Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Depleted Blues have first period troubles again in 4-2 loss to Sharks

Without Backes, Sobotka, Schwartz, St. Louis
has no answer in losing all three to San Jose

ST. LOUIS -- Yes, there was no David Backes. Yes, there was no Vladimir Sobotka. And yes, there was no Jaden Schwartz.

These are three key, important pieces to the Blues' team. They contribute more than just the stat sheet.

But nobody will feel sorry for the Blues. The San Jose Sharks didn't on Tuesday night.

The Sharks were once again opportunistic against the Blues in the first period. Two more goals Tuesday put the Blues in a two-goal hole. They were enough to help San Jose sweep the season series from St. Louis with a 4-2 victory at Scottrade Center.

(St. Louis Blues/Mark Buckner)
Brenden Morrow (right) battles San Jose's Justin Braun during Tuesday's
4-2 Sharks victory over the Blues at Scottrade Center.
The Sharks (21-7-6) have outscored the Blues 8-0 in three first periods. San Jose outscored St. Louis 16-7 in sweeping three games.

And they did it as the Blues (22-7-4) were playing on back-to-back nights after getting back from Monday's 3-2 overtime loss at Ottawa at 2 a.m. Tuesday and third in four games.

The Blues were not making excuses. But it's a first-period tune that sounds like it belongs in a remake of Groundhog Day.

"It's like a broken record," said defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, who scored a goal Tuesday. "We've got to get better on our starts. We did initially early for a couple minutes and then got away from it. They get a fortunate bounce on the first goal, but from there, we've just got to kind of pick our heads up and know that what we were doing at the time was getting the job done."

And just like in this recent stretch of games in which the Blues start slow, they pick up speed in the second and third periods, only to fall short. They got away with one Saturday in Columbus in which they fell behind 3-1 in the first, only to rally and win 4-3 in overtime. But starting slow and finishing fast is not a good omen in the NHL.

As Blues coach Ken Hitchcock likes to say, playing catch-up hockey is bad hockey.

"It's a cooperation from the players and coaches," Hitchcock said when asked what could be done differently. "Obviously there's a preparation problem. We've got to do a better job between coaches and players at preparing to function properly checking-wise early. We're giving up too many scoring chances. We're not going to win many games giving up this many goals. We've gotten points in some of these games, but it's priorities. The priority can't be based on the score. It has to be based on what the team's needs are. To me, the team's needs have to override anything that an individual needs. You can't be thinking about yourself at the start of the game. You can't be wanting to wade into the game, you've got to be ready to go. And ready to go means ready to check. That's ready to go.

"We had lots of try today. We had lots of try in the second and third period. I don't think we were coordinated like we have to be. I think that was the difference in the game. Their team was more coordinated when the game was on the line. We had a lot of exhaustive energy to come back in the game. We worked very hard to come back in the second and third period of the game to make it 3-2, but I thought they were more coordinated at the start of the third period than we were."

San Jose's Brent Burns scored his first goal in 10 games, Martin Havlat scored his third goal in 19 games, and Patrick Marleau and Justin Braun each had two assists. Antti Niemi stopped 20 shots for the Sharks, who won for the second time in seven games (2-4-1) and snapped a four-game road losing streak.

The Blues got a goal each from Shattenkirk and Jay Bouwmeester. Jaroslav Halak stopped 23 shots. Halak has now allowed 14 goals in his past five starts, with 10 of those coming in the first period on 50 shots. Over the second and third periods of those five games, Halak has allowed only four goals on 64 shots.

"It's not one group, it's not one player. It's collective," Hitchcock said. "It's defense, it's goaltending, it's forwards, it's everybody. It's the connection into what's important. It's all there. This is a total team thing that we can fix, but it's priorities. It's what's important. And to me, 0-0 after the first period or 1-0, not giving up scoring chances, really competing and setting the tempo that the other team has to react to has to be more important than what your individual needs are."

The Sharks utilized the back boards on their first-period goals. Pavelski took the carom of Havlat's shot from the left point that bounced off the boards to the other side of the net, where Pavelski knocked in a rebound at 9:38 to open the scoring with his fourth goal in as many games.

