By LOUIE KORAC
ST. LOUIS -- Blues defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk has by his own admission been a streaky player. So when the 23-year-old recently went through a stretch without a point in 14 of 15 games, the tendencies are to try and press the issue, force something that may not be there.
"When things kind of take a downward spiral for me, I start thinking too much," Shattenkirk said. "You can see it out there just in some stagnant play. That's something that we talk about day in and day out is just go out there and play, skate and let everything kind of come naturally to you. (The coaches) know as well as anyone that I like to play off my instincts and I react to plays more to kind of set (the teammates) up ahead of time. It's nice to have coaches who understand how I play and who understand how to get players out of those ruts."
Shattenkirk is out of that "rut." With eight points in five games and 12 in the last 11, the Blues' defenseman is setting a standard along with fellow defenseman Alex Pietrangelo (29 points in 29 games) that the Blues have some special blueliners.
"He was forcing it," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said of Shattenkirk. "He was looking at stats, he was looking at points and he wasn't doing enough, so then he started forcing it and then it just snowballed and got worse and worse. Now he's just back simplifying it. He's not forcing it.
"To me, when he stopped forcing it defensively, then he started getting better offensively. I think he went through a stretch where he was gambling too much defensively and we were giving up odd-man rushes and pucks were in our net. I think he's just calmed down a lot and letting the game come to him. He's been way more effective."
Having a defensive partner like Barret Jackman seems to be a calming influence on the younger Shattenkirk, a go-getter who likes to join in the rush and attack the offensive zone as opposed to the more stay-at-home guy like Jackman.
"He's getting some points on our power play and that's where he gets a lot of his points," Jackman said of his d-partner. "But it's simple hockey, he hasn't changed all year. He's been playing solid all year, moving the puck well and just moving his feet. He's such a great skater, sees the ice so well ... they're going to come. Speaking from a guy that went 150 games, eventually they come.
"He's got the skills, he's got all the tools. Sometimes the simpler you make it, the easier things come. You're not overthinking the game. You just go out there and play and things fall into place. Once in a while, it just takes a bounce that goes your way. All of the sudden, you go into a stretch that both him and Petro are on right now. They're picking up points every night. We don't need them to do that every other night, but it definitely helps out our offense and gets our defense involved."
Shattenkirk, who is tied for fourth in the NHL at plus-26, is feeling it right now. And the feeling is pretty good.
"I always seem to have spurts when things kind of start falling into place," Shattenkirk said. "For a while there, it seemed like I was pressing and things weren't going my way or bounces weren't going my way. Now things are kind of just happening for me. When I feel these times coming along, you feel confident and you just stick with it because you have a feeling that maybe something might fall for you."
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With a plethora of in-season coaching changes around the NHL this season, the Blues (42-18-7) have certainly reaped the benefits of bringing in the veteran Hitchcock after a rough 6-7-0 start this season.
The Anaheim Ducks (29-28-10) were in a similar position when they made the change to Bruce Boudreau, who replaced Randy Carlyle -- who's since taken over the resigns in Toronto -- on Jan. 30.
The Ducks were 7-13-4 when the coaching change was made following a home win over Montreal. Things didn't start as well under Boudreau, who was 3-9-2 in his first 14 games.
"The new coaching staff came in and we were still losing games and we were pretty down on ourselves," Ducks defenseman Luca Sbisa said. "I wouldn't say we stopped believing in ourselves, but we got pretty close to that. (The coaching staff) kept telling us to stay positive and it's going to turn around eventually and that's what we did. Games got closer and closer and we started winning games and just started building. It added up. It gives us confidence."
That confidence boost has turned into a 19-6-4 run since Jan. 6 and has the Ducks, who were laboring near the bottom of the Western Conference standings, just six points behind eighth-place San Jose going into tonight's clash with the Blues.
"They really are playing good," Hitchcock said of the Ducks. "They're playing about as well as anybody in the West right now. You can see what Bruce has done systems-wise. There's a change from when Randy was there. There's a different style, but I think it's like anything else ... when your best players are your best players, you're going to win a lot of hockey games. Hiller's been great in goal, they got (Ryan) Getzlaf and (Corey) Perry engaged, they're obviously good players.
"I just think sometimes as a team, you kick yourself for not starting the engine a little quicker. ... They look like they could win every game the way they're playing right now."
Boudreau, who was fired earlier this season in Washington and within a week was hired in Anaheim, has taken a positive approach and turned it into a winning formula in Orange County.
"He approaches things positive," Sbisa said of Boudreau. "I was thinking he was more of an offensive-minded guy when he came in. I Washington, they were scoring a bunch of goals and stuff, but the defensive side of our game got way better since he came in. We used to be a team that got outshot every night. Now we keep teams to around 20 shots, which is great and we have to do that if you want a chance to win. If (Jonas) Hiller plays every night, you can't give up 40 shots a night."
With 15 games remaining on the schedule, the Ducks, even at the tough grind they've been on just to get themselves back in contention, believe they have their fate in their own hands.
"It's been a grind, but it's way more fun when you win," Sbisa said. "When we were on that losing streak early in the season on that long road trip, guys just got tired early, especially mentally just couldn't stay up. But on the one we had just this past month, the trip was even longer, but I felt I had more energy and most of the guys felt the same way because of the fact that we were winning. It makes everything better going to the rink, going to practice, wanting to practice and all that stuff. It's been a change in attitude."
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Tonight's probable Blues lineup:
Vladimir Sobotka-David Backes-T.J. Oshie
Andy McDonald-Patrik Berglund-David Perron
Chris Porter-Jason Arnott-Chris Stewart
B.J. Crombeen-Scott Nichol-Ryan Reaves
Carlo Colaiacovo-Alex Pietrangelo
Barret Jackman-Kevin Shattenkirk
Ian Cole-Roman Polak
Jaroslav Halak, who's 6-0-0 with a 1.46 goals-against average and .941 save percentage in his last six starts, will get the call tonight. Brian Elliott, who will get the start Saturday against Columbus, will back up tonight.
On injured reserve are Alex Steen (concussion), Matt D'Agostini (concussion), Jamie Langenbrunner (broken foot) and Kris Russell (concussion symptoms). Defenseman Kent Huskins (bruised hand) will miss his second straight game. Russell, Huskins and Langenbrunner all took part in today's morning skate.
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The Ducks' probable lineup:
Niklas Hagman-Ryan Getzlaf-Corey Perry
Bobby Ryan-Saku Koivu-Teemu Selanne
Andrew Cogliano-Nick Bonino-Devante Smith-Pelly
Jason Blake-Rod Pelley-Matt Beleskey
Francois Beauchemin-Cam Fowler
Lubomir Visnovsky-Luca Sbisa
Toni Lydman-Sheldon Brookbank
Jonas Hiller will start in goal, his NHL-leading 62nd appearance this season and club record 27th straight start; Jeff Deslauriers is the backup.
Healthy scratches for the Ducks will include winger George Parros and defenseman Nate Guenin. Goaltender Dan Ellis (groin strain) is on injured reserve.