Blues get back to checking; leadership responds
to recent woes; La Russa gets praise from Hitchcock
By LOUIE KORAC
HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- The Blues took the ice on Monday prior to departing for Winnipeg to take on the Jets Tuesday in hopes of correcting what's been ailing them in recent games.
Call this time the Blues' first true test of the season.
The Blues, who've dropped three of four games, ramped up their practice session that lasted more than an hour with plenty of individual battles, battles in pairs or more and lots of what, coach Ken Hitchcock?
"A lot of checking. Today was checking," Hitchcock said. "A lot of checking drills. An element of our game that's got to get better, so we're going to work on it.
"We did a lot of game-like situations. So between checking and game-like situations, we had a slow start to the practice but as the players got more involved in checking and playing 1-on-1s and 2-on-2s, 3-on-3s and 5-on-5s ... we got better and better as the practice went on."
And the results?
"I expected more from the start (after) a day off and everything, but from the 20-minute mark on, we got a lot," Hitchcock said. "Guys really got engaged from the 20-minute mark on. The first 20 minutes was very slow for me and kind of like, 'What's going on? What are we doing?' We've got a game tomorrow. Once I think the players recognized that the practice was going to run that way, they really amped up the competitiveness."
Considering the slow starts to the Blues' last four games against San Jose, Los Angeles, New York Islanders and Anaheim, the theme was pretty predictable.
"Everything was tailored towards battling and working together," defenseman Barret Jackman said. "You go from one end of the ice to the other and staying connected as a forecheck and regrouping and everything and playing with speed. That's something we kind of got away from, something we've got to get back to.
"You've got to follow it up. It's not just flip a switch and go. It's going to be a process the next game. Obviously you're looking for results, but it's all about the effort you put in. We have been cheating a little bit and it kind of bites you. It all comes back to hard work and being aggressive and building back our identity and our team game."
* Leaders respond -- After practice Monday, Blues players talked about their recent struggles, especially the starts to games in which they've been outscored 9-1 (9-0 in three losses) the past four games in the first period.
And if the team is going to lean on its veterans to supply the ingredients to help alleviate what's ailing them in starts to games, then those players feel like they need to lead with actions.
"Most of it's got to be leading by example ... and putting that effort forward," Jackman said. "You can be a rah-rah guy, but if you're not doing it yourself, not many guys are going to take what you say seriously. You can say the right things, but you have to go out and do it. Our leaders and our best players, we need to step up and play better and play hard and play hard right from the drop of the puck. Don't wade in."
The Blues seem eager to tackle the issues at hand. Nobody is denying what's been doing on.
"Collectively, we've got to come out stronger in games," left winger Alexander Steen said. "I think the last couple weeks, it's been ... I don't want to say weakness, but part of our game that hasn't been there that has been there previously, that's something we've obviously acknowledged and are going to do better. ... There's things that happen during the course of an 82-game schedule. This is something that crept into our game and we've just got to get rid of it. The thing we have been lacking is our starts. We've come out slow and hesitant and other teams have made us pay. That's the bottom line and we've just got to change it.
"There's no secret to it. It's nothing we're trying to sugarcoat or something that we're not aware of. We have to change in order for us to be successful. We know it, you guys know it."
Hitchcock said this is a trying time not only for the Blues but for a lot of teams around the league.
"It's a process," Hitchcock said. ... "I said to the players today, 'This time is the dark time.' There's no light at the start, so you're in the tunnel and there's no light at the end and you've got to figure out a way to get points. There's a ton of teams ... there's 10 or 11 teams in the same tunnel right now and who comes out of this tunnel by the Olympic break is usually going to be a team that's got a good run for the playoffs going on. You don't want to give up points or play poor hockey when you're in the tunnel, and we're in the tunnel right now. Every team's in this thing. You see little blips, whether it's us or teams in the conference, everybody's going through the blips but how quick you come out of it is going to determine how much light you've got to work with at the end of the tunnel.
"I get the fact that the enthusiasm to the start of the year is over. Now you're into the grind and how you operate in the grind tells a lot about your team, and I want us playing better in the grind here. I want us checking harder, I want us competing harder, I want our best players playing better. I want all that stuff at this time because this is the hard time. This is a really difficult time for the players. You've got to work harder on your focus because you're in the holiday season. You've got to work harder in your focus because your energy isn't what it was, you're banged up. This is what builds teams, this time right now."
The big picture is that the Blues have earned points in 22 of 28 games (41 points) this season. But it's clear they want more.
"I don't think you do that," Steen said regarding to looking at the big picture. "That makes you sound satisfied and I don't think we are. Our goal was to come out strong when the season started. We did that. Now the emotion and the inspiration to the start of the season has kind of worn off and we're in the middle of it now. That's where the true grind comes in and mental strength and the ability to prepare yourself for every game and not looking at the past, what's been or what might be in the future. Just focus on that one game.
"The last little while here, a week or so, we've kind of struggled a little bit. We're picking ourselves up and we're going to have a good game in Winnipeg."
* Hitch praises La Russa -- Hitchcock was asked about former Cardinals manager and friend Tony La Russa on his induction into the baseball Hall of Fame on Monday.
The two became close friends while La Russa was managing the Cardinals and even brought the World Series trophy to Scottrade Center prior to a Blues game after winning the 2011 championship.
"He's a champion because he's so prepared," Hitchcock said of La Russa. "He should have been a hockey coach to me. He has that mentality. I think the world of him. We've developed a great friendship. There's great support from either side. Our families are real good friends with each other.
For me, he is a great coach because he's one step ahead of it every time. He's developed a coaching method where he can see around corners and that's his biggest strength. He knows what's going to happen before it happens. His ability to predict, I think, has really helped his teams win championships because he seems to when it's on the line, he's made the right move at the right time. I think that comes from a combination of experience and preparation. He's just way ahead of the curve. Like I said, he should have been a hockey coach."
* Next opponent -- The Blues (19-6-3) and Jets (14-13-4) will meet for the third time this season, with each team winning on its home ice.
The Jets rallied from a 3-1 deficit with seven minutes remaining in the game to grab a 4-3 shootout victory on Oct. 18, and the Blues pulled out a 3-2 victory at home on Oct. 29 on Steen's game-winner in the final minute.
The Blues are 4-0-2 against the Jets (which also includes games against the franchise when they were the Atlanta Thrashers) since Nov. 8, 2009.
Brian Elliott, who relieved Jaroslav Halak Saturday, will get the start against the Jets. Also, Hitchcock was leaning on giving Adam Cracknell a game Tuesday but as of Monday afternoon, the Blues' coach was not quite sure.