Irwin scored his first of the season on a similar play. Braun's shot caromed quickly off the boards, and Irwin was in the low slot. He beat a slow-reacting Halak and Chris Stewart to the puck and put it into an open side at 12:34 for a 2-0 San Jose lead.

"We can't catch a break," Halak said. "It seems like the first periods lately, every time we go into the second, we are down. It's hard to come back every single game."

Added Alexander Steen: "We didn't play in the beginning of the game. We got kind of settled into the game and ended up going as the game went on."

"It's really sloppy defensive play," Hitchcock said. "We've been guilty of that for a little while, not near ready to go from a checking standpoint, loose coverage. The lead-up to the goals was loose coverage. The second goal, we're standing beside the guy who scores. Loose coverage, not ready to check and that's something we're going to have to discuss [Wednesday]. We've had too many of these starts like this. It's not engaged quick enough. Some we got away with, some we didn't.

"Same start in Columbus (Saturday), same start in Ottawa (Monday)."

Burns last scored Nov. 29, when he got a hat trick against the Blues. Tuesday he took a Joe Thornton pass and snapped a shot over Halak's glove two minutes into the second period for a 3-0 lead.

St. Louis found life with a pair of second-period goals from defensemen to cut the lead to 3-2.

Shattenkirk's one-timer from the top of the left circle caromed off Sharks defenseman Andrew Desjardins, who turned over the puck initially that allowed the Blues stay in the offensive zone, at 15:31 to make it 3-1.

Bouwmeester's blast from inside the blue line came with 24.2 seconds remaining in the period. The Blues pinned the Sharks deep following a faceoff, and Steen set a screen in front of Niemi.

The Blues were set to make another comeback. The crowd of 16,323 had something to get jacked up about.

The Sharks withstood the Blues' early third-period surge before Havlat fired in a rebound of Braun's initial shot that hit the left post. Havlat collected the puck from a sharp angle in the left circle and beat a sprawled Halak at 8:19.

"The fourth one was tough," Shattenkirk said. "It was like a dagger because we felt like we were moving in the right direction."

But it all goes back to the Nov. 29 game at San Jose, where the Blues were blitzed with a four-goal outburst in the game's first 12 minutes. It's been an inconsistent roller-coaster since.

In the five games they've lost (0-4-1), the Blues have been outscored 12-0. In the four wins, they've outscored the opposition 5-3.

(St. Louis Blues/Mark Buckner)
Blues players (from left to right) Jay Bouwmeester, Alex Pietrangelo,
Alexander Steen and T.J. Oshie celebrate a second period goal Tuesday.
"It's not a physical thing," Shattenkirk said when asked if it's mental. "I don't think that we are unable to find the energy and get out there and do the right things because we have done it in a few games in the past couple. Mentally, I think we just have to trust our game ... whether they score a goal in the first period or the third period, we have to just treat it the same and move on and get hungrier and get desperate."

But for a team having to move on for the time being without those three key pieces, the Blues' resolve will be tested in a great way.

"'Sobe,' 'Schwartzy' and 'Backs' are terrific players," Steen said. "Obviously they'll be missed but it's the reality of our team right now and all teams go through this in the course of a season. There's no excuses. I thought we came to play after the first period."

"All year everyone talks about how great our depth is and I think we know that even if we lose three guys like that, we have guys that can chip in," Shattenkirk said. "I don't think there's a team in this league that's not going to go through some injury battles. There's going to be guys that step up.

"When you lose your captain, there's other guys that have to become leaders quickly. I think I can do a much better job there as well. We all kind of have to step up and take a little piece of that job and just come together even closer as a team and fight through it."

* NOTES -- Backes missed his first game since Jan. 25, 2010, a stretch of 274 consecutive regular season games and 289 including playoffs. Backes, Sobotka and Schwartz are all listed as day-to-day with upper-body injuries. ... Alex Pietrangelo now has gone 21 straight games without a goal. He does have nine assists in that span.

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