Friday, November 14, 2014

(11-15-14) BLUES NOTEBOOK

Oshie's minutes high; Blues successful in tight games, can get more; 
Berglund's game more than just scoring; Tarasenko's fists; Gunnarsson's best

By LOU KORAC
HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- Ken Hitchcock knew when T.J. Oshie returned to the Blues' lineup, there would be no holding back.

With Oshie's style of play and does not exhibit any sort of easing into his game, the Blues' coach would have no restrictions.

Little did Hitchcock know after he sat down at his desk following a 4-3 victory against the Nashville Predators on Thursday night that he used Oshie as much.

Oshie scored a goal, his first of the season and second point, and played 22 minutes, 58 seconds, which was tops among forwards and trailed only Alex Pietrangelo (25:56) overall.

"I was surprised that I played him that much," Hitchcock said of Oshie, who had two shots, one hit and one takeaway. "I didn't know I played him that much to be honest with you. I didn't think he was ... I don't know why I didn't think that. I didn't think he played as much as I saw on the sheet, so I can't argue with the NHL, but it didn't feel like I was playing him that much. But then that's probably why he was a little bit tired in the last 10 minutes of the third period, because we did play him a lot."

When Oshie received clearance from team doctors Thursday afternoon and got the green light, he knew there was no stopping him. And that meant playing with a relentless motor.

"I wanted to make sure that when I came back, that I was ready to play my full game," Oshie said. "You hate seeing a guy come back and then shy away from hits or shy away from contact. I waited until I was ready to come in and just play my normal style of game. That's what I tried to do out there (Thursday). A couple turnovers; they do a good job. Clean those up and get better on Saturday."

Of Oshie's 22:58 time on ice, 20:09 was played at even strength.

"I think I was just still excited to be playing hockey," Oshie said. "The goal was just a little bit of a bonus.

"I was excited. I went through the whole day preparing like I was going to play. If there was a setback, I was going to stay out. The day went good, good nap, good meal and came in ready to go."

* Cutting it close -- There's a fine line between winning and losing in the NHL. As Hitchcock puts it, "Seventy-five percent of your wins are one-goal games and you're going to have to collect those points every time."

The Blues have been on the cutting edge 10 times in 16 games during one-goal games, including shootouts.

And a large reason why they're 11-4-1 thus far (good for 23 points and first place in the Central Division) is their 7-2-1 record in one-goal games.

"To win one-goal games, you've got to have a conscience on your team to play the game the right way," Hitchcock said. "It's kind of not what you get, it's what you give up. I think for us, there's been a conscious buy-in from really the day I got here. I think there were a lot of things in place with (former coaches) Andy (Murray) and Davis (Payne) with a lot of the younger guys to get them to play the right way. If we have a one-goal lead halfway through the hockey game, we're comfortable managing the game properly. I think that's the reason that you win one-goal games, because that's what the league is.

"For me, I think a big part of it is because we don't try to poach to get the next goal. We're willing to buy and have the confidence that we can continue down this path and wear out the opposition. I think that just comes from the work ethic that was established before I got here and what we've kept going."

* More is better -- Even with the best stretch in the NHL during the past 10 games (9-1), even climbing to or near the top of the division, conference and overall standings, the Blues, who host the Washington Capitals Saturday night (7 p.m. on FSN, KMOX 1120-AM) to close out a five-game homestand, feel they have more to give.

The "STL Line" has given them plenty to go with, collecting 30 points in seven games (4.28 points per game) and 38 points (16 goals, 22 assists) in 10 games (3.80 points per game); goaltending from Brian Elliott (6-3-1, 1.96 goals-against average and .928 save percentage) and Jake Allen (5-1-0 with a league-leading 1.67 GAA and .933 save percentage) has been rock-solid, but the total team concept of winning collectively has yet to reach its peak.

"There's lots more, lots more," Hitchcock said. "I think there's a consistent level that we can arrive at throughout our group. 

"I think we've had some awesome performances from individuals. I think we've had really good goaltending at the right time, timely saves. Look at (Thursday) night, game's on the line (and) Jake makes three big saves. I think we've had that going all year, but I think collectively as a group, we can play better. We're going to need to play better, especially against some of the top teams. A team like Washington coming in, they've got depth as deep as we do. We're going to need more participants than we've ever had to beat a team like that, and then you go on the road, you're going to need everybody participating. Our record is good, but we've got another gear that we can all play at. It's not we need a special performance from this guy or whatever. I just think the collective push from our team can be better than we've got so far. We've gotten some great individual performances and different heroes kind of every night, but that collective response is what we're going to challenge the guys to come up with."

* Berglund's play -- If there's one Blues player that has drawn the ire of fans is that of Patrik Berglund.

Berglund, who has shifted from center to wing, back to center and now back to wing again, was signed to a three-year contract worth $3.7 million per season. By those standards, it's natural for fans to expect strong numbers to back up such an investment, especially since there were serious discussions over the summer regarding Berglund (who was a restricted free agent) and whether his tenure as a Blue would end since the Vasteras, Sweden native was rumored to be involved in talks regarding the Blues and Ottawa Senators regarding Jason Spezza, who ultimately was traded to the Dallas Stars.

Berglund is off to a slow start numbers-wise, with only one goal and two points in 15 games. Berglund has never scored less than 25 points in a season, and that was the 2012-13 strike-shortened season. 

Over the course of 82 games, Berglund would be on pace for just under 11 points (10.92). But Hitchcock feels there's more to just scoring to Berglund's game this season.

"If you just look at numbers, you're going to say, 'Well gee, he should do more,' but there's a process involved in this," Hitchcock said. "I think that it's the role he plays in, it's what we use him for. You go through evolutions. 

