Wednesday, April 2, 2014

(4-3-14) BLUES NOTEBOOK

Miller bounces back; Elliott to start against 
Sabres; Roy steps up game; Leopold to return

By LOU KORAC
HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- Ryan Miller was looking for that coming-out party type of game since his acquisition from the Buffalo Sabres.

The Blues goalie, who has been strong going 10-3-1 with a 2.01 goals-against average and .920 save percentage, was coming off a sub-par game in a 4-2 loss to the Dallas Stars. Coach Ken Hitchcock came right back with Miller on Tuesday, and he shined in a 1-0 shootout victory against the Philadelphia Flyers. He stopped 31 shots and some of them were highlight-reel saves.

"I felt good, I felt pretty calm," Miller said. "I felt like I was seeing the puck pretty well. It's the kind of game I've been trying to get myself towards. Hopefully, I can stay in that kind of feeling and keep that in my mind and move forward.

"It's one of those nights where things were working out. They had some opportunities. The shots that came, I happened to be in the right spot. You get nights like that where everything kind of works out and you have other nights where you feel in perfect position and still find a way to get in there. ... It's fun to have one where everything did go my way and ultimately, St. Louis' way."

Miller continues to learn that the Blues (51-17-7) don't play like his former team in the Sabres, who come to town 30th in the NHL at 21-45-9. And after a 4-1 loss to the Flyers in Philadelphia on March 22, Miller was given a choice to start against the Flyers on Tuesday or the Sabres Thursday.

"We need Ryan to step up and have big games for us in these types of situations and down the line in the playoffs," teammate Derek Roy said. "He did a great job last game. On our side, we want to score goals. Can't miss that many chances in the game."

Miller wanted redemption against the Flyers, and he got it.

"It was kind of a grind," Miller said. "It's something where this team, they keep showing me they're willing to grind and play hard in the corners. I've got to show them I can grind out a game, too. That's part of our ongoing relationship that we kind of build with the boys in here. I've got to show I can play the type of game that they need some nights."

* Roy shines -- Derek Roy isn't used to playing a grind game, but the Blues' center iceman was thrust into that role on left wing playing with Maxim Lapierre and Ryan Reaves as Hitchcock wanted to send a message to some players after Saturday's inconsistent performance.

Roy, who signed a one-year, $4-million contract last summer, didn't score and has just one assist in 15 games. But he did pick his game up and that fourth line, which the Blues rely on for important minutes, was a factor Tuesday.

"It's just easy knowing what they're going to do," Roy said of Lapierre and Reaves. "We talked before the game on what we wanted to do as a line. Just skate, finish hits and easy to read off. Lappy's a smart player and Revo gets in there and finishes his checks. It's easy for me to read and react.

"Just keep working with them and keep talking with them. We made a couple of mistakes last night, but we just talked about it. We had some really good shifts and we talked about what went right during our shifts and things to build on."

Roy knows what the fourth line role is. He's considered an offensive player, but whoever played there has no choice but go the way they go.

"If Revo's skating and Lappy's skating, then I'm going to have to skate and I'm going to have to keep up and make plays and get in the dirty areas to score goals," Roy said. "I thought we had our chances the last game and we just couldn't finish. Moving forward, we've got to finish those chances."

* Elliott gets the call -- Brian Elliott will get the start in goal against the Sabres Thursday, and if it's any indication of the way he played his last time out, the Blues will be in good shape.

Elliott blanked the Pittsburgh Penguins 1-0 on March 23 and he made 33 saves in that game.

"That's kind of long gone. It's a new day," said Elliott, who's 17-5-2 with a 1.97 GAA and .921 save percentage. "Just focus on that one and not worry about the past. Try to get something new going.

"I'm looking forward to the opportunity. They've been few and far between right now, so I just want to get in there, feel the puck right away and help the boys out and get a win."

Hitchcock never hesitates to put Elliott in goal, and wants to keep him involved.

"He's had a heck of a year. He's really had a heck of a year," Hitchcock said of Elliott. "Since I've been here, this is the best I've seen him play right now. We want to keep him engaged and keep him involved. He's really focused, he works his tail off, he's one of the most competitive guys I've ever seen at practice whatever the position is. I think you want to reward that type of work ethic."

The Blues have a plan with both Miller and Elliott in the last eight games. Games against the Colorado Avalanche and Chicago Blackhawks in back-to-back situations Saturday and Sunday, this gives Elliott a chance to spot Miller some rest.

"I've got (a plan on) them to the end of the season. We'll include both guys," Hitchcock said. "We've talked to both goalies. They know that there's going to be a schedule. We still have some flexibility based on the opponent and where we are standings-wise, but we want to make sure that both guys get what they need. It's the same for the extra players. We include them, too. We have a schedule to remain competitive and keep pushing but also include as many people as we can so they're not surprised by the level of competition once the season ends and we begin playoffs."

So with Miller on the bench Thursday, did Elliott pick his brain to help with Sabres shooters?

