Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Blues' bricks in place, parts need fixing

Team searching for ways to rid itself of
0-4-1 slide; Allen recalled, Halak day-to-day

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- Practice was swift, skaters were brisk. Determination was at a peak.

It's only one practice, one hour, but in the words of Blues coach Ken Hitchcock, "it's all about the fabric of the team." In other words, the parts that hold the bricks of a foundation of a team together need to be worked out. But the body, the framework and the bricks are all there.

The Blues (6-5-1 and in an 0-4-1 slide), who head off for three road games beginning Wednesday night in Detroit, continue to search for answers and now must do so from the suddenly not-so-friendly confines of Scottrade Center.
(Mark Buckner/St. Louis Blues)
Blues captain David Backes (pictured) said time for talk is done. Team
must respond accordingly on the ice.

The consensus is pretty clear: time for talk is done. Action is the only course to take.

"I'm a pretty experienced guy and I told the players today I've been through this a lot," Hitchcock said of the Blues' woes. "I look at this as unbelievable opportunities to build your team but only if you're willing to look in the mirror. This is an unbelievable opportunity to build a very strong fabric of your team. You just can't pass it up. You pass it up, it maybe never comes back. Maybe we'll be like everyone else and just flounder around, a couple games over (.500), a couple games under, win one, lose one, that type of thing. But if we really want to build our team, you can't get a better opportunity than the one sitting in front of us right now. This is the time that hockey clubs are built because you have no choice. You either come together or you go the other way. I've seen it both ways and I expressed my opinion today on what needed to change."

For the first time in recent memory, the response at practice was a resounding yes, everyone was on board. In Hitchcock's words, there was a semblance of an "all-in" mentality.

"By the response at practice, it's exactly what we're looking for," Hitchcock said. "This was a very focused, determined practice to do everything the right way. While we're not in a game yet, this was the exact response we were looking for.

"It's not near as bad as you think it is, but if you're talking about the spirit of a hockey club and the spirit of being a team, this is the time you can really grow it. I just don't want to see the players pass up this opportunity because this is long-lasting. This is stuff that stays with you forever ... years. You just can't afford to pass this time up. Yeah, it's going to be lots of rough water yet, but what an opportunity to grow the team right now."

Teams go through ups and downs on a regular basis, and one course of action is taking the group on the road. Spend some time together, doing things together, appreciate some bonding time.

The Blues' trip takes them to Calgary on Friday and Vancouver on Sunday.

"You enter a microscope when you're in your own building," defenseman Barret Jackman said. "You feed off the energy of the crowd, but you have to create that energy. We haven't done that and maybe the crowd hasn't been in it and rightfully so. We haven't played well.

"You get on the road, and those little things get your bench excited and when you silence the other crowd, that's a pretty big feeling. Maybe getting away from here, simple hockey, road gritty hockey is what's going to get us back on track."

Unless players look at themselves in the mirror, the fall could last longer ... and continue to be painful.

"We can talk all we want, but proof is on the ice and making a change there," center David Backes said. "It starts with me and it goes down the list to everyone on the team's got to be better, more accountable. ... There's no more great speeches that are gonna pull us out of this. It's putting the work in and doing it on the ice."

When it comes to the NHL, there are no easy fixes. The Blues created their own mess. They have to clean it up.

"I would say that this would be a fix that would require everything necessary to become a team," Hitchcock said. "It's hard, but then it can look easy. Once you become a team, then it looks easy but it's hard to do. ... What we need to do to get to the next level is hard, pretty emotional, gut-wrenching at times, but man, once you're there, it just seems like it's a lot easier than you thought it would be. But it's going to be difficult getting there. We're looking for the necessary sacrifices to start taking place."

But ...

"Sometimes you have this view that it's just going to happen rather than make it happen, and we're going through that process," Hitchcock added. "We're learning all of the lessons, hard lessons that teams like San Jose, LA, Anaheim, Vancouver had to learn. We're trying to learn all those lessons and win hockey games. They're hard lessons and we've got to find a way to learn them.

"What's great about this sport is that at the end of the day, it's all about how tight you can become. What can you give up, how tight can you become."

(Mark Buckner/St. Louis Blues)
Roman Polak (pictured) and the Blues will look to break
an 0-4-1 slide at Detroit Wednesday night.

That entails making sacrifices so a teammate can make a play, or vice versa.

"It's not even taking a hit for a guy, it's taking a hit to make a play so the next guy has a chance to make a play," Jackman said. "It's doing those little things, blocking a shot so our goalie's not screened on a play, dumping the puck in and getting off the ice when you're almost at the end of your shift so you're not putting your team in a bad position. It's a lot of little things that really show up on your bench and in the dressing room and what a lot of the fans don't see. It's back to a team-first mentality and those sacrifices that are going to be tough, but that's how good teams are going to play.

"You're in the NHL. You have a privilege of playing. It's not a right. We've got to play for the guys beside us. It's not take a couple shifts off, then I'll compete, somebody else will do the job tonight. It's got to be everybody. We don't have a team that's going to have a 50-goal scorer score a couple goals every night. It's going to be a collective effort. If we don't have 20 guys every night and 23 guys in practice working hard, it shows up in huge holes on your team."

* Halak update -- The Blues recalled goalie Jake Allen from Peoria in light of the recent news of Jaroslav Halak re-aggravating a groin strain injury that sidelined the Blues' netminder for the last four-plus games.

But Halak was not placed on injured-reserve and was on the ice for practice this morning and traveled with the team on the trip. He's listed as day-to-day and the Blues will carry three goalies, since they have the room created by Jamie Langenbrunner (hip) being placed on IR.

Halak, who is 3-0-0 with a 2.10 goals-against average, .889 save percentage and a pair of shutouts, got in some light work before departing.

"No, he felt fine at practice today, but it was on a measured, monitored basis," Hitchcock said of Halak. "There was a little bit of activity in-zone, but not like a game would be.

"It's literally kind of like every day, you ask him how he's doing ... it's a hard position to play if you're thinking about that all the time. Once it leaves his mind, then I think he'll be good to go. It might be tomorrow, but we don't know. We're going to have to carry three through the trip here probably."

Hitchcock said Halak needs to at least skate in a full practice before being considered for a game. That all but rules out Halak for Wednesday night.

"I think he just has to go through a full practice or two being pain-free because we put him in every game situation ... I think it's a little bit different when you're restricted to where you're doing one, two, three shooters," Hitchcock said. "You need to do in-zone activity like it was today. He took some of that but not all of it. I don't think we're in a position where we can really evaluate him until he's a participant for a 60-minute, full practice.

"I don't think in reality until he takes a full practice, which probably puts us into Calgary that you can say a guy's going to be a goalie right now."

Hitchcock anointed Allen the starter Monday after Saturday's shootout loss to the Ducks if Halak was not ready. Might be get the nod in Detroit?

"Before he came up to back up, he was playing the best hockey he was playing in his life," Hitchcock said of Allen, who was 12-16-2 with a 2.94 GAA and .930 save percentage with the Rivermen. "We can't discount that. We've got to be cognizant of that, too, and Brian's struggled. Sometimes a mental break might be good for Brian, too. We've got to discuss it with (goaltending coach) Corey (Hirsch) and with the goalies and see what's best for the goalie and the team."

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