run in their last five road tilts.
The Blues are tied with Detroit for most home wins (24) and are 16-0-3 in their last 19 games at Scottrade Center. Their last regulation home loss was Dec. 3 against the Chicago Blackhawks.
"We're up against a real good hockey team tonight," Capuano said. "We're going to have to be at our best.
"It's a challenge and it's a good challenge. It gives us a chance for our team to see where we're at to play against a big, physical team. A team that's got good size, good goaltending, special teams. They've really done well on home ice. They're a stingy team, there's no question. They play solid defensively. The territorial edge will be key in tonight's game for sure."
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The Blues' probable lineup tonight:
David Perron-David Backes-T.J. Oshie
Andy McDonald-Patrik Berglund-Jamie Langenbrunner
Vladimir Sobotka-Jason Arnott-B.J. Crombeen
Chris Porter-Scott Nichol-Chris Stewart
Barret Jackman-Kevin Shattenkirk
Kent Huskins-Alex Pietrangelo
Kris Russell-Roman Polak
Brian Elliott gets the start in goal; Jaroslav Halak is the backup.
The Blues activated Arnott (shoulder) and Huskins (ankle) off injured reserve Thursday. Huskins missed 46 games after breaking a bone in his left ankle blocking a shot in Calgary on Oct. 28. Arnott was injured on Feb. 3 against the Los Angeles Kings and missed the previous six games. The Blues are without LW Alex Steen (concussion symptoms) and RW Matt D'Agostini (concussion). Steen will miss his 21st straight game tonight and has been out of the lineup since Dec. 27. D'Agostini was injured Feb. 7 in Ottawa and will miss his fifth consecutive game. Colaiacovo appeared to have injured his right wrist at practice Wednesday sliding into the corner boards but Hitchcock said he's feeling better and hopes to have the left-handed defenseman for practice Friday. F Ryan Reaves is the lone healthy scratch.
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The Islanders' probable lineup tonight:
Matt Moulson-John Tavares-Kyle Okposo
Michael Grabner-Frans Nielsen-PA Parenteau
Brian Rolston-Josh Bailey-Matt Martin
Jay Pandolfo-Marty Reasoner-Nino Niederreiter
Mark Streit-Ty Wishart
Mark Eaton-Milan Jurcina
Aaron Ness-Andrew MacDonald
Al Montoya gets the start in goal for Evgeni Nabokov, who was a late scratch with the flu.
Players sidelined for the Islanders include G Rick DiPietro (sports hernia/knee), D Travis Hamonic (nose/face), D Mark Katic (shoulder), D Mike Mottau (concussion) and D Dylan Reese (MCL sprain). The healthy scratch is RW Tim Wallace. D Steve Staios is also out with the stomach flu.