Wednesday, January 15, 2014

(1-16-14) BLUES NOTEBOOK

Hitchcock moving to get Blues back to four-line group; Halak to 
start Thursday; Leopold back in lineup, Cole to sit; Jaskin moves up

By LOUIE KORAC
HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- Sometimes, the mark of a good team is their ability to still come away with two points even when they're not at their best.

Case in point, the Blues' 2-1 victory against the Phoenix Coyotes won't go down in the category of ways the Blues prefer to win.

Had it not been for Jaroslav Halak's stellar goaltending, particularly in the third period, the Blues would have been staring at rare second straight regulation defeat.

Consider that coach Ken Hitchcock was more pleased with his team's effort and execution in that 2-1 loss to the Vancouver Canucks Friday than he was after the win Tuesday speaks volumes.

"We all know as coaches that catches up to you, why worry about how you play," Hitchcock said. "It's also about getting better. The biggest thing for coaches is they want to see improvement. We didn't win against Vancouver, but as a coaching staff, we got on that plane really happy with our team. We won yesterday and we were really disappointed. We were really disappointed we didn't respect the opponent enough and we tried to play the score instead of the game and almost got caught. So we understand the process that it is about the way you play and both equal out, but it's also about getting better. If you don't get better every month, you stand still. If you don't get better, teams go right by you, and that's what happens in the playoffs. ... When you have games like last night, those are steps backwards that we try to put the brakes on. Sometimes, the trade-off for the players is, 'Hey, we won. Don't sweat it.' But there's a bigger issue that's on the horizon we're trying to avoid."

Hitchcock talked about after the game that the Blues were looking for space on the ice. They were outshot 8-2 in the third against a Coyotes team struggling to win but one that had a tremendous push.

"Looking for an easier game," Hitchcock said when asked about looking for space. "Hockey's a game you have to pay a high price to win in. This was a game that you're looking at a team that's on a back-to-back and you're thinking that they're going to be tired and you're waiting for them to be tired, but they weren't. They went the other way. They were tired early, and then they got energized late. That's when we really had a tough time. When they got energized, we were already hoping they were going to be tired. Then they started to put the boots to us there at the end. We hung on."

And the players got back at it Wednesday at the Ice Zone with the mentality of getting back on the horse.

"It's a consolation prize getting two points," defenseman Barret Jackman said. "It obviously wasn't our best game. We were working on a lot of things today, battles, getting the puck in deep, just way too many turnovers last night and that's when we get into trouble. We're not a team that tried a lot of side to side, fancy plays. We're a team that gets it deep and rolls with four lines and allows our grit and our speed to wear other teams out.

"Sometimes it's just a poor decision, maybe over-thinking. We hold onto the puck little bit longer than you want to. It happens sometimes. Last night, I think it just spilled over from line to line. It was the whole team making mistake after mistake. It's not the way we play."

* New-look lines -- Hitchcock spoke of correcting some things after the game Tuesday, and that included getting a look at some new players in new settings.

Having to rely on David Backes' line with T.J. Oshie and Jaden Schwartz too much, having to play them 20-22 minutes, Hitchcock moved some parts around at Wednesday's practice.

The most noticeable change was moving Dmitrij Jaskin, recalled Tuesday from the Chicago Wolves, to the second line with Vladimir Sobotka (who was back after missing Tuesday with the flu) and Vladimir Tarasenko. Patrik Berglund centered a line with Magnus Paajarvi and Chris Stewart and Derek Roy centered the fourth line with Brenden Morrow and Ryan Reaves.

"I think that's probably somewhere what we'll go with tomorrow," Hitchcock said. "Not 100 percent. Sobe's back in. Until Lappy (Maxim Lapierre) gets here, we'll play with the three centers that way and go that direction right now.

"We're better when we have four lines that can build minutes. We're not a three-line team. We showed that last night. We're not good. We get tired the way we need to play, we get tired when we play three lines. We don't play our game, we played way too cautious, too tentative, back on our heels. When we play four, we seem to get after it more. This gives us more balance, gives an ability to put anybody out against anybody other than Backes' line. It gives us good stability that we have when Lappy's in there."

* Leopold back in -- Defenseman Jordan Leopold, a healthy scratch against the Coyotes Tuesday, will go back into the lineup against the Los Angeles Kings Thursday. That means Ian Cole, who's played in 13 straight games and 18 of 19, will sit this one out.

