Sunday, March 30, 2014

Blues primed to push to the finish

Division, conference, Presidents' Trophy not out of the question 
despite clunker against Dallas Saturday; Hitchcock to shuffle deck

By LOU KORAC
ST. LOUIS -- The Blues' 4-2 setback on home ice against the Dallas Stars set the team back a step in its quest for end-of-season goals but not all was lost.

The Blues (50-17-7) have fallen out of the top spot in the race for the Presidents' Trophy. Residence has been taken up by the Boston Bruins, who lead the Blues by three points (110-107). 

The Blues, who did clinch a playoff berth last week, next need to cross a division title off the list. That appears imminent as the Colorado Avalanche (100 points) and Chicago Blackhawks (99 points) seem to have too much ground to catch up on and few games left to do it.
(St. Louis Blues/Mark Buckner)
The Blues' Vladimir Sobotka (middle) and Ian Cole (right) will look to get
back on track after falling to the Dallas Stars on Saturday night.

The Blues' closest pursuer for the Western Conference crown are the Anaheim Ducks, who are three points back with 104 and the San Jose Sharks, who have 103 points but with three fewer games left. The Ducks seem to offer the Blues, who have eight games remaining, the only legitimate threat for the top spot in the conference.

So there is still plenty left to play for, but when the Blues hit the ice Monday morning at the Ice Zone, it'll be time to get their mojo back.

Blues coach Ken Hitchcock used terms such as "sloppy" and "throwing our sticks on the ice" as well as "inconsistent" to define what the Blues have been going through in stretches.

Hitchcock wouldn't specify names, but it was pretty clear he was pointing at the back three forward units when he was referring to inconsistency. Maybe not so much of the second line consisting of Vladimir Sobotka, Jaden Schwartz and Patrik Berglund, but putting too much burden on the line of David Backes, Alexander Steen and T.J. Oshie forced Hitchcock to separate that trio earlier in the season despite their rapid number of points. It was to balance out four consistent lines, which could be a place the veteran coach will go to once again as the Blues finish the season playing eight games in 13 days.

"I thought we were casual and paid for it (Saturday)," Hitchcock said. "We need a good hockey practice on Monday, get back to work and get back to doing the things we need to do. We had a really average outing (Saturday) and paid for it. We've won games like that before, getting all those scoring chances, twice we mount comebacks (against Dallas), things like that. But if you look at it, in the first period against Minnesota (Thursday in a 5-1 victory), what were the shots, 8-1 for Minnesota? They scored on their ones here. Minny didn't score. If Minny scores on those, we're chasing that game, too. That's what I mean by not engaged. We've got to get engaged a lot quicker in the game, start dictating from a work standpoint. We're playing at times like we're just throwing our sticks on the ice a little bit here. We'll get that fixed."

Steen produced the only two goals Saturday, and it gave the top line 18 points in three games. But that's not what Hitchcock is looking for.

"What we are right now is too inconsistent," Hitchcock said. "We've got too many players who are having good games and then are following it up with poor games. Right now, we can't afford to do that. Have to send a few messages here in the next couple games and see if we can get everybody's attention."

The Blues are looking to alleviate the pressure that Backes' line will bring. By doing that, they get balance from the entire group.

"We've always needed the whole group," Backes said. "Even these last couple of games, we've been able to have tons of success because the rest of the guys have been tiring out lines or leaving us in great situations and doing the little things, shutting down the other team's top lines. 

"We may have been putting up numbers on the scoresheet, but other guys have been doing the bulk of the work. We've been able to have more energy because we've got different guys that are able to kill a lot. (We've) been able to start in the offensive zone more because we've got guys that have been responsible in the defensive zone. Those types of things go a little bit unnoticed and don't end up on the scoresheet. We've been getting credit, but the rest of the guys have been doing a lot of work, too."

Which is why the Blues will play out the rest of their schedule with motivation in mind and not just coast down the stretch.

"We really want to win the Presidents' Trophy," defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk said, "and I think that's what we're really driving for right now. Who knows who we're going to play in the first round, that's going to be anybody's guess. I think for that reason it's easier just to focus on a game-to-game basis and not worry about that down the road."

"This is always a tough time. The teams that are separated from the pack have to deal with that. The teams like Dallas and those guys are the ones fighting to get in, and in a way, that's a nice thing because they can just worry about the next game and worry about their fate that way."

Added forward Jaden Schwartz: "We've got a goal right now and that's the Presidents' Trophy and we want to finish as high in the standings as we can because that could mean a lot down the road. We're playing desperate teams and teams that are hungry, so we don't want to be looking too far ahead. (Saturday was) an example of a hungry team that out-battled us quite a bit of the game.

"(Saturday) was a tight game and we gave up a few too many chances. We're getting a lot of shots, we're getting a lot of chances, but we've got to find a way to get hungrier around the net, get some 5 on 5 goals. We've got to focus on a day to day basis right now to get better so we give ourselves a chance to be in the zone when the playoffs come."

It's not just the forwards, but the Blues were not sharp in their own zone Saturday, and it extends back in goal to Ryan Miller, who allowed four goals on 27 shots and seemed to be really down on himself after the game.

"Pretty disappointing," said Miller, who's still learning on the fly with the Blues and their structure. "Wanted to build a little bit on that last game and not able to do that.

"Learning or not, got to come through."

Alex Pietrangelo's message to Blues fans who like to overreact to the goalie situation no matter who is in: don't overreact.

"We're not worried about it," Pietrangelo said. "They scored some good goals. (Saturday), we didn't really box out and we gave up breakaways. 

"(Miller's) been fine. We brought him in here for a reason. He's been great since he's been here. We're kind of leaving him out to dry."
(St. Louis Blues/Mark Buckner)
Blues goalie Ryan Miller (39) tries to find the puck in front of the Stars'
Shawn Horcoff (10) Saturday night. Miller stopped 23 of 27 shots.

Which is why Backes, who has 27 goals and 56 points on the season, isn't worried either.

"Learn lessons, it's not the end of the world," Backes said. "We'll regroup, and we've got a tough game against Philly (Tuesday) and hopefully get back on track in the win column.

"No, I don't think we played terribly (Saturday). We could have played better for sure, but a couple of scoring chances we don't capitalize on, and some inopportune mistakes at bad times. After a power-play goal, when we've got a lot of momentum, that next shift is huge and we get scored on. It kind of deflates the building after we thought the roof was going to come off there."

"I mean it's frustrating," said Pietrangelo, whose 42 assists is a career high and 50 points one off tying a career high. "You really start moving things in the right direction and then you kind of take a step back. But we've got a couple of days here to figure that out and move on to the next one. All we can really do is prepare ourselves and get ready to play on Tuesday."

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