Monday, February 20, 2012

Blues not learning valuable lessons of beating elite teams on the road

They allow another to slip away at Chicago; Hitchcock calls out top players

ST. LOUIS -- There have been times when Ken Hitchcock has voiced disappointment during his tenure with the Blues. But after Sunday's 3-1 loss at Chicago, the veteran coach, it was clearly visible that he was upset with his team, despite a season's worth of strong play.

It all hinges on the fact that the Blues have found ways to allow games well within reach -- particularly on the road against teams considered upper-class squads -- to slip away.

Go back to Dec. 27 when the Blues (36-16-7) led mighty Detroit 2-0 in their barn, the same barn that how has seen the Winged Wheel reel off 23 wins in a row on. That was around the time when Hitchcock said teams wouldn't be taking the Blues lightly anymore, playing them in that second wave of games.
(Getty Images)
The Blues' Jamie Langenbrunner (15), seen here pursuing Chicago's
Viktor Stalberg Sunday, had a strong outing in a 3-1 loss to the Hawks.

The Wings got a late second period goal and then Detroit, as Hitch likes to term it: "dialed it up." The Blues lost that game 3-2.

Sunday's 3-1 loss at Chicago had a similar feel to it.

The Blues led 1-0 after a first period that could have been 2-0 or 3-0 easily with some of the scoring opportunities they had. The scoring chances in the first period alone were 7-1 in favor of the Blues.

They skated on thin ice, despite holding a 1-0 lead heading into the final 20 minutes of play. The Blues had been strong with third-period leads, going 25-1-1 on the season. They had allowed only four goals in their previous 22 games in the third period. They nearly matched that in one game with Chicago's three goals that doomed the Blues. It sent a team desperately searching for its identity on the road scratching their collective heads.

"I don't think we've learned a lesson," Hitchcock boldly said afterwards. "If we did, we would have done it. We haven't learned a lesson.

"It's a highly-competitive league with good teams. The only lesson you learn is you dig in harder. The difference is that we had people who weren't performers today from the start to the finish. It didn't come up in the first period, it came up in the second and third. They got pushed out."

The Blues, who are in that home dominance category with the Wings at 26-3-4, are only 10-13-3 away from Scottrade Center. They have scored 148 goals on the season, with 97 of them coming at home (65.5 percent) and only 51 on the road, or 1.96 goals per game, which ranks 29th in the NHL (Buffalo has 50 in 27 games).

"We've got a strong team here, but at times, we let it slide here for whatever reason," said forward Andy McDonald, who scored the Blues' lone goal Sunday but could not convert a shorthanded break-in during the first period. "We have to find a way to have that consistency. If you want the way Detroit plays, it's the same through three periods. They don't stray too much from their game. We have to find the kind of effort where we're not having a dropoff for whatever amount of time.

"I really liked the way we came out and played in the first (Sunday). We came out strong, a tough building to come out strong. We outshot them (15-4) and had a lot of scoring chances. After that, we just couldn't get back on track and the game got scrambly. It's certainly not a game we like to play."

The Blues are 2-4 in their last six road tilts, and in those four losses, have scored a total of one goal in each of them.

"It's a case of not sticking to our game long enough," said captain David Backes, who was the unfortunate victim of having Sunday's game-winner from Dave Bolland go in off his skate. "We felt pretty good about the first period. We were on a roll. ... When you only have half of your forwards going on the road, it's going to be tough to win. That's the case tonight.

"We had chances, maybe three posts in the first period ... it doesn't go in, but we can't get discouraged or change our game. If we just stay on the gas, stay the way we're playing, get pucks deep, we're in good shape. But we let them hang around and let them hang around."

The Blues let the Blackhawks hang around because they didn't get what they needed from all 12 of their forwards. Hitchcock cited the Patrik Berglund line, which along with McDonald and Jamie Langenbrunner accounted for 13 of the team's 30 shots, as well as the line of Scott Nichol with B.J. Crombeen and Ryan Reaves.

The other six forwards? Not what the coach was looking for.

"We need more from the top nine, period," Hitchcock said. "We're not getting it from the top nine on the road. We got a good game from Berglund's line, we got a great game again from Nichol's line, but the other two lines have got to give us a lot more if we expect to win."
(Getty Images)
The Blues' Roman Polak (46) pushes the puck out of the Blues zone in
between Chicago's Patrick Sharp (10) and Jonathan Toews on Sunday.

Added McDonald: "For our team, our top two lines or even top three lines have got to be providing the scoring chances," . When you have one line going, it's too easy for the other team to shut your offense down. We really need contributions from our top six forwards. That's going to be the key for us going forward.

"We've got great goaltending, team defense ... we're really strong. It's just going to be whether we get that depth scoring that we need."

Against the 'Big Four' of the West, which consists of Detroit, Vancouver, Chicago and San Jose, the Blues are respectable at 8-5-1, but take away the Sharks and Canucks, they're 3-5 against the Wings and Blackhawks. Add Nashville to the mix, and the Blues are 0-2-2 against the Predators.

"It's not learning lessons," Hitchcock said. "It's what level are you willing to compete at. Obviously Chicago has a winning track record. They've got people ... they've gone through their ups and downs with it all year. They've competed hard the last three games. We dialed it up early and then we weren't there later."

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