Friday, March 30, 2012

Blues go back to refresher course after dismal loss in Chicago

Team hopes to implement Friday's brisk workout against
Columbus with full, healthy roster for first time this season

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- Ken Hitchcock warned after Thursday's 4-3 shootout loss at Chicago that maybe the Blues needed a good, hard practice on Friday.

True to his word, that's exactly what they got.

But instead of fretting over what was to come at St. Louis Mills' Ice Zone Friday afternoon, the Blues embraced a good old-fashioned refresher course on what has made them successful and why they have been able to maintain that edge.

"We deserved what we got last night and I think we deserved what we got this morning," defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk said. "It was good for everyone to get out there and get whipped around a little bit. Personally, I know I needed a little bit of it, especially with a big game tomorrow and getting a couple days off in between games. I think it's going to be good for us."
(Getty Images)
Defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk (left) defends against Chicago's Brandon
Bollig Thursday night in Chicago.

And what was it that the team needed to be reminded of?

"I think just the sharpness and crispness of everything," winger Alex Steen said. "Yesterday was a slower, mediocre team performance by us. Today was just getting back to that quicker step, a little quicker decisions and crisper passes and all that good stuff.

"We play 82 games, we practice, what, 170 times a year? It's good to just get a little reminder. Last night we got away from what had made us successful. Today we got a little quick reminder and we're back on track."

Added defenseman Kris Russell: "It's human nature to kind of get a little soft in some cases. That's where as a team, we've got to be better and recognize that sooner in games.

"It was a good day today. I thought we did a lot of good things. We worked hard as a team, we were competing hard against each other. If we bring that speed and work ethic in the games, we're going to be successful."

Hitchcock, who conducted a 48-minute practice, hopes so, because what he saw from his 48-20-10 team was out of the ordinary.

"We were rotten. There's no other way to describe it. We were flat-rotten," Hitchcock said of the game against the Blackhawks. "We played the whole game with our eyes. It was just an absolute shock for us. For a coaching staff, it was like, 'Whoa!' To go as well as we played and skated against Nashville (a 3-0 win Tuesday) to come in and play like that (against Chicago), it was like we were playing the friendly games and they didn't want anything to do with it. They hit us, they knocked us around, they were tough on us. We tried everything we could, but we couldn't seem to get a response from our own group. Our own group couldn't get a response from each other. I don't know what it was.

"It's a young team and when you don't practice, you don't play well, and that's where we're at. When we don't practice, it just comes back and bites us every time and it has all year. I think veteran teams can do it and get away with it. You can talk things through, but when we don't get tempo at practice or we don't get everybody on the ice or we get to this playing every second day ... the only time we were good in a pregame skate was when we gassed it and had a hockey practice before the Nashville game. But that's hard to do every time. Today was good. Today hopefully gets our tempo back where it was before."

And when the Blues implement that familiar tempo again against the Columbus Blue Jackets Saturday in hopes of clinching the Central Division title for the first time since 2000, they will do it with a full and healthy lineup for the first time in 160 games.

Hitchcock said on Thursday Andy McDonald (shoulder) would play against the Blue Jackets. Matt D'Agostini (concussion) was activated from injured reserve Thursday and Roman Polak, out the last five games with a bruised knee, is fit and available to play as well.

So in practice today, there were 16 forwards, eight defensemen and two goalies.

"It's a team we put together in the off-season, the team that's been practicing and working all year as a group," Steen said. "To finally have everybody healthy is a great feeling. Just knowing that guys have their health is the big thing. Everybody in here is friends. We're like family together. You never want to see a teammate get hurt.

"The coaches have a lot of decisions to make for the lineups and stuff like that. It's a good thing to have. There will be a lot of competitiveness. Guys want to play and play a lot."

It means that six players will sit the remaining games as long as the lineup's in tact the way it is. That will make competition for the 20 roster spots tough to sift through.
(Getty Images)
Kris Russell and the Blues got a refresher course Friday at practice after a
bad loss Thursday at Chicago. Russell had two assists in the 4-3 shootout

"It's always good when you have a healthy team, but shows how deep our team is," Russell said. "We were having success when guys were out, but it's been key guys that have been out. Romy's a big part of our defense. He's a shutdown guy, plays heavy minutes, five-on-five and four-on-four. You get guys like Steener and Mac back, they help run the ship with the forwards. It's good to have those guys back and the leadership they bring.

"No matter how much money you're making, you've got to be competing, you've got to be earning a spot on that ice. That's the good thing about our team. There's competition. You've got to be at your best and if you're not, there's going to be someone breathing down your neck looking for that chance to get in. We work hard as a team and we help each other out. I think that's why we've been so strong."

The Blues usually bounce back strong after these types of competitive skates, and they typically bounce back strong off a loss.

Nothing less is expected once again.

"We're a team that feels uneasy when we don't play our best and we haven't really poured it all in," Shattenkirk said. "I think once that happens, you almost feel guilty and play harder.

"We owe it to ourselves to put the best product out there every night. Some guys won't have it some nights, but if the effort's there, usually we end up on the right side of things."

* NOTES -- Hitchcock said Friday that the Blues will go back to Jaroslav Halak in goal against the Blue Jackets Saturday despite the loss in Chicago. Halak stopped 37 shots, including several key stops to keep the Blues afloat and give them a chance to at least earn a point, a point they didn't feel like they deserved.

It will be Halak's second straight start on the heels of three straight shutouts by Brian Elliott.

"I thought about it," Hitchcock said. "I want both guys to play here before the end of the year and keep the rotation going, but I feel like ... this (loss Thursday's) on the players. He played really good. Sure, he wants the first goal back, but the two saves he made to get us a point in the third period there were unbelievable. When you give up 40 shots on the road, that's too many shots and too many scoring chances. We were doubled on the scoring chances and he held us in. I'm going to give him another go."

... Based on Friday's line combinations at practice, D'Agostini will be slotted onto the fourth line with Scott Nichol and Chris Stewart, while McDonald will be placed once again with Patrik Berglund and David Perron. Alex Steen will move up to David Backes' line and T.J. Oshie, while Vladimir Sobotka, Jason Arnott and Jamie Langenbrunner account for the third line.

"You're going to see some of what you saw today, but you're going to predominantly see pairs stay together," Hitchcock said. "... You're going to see some switching. Depending on the opposition in the next four games, depending on the opposition in the playoffs, we are gonna be moving guys around."

Polak would likely replace Kent Huskins in the lineup and play with Russell, which would keep the Carlo Colaiacovo-Alex Pietrangelo and Barret Jackman-Shattenkirk pairings together.

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