Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Blues have closed-door meetings following dismal loss to Oilers

3-0 setback sees locker room doors closed 22 minutes;
Hitchcock doesn't address media for for over an hour after meeting with leaders

By LOUIE KORAC
ST. LOUIS -- Looking at the stats and not the end result, one would think the Blues were on a roll.

But reality set in and an all-too-familiar result was on the board following a disheartening 3-0 home loss to the Edmonton Oilers, another team languishing near the bottom of the Western Conference standings.

It was the third loss on four games for the Blues (17-13-2) who remain stuck in neutral in the Western Conference playoff race but will soon find themselves on the outside looking in if things don't change -- and drastically -- in a hurry.
 
(St. Louis Blues/Mark Buckner)
The Blues' T.J. Oshie (left) looks to maneuver around Edmonton's
Ladislav Smid during Tuesday night's game at Scottrade Center.
Maybe that's why the players weren't available for the media until 22 minutes after the end of the game because of a players-only meeting, and coach Ken Hitchcock did not address the media group that waited him out until one hour, 17 minutes after the conclusion of the game as Hitchcock and general manager Doug Armstrong met with team leaders after players addressed the media.

"We're not talking about that," assistant captain Alexander Steen said when asked what issues were addressed without being specific. "What happens in here, stays in here."

But the Blues, who have lost 3-2 at Vancouver, 3-2 at Calgary and now 3-0 Tuesday despite outshooting the opponents by a collective 115-55 in those games but outscored 9-4, were on the end of another lopsided shot total Tuesday.

They outshot the Oilers 43-19 but 40-year-old fossil Nikolai Khabibulin blanked the Blues for the first time in his career (47th career start vs. St. Louis). He did stop Steen, David Perron and David Backes on breakaway attempts but for the most part, it was another night in which a less-than-stellar netminder turns in a Vezina-type performance following Miikka Kiprusoff's 36-save effort Sunday.

"I thought he had an easy night," Hitchcock said of Khabibulin. "I really did. I thought in this game, in this league, you need to have way more traffic. You really need to have more second and third opportunities. I think good goalies make saves when it's just the shooter and the goalie. He made all the saves when it was just the shooter and the goalie.

"I think it's the same scenario with us. We give up another breakaway, 2 on 1 early in the game, just poor decisions in the critical areas in the offensive zone that lead to odd-man rushes. This is typical of a lot of our losses. This is the same scenario of Calgary, a little bit the same of Vancouver. Just far too many easy opportunities. You're controlling the hockey game, but you make mistakes and they end up in your net."

Jordan Eberle scored twice, Taylor Hall also scored and Khabibulin did the rest.

And at the end of the night, players talked behind closed doors, management talked to leaders behind closed doors in an effort to try and salvage a ship that seems to have too many peaks and valleys.

"I think it's going to require a deeper buy-in from the group, which is what we talked about here with our leaders," Hitchcock said. "That was why we met. We met with our leaders postgame. It's going to take a deeper buy-in by the group for us to be successful. I think that's going to be a partnership by management, coaches and players. It's going to have to be deeper. It's not deep enough.

"I think it's the accumulation of the creeping in of going backwards again. Look, I know we had a lot of shots on goal ... I know that. It's not a good feeling when you don't have everybody ... in order to win in the National Hockey League on a consistent basis, you need to have everybody on the same page all of the time.That's the sense of pride you need to have. That's what we're trying to get to, and it's a challenge to get there, but once you're there, then it becomes matter-of-fact on a nightly basis. We're not there."

When asked if it's a leadership problem, Hitchcock shot back: "No."

"It's a collective buy-in across the board of playing the game the right way all the time so that you give yourself, at the end of the night, a chance to win," Hitchcock said. "We're in and then we're out and then we're in and then we're out. ... The issue for us is the way we manage the game. We're at our best when we manage the game across the board well, and we're not managing the game. So we're opening ourselves up. A good goalie can come in and beat us.

"Since our 6-1 start, we're one game under .500. That's reality. ... We want to be better. So we're trying to get better."

The Blues' mistakes were magnified in this contest once again. There was a lost-puck turnover by Perron that led to Eberle's first goal, then Eberle is alone in the right circle and beats Jake Allen high on the near side before veteran Barret Jackman's shot/pass towards the goal gets blocked with two players directly in front of him that leads to a 2-on-0, and Hall converts after Allen makes the initial save.

"Mistakes are part of the game," Steen said. "It's a fast game and things are going to happen. I think the biggest part of it is how you regroup and how you pick up your teammates and you pick yourself up as a group collectively to turn the game around. Tonight we didn't do that."

Allen was pulled after allowing three goals on seven shots in favor of Jaroslav Halak, who was the sacrificial lamb for Blues fans after allowing the sub-par goal decisive goal Sunday in Calgary.

"We needed some type of energy change somewhere," Hitchcock said when asked on his decision to pull Allen, who is now 8-3-0 on the season.

The enigmatic Blues never seem to be in the middle. It's either they're really good, or they're really bad. And Tuesday, there was too much bad against a team they had just handled with ease (3-0) on Saturday night in their barn.
(St. Louis Blues/Mark Buckner)
Blues captain David Backes (right) checks Edmonton's Jeff Petry into the
boards during Tuesday night's game.

"We had the buy-in last year. We've changed since then," Hitchcock said. "That's the challenge for every coach. You can have the same people, they just want different pieces of the pie. That's the constant ... that's coaching. The first time through, it was easy and then you have success.

"It's a very hard way to play. I told you guys that at the start of the year. The way you need to play to win on a consistent basis in the National Hockey League is extremely difficult. The teams that have it, it's like gold. And then the teams that have had it and then lost it, you can see them getting it back. Chicago, Pittsburgh, they want to win -- now. And they're changed. They changed the way they played last year to this year. We want that buy-in back again. And so do our leaders. We're going to find a way to get it, but we're not there yet. Not close.

The Blues will face the defending Cup champs Los Angeles Kings Thursday in another test against a team that is in the middle of a playoff push that seems to have found their game.

"We've got to turn this thing around and get back on track," Backes said. "There's no question about it, there's no secrets."


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