Even during the season, he's a guy for us that we use in checking roles, we use against top players. Look, he had every shift (Thursday) night against James Neal and it wasn't a lot of fun, but he negated a good player for most of the night based on his own play. There's real value in that for us. I see a guy that's really starting to play a strong role on our hockey club and if he continues to emerge from this ... the scoring is the last part that gets taken care of, not the first part. Now he's starting to create separation, which is allowing him to get his shot away. This is very similar to where he was before he got hurt last year, so he had about seven or eight really good quality games before he hurt his shoulder last year. This feels very similar to where he was at that period of time."

Berglund kills penalties, he's getting limited power play time and has been asked to defend against the opposition's top players. While it may be taking away from the scoresheet, it's not taking anything away on the back-checking, the defensive responsibilities and the small stats that don't necessarily show up on a scoresheet.

"Determination, speed. He's got better tempo on his game," Hitchcock said of Berglund. "He's got more determination, he's got the puck more because he's hanging onto it and skating. I think the thing we like the best is his first touch, he's really moving his feet. I like a lot of the things he's doing right now. He's got some real heavy, hard play with the puck now. If he continues down this path, it's going to lead to some real good scoring opportunities every night.

"I think he's just starting to create his own individual space on the ice. His first move in the offensive zone early in the season was to stick-handle the puck and I think he was getting checked and covered over because of it. Now his first move is to skate. He's creating separation all the time now, and I think that's going to lead to more and more scoring opportunities. I like the fact that he's staying with it longer. I think at the end of the day, that's going to really help us."

* Halting Tarasenko's fists -- When Vladimir Tarasenko was checked high around the head/neck area by Nashville's Eric Nystrom in the second period Thursday, and after teammate Kevin Shattenkirk came on to defend his teammate, Tarasenko wasn't going to take what would ensue lying down.

Tarasenko made a dart towards Predators defenseman Ryan Ellis, who came on to bump Shattenkirk while he was dealing with Nystrom. Tarasenko and Ellis would wind up throwing down the gloves, Tarasenko's first fight that eventually resulted in a Gordie Howe Hat Trick.

But in the grand scheme of things, Blues brass and coaches had to be holding their collective breath seeing their rising star throwing fists, which prompted Hitchcock to answer the question of whether the coaches talked to Tarasenko to scale back in that situation.

"Not really," Hitchcock said. "That's just snap judgment. It's a little bit like you get those moments and you're standing on the bench and you're thinking Connor McDavid right there, and you're going, 'Let's get out of this thing alive.' You're nervous about that as a coach, but for the players, it's an emotional sport. It's pretty volatile. I'm more concerned with ... cutting across the middle is OK as long as you do it with tempo. When you do it slow, you open yourself up, and that's what I was concerned with. 

"I said this (Thursday) night that the line didn't have the tempo in their game, and they got covered over because of it. Making the plays they make, as long as it's done at top speed is going to always end up being more successful than not, but when you do it slowly, people are going to get on top of you and they're going to cover you over. That's what happened."

* Gunnarsson's best -- His first two points (one goal and one assist) as a Blue and plus-3 rating in 17:22 was exactly what the Blues thought they were getting out of defenseman Carl Gunnarsson when they traded for the Orebro, Sweden native at the NHL Draft in June with the Toronto Maple Leafs for Roman Polak and a fourth-round pick.

It was Gunnarsson's ninth game after missing seven to begin the season recovering from off-season hip surgery.

"That's the guy we thought we were getting," Hitchcock said of Gunnarsson. "He was really good (Thursday) night. He was really strong on the puck, he was really smart. He makes a lot of little plays that really help. That's the guy we thought we were getting. 

"Hopefully if that's the jumping off point where he feels good, that's a real good jumping off point for us. If that's the game we're going to get from him every night, that's going to really be helpful."

* Scouting the Capitals -- The Blues were not very successful with the Capitals, who played at home Friday night against the New Jersey Devils before making the two-hour trek west to St. Louis to face the Blues, in recent memory.

Washington, which was 7-5-3 heading into Friday, won a pair of 4-1 games against the Blues last season, including the most recent meeting April 8 in St. Louis. Alex Ovechkin scored his 50th goal of the season that night and Nicklas Backstrom scored twice.

"Speed, skill, transition ... they got three lines that can come at you," Hitchcock said of the Barry Trotz-coached Capitals. "They've got a fourth line that's got tempo, they've got five of their six defensemen are all puck-movers. They create a lot of space on the ice and they really play with tempo. It's going to be a really good challenge for us. I think in the past, they've needed the power play to create their numerical advantage on the scoreboard. The power play is really good, but the way they're playing right now, they don't need the power play to win games. That to me is what's going to make them dangerous for the next level."

* Blues partner with Pepsi and Schnucks for 'Operation Food Search Canned Food Drive' -- The Blues are partnering with Pepsi and Schnucks to host a canned food drive for Operation Food Search on Saturday before the Blues host the Capitals.

The first 10,000 fans to bring a canned food item to Scottrade Center will receive a free Blues t-shirt courtesy of Pepsi and Schnucks. Cash donations will also be received at the door.

Fans are encouraged to bring canned food items of light tuna, canned chicken, canned pasta with meat, soup/chili, and other protein based foods, as well as canned vegetables, canned fruit and personal hygiene supplies.

Operation Food Search, has been fighting hunger by collecting and distributing food throughout the St. Louis community, as well as providing nutrition education programs and organizing several environmentally-friendly green initiatives since 1981. Operation Food Search helps 190,000 area St. Louisians per month. The Blues would like to congratulate Schnucks on their 75th anniversary, and thank them and Pepsi for their partnership and helping to feed in-need St. Louisans through Operation Food Search.

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