Leopold has three assists in four games since returning from the ligament surgery he had in his right hand that forced the 33-year-old to miss 26 games.

"It's a work in progress," Leopold said. "I don't feel my skating really is as good as it's probably been in the past. That needs to get better here. Sometimes I can say that's the difference between playing and not playing. One, two strides here and there ... sometimes you've got to realize that and take it as a professional, move on and you've got to get better.

"You don't want to look too far in the future. We may alternate or whatever may be. When called upon, you have to be ready to play and be able to contribute. Yesterday was yesterday, today was today and we move forward from here."

Hitchcock has indicated that the eight healthy defensemen will see a rotation until the team finally settles on the top six, barring injury. That means Leopold, Cole and Carlo Colaiacovo will all be in the mix.

"I've been on teams in situations like this. It's no different," Leopold said. "Everybody wants to play. Everybody's given an opportunity to play and to show what they can do. It's up to the players to decide who'll end up being in the lineup, who's out. Of course the coaching staff has a tough job to do with that, but that is their job. I just focus on what I can do and hopefully be in the lineup."

* Goalie tandem thriving -- After Halak's 20-save effort Tuesday, the Blues will go back with him Thursday against the Kings. Brian Elliott will get the start Saturday against the Anaheim Ducks.

"Both guys deserve to keep playing, so we're going to keep playing both guys," Hitchcock said. "They're both going to have some tough opponents. 

"We looked at this week and then we looked at next week. There's so many hockey games. This is six in 10 nights (seven in 12 counting the game at the New York Islanders on Jan. 25) and we know we're going to have to play them ... each guy's probably going to have to play three games. Jaro played very well (Tuesday), so let's keep that one going. We want to see how Brian looks against Anaheim. It's going to be a significant game for both teams."

* Rubber matchup against Kings -- The Blues and Kings will play for the third and final time in the regular season Thursday, exactly two weeks after the Blues thumped the Kings 5-0 when L.A. visited Scottrade Center on Jan. 2. The Kings won 3-2 Dec. 2 in Los Angeles.

But the Blues were finally able to beat L.A., doing it without Jonathan Quick in goal. But Quick, who had a groin injury, is back in goal and healthy for the Kings and Hitchcock said at the time not to judge the Kings based off the last score and without their No. 1 goalie.

"The last game we played was the weirdest five-zero game I've ever been involved in," Hitchcock said. "We were on our heels the whole first period, came out of it 1-0, I think. And then we were on our heels for the start of the second until it went 2-0 and then it seemed to calm down after that. It felt like we were under siege the whole game, but (Quick's) a big part of their team. I don't think you can judge either team right now. Both teams were missing significant parts. It's another game in the schedule, it's another important game against another playoff team, but Jonathan Quick is a big part of their team. We're going to have to find a way to beat L.A. and him if we expect to beat them again."

* Lapierre skating -- Lapierre, who was injured Friday at Vancouver following a late-game hip check from Canucks defenseman Dan Hamhuis, was on the ice skating with the team pre-practice Wednesday. He skated hard and took shots at the net but left when practice began. 

Lapierre is on injured-reserve retroactive to this past Saturday. The earliest he can play is Saturday against the Ducks.

* Langenbrunner retires -- Former Blues winger Jamie Langenbrunner, a veteran of 16 NHL seasons and winner of two Stanley Cups, formally announced his retirement Wednesday.

Langenbrunner, 38, a native of Cloquet, Minnesota, won the Cup in 1999 and 2003. He was also a two-time Olympian with the United States (1998, 2010). He appeared in 1,109 games in his NHL career with three teams: the Dallas Stars, New Jersey Devils and Blues.

Langenbrunner scored 243 goals and added 420 assists (663 points). He added 34 goals and 87 playoff points in 146 postseason games.

"It was a dream come true to have the opportunity to play in the NHL for 16 seasons," Langenbrunner said in a statement. "The friendships I developed with my teammates, and also the people in the communities where I played, will always be cherished by my family and I. I would like to thank Bob Gainey, Lou Lamoriello and Doug Armstrong for giving me the opportunity to play against the top players in hockey, in the best league in the world.  I'd also like to thank my coaches and teammates for helping a kid from Minnesota enjoy a long, fulfilling hockey career. Finally I'd like to thank my truly amazing family for all their sacrifices they made so I could live my dream."

Langenbrunner was drafted 35th overall by the Stars in the 1993 NHL Entry Draft. 

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