Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Capitals continue to push Blues into funk with 4-1 win

St. Louis has dropped three in a row for first 
time this season; division title suddenly in dire straits

ST. LOUIS -- Exactly what the Blues did not need was a funk heading towards the playoffs.

In the Blues' case, they're not really heading towards the postseason, they're stumbling there. And as the teams around them are winning by the night, the Blues will find themselves facing the defending Stanley Cup champions in the first round instead one of two wild-card teams that seemed like a lock just a week ago.

But the Blues' third loss in a row, a 4-1 setback to the Washington Capitals, who are barely hanging on by a thread in the Eastern Conference wild-care race, has those teams around them feeling like the Blues could be had not only for the remainder of the regular season -- which has three games left -- but certainly in the playoffs.
(St. Louis Blues/Mark Buckner)
Maxim Lapierre (40) scored the Blues' line goal past Capitals goalie 
Braden Holtby (left) and Julien Brouillette Tuesday night in a 4-1 loss.

"It’s just a funk," veteran winger Brenden Morrow said. "The work is there, the execution hasn’t been great, it’s been pretty sloppy hockey. You know this team tries and they compete, that’s never been the question. It’s probably just working too hard trying to do two jobs instead of one.

"We’ve just got to start from scratch to get out of these funks. Just break it down, be simple, worry about our own job and care about your teammates. Sometimes caring too much gets you in trouble and I think that’s where we’re at right now."

The Blues (52-20-7) are rapidly losing their grip on the Central Division title, as the Colorado Avalanche won at Edmonton on Tuesday, 4-1, and are just two points back of the Blues (111-109). The Blues still cling onto the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference, but that is in serious jeopardy.

To top it off, the Blues lost captain David Backes to a lower-body injury midway through the second period off a one-timer from teammate Alexander Steen as the Blues were on the power play. The shot appeared to hit the inside of Backes' left foot.

"It looks like Colorado is at our heels right now, too, so we need to sharpen up," Morrow said.

They have nobody but themselves to look at, at this point.

"I think it's the whole team," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said. "We've won as a team and I think it's everybody. You need your best players to be your best players obviously to win, and we've had that all year and we're going to need that in the playoffs. But selfishly, I'd like our best players to be our best players right now and really help us play well in the playoffs.

"You've got to play your way in. You've got to play well and have really positive momentum. Win or lose, you've got to have positive momentum based on your play. We've gone in fits and starts. We've played some of our best hockey lately early, but then we just kind of have faded. That's the part that's a little bit of a concern for me is the drop-off. You can only warn them so many times. Quite frankly, we need some players to play better."

Tuesday night's game was a perfect example of a game in the balance, a chance for the Blues to grab it but in recent weeks, the momentum goes the way of the opposition.

A huge shift by the fourth line of Maxim Lapierre, Steve Ott and Ryan Reaves, who were in the Capitals zone and pinned Washington back in their zone for a good minute. The line had created a goal by Lapierre just 2 minutes, 39 seconds into the second that tied the game 1-1 and they were buzzing again. The group drew four minutes in penalties but quickly lost momentum when the power play, which is 1-for-16 the past five games, gave up a shorthanded breakaway that resulted in Kevin Shattenkirk taking a slashing penalty. The teams played 4-on-4 and Washington scored the go-ahead goal by Mikhail Grabovski and the Blues never recovered.

"What's killing us right now quite frankly, we earned the double minor, we had a great shift to create it, we were in the zone for a full minute and then we gave up a breakaway off our power play," Hitchcock said. "What's really hurting us right now, our special teams. That's the part that's really hurting us right now. We're giving up power play goals (five in the past four games on 19 chances) and we're not doing the job on the power play. To me, that's the major concern right now. Our special teams are now helping us right now, and we're losing that part of the game. We lost it against Colorado, we lost it against Chicago, we lost it tonight. That game within the game is the part that's really concerning me right now. That's the number one concern.

"I think Lappy's line, they really showed that line has a chance. If they continue to play at that pace, that line has a chance to be really effective for us and in the playoffs, really effective. We need more on the page than that. I thought they created a number of scoring opportunities for themselves. They obviously scored. I thought they did a lot of the things that we needed them to do and really bought into the program and did a heck of a job."

The Blues fired 29 shots at Braden Holtby, who played in place of former Blue Jaroslav Halak, who wasn't ready to face his former teammates so soon after the trade from St. Louis on Feb. 28. The Capitals blocked another 26 shots compared to the Blues' six and the Blues, in what seems like typical fashion lately, missed the net 25 more times. Washington missed the net four times.

The Blues had prime scoring chances throughout much of the game and either missed the net or elected not to fire pucks.

"I had three really good looks tonight and didn't convert on them," said Alexander Steen, who returned after missing three games with an upper-body injury. "I have to be a lot better; I have to be able to put those away. ... I've got to take this one. I've got to score. Other than that, I didn't think they had that much. They had power play goals ... timely goals.

"I think that's the positive. Tonight, we had a heck of a lot of chances. ... Bottom line is we've got to score goals. It's a positive that we're getting a lot of chances, but I certainly have to score. The score looks really bad, but there was a lot of good that we had."

Alex Ovechkin scored his 50th goal for the Capitals (36-30-13) and had two assists in the game, and Nicklas Backstrom scored twice.

The Blues are left to search for a game that has suddenly left them in a franchise record-winning season. But it's suddenly turned into a snowball that's spiraling down a large hill. And to top it off, the Blues were booed off the ice from a fan base that's suddenly built up a large amount of frustration.

"It’s going that way right now," Morrow said. "Unfortunately it’s a real bad time of the year, but we still have a couple three games here to straighten it out and get some momentum because it's not something you can turn on. You want to have confidence and momentum going into that first game of the playoffs."

It's going to be tough to do that when pucks aren't going into the net. The Blues have scored two or fewer goals in six straight games and nine of 11.
(St. Louis Blues/Mark Buckner)
Ryan Reaves (left) and the Blues couldn't catch up to the Capitals and 
Dmitry Orlov (81) Tuesday night.

"Goals have been hard to come by and you start to lose focus of what has given this team success," Morrow said. "I think we're, whether we know it or not, cheating a little bit. We're worrying about scoring goals instead of really frustrating teams and really buckling down defensively and frustrating teams and that will lead to our scoring chances.

"As hard as we’re working, we’re probably putting a little too much pressure on ourselves to worry about what’s going to happen in a week from now instead of worrying about that next shift, that one-on-one battle."

"I think it's across the board," Hitchcock said. "When you're not scoring, you have a choice. You can either shoot less or you can shoot more. We're not scoring, we need to shoot, but it's more the execution after we get down. It is an important time. You can only tell them it's important so many times. They have to figure it out for themselves."

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