Monday, April 15, 2013

Hitchcock: Blues can get more offense with more sacrifice

Coach calls for improved play at the net, funneling pucks accordingly;
Oshie close to return, Jaskin could make NHL debut Tuesday

ST. LOUIS -- The Blues took the ice at Scottrade Center Monday, a day after losing to the Chicago Blackhawks with new line combinations and working on a strong penchant for getting bodies and pucks to the net.

Coach Ken Hitchcock said afterwards about the line combinations, which saw some different twists, "I wouldn't read anything into anything today. I'd be careful with that. I wanted to see what a couple of lines looked like. This was the time to experiment. Don't read too much into it right now."

However, there was no mistaking the theme of Monday's practice as the Blues (23-16-2) prepare for the second of a four-game homestand Tuesday against the Vancouver Canucks: sacrifice bodies by driving hard to the net, get pucks towards the goal and put an allotted emphasis on a power play that's not seen multiple goals in one game since Feb. 15 (28 games ago).

(St. Louis Blues/Mark Buckner)
Vladimir Sobotka (17) has been one of the more consistent players
in Ken Hitchcock's lineup for the Blues this season.
"I think everybody goes through this, but it's not just funneling pucks, it's funneling properly, when you have a step, go into the hard ice ... all the things you need to do to score goals," said Hitchcock, whose team has dropped two straight after winning six in a row but has only five goals in its last five games. "I just think it's overall competitive areas. You want to see more from certain guys and you want to see more from your group to go into there.

"To me, the power play (6-for-72 in 27 games) is an extension at this time of the year. Everybody's watched you play four times or three times on the power play, they know everything about you. You're not going to surprise anybody. You're going to have to get the dirty, ugly goals on the power play just like you are 5-on-5. It's simplifying everything, simplifying your game offensively, simplifying it on the power play and going to work. To me, if we can do that stuff, I like the way we're doing a lot of things. We were very competitive last night (in a 2-0 loss to the Blackhawks), but we needed a little more bite in around the net area."

The power play, which saw the Blues earlier in the season blazing at 36 percent, is having all sorts of issues in all aspects of execution. Whether it be gaining entry into the offensive zone, being more decisive shooting the puck or making the proper play, it's seemed to steal the bite the Blues have displayed in recent weeks: a solid 5-on-5 game, stellar penalty killing, which hasn't yielded a goal in 10 games (23-for-23) and only allowed one in 15 (34-for-35) and great goaltending.

"It's a tricky thing. I think a lot of it's confidence," forward Andy McDonald said. "I think there's been a lot of games where we've only gotten one (power play attempt). When you're struggling, that makes it tough because when you go out and perhaps you don't score but you have good possession time and you get two or three of those a game, you're feeling good about yourself. It's just a matter of time.

"For us, I don't think as a team we've drawn enough penalties, which means it's tough to gain that repetition in the game and that confidence in the game. It's a whole different animal in my eyes. We really rely on patience and controlling the puck and using your skill. Obviously there's a work aspect to it and puck retrievals could be better, but you need to have the confidence to make the plays. Earlier in the year, we had two units with a lot of confidence and that was the difference. ... I really believe in the guys in the room and the guys on the power play that we can get it done."

The defense, particularly since the acquisitions of Jordan Leopold and Jay Bouwmeester, has been stabilized and with the reinforcement of the goaltending with both Brian Elliott and Jake Allen, it's been a role reversal from earlier in the season when the Blues were scoring but vulnerable in their own end.

"Moving forward, we can't put that much pressure on the goalies," forward Alexander Steen said. "We need to make sure that we relieve some of that pressure by putting the pucks in the net.

"The power play and special teams win you the games. We need to make sure we get back on board with that, start putting some pucks in. It starts with our 5-on-5 game and it's kind of drifted into our power play. ... You've just got to will your way through it. You've got to power through it, almost will the puck in the net. We're getting shots off and we're getting some looks, but it hasn't been good enough."
(St. Louis Blues/Mark Buckner)
The Blues are looking for more traffic in front of the goal, like Chris
Stewart (25) here against Chicago's Corey Crawford (50) Sunday. 

Although Hitchcock did say not to read too much into the line tweaking today that saw Vladimir Sobotka centering McDonald and Chris Stewart, Chris Porter centering Jaden Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko and Patrik Berglund between fourth-liners Adam Cracknell and Ryan Reaves, expect some sort different looks come Tuesday night.

"It's a big mistake when you think you're playing well and not scoring and then you're going to stay with it," Hitchcock said. "I think it's a big mistake we all make as coaches. We think it's going to change, and we don't become proactive. I've learned hard lessons over time that close-close usually ends up in loss-loss. I think it's up to me to get people to change, whether it's with conversations, whether it's with combinations or whatever, but I think for me, to expect a different result from the same situation in the last two games would be unrealistic. I think I've got to be proactive there. That's what I mean ... don't read everything into it. We'll see where we're at in the morning, but I think if I stayed the same, it would be a mistake because it's not going to get a different result unless I do some tweaking."

* NOTES -- Blues winger T.J. Oshie skated again on Monday with the team but was not part of the line rotations. However, Oshie did take part in all the drills and looked his best on the ice since injuring his foot/ankle blocking a shot against Los Angeles March 28.

"He was better today," Hitchcock said of Oshie. "Today was his best day. He's literally day to day now. We'll see how he is in the morning, see how he feels."

Oshie, who's missed eight straight games, would not declare himself available for Tuesday's game against the Canucks but wouldn't say he's not there yet either.

"I don't know," he said. "If this is playoff Game 7, I'm going no matter what. I could be broken and I'm still going, but we'll see. I don't want to get ahead of myself. I did that right when it happened. I thought it was going to be a couple days and it's been a couple weeks now. I don't want to get ahead of myself, but if I'm able to play, then it's up to the coaches if they think I'm able to play.

"Yeah, I think we're getting close. We're getting a little bit better every day, kind of learning where we can push it and when we've got to back off a little bit. I'd say today was probably the best day I've had yet. I've just got to see how I feel a couple hours from now and tomorrow morning and just go from there."

. . . The Blues' 2011 second round pick Dmitrij Jaskin once again skated long and hard, with long being the key word. Much longer after the rest of the Blues did on Monday.

The 41st pick in 2011 could get into the lineup against the Canucks Tuesday. He was rotating on the team's top line with David Backes, Steen and David Perron. But Hitchcock wouldn't commit to using him.

"I don't know yet. He's available for selection," said Hitchcock, who claimed he would throw Jaskin into the lineup as soon as he felt the Omsk, Russia native could help the team. "That's all I can tell you right now."

Also on the ice following the regular practice were winger Jamie Langenbrunner (on injured reserve following hip surgery), center Scott Nichol (lower-body) and goalie Jaroslav Halak (groin), who took shots and did all the necessary goalie drills.

"For me, he's just out," Hitchcock said of Halak, who hurt his groin again April 1 at Minnesota. "Until he's with the team at practice, no point in even discussing it. Until he's there as a full participant ... he's not practicing with us, so he's just out."

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