Wednesday, December 18, 2013

(12-19-13) BLUES NOTEBOOK

Sobotka, Schwartz skate, Backes out Thursday;
Colaiacovo chips in at left wing; Halak, Elliott to split next two games

By LOUIE KORAC
HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- Two-thirds of the missing Blues forwards recently injured were on the ice Wednesday.

Vladimir Sobotka and Jaden Schwartz, both nursing upper-body injuries, were a handful of skaters that took the ice at the Ice Zone inside St. Louis Outlet Mall. Both took shots and took part in skating and stick-handling drills.

But that doesn't necessarily mean both are ready to return to game action.

"I wouldn't say that. If the game was today, neither one of them are ready," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said Wednesday afternoon. "We'll see how they feel the rest of the day and see how they feel in the morning skate.

"Our situation's pretty fluid right now. If the roster that played against San Jose's what's there, then that's the way we'll play. If we can add a player or two, we'll see. Neither one would have been ready today."

Both Sobotka and Schwartz, two top-six forwards on the team, have not played since Saturday when the Blues defeated the Columbus Blue Jackets 4-3 in overtime. In fact, Sobotka left that game in the second period. Schwartz was able to finish but did so in a limited capacity.

As for captain David Backes, who is being monitored for concussion symptoms following a collision Monday against Ottawa Senators forward Colin Greening, the news isn't as clear either. In fact, it sounds like Backes' prognosis is in a bit of a holding pattern.

"He's out ... period," Hitchcock said of Backes, who has 16 goals and 30 points in 32 games this season. "He hasn't skated yet, hasn't been cleared to do anything yet. He's out."

The Blues have not made any roster moves in regards to calling up players from the American Hockey League's Chicago Wolves because they haven't decided to place any of the aforementioned three on injured reserve. IR moves are a minimum of seven days and would force those players to miss games through the weekend, which includes Thursday's home game against Montreal and Saturday in Edmonton. In Backes' case, he would be out through Monday's game at Calgary.

Backes, Sobotka and Schwartz join two other regulars, Jordan Leopold (hand) and Ryan Reaves (hand), battling injuries. But Leopold and Reaves have resumed skating and conditioning but are still a few weeks away from being completely healthy.

* Nipping first periods -- The question that just won't go away for the Blues in regards to their first period starts, the team hopes to eradicate those demons moving forward.

Hitchcock talked about addressing those issues Wednesday morning. Is the team not preparing properly? What can be done differently?

The Blues fell behind 2-0 in the first period Tuesday and lost to the San Jose Sharks 4-2. In their previous five losses in which the Blues have gone 0-4-1, they've been outscored 12-0 in the game's first 20 minutes.

"It's just an ongoing process," Hitchcock said. "The checking issues that I talked about, those are competitive issues. For us to get to the next level where we want to be at on a consistent basis, if you want to play better, you've got to check harder. All your offense comes from checking, your mindset comes from checking. I haven't seen a team in the league win in the last 10 years that doesn't check well, and as soon as we're off a little bit, teams can take advantage of that. If you look at all the teams that are playing really well right now, their defense is creating their offense. That's what we want to get back to."

Forward T.J. Oshie said the fix isn't a difficult one.

"I think we've just got to simplify it," he said. "Everyone's going to (be) simple early in the game so we've got to be simple and talk down in our end. I think one thing we can do better is box out in front of our net. When we played the teams that beat us handily, you pay a price when you go to the front of their net. We've got to do that in front of ours, even if that means take a penalty to show other teams that they're not going to get in front of our net easy."

Teams have been able to get scoring chances -- and goals -- in the low areas of the ice against the Blues, especially early on.

"Those are competitive areas," Hitchcock said. "We're getting beat. We're getting beat 1 on 1, we're getting beat near the net. If you look at the last five, six games, we're getting scored on because we're being out-competed in the critical areas. When we do a good job of it, we look really good, but you can't be inconsistent in the scoring areas, both defensively and offensively. If you're consistent in those areas, front of the nets, down low, good things happen, and that's got to be your mindset. That's an identity with every team. It doesn't matter what your skill level is. If you're competing in those critical areas on the ice, critical spots, both blue lines, front of the nets, you're going to be successful.

"It's across the board, goalies included. It's across the board."

Trying to fix things without key members of the lineup is a challenge in itself.

"Just simplify. Our principles don't change," Hitchcock said. "I think one of the problems we had yesterday was we didn't start competing in the 3-on-3 low game until about halfway through. You're not going to win many games like that. That was what was disappointing. Once we engaged, we were going really good. We really played well in that second period and especially in the third, but you can't wait to begin to engage physically that late against that team. That was disappointing. We felt like we wanted to send a stronger message early and we didn't do it.

"... I'm more worried about the way we're playing, and we've got to play a lot better than we're playing right now. We've got to play a lot harder, we've got to play a lot more determined and a lot heavier in the critical ice. If we do that, then I think good things will happen."

* Colaiacovo, left winger -- Carlo Colaiacovo has been a defenseman by trade throughout his NHL career, but he dabbled into territory not seen since his junior hockey days.

With the Blues thin at forward for their game Tuesday against the Sharks, Colaiacovo was pressed into action -- as a left winger.

The Blues were in a similar situation last season when Kris Russell was pressed into action as a left winger in Detroit when Andy McDonald came down with the flu and was a late scratch.

Colaiacovo played only 5 minutes, 40 seconds and he did take a penalty early in the game but felt comfortable in the role as the game progressed.

"I was excited about it," Colaiacovo said. "It provides me another opportunity to be a part of this team and to be in the lineup. There was talk of it happening a couple games ago, so there's been the thought process there. I've said it before, whatever I gotta do to be a part of this team and help this team win, I've got to do it with a smile on my face and work my hardest to do it.

"I felt pretty good. The thing that was a little tough was trying to get used to the different skating routes and different positionings, especially on faceoff stuff. My linemates communicated with me real well and I felt really comfortable out there playing it, especially not having any practice at it. If I practice it a little more, it can present itself another time. I'm comfortable there, but obviously I'm a defenseman first."

Hitchcock said juggling the forwards without three of the team's top six was a challenge but complimented Colaiacovo for accepting the challenge.

"It's a challenge, but we'll see how it goes tomorrow," Hitchcock said. "I don't think Carlo went to his pregame meal thinking he was going to be a left winger. But it's the way it is. It's a turbulent time for us. We've just got to settle down, not feel sorry for ourselves. Nobody's feeling sorry for us in the Western Conference, I can tell you that. We've just got to dig in and get the most we can, get points when we can and hopefully some of these guys end up coming back here in the next week or 10 days.

"I think (Colaiacovo) did alright. He got better as it went along. It's a different thing when you're skating forward so much and then people are in your face. You're not receiving the rush. I thought as the game went on, he did fine."

* Goalies set -- It's no surprise, but Jaroslav Halak will face his former teammates again when the Blues host the Canadiens Thursday night. Halak is 3-0-0 in his career against the Habs, including a 3-2 shootout victory earlier this season in Montreal. Brian Elliott will get the nod Saturday night when the Blues play in Edmonton against former teammate David Perron and the Oilers.

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