Monday, February 11, 2013

Blues continue to crumble, end homestand with 4-1 loss

Defending champ Kings send Blues on road
reeling with fifth straight defeat; Halak injured in pre-game

By LOUIE KORAC
ST. LOUIS -- If it wasn't serious enough before, it certainly is now.

When the Blues entered a four-game homestand roaring with a 6-2-0 record and giving no indication a freefall was coming, the team was touted for being the toughest team on home ice. Perhaps a 3-1, 3-0-1 or even 4-0-0 was not out of the realm of possibility.

Maybe even a jolt all the way to the top of the Western Conference standings.

Oops.

Not only did the Blues fall 4-1 to the defending Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings Monday night at Scottrade Center, they concluded their homestand winless.

Yes... winless.

(Mark Buckner/St. Louis Blues)
Blues defenseman Alex Pietrangelo skates with the puck Monday vs. L.A.


And yes, the Blues are on the cusp of a freefall that's quickly turning into a raging avalanche with no end in sight.

The Blues are a mess. They've lost their mojo, they've lost their competitive balance, their goaltending is in disarray, mistakes are magnified, and the team has no identity.

The Blues, who have lost five in a row for the first time since Jan. 2-12, 2011 when they were also 0-4-1 and dropped four in a row at home for the first time since doing so Jan. 23-Feb. 6, 2010 when they were 0-2-2, got a goal from Alex Steen.

Jaroslav Halak was supposed to begin the process of stabilizing a team skating on thin ice, but Halak, who was listed as the starter for the game, was a late scratch because coach Ken Hitchcock confirmed Halak had re-aggravated the groin the groin strain that caused him to miss the last three-plus games during pre-game warm-ups. Halak is 3-0-0 on the season, but it was struggling Brian Elliott, who stopped 19 shots, that played in the game.

"This was the homestand from hell," Hitchcock said. "We lost our goalie, we didn't play as well and now we've got to take this onto the road and we've got to be much more accountable for each other. We don't compete at a high level for 60 minutes and we pay the price because of it.

"(Halak's injury) just happened so quick ... it was after the warm-ups. I don't think it was like, 'we're going to play.' I think everybody was in a little bit of shock. It is what it is. he had three really good days of practice and then I don't know, somewhere in the warm-up, he pulled it again. It isn't good for us right now ... it's not good for the team right now. We're just going to have to learn to battle through it."

Captain David Backes had some telling and choice words for the entire team, as the Blues slipped to 6-5-1.

"We've got too many guys out there looking at the stat sheet wondering how many goals and assists, cookies they've got rather than taking a hit to make a play and getting run over so we can get a puck out so that your teammates can have a three-on-two," Backes said. "Or so you can block a shot or kill a penalty when you really need it so we can stay in a game. We just don't have that desperation, that accountability, that responsibility to each other."

When asked if something can be said as a leader, Backes quickly offered: "The talking's done. We've said everything that needs to be said, gone over game plans and talked about strategy and ideology.

"It's time to put the boots on and go do it or else pack your bags and go home because it's slowly slipping, but there's time left where we can right the ship and play our hockey. When we play our hockey, we love our chances against anyone."

Elliott, who led the NHL in goals-against average (1.56), save percentage (.940) and was tied for shutouts with nine last season, slipped to 3-5-1 with a 3.57 GAA and .849 save percentage after another disheartening defeat, a loss he was unaware he'd be involved in until roughly five minutes before gametime.

"It's a little tough," Elliott said. "I usually always prepare the night before and you know going into the pre-game skate what you're going to be facing.

"It's a little tough, but also again, like I've said when you get thrown into the fire, it's better when you're not thinking about it. Just go in there and play."

The Blues do go out there and play, and then they don't, then they do, then they don't ... and on ... and on ... and on. It's been that kind of roller-coaster.

"It's an easy time beat everyone up," Hitchcock said. "We're not playing with the sense of urgency collectively throughout our lineup for 60 minutes that's necessary to win in the National Hockey League. We're playing in spurts ... 40 minutes, 30 minutes, but we're not playing for 60 minutes with that necessary paying the price that you have to, to win. Even then, sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, but when you don't pay the price on a consistent basis and you lose as many board battles as we lost tonight, you're not going to win the hockey game."

