Monday, April 2, 2012

Blues using down time to get re-acclimated

Team's completely healthy but could use
some time to nail down chemistry as a whole

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- When the Blues were able to pick and choose their lineup for Saturday's game against Columbus, the thought was it would be as easy as 1-2-3. Just slap a lineup together, throw them on the ice and everything will click just like that.

But after a rude awakening from a 5-2 defeat at the hands of the worst team in the NHL, it forced the Blues back to the practice rink Monday to go and grab back the work ethic that had been a staple of this team from the time Ken Hitchcock took over as coach.

Was it that easy just to throw the best and deepest lineup they've had in more than two years? Perhaps on paper it was. But on the ice, what should have been a painted picture produced murky results.

The players certainly weren't using any excuses after Monday's double practice either.
(Getty Images)
The Blues' David Perron, celebrating a goal against Columbus Saturday, is
on board with the Blues just focusing on finishing strong.

"For the most part, everyone has played together before," winger David Perron said. "It could be a part but I don't know how much of it that is. I think it's just more us not playing well.

"It doesn't matter what kind of lineup you've got in this league, we saw the Islanders beat Pittsburgh (twice) last week, we saw Columbus beat us, Detroit ... there's always games like that. There's no easy games in this league. If you don't play well most of the time, you're not going to win."

Maybe the problem for the Blues (48-21-10) was they thought the game would come easily. This has been an under-the-radar, blue-collared group that didn't make any headlines but continued to climb up the ladder. They did it without the headline players and high-maintenance style. Some some might find boring the Blues' grinding, puck-possession, shutdown and smothering style that's been effective in many ways.

"I think it was maybe we thought someone else would do (the work) more rather than concentrating on doing our own job," captain David Backes said about Saturday's game. "The guys who play the role of playing hard need to still play hard and the guys that are back in the lineup need to find their niche to help us win. Whatever that may be needs to happen in a hurry."

The Blues have had rare instances where they saw their game completely unravel as it did Saturday night, so Hitchcock got the players together for a session of five-on-five work that he feels needs to be reaffirmed.

"There can't be a timetable on getting better," Hitchcock said. "The reality for us is that our five-on-five play has been inconsistent. A lot of today was five-on-five. A little bit of special teams in the second part. Starting with a lot of one-on-one's, then two-on-two's, three-on-three's then five-on-five's. We'll do the same thing tomorrow but much shorter.

"We've got to get our even-strength game at a much higher level. Other than the LA and Nashville game, we've not been consistent five-on-five which for me, was a staple of the whole year for us and we've let it slip. Sometimes winning does that. You let it slip or I think in our case, we've relied on the goalies and then we've relied on the special teams to carry the ball for us. We've let a lot of these details kind of slip. Some of it has not being able to practice at all."
(Getty Images)
Vladimir Sobotka (right) could find himself back playing center when the
Blues host Detroit Wednesday night.

In the last two games, both losses, the Blues have given up six five-on-five goals. They are still tops in the NHL with only 95 goals allowed in that category (the Blues are the only team to give up fewer than 100), but it's an area that had been so dominating. However, there have been a few cracks in a rock-solid fortress.

"I don't see that as a lull. I see that as a lack of focus," Hitchcock said. "... If we would have played like we practiced today, nobody was going to beat us. We practiced hard and well. That's a good sign. We were very receptive to the intensity of the practice, but we need about five of these before we get back to where we need to get to. We've got lots of time to do that, but right now, you can't play five-on-five right now the way we're playing if you expect to win long-term. Our players know that, we've addressed it and I think our guys put a real big step forward today at practice."

One element of their game that was obviously missing Saturday night was the gritty, workmanlike effort guys like Ryan Reaves, Chris Porter and/or B.J. Crombeen bring to the table. All three were scratched from the lineup so Hitchcock could see what a skilled lineup top to bottom could do. Maybe those fourth-liners don't have the most skill out there, but they produce elements that balance out a recipe for a complete type of game.

"When you lose an edge in the lineup like Reaves, Porter ... those guys create a lot on the forecheck," winger T.J. Oshie said. "They create a lot of frustration for the other teams' defense. The guys that are in the lineup, we've got to make up for those guys missing because those guys are some big bodies to throw around some weight and they wear out the other teams' D. Without them, we need other guys picking up the slack.

"You do miss guys like that because they give the guys life on the bench when they can get a big hit on the other team or they can outwork a couple guys from sheer skating or outworking them. We've got to get guys, myself included, to take more of that role."

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