Sunday, April 6, 2014

Blues continue to slide, fall to Blackhawks 4-2

St. Louis drops second in as many days despite 
scoring first, searching to find game with four left

CHICAGO -- The Blues came into the weekend with aspirations of locking up the Central Division title with wins against their closest competitors, the Colorado Avalanche and Chicago Blackhawks.

Instead, they come home limping with more question marks than ever and having to look over their shoulders at the surging Avalanche, who could move within three points of the Blues with a win Sunday night against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

The Blues could have used one win but come home with none after a 4-2 loss to the Blackhawks Sunday afternoon at United Center.
(St. Louis Blues)
With teammates Jaden Schwartz (9)and Alex Pietrangelo (back) nearly, 
Blues goalie Brian Elliott makes a save Sunday in Chicago.

The Blues (52-20-7) come home to face another desperate team (the Washington Capitals and Jaroslav Halak) looking to make a last-ditch effort to make the playoffs. They have four games left and instead of worrying about high seeds and Presidents' Trophies, the Blues need to find their game again before they limp into the playoffs.

And recently, coach Ken Hitchcock said he remembers in the past 10 seasons where "maybe one or two teams" found their game in the postseason and did well. Most of the others were one-and-done.

But losing to the Avalanche (4-0 Saturday) and to the Blackhawks Sunday reaffirmed some of the recent fears that the Blues' game is off kilter. And using injured players Alexander Steen (upper body) and Vladimir Tarasenko is just an excuse. The Blackhawks, who improved to 45-19-15 (105 points), have won three in a row without their top two guns (Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane).

"We're obviously in a little rut here," Blues right wing T.J. Oshie said. "I think it really all comes down to fundamentals. We're not making flat passes, we're not getting the pucks to the net from the point, sometimes we're not even chipping it to the right areas. It just gets down to getting back to the basics. Once we slow it down, simple things, that's when we're at our best."

The Blues got an early power play goal from Jaden Schwartz, the first time a player from their top two lines has scored the past four games and they're as good as gold in such scenarios. But they fell to 41-3-5 when scoring the first goal.

"For whatever reason, we don't play 60 minutes enough," Schwartz said after scoring his 24th goal of the season. "... We didn't play enough in their end, we didn't create enough offense 5-on-5. Overall, we just didn't control it enough in their end."

Vladimir Sobotka scored a late goal to give the Blues a chance with goalie Brian Elliott pulled from the game, but a Ben Smith empty-net goal with 3.3 seconds remaining after Alex Pietrangelo broke his stick with a chance to tie the game, gave Chicago the win.

"We had fits in both games," said Hitchcock, who changed lines Sunday hoping to jump-start a stagnant offense. "We were really good for the first period yesterday, we had fits in this game, but I think the details of our game are probably lacking where we look like we're a little bit tired. The details that fit us so well and our energy to put those details in place are probably lacking a little bit right now. We've still got four more games to play. We've got a lot of hockey to play yet. We've got to find a way to re-energize ourselves and get back to work."

Elliott, who stopped 31 shots, stood tall in the first period, and because of it, the Blues led 1-0 on a Schwartz power play goal 1:56 into the game.

With Andrew Shaw off for cross checking Magnus Paajarvi, Schwartz followed up his own shot from the slot originally blocked by Sheldon Brookbank and powered a slap shot past Corey Crawford.

"I thought we got out of the first period alive because even though we were right there, I thought they were the better team," Hitchcock said.

The Blues had two other prime scoring chances. Kevin Shattenkirk fired wide from the right circle after a Chris Porter pass from the back of the net, and while shorthanded, Patrik Berglund's breakaway attempt was thwarted by Crawford, as Berglund was off to the races after Patrick Sharp whiffed on a puck at his own blue line. Berglund tried beating Crawford with a five-hole backhand.

A second breakaway, this one by T.J. Oshie, early in the second period, produced nothing for the Blues, as Oshie fired his attempt high over the net.

The Blues were guilty of poor outlets and continuous turnovers in the neutral zone cost them twice in the second period.

A Chris Porter turnover led to Jeremy Morin's tying goal at 8:34 when Bryan Bickell got around Barret Jackman, fired a shot on Elliott, who thought he had the puck, but the puck lay at in front of him and Morin crashed the net and poked it in.

Elliott said he thought he had it, "And then they worked hard to get to the rebound. They worked for their chances and their luck," he said.

A pinch by Shattenkirk along the boards cost the Blues at the end of the second period, and Patrick Sharp scored with 26.2 seconds left in the second period on a one-timer from the left circle that turned into a 2-on-1 after Shattenkirk got caught out of position.

"We really started to manage the game in the second period," Hitchcock said. "That second goal really set us back. That really hurt us quite a bit."

Shattenkirk said if he had to do it over again, he wouldn't have gambled.

"It was a puck that came out on the wall and it was stuck on the wall," Shattenkirk said. "After I chipped it by the first guy, I kind of just puck-watched Shaw and let my guy kind of skate behind me and obviously that leads to a 2-on-1. 

"The first play was fine and I have to just back off and let 'Backs' (David Backes) handle Shaw. If the same play happens, I'm in front of Morin and it's 2-on-2 and probably gets taken care of quickly."

Elliott made a sprawling attempt at Sharp's shot but to no avail.

"You have to take control of the game with a minute left," Elliott said. "Those are obviously momentum swings that can really take a game in the opposite direction. It's about puck management and being aware." 

The Blues apparently didn't learn their lesson to begin the third period when another lost puck, on a cross-ice pass that Alex Pietrangelo left to stay in position on the left side, wound up being a chance and goal as Joakim Nordstrom's shot from the right circle caromed off Elliott, both posts and in after Marcus Kruger came in and whacked the loose puck home to to make it 3-1 just 56 seconds in.
(St. Louis Blues)
Blues defenseman Carlo Colaiacovo (right) looks to move the puck past
Chicago's Marian Hossa during Sunday's game. 

"We had moments and then we had moments where we did everything to ourselves and kind of gave them opportunities out of really nothing," Elliott said.

The Blues had just pulled Elliott, and Sobotka beat Crawford with a long-range shot from the top of the blue line that the Hawks goalie probably should have stopped with 2:02 remaining to make it 3-2.

"I thought their energy was a little bit higher and when we started mounting the comeback, our energy was higher at the end," Hitchcock said.  
"Going into the game, we wanted to be positive and have that mindset that we're going to work and we're going to create," Schwartz said. "We did it at times, but we're not doing it for 60 minutes. Against a team like that, you can't afford to take time off."

* NOTES -- Some of the shakeups Hitchcock made was moving Steve Ott up to the first line with Backes and Schwartz. Ott was a minus-4 in the game and minus-6 for the weekend. He now is the NHL leader at minus-37 for the season (minus-11 with the Blues in 19 games). Derek Roy, a healthy scratch Saturday, played left wing on a line with Berglund and Oshie; Brenden Morrow slid down to play with Sobotka and Paajarvi. Porter, who skated on the top line with Backes and Oshie on Saturday, dropped to the fourth line with Maxim Lapierre and Ryan Reaves.

Defensively, Carlo Colaiacovo returned to the lineup after sitting out Saturday, and Jordan Leopold was a healthy scratch with Ian Cole. Roy replaced Dmitrij Jaskin. 

. . . Reaves had a big bout with St. Louis native Brandon Bollig seconds after the Morin goal. 

. . . Speaking of Tarasenko, he joined the team and went through a heavy conditioning skate before the game under the observation of assistant coaches as well as trainer Ray Barile. Tarasenko has been sidelined with a hand injury since March 15.

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