Sunday, December 8, 2013

Blues facing adversity in wake of third loss in four games

Leaders will be challenged for first time to help
team get back to what was making it a success

ST. LOUIS -- It was after a 6-5 shootout loss to the Anaheim Ducks last season that Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said "when you lose, it takes a while to build it back."

That game was the fourth loss in a row for the Blues, who would go on to lose another and go 0-4-1 before finding their way back to consistent winning.

They're not there yet, but Saturday's 5-2 loss to the Ducks on home ice had one common theme rearing its ugly head for the Blues in recent games: poor starts.

In particular, poor first periods in general.

The Blues were once again victimized by their own self-destruction in the opening period, falling behind 3-0 in the game's first seven-plus minutes. Against one of the Western Conference's top-tiered teams, it was lights out again.

(St. Louis Blues/Mark Buckner)
Blues captain David Backes (middle) and the rest of the team leaders will
have their first real test to help the team get back on track.
The Blues are still 19-6-3 but have dropped three of their last four in regulation and in doing so, they've been outscored 9-1 in the first period, including 9-0 in the three losses.

Even in their 5-1 win against the New York Islanders Thursday, the Blues did not play well in the first period despite leading 1-0.

It's been a combination of poor execution, costly turnovers, getting checked in their defensive zone, not-so-clean zone exits, not having the puck and most importantly, not checking themselves. And in the process, the Blues are leaving their goalies hung out to dry, and Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott are left to make the acrobatic, dramatic save, which doesn't seem to happen when needed.

"I don't know if it's the preparation before the game or doing something different to mentally get into it," defenseman Barret Jackman said. "We haven't been doing it. We've got to search within the room how to get everybody involved right off the bat and get the legs moving, get the heads moving. You can't spot teams like that a two- or three-goal lead and expect to win.

"If it was an easy fix, I'd be sitting here talking about one game and that's it, but I don't know what it is. We'll search every avenue and we'll change things around. We've built ourselves a great amount of points and had a fast start, but we can't lose it now by a lack of focus and bad preparation before the game."

So what is it then?

"That's a tough question," said center Patrik Berglund, who scored for the first time in 23 games Saturday. "I think everybody's preparing themselves as they always have been, but obviously, we can't have these starts where we get behind with these goals. We obviously have to do some soul-searching. These starts against these good teams are just not acceptable. ... The starts are just not good enough. We're not playing the way we should. I don't think success is getting to us. I think we're still a very humble team, but we're still making too many mistakes.

"I think we're holding each other accountable. It's just about following the game plan. We're not doing it right now."

Halak, pulled after allowing the third goal to the Ducks' Ryan Getzlaf Saturday, agreed.

"Nothing has changed. Everything is the same," Halak said. "It's tough to explain. ... it's tough to explain what's going on now. We need to find the answers soon. We need to get ready. Teams see this and if they see it, they will try to be ready or have a good start and they feel like it's enough to beat us. We need to play harder, play better and we need to play for 60 minutes."

Hitchcock said the Blues are putting skill ahead of work, which is a problem they endured during their five-game slump a season ago.

Why does that happen?

"Because it's easier," Hitchcock said.

"I think you've just got to go through it," Hitchcock added. "We'll come out the other end, but we're going to have to go through it. There's going to be some rough water here for a little while. We figured it out last year, we had a collective buy-in the year before, but this one looks like it's going to be another ... we're going to have to work at it, we're going to have to really work at it. I think it's going to have to really become important for the players. The players are going to have to gauge this as something that's really critical and important for us to get back where we want to be. But I think there's other teams sometimes that are in the same boat as us here.

"We've had a lot of success, but now we've got to really dig in. And I think it really shows against good teams. We want to be a good team. I think for us, when you're second place all over the ice, man, you look slow and you look spread out and that's what we did. We looked slow (Saturday) and we looked spread out until we got engaged in the second period."

It started against San Jose, when the Blues were shellacked in falling behind 4-0 after the first 11-plus minutes. Call it one bad period. No big deal. Chalk it up to a bad game, right?

Well, when the Blues faced Los Angeles Monday, it was a team they should have had no issues getting up for. After all, it's the Kings that eliminated the Blues from the previous two postseasons. That should have supplied enough mojo.

But it was surprisingly the same as in San Jose. The Blues fell behind 2-0 in the first, and 3-0 before they got engaged in falling 3-2.

The power play saved them in the game against the Islanders, and they won going away 5-1, but then fell back into another bad first period Saturday in losing again.

"The energy's there going on the ice, but the execution isn't," left winger Jaden Schwartz said. "We've got to start bearing down and bringing that energy onto the ice. ... We're playing 20 minutes, 30 minutes at times. Against teams like this, you've got to play a full 60.

"For whatever reason, we've got to re-adjust and get better at it. I think in the locker room, the energy's there. Everyone's excited, but sometimes I think we've got to put a little more of that into focus and being ready when the puck drops."

(St. Louis Blues/Mark Buckner)
Defenseman Barret Jackman said the Blues need to find what ails them
and they'll do all they can to get things fixed.
Now comes the true test, and it will come in the form of the leaders on this team, who will be called upon to help the Blues halt something that can turn into a bad downfall. And with the way the Western Conference is playing out this season, there's no time for bad streaks, even in an 82-game season.

So the likes of David Backes, Alexander Steen, T.J. Oshie, Jackman, Alex Pietrangelo, Kevin Shattenkirk, Berglund, and even seasoned veteran Brenden Morrow, a captain in Dallas, will need to step up and help lift the team when times are challenging.

"This really starts with your top players," Hitchcock said. "Our top players have to buy this because otherwise, they're just going to become a collection of individuals.

"I think it has to be a sense of urgency from the players that the true work is really more important than the skill. The skill comes after the work, and I think that has to be a collective buy-in. ... Every game's a process. It's not the end of the world. It's a process, and we had lots of success with the process. The best we were was against Chicago, but we're going to have to get a better buy-in."

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