The Kings, who came in with only 21 goals scored in 10 games, pumped 20 percent of their total on the Blues, with Jeff Carter collecting two of them. Los Angeles played on Sunday, and it marks the second time in this homestand the Blues have caught a team on the second game of back-to-backers and allowed the opponent to gradually grind them down as the game wore on.

The Blues fell behind again by two goals for the third time in the homestand and second time they allowed the first three goals. The timely saves are not coming, the defensive breakdowns are epic, the forwards are not taking share of their responsibilities, and the offensive zone pressure was virtually anemic on Monday.

"Just not good enough," said defenseman Alex Pietrangelo, who was a minus-3 in the game in 27:47 minutes played. "We're not working hard enough on both sides of the puck. We're not playing our game. We're not playing 60 minutes. It takes a lot to win in this league, and we're not there yet.

"Mistakes in the d-zone, bad reads. We did some good things. We definitely did some good things, but it takes 60 minutes, especially against this team."

The Blues were outscored 21-8 on home ice in the four games, and many of them came as a result of poor goals allowed by Elliott or poor coverage reads that hung heir goalie out to dry, as both of Carter's goals to spot LA a 2-0 lead came as a result of.

"There's no cavalry coming," Hitchcock said. "There's no rescue party coming to take care of us. We've got to do it ourselves, and the guys are going to have to find from within a much higher level of compete for each other.
(Mark Buckner/St. Louis Blues)
Blues players (from left to right) Andy McDonald, Vladimir Tarasenko,
Alex Steen and Kevin Shattenkirk celebrate a Steen goal Monday night.
"We worked really hard to gain that accountability, but we're only part-in. We're not all the way in. We're not in on a consistent basis. It was easy at the start, but we're not all-in. And the guys know that. And there's going to have to be a much higher level, an all-in mentality if we expect to win hockey games. All our scoring chances against good teams come on the power play. They don't come five-on-five. You really have to dig in five-on-five against good hockey clubs to create scoring opportunities, and we don't get those. We didn't get them against Nashville, we didn't get them against Detroit and we certainly didn't get them tonight. ... The games have all been out there, but you look at our second periods, and they've been soft."

When Steen wired a power play goal from the top of the blue line to make it 3-1, the Blues had an opportunity to get back in the game with more power play time at the start of the third period but got nothing done. The Kings continued to push the Blues to the outer edges of the ice and got Jarret Stoll's one-timer to restore a three-goal lead.

Game over, homestand over. And the Blues have one whole point to show for it (a 6-5 shootout loss to Anaheim Saturday). They must not head on the road for three games, beginning Wednesday in Detroit.

"I said after the playoffs and it still rings true ... we need all 20 guys to have that mentality that if I'm the guy to sacrifice my body or on the stat sheet so that we can be successful, all 20 guys need to be doing that every single night or else we're going to have too many interviews like this," Backes said.

"It's never easy when you lose (five) games in a row," Pietrangelo said, who didn't even realize he said four games in a row. "It's going to be a bit of a process here, but it's gonna have to be right away. There's not a lot of time to correct it. It's gotta be corrected now."

* NOTES -- Former Blues coach Davis Payne returned to the ice on Scottrade Center ice for the first time as a member of the Kings' coaching staff.
Payne, who was fired as Blues coach and replaced by Hitchcock Nov. 6, 2011, admitted Monday morning that coming back was different. He stayed on with the Blues' organization as a scout.

"It's a little bit strange," Payne said. "It's kind of like going back to a high-school reunion. You think it's familiar territory, but things have changed and life has kind of moved on."

Payne was 67-55-15 as coach of the Blues before being replaced 13 games into last season but is glad to be back in a coaching role than in a press box.

"You're out of it for a while and you realize that getting in the trenches and working with guys … with the emotions, the highs and lows … that's what it's all about," Payne said.

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