Blues searching to find consistency away from home;
facing a familiar foe; Steen comes back; Lapierre close to returning
HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- A day after being humbled by the Anaheim Ducks, one of the top teams in the NHL, Blues coach Ken Hitchcock had a common theme to what needs improving for his team that begins a four-game trip Monday night in a familiar place.
"It's everything. It's the connection to checking. It's puck management that goes with checking, it's back-checking that goes with checking, it's forechecking that goes with checking. It's every aspect of checking," Hitchcock said, using "checking" a lot. "It's the puck pursuit, it's the back-checking pursuit, it's the stopping on pucks, it's everything connected to checking.
"When you're not 100 percent against really good teams, that kind of pops its head. It's close, but for us to win, we've got to have everybody engaged and in the last two games, we haven't had enough of that engagement from our lineup and it showed some cracks and we ended up getting scored on. Look at the first goal against (Saturday), there's a checking assignment by four people on a faceoff and we're light on four coverages and it's in our net. You look at the second goal against, it's poor puck management ... boom, in our net. Those are things that have got to get cleaned up. We're just giving up way too many scoring chances quite frankly, and so we're not able to establish the tempo in our game like we usually do."
When the Blues, who trailed the Ducks 3-0 going into the third period, changed some line combinations around, things swung towards the betterment of their play. But chasing against the top team in the NHL wasn't the best idea.
"You're throwing stuff against the wall and hope it sticks," Hitchcock said of the line changes. "... We were playing too slow. We had no tempo in our game and then when we switched up, we had a lot of tempo in our game in the third period.
"I don't know if that's because they got tired, back-to-back or we got them on their heels and they couldn't get off, but we had more tempo in our game. I don't know if we can play it that way. We're going to have to include more people in the game because we almost played two lines there at the end. You're not going to win playing two lines. We'll use some of the two-man combinations. We liked them, then hopefully we can get more people engaged and ready to go."
Now that the Blues have gotten healthy again and are at near full strength, with the exception of Maxim Lapierre (lower-body injury) who is close, one would think that the game should come at an easier pace.
Perhaps that's what is part of the problem.
"I think that's normal. You let your foot off the accelerator," Hitchcock said. "You think, 'Well, this shot could be easier or maybe they could do it.' I think that's natural. I think that's exactly what happened. When we're missing guys, I don't want to say we almost played scared, but we were scared not to be outworked, so we worked like crazy. We did the things that needed to be done. Now that we've got guys back, we're kind of leaving it up to them and they're not ready. They're not up to speed, they're not ready so we're going to have to engage that again.
"This really magnified the areas of the game that we've got to get better. We're going to have to do it through talking because we don't have a chance to practice. We've got four games starting tomorrow. I think this is a real eye opener for what we need to work on from our team."
* Rivalry renewed -- The Blues (32-10-5), who play against the Detroit Red Wings (21-17-10) Monday night in only one of only two meetings this season, will face one of their former rivals as inter-conference opponents.
The Blues and Red Wings, who are uncharacteristically just 7-10-7 at Joe Louis Arena, have been divisional rivals for years upon years, but when the NHL moved the Red Wings to the Eastern Conference this season, it took away the typical scheduling of seeing the Red Wings anywhere from six to eight games a season.
"I'm disappointed by that," Hitchcock said. "I can't say it any other simpler way. I'm disappointed. I think the St. Louis-Detroit rivalry, to me, is cast in stone and I think it's a rivalry that everybody in St. Louis loves and I know Detroit likes it, too. It's disappointing."
Hitchcock and Red Wings coach Mike Babcock, who will be on the same side come Olympic time when the two will be coaching Canada, will oppose each other on this night. The Red Wings don't visit St. Louis until the final day of the regular season on April 13.
"He's not my buddy during competition," Hitchcock joked about Babcock. "He'll be my buddy for two weeks (in Sochi). After that, I don't like him.
"They're a perfect example of missing a bunch of players and working their tails off. They work like crazy. They outwork everybody. Now they're starting to get guys back. They'll have a couple guys back for our game. It'll be a good challenge. I think anytime we play Detroit, they're great hockey games."
Jaroslav Halak will get the start in goal against the Red Wings. Halak stopped 27 of 30 shots in a loss to the Los Angeles Kings on Thursday, but had stopped 53 of 54 shots in winning two in a row after coming back with a bad bout of the flu.
* Steen's first game back -- Alexander Steen returned to the lineup for the first time since Dec. 19, a span of 11 games, after suffering the second concussion of his career.
Steen, who was help scoreless and without a point in the 3-2 loss to the Ducks, played 20 minutes 56 seconds and registered four shots and won five of eight faceoffs.
Not bad for missing roughly a month, but ...
"I felt I didn't play very well," Steen said. "Conditioning and physically, I was fine. I just didn't play well. I didn't think I played well, an all-around game ... from my offensive game to my defensive game, how I usually play, the level I usually play at. I didn't think I was even close.
"I'm not over-analyzing (Saturday). Just got to be better ... everything, all-around."
Steen said the team game Saturday wasn't what it normally is.
"I thought we were quiet ... way more quiet that we usually are in games like that," Steen said. "Anaheim played a good, hard-fought game. We sort of eased into it, came back into it in the third, but it was a little too late."
* Lapierre close to returning? -- Speaking of Lapierre, who has missed three games since being injured on a hip check from former teammate Dan Hamhuis Jan. 10 at Vancouver, he was on the ice with half the team skating prior to taking off for Detroit.
Lapierre has mostly been working off-ice but was part of drills Sunday after skating with the team during a pre-practice session Wednesday.
"It's still a little sore, but hopefully, try to get back into it as soon as possible," Lapierre said. "Working slowly on it every day and as long as there's progress every day, we're going to be happy. ... I just tried to keep up with the pace and I think we're pretty happy with where we are. As long as I can improve, we're going to be happy.
"You always want to be a part of the team. It doesn't matter if you win or lose. I think you win and lose as a team. It's tough to watch that from the press box. I wish I could do my best to help the guys, but we've got a lot of character in this dressing room. We're kind of in the middle of the storm right now, but I don't think the storm is as big as we think. We lost two games and we're (still) in a great position. We just have to delete what happened last weekend and play the way we can."
Lapierre's absence has affected the Blues, not only in the minutes played by the fourth line, but it's added more time and pressure and has exerted the top lines.
"I think it takes away from our pursuit game," Hitchcock said of Lapierre's absence. "He's really good on the forecheck. He's really good at energizing the fourth line. We miss him."
Could a return against Detroit be in the works?
"We'll skate him full tomorrow and then see how he looks at the skate tomorrow," Hitchcock said.
Once Lapierre returns, the Blues will have to make a corresponding move to their roster.