Saturday, April 13, 2013

Blues winning like last season: scoring down, wins up

Goaltending carrying team in April as showdown with Blackhawks looms

ST. LOUIS -- It's been a great April for the Blues thus far. Winning six of seven games gives them an excellent shot at home ice in the first round of the playoffs.

But Friday's 4-1 loss at Columbus to conclude a four-game trip was a stark reminder that although the Blues (23-15-2) may be winning games a lot like last season, they're doing so without putting the puck in the net without regularity, which prompted coach Ken Hitchcock to declare the following:

"I think we've lived on this fine line for a little while," he said.

(St. Louis Blues photo)
Brian Elliott will carry a 189:29 shutout streak into Sunday's
showdown with the Chicago Blackhawks. He has three
straight shutouts in that span.
The Blues had won six straight in the month of April before going down to the desperate Blue Jackets Friday, but they have done so by scoring only 16 goals in seven games, or five goals in the last four. But thanks to the resurgence of Brian Elliott (5-0-0 with a 0.84 goals-against average and .968 save percentage) between the pipes, the Blues have been able to win those low-scoring games.

"It's not pretty. We can't win scoring one goal," said winger David Perron, who has one goal in 17 games and none in the last 14. "We've (had) six wins (in a row) ... I just think we've got to find a way to make those little plays that are going to create room for the other guys. ... We're getting a lot of shots on net, but we're not generating much from those shots."

The Blues, who host the Chicago Blackhawks (31-5-4) Sunday morning (11:30 a.m. on NBC, Y-98 FM), must start to get the consistent scoring from their top-six forwards.

Only Andy McDonald and Alex Steen lit the lamp on the recent trip. Winning 1-0, which they did twice, is not the recipe for consistent winning.

"I just don't think we're going in for the second and third opportunities," Hitchcock said.

Is Hitchcock talking about the kind of goals Columbus scored Friday night? You bet. They went to the net, got tips, battled for position in front of Jake Allen and knocked home loose pucks.

"It's pretty obvious when you don't score, that's part of it," Perron said of going to the hard areas. "I just think we can't get all of our goals from getting to the hard areas. I think the guys are trying in the room. It's not because no one's trying or anything and we're just going to stay on the outside. That's not how it works.

"First before getting to the hard areas, we've got to get the puck. A lot of times, we're working to get it back, so we have to find a way to get it back quicker and generate just more offensive chances from that."

The Blues feel like they're getting the chances to score. This was a team that led the NHL in scoring in the first month of the season. They averaged four goals per game in the month of January.

"We just have to bury our chances," said defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, who got the lone goal Friday. "Sometimes they go in, sometimes they don't. We can't let it get us discouraged. Same thing on the power play, keep pressing, keep staying hungry and I think we'll be fine. We are (getting chances). We're doing a great job, our forwards are doing a great job cycling, creating those chances down low and playing to our strengths.

"It's going to come. It's going to open up for us. We had it earlier in the year for a little while there and we weren't able to keep it out of our net as much. Now it seems like the other way around. We'll stay at it."

But no matter how one looks at the recent goal drought (1.25 average over five games, 2.29 in the month of April), the Blues are winning games. That's the bottom line. If their goaltending and defensive play has to get the job done like it did last season, they can live with that combination. It was a big reason why they were able to win 49 games a season ago.

"You can look at that glass however you want. We've said that we need to find ways to get points ... beg, borrow, steal, scratch, claw, whatever it is," said center David Backes, who has two goals in 20 games. "Going down the stretch run, you're going to look at those games and go, 'I'm glad we took two points out of that one,' rather than looking back and going, 'Oh, if we only had two more points going into this last week or whatever it is.'

"We've done a pretty good job of finding ourselves and our identity. A bump in the road (Friday), but we've got a great opponent on Sunday that we've got to focus for again and get back on track."

All things considered, the Blues were able to take six of eight points on the trip. They have taken 10 of 12 points on the road in April, which bodes well for the postseason.

"We had a very good road trip," Shattenkirk said. "We've been playing with just a great level of competitiveness, playing smart road games, and I think it's tough to end it with this with a sour taste in your mouth. But we can't forget about what we accomplished on it. Now we go home to a nice little homestand and that's going to be just as important."

(St. Louis Blues photo)
Andy McDonald (left) and the Blues' offense could use a boost in
scoring down the stretch of the regular season.
The Blues finish the season with seven of their final eight games at Scottrade Center. If they want to have a shot at finishing fourth in the Western Conference, it's time to become the team that had the best home record in the NHL last season (30-6-5). They're only 9-7-1 on home ice this year.

"It's what we need to do," Perron said. "We have a great opportunity there to make up some ground, and that's what we're going to look to do."

"It still was a good road trip. Yeah, we haven't scored much, but at least one part of our game is there ... the defensive side of it. It's good to see Ells play the way he has. ... We had six in a row, but when you're in that situation, you're always looking for more."

* NOTES -- The Blues will participate in a jersey switch and wear their road white jerseys against the Blackhawks. Chicago will wear its home red jerseys. Following the game, the Blues’ game worn jerseys will be autographed and auctioned off on the team's official website The auctions for the jerseys will begin Monday and conclude on Sunday, April 21 at 7 p.m. All proceeds from the auctions will benefit the 14 Fund, the Blues’ charitable trust. ... Elliott, the starter for Sunday's game, will carry a 189:29 shutout streak into the contest (all on the road). Elliott has three straight shutouts in that span and hasn't allowed a goal since Chicago's Viktor Stalberg scored in the third period of the Blues' 4-3 shootout win on April 4.

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