Wednesday, December 11, 2013

(12-12-13) BLUES NOTEBOOK

Checking element back in Blues' win; Stewart,
Schwartz strong in Winnipeg; Elliott to get another start

By LOUIE KORAC
HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- It's only one game, and a needed game since the Blues picked up two points, but coach Ken Hitchcock found an element lacking in the team's 1-3 skid prior to Tuesday.

Checking.

The Blues' 2-1 victory against the Winnipeg Jets found them engaged from the get-go, despite only manufacturing two shots on goal in the opening period. They didn't surrender any goals, which was an achievement in itself based on being outscored 9-1 in the opening period the previous four games.

"That's what we needed to do," Hitchcock said. "It's not just getting pucks in deep. It's competing for space on the ice, it's puck support on contact, it's all the little details that mean the difference of whether you have the puck or not.

"We've been chasing the game for four games now because we've been waiting for someone to give us the puck rather than going and getting the puck. Yesterday we went and got the puck and we kept it when we had it, but we went and got it a lot more. We've been sitting back on our heels waiting for someone to give us the puck and when you get the other team's attention, they give you their 'A' game. ... Our team's built on going and getting it and keeping it once we've got it. That's what we did again yesterday. We went and we got the puck, we got it stopped, we got good support around it and we were able to create offense from it. We were on offense a lot yesterday even though we didn't have a lot of shots. We were on offense because we checked the puck back."

Not only was the Blues' checking element back on par and their physical nature was raised a level, defensive closures were also vital, especially in 5-on-5 play, where the Blues (20-6-3) blanked the Jets (14-14-4).

"Our gap was really good," Hitchcock said. "Our 5-on-5 gap was really good. We probably gave up one or two 5-on-5 scoring chances. Winnipeg got all their chances on the power play, but our checking gap was really good. Hopefully they can play that way again because it was really effective for us."

The Blues put the game away late in the third period when Kevin Shattenkirk's point shot on the power play turned into -- in baseball terms -- a changeup after deflecting off Bryan Little's stick and over Jets goalie Ondrej Pavelec.

"The thing that was disappointing for us is when it was 1-0, with all the odd-man rushes we had, we could have really put it away, but we made it more interesting at the end."

The Blues never wavered when Little tied the game for the Jets three minutes into the third with a power play goal. In fact, the Blues raised the level of play and played a lot of the game in Winnipeg's end of the ice.

"I thought the third period we started getting our 'whack and hack' game back again," Hitchcock said. "We started early (with the) whack and hack for space.

"I thought our competitive level went way up in the third period, which really helped us a lot. Killing penalties made us do that, but I think in the offensive zone alone, we won a lot of battles and a lot of races to pucks, which was a good sign."

* Stewart shines -- The numbers may not show it -- yet -- but Blues right winger Chris Stewart may have played arguably one of his best games of the season Tuesday.

Despite playing only 12 minutes, 15 seconds, Stewart was into the game physically and from a checking standpoint, made a difference.

He nearly put the Blues ahead in the third period but his shot from the high slot slammed off the cross bar of a 1-1 game.

"He was engaged all the time," Hitchcock said of Stewart, who has five goals and 11 points in 29 games. "He had a good game yesterday, which is nice to see."

Stewart began the game with Jaden Schwartz and Vladimir Sobotka but was switched to Patrik Berglund's like with Derek Roy. And Hitchcock had a purpose in mind.

"I felt (Winnipeg coach Claude Noel) wanted (Blake) Wheeler, Little and (Andrew) Ladd, and I felt like I needed an advantage," Hitchcock said. "I thought Bergy's line was going good, so I put Stewy there. Stewy had a good game yesterday. I thought we needed to have an advantage on the forecheck. I didn't want Bergy's line to be having to do all the checking. They had three good offensive players and I wanted to see if we could create more pressure in their zone.

"I've got flexibility with that (Sobotka) line there. I'll probably start (Stewart) with Sobe and we'll see from there (Thursday against Toronto). If I feel like we need more pressure on the forecheck, then I'll put him back with Berglund."

* Schwartz strong -- It's becoming old hat, but Jaden Schwartz was one of the better Blues forwards in the Blues' win Tuesday night.

In 17:24 of ice time, Schwartz didn't get on the scoresheet, but was at the top of the list of little things the Blues needed to be successful. One of his better shifts came immediately before Vladimir Sobotka drew a penalty that led to the Blues' game-winning goal.

"You just come to expect it now," Hitchcock said of Schwartz. "I think if it was anything less, we would be disappointed.

"That's the high level of play he's at right now. He's really playing at a high level right now. It's good to see."

Schwartz has nine points in 10 games during a stretch that included points in a career-best seven straight games

* Leafs on deck -- The Toronto Maple Leafs, who hosted the Los Angeles Kings Wednesday night, come to Scottrade Center to face the Blues for only the third time in seven seasons Thursday night.

The Leafs, who will be without captain Dion Phaneuf as the defenseman will serve the second of a two-game suspension, last visited St. Louis on Nov. 10, 2011. The Leafs won 3-2 in a shootout in Hitchcock's second game as Blues coach after taking over for the fired Davis Payne.

"I think they're like any other team with high-level skill," Hitchcock said. "It's all about the room. You can't give them room to operate. I'm watching (the Leafs') game against Boston (Sunday), they've got two lines ... you give them a little bit of room, you're going to be in big trouble. We've got to negate the room, we've got to make sure we don't give them any space.

"It's mostly about us. When you only play a team once or twice, it's hard to go over and get into the detail (as if you were) playing them five times. The details of our checking game are going to be really apparent here against them because they've got rush-attack lines in two sets that can really do damage."

Brian Elliott will make his second consecutive start for the first time this season. Elliott stopped 20 shots Tuesday night and it was thought the Jaroslav Halak, who last played Saturday, would get the nod against Toronto. But Hitchcock going back with Elliott, who is 5-1-1 with a 2.04 goals-against average and .919 save percentage.

"He made some good saves," Hitchcock said of Elliott. "He saw a lot of rubber on the power play. They had a lot of good looks on the power play.

"We'll go with him and see how it goes."

Hitchcock also said the lineup from Tuesday will remain in tact against the Leafs, so Adam Cracknell will also get a second consecutive game.

* Stat of the day -- Shattenkirk's game-winner goal Tuesday came 24 seconds into the Blues' power play, and the Blues, who have 26 power play goals on the season, have scored 14 of those goals in 36 seconds or less from the start of the power play, and seven of those have come in 10 seconds or less.

The breakdown:

-- David Backes vs. Nashville on Oct. 3 (:03)

-- Derek Roy vs. N.Y. Rangers on Oct. 12 (:36)

-- Vladimir Tarasenko vs. N.Y. Rangers on Oct. 12 (:06)

-- Backes at Chicago on Oct. 17 (:05)

-- Alexander Steen vs. Vancouver on Oct. 25 (:18)

-- Steen at Nashville on Oct. 26 (:07)

-- Alex Pietrangelo at Nashville on Oct. 26 (:28)

-- Roy vs. Colorado on Nov. 14 (:05)

-- Backes vs. Colorado on Nov. 14 (:08)

-- T.J. Oshie vs. Carolina on Nov. 16 (:28)

-- Roy vs. Dallas on Nov. 23 (:10)

-- Steen at Colorado on Nov. 27 (:36)

-- Backes vs. N.Y. Islanders on Dec. 5 (:31)

-- Kevin Shattenkirk at Winnipeg on Dec. 10 (:24)



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