Team starts 24th in NHL through eight games; Halak to IR
with groin strain; Backes ready to move away from major penalty call
By LOUIE KORAC
HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- The Blues' penalty kill, a staple of the team's success, especially in the final 55 games of last season according to coach Ken Hitchcock, has some catching up to do.
The Blues, who ranked seventh in the NHL and third in the Western Conference (behind Los Angeles and Vancouver) in thwarting away opponents' man advantages last season, see themselves in unfamiliar territory even though it's only eight games into the season.
After turning away opponents at an 85.8 percent clip a season ago, this year's penalty killing unit has already allowed nine goals on 36 opportunities. That's a 75 percent stoppage rating but only 24th out of 30 teams.
It hasn't hurt the Blues too much in the standings during their 6-2-0 race out of the gates, but factoring in that they've allowed a man-advantage goal in six of eight games is a little cause for concern.
"It's not just getting better at PK. PK is a reflection of your commitment to checking and desperation," Hitchcock said. "It's an area that has to get better. We've got a lot of things going for us right now, but as I've said before, if you don't have good penalty killing, it loses you hockey games, so we want to really get better on the details, better on the way you do things."
According to captain David Backes, a part of the eight-man rotation Hitchcock has implimented this season after rotating six guys in and out a season ago, the team is finding itself because of the limited training camp.
"I think it's just a little bit of being in our infancy," Backes said. "You think of a normal season, eight games ... that's a training camp. Now we're in the regular season. The last couple years, even our PK's been a little slow out of the gates.
"I'm not making excuses, but I'm just kind of pointing things out. It's five days of practice and we play six games in nine nights and we get a couple more days. Osh and I were begging today to get a couple reps in just with the routes on our PK and talking it over. We obviously need to get better. There's no question about that. The sooner the better.
Backes continued: "I don't think it's something we've forgotten everything we've ever done on the PK, it's never going to be better and we're going to give up a goal a game for the rest of the year. No chance, but right now, it's not great and we've got to make it better. It's up to the guys in the room."
So what makes the Blues' PK unit better? An area of the game that Hitchcock stresses time and time again: checking. Checking in all three zones is where games are won and lost.
"I said this at the start when everything started going, it's the No. 1 place that you suffer in is checking," Hitchcock said. "When you don't play the five weeks that you get through training camp and then early in the season, those are all the kinks that you iron out killing penalties, checking in your own zone, d-zone coverage, all the things you don't know until you play against an opponent where it's an unknown quantity ... you don't know.
"Our details and our attention to detail on every little minute detail which we had going last year in the last 55 games, we were great, best in the league ... we're kind of learning on the run right now. We've made some mistakes and it's ended up in our net because of it."
But the Blues have familiarity going for them. New systems are implemented all the time. But when the same personnel is in place to execute those systems, the transition tends to be a bit simpler. The Blues are hoping sooner rather than later.
"It's just getting all four guys on the same page," center Scott Nichol said. "It seems like when we do make a mistake, it seems like it's in our net. What we do pride ourselves with is if we do make a mistake, don't compound it by making another one.
"It'll come together, but I feel we need to get her going. You win hockey games because of it. The power play's doing well (35.5 percent, third in the NHL coming into Sunday), but you don't get a lot of accolades on the penalty kill and this is where that's kind of the meat and potatoes ... you win games and lose games. It maybe doesn't show up on the scoresheet but it's very important to our game and to our success. The grace period's over. It's time to kind of buckle down and do those 200-foot clears and sacrifice. Try and outwork the other five guys when you're out there."
Maybe Hitchcock goes back to utilizing six forwards and rotating in that scenario again. But before it spirals too far away, the Blues hope to get back to its stingy ways that was a contributor in leading the league in goals-against a season ago.
"I'm not sure what to do, to be honest with you," Hitchcock said. "I still think eight works, but we're definitely letting in some goals that are uncharacteristic so it's like every other team that's in the league right now, there's areas we've got to clean up."
* NOTES -- The Blues placed goalie Jaroslav Halak on injured reserve, retroactive to Saturday after being removed from Friday's 5-3 loss at Detroit with what Hitchcock called a "groin strain."
Halak was not on the ice for Sunday's practice at the Ice Zone but was at the facility, and Hitchcock said afterwards Halak should be ready to go by the end of the week. Elliott will start Tuesday against Nashville and Thursday vs. Detroit.
"We expect (Halak) to have no problem being ready for the weekend," Hitchcock said. "But the way the rules are, we need to have a goalie up here without losing a player so we're putting him on IR for a week."
Jake Allen will be recalled from Peoria and will be on the ice for Monday's practice and Elliott's backup for the next two games.
"This is more just precaution," Hitchcock said of Halak. "We'd rather get it 100 percent and not have this thing lingering or doing anything like that. The plan is to have him practice in full with us on Friday."
. . . After the league rescinded the major penalty and game misconduct given to Backes for the check to former teammate Kent Huskins in Detroit Friday, the Blues want the issue put to rest.
It was clear by video replay that referee Ian Walsh, who was behind the play and not in clear view, made an error in judgment in calling Backes for "a blow to the head" midway through the third period of a 3-3 game. Pavel Datsyuk went on to score the eventual game-winning goal on the ensuing power play in the Red Wings' 5-3 win.
"The comment by the league and the rescinding right away ... pretty clear," Hitchcock said. "What are you going to do? Can't do anything about it now.
"It's such a critical game ... the game's tied. You've just got to know when you make that call. You've got to know. You can't be guessing. You've got to know."
Backes added: "Emotions are high. They're calling what they think they can see. The tough part is we don't get that game back. A third period that was in a tight game. We poured a lot of emotions into that game and thought we deserved a better outcome. ... The result's a result. You can only change things moving forward, so away we go.
"We can't get the game back, but hopefully, we'll be a stronger team because of the outcome."
Backes was asked if replays would be beneficial for officials of such calls.
"I think you'd see a lot of bias in my answer at the moment, but over time, I do think those things equal themselves out," he said. "We've probably been on the recipient end of a few calls that we maybe didn't deserve.
"The video review, it's painful in football when they're like 'this is going to be reviewed.' Everyone goes and cleans the bathroom for a couple hours before they're done with it. It's a little bit painful and I don't know if we want that. There's a little bit of human element to it. The goals are reviewed, which is great. It's tough to say and it's a decision that's probably above my pay grade."