"No, his brain's too complicated," Elliott joked. "I just like to keep it simple and just play my own game and wait for the puck to come to me and worry about the rest later.

"(Miller's) really focused, kind of an intellectual guy that likes to kind of analyze the game and really know what's going on. You kind of learn a little bit from that and try to do a little bit yourself."

* Scouting the Sabres -- The Sabres are a shell of the team the Blues saw when they went to Buffalo and won 4-1 on November 19.

They do have former Blue Chris Stewart on their roster, but Stewart is out for the season after suffering an ankle injury, and former Blue Matt D'Agostini is in the Sabres lineup. Thomas Vanek, who was traded early in the season to the New York Islanders and who's since moved to the Montreal Canadiens, is gone. Matt Moulson, acquired from the Islanders in the Vanek trade, has moved on to the Minnesota Wild. And their goaltending duo that started the season (Miller and Jhonas Enroth) are not there. Miller was traded to the Blues, of course, and Enroth is injured.

But with the Blues fighting for points, this won't be a game to be taken lightly.

"Their record isn't good, but they play with a lot of spirit," Hitchcock said of the Sabres. "They beat teams because of it. ... When we were there, it was a very physical game and now it's quick. They've replaced a lot of physical players with a lot of skaters. They've obviously added a lot of youthful skill in there. 

"I'm just watching the game now, them against Tampa, you've got two really quick teams both trying to keep up to each other playing at a fast pace. I think tomorrow's game is going to be a really, really quick hockey game. I think you're going to see a lot of skating by both teams. I think you're going to see a lot of really good transition and you're going to get to see a lot of young players. They've got two or three young defensemen that are really elite players on the rise. I think if you don't take them seriously, they're going to get a lot of confidence from their skill level because they have a real high skill level right now."

Buffalo comes to St. Louis on the heels of a 3-2 shootout victory against the New Jersey Devils, the Devils' 11th shootout loss in as many opportunties this season.

"They've been doing that a lot lately," Elliott said of the Sabres knocking off teams. "They got a big win against New Jersey in the shootout and a rookie goalie getting his first win (Nathan Lieuwen). A lot of little things they're playing for next season and kind of building blocks and trying to get something started for that, but we want to keep continuing the way we want to play and not play down or to someone else's level. We want to play to ours."

* Firing blanks -- One glaring detriment in the Blues' win Tuesday came in the form of missed shots on goal.

The Blues misfired on the goal 21 times, put 28 on Ray Emery and had 17 blocked.

Since the Olympic break, the Blues have had 14.4 shots miss the net on average in 18 games -- all but three reaching double figures. They've averaged 27.9 shots on goal per game in that same stretch and 14.9 shots blocked per game in the same span.

The most notable game in that span is the 1-0 loss to the Anaheim Ducks in the second game out of the Olympics. The Blues fired an astounding 75 shots in that game, but only 18 of them reached goalie Jonas Hiller. The Ducks blocked 27 of them but an amazing 30 missed the net altogether.

There is some concern from Hitchcock and the coaches.

"You asked me that question six weeks ago and it was a concern six weeks ago," Hitchcock said. "Not much has changed. Yeah, it's a concern."

But there's a method to why it happens as often as it does.

"It's a number of things. You can look at it two or three different ways," Hitchcock said. "Number one is the reason is we miss a lot of shots is because we're in the zone a lot, which is a good thing. The second part is that we do it on purpose; there is a design to that. You've got to be careful how you evaluate that. 

"The ones that concern me aren't the in-zone ones. Those don't concern me. It's off the rush. Those are the ones that concern me because when you miss the net off the rush, you end up back-checking like crazy in 2-on-1's, 3-on-1's. We gave up four odd-man rushes off of us getting scoring chances off the rush. The ones that concern me, and quite frankly the only ones, are when we're on the attack looking at a scoring opportunity and we're back-checking in trouble. When you commit as many people as we do in the attack, it's really imperative that the guy that shoots the puck takes better care of the people that are going to the net. If he doesn't take care for them, then you're going to end up in a tough spot. That's the only area that concerns me. When we're on the point, the defensemmen know that if there's no lane to the net, they shoot wide on purpose. That's an improper evaluation, but there is a concern for me that has been there for six weeks. We've just got to hit the net more off the rush."

* Leopold to return -- It's been a rough season for veteran defenseman Jordan Leopold to say the least.

Leopold, 33, who's only played in 24 games this season, missed 26 games earlier this season with ligament damage in his hand suffered Nov. 7 against the Calgary Flames. Then he suffered a high ankle sprain Feb. 8 against the Winnipeg Jets and missed another 10 games.

Leopold was expected to return to the lineup March 17 against the Jets but came down with a bout of the stomach flu and with the recent strong play of Carlo Colaiacovo, Leopold's missed 18 straight games.

However, he will return against the Sabres on Thursday, Leopold's former team. Hitchcock said there are a couple defensemen that are a "little banged up" and will get Leopold into the foray to have him ready for the playoffs.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Post a Comment