Practice gets heated; USA, Sweden lines play out
Wednesday; Allen's demeanor; Binnington's stay could be short-lived
ST. LOUIS -- The Blues' practice Wednesday at Scottrade Center had a little bit of everything.
An eventful practice full of pace and intensity had its share of light-hearted moments, like when Jaden Schwartz beat Barret Jackman in a 1-on-1 drill, scored and Jackman playfully tripped up Schwartz to the ice as the rest of the team roared with approval of Schwartz's skill and finishing ability; like when coach Ken Hitchcock accidentally threw up a wall along the boards and Joakim Lindstrom skated into his coach and went down, which even got the coach to laugh, and when the fire detectors at Scottrade accidentally went off and the players mocked as if they were leaving the ice when Hitchcock was talking at his whiteboard.
But things got a little intense during a small-ice drill that culminated with captain David Backes and Vladimir Tarasenko needing to be separated on the ice as the heat of the drill got all those involved, and Backes and Tarasenko happened to be the guys that barked, with Backes doing most of the barking and needing to be separated by teammates, including Barret Jackman.
Cooler heads prevailed in a moment that happens to all teams but not often.
Hitchcock made light of it afterwards.
"It didn't matter who it was with Backes," Hitchcock joked. "He was just ready to practice and Tarasenko was one of seven players who got in his way today.
"It was exactly what you want your captain to do. He elevated the level of practice and away he went. Vladi just happened to be one of many who got in his way."
As media members watched in surprise, Blues fans quickly were curious just what went on.
"It's a battle practice," winger T.J. Oshie said. "It's something that was building up that maybe should have come out a little sooner. It wasn't necessarily the two guys that it had to be, but when your captain says something, whether you have 18 goals or you have a slumping one goal, you listen. You listen to Backs.
"As far as emotions and work ethic, Jax and Backs are two leaders that have been our leaders a long time who have been playing their best hockey as far as the way we want to play, the way the coaches preach. You listen to them and when they step up, if you don't listen, that's what happens."
"That's hopefully what we expected to happen with that drill," he said. "That's a very good offensive-defensive drill. You would hope that you would have a lot of that. We had some battles that were close to it in the other part of practice that was down low and you're hoping you get to see that type of energy and when you get in those drills that are that close-quartered, scoring drills, hard scoring drills, you're going to get battling because those guys that are defending, they don't want to get scored on. A forward doesn't want to get beat down low, get beat to the net. A guy wants to try and score goals. Those are things that happen every time you put those drills in. I haven't seen it any other time that it hasn't.
"David had a burr today because he felt like we let a point slip away yesterday and he was not happy. Did what a captain did, raised the level."
Were punches ready to be thrown?
"There was not going to be that happening," Hitchcock said. "Between them two looking at each other and about 12 guys jumping in, there was never going to be anything happening. (Backes) ran over about six guys today. Vladi was just the last guy in his way."
* Line em up by the country -- Hitchcock had an Olympic-themed flavor as far as line combinations at practice Wednesday, as he used an American line, a Swedish line and what he called a Euro line ... and a dog-themed line.
The American line consisted of Backes, Oshie and Paul Stastny, the Swedish line had Patrik Berglund centering Alexander Steen and Joakim Lindstrom and Magnus Paajarvi, the Euro line had Jori Lehtera, Tarasenko and Schwartz -- or better known as the STL Line -- and the fourth line (or as Hitchcock called them the hound dog line) remained the same with Steve Ott, Maxim Lapierre and Ryan Reaves with Chris Porter.
"We didn't play together over there (in Sochi, Russia)," Oshie said. "We were told we were going to, but we didn't play together.
"It was good. It was a hard practice, a lot of battle drills, but I feel like from the Olympics, 'Stas' and I have a lot of really good chemistry and obviously 'Backs' and I for the majority of each season for the past five years, we've been playing together. There could be some chemistry on that line. We'll see. We'll see what's on the board when we come in on Friday."
Hitchcock, in typical fashion, downplayed the changes with a broader picture in mind.
"I wanted to look at it at practice," he said. "I put a Swedish line out there; I had four guys from Sweden in one line. That's an American line, I got a Euro line because Schwartzy plays like a Euro. I'm not sure ... then I got a hound dog line. I'm not sure what I got going, but I wanted to look at it today. Today was a good day.
"... I wanted to see it ahead of time. Today was a day I afforded myself to look at it, but it's all with the thought process that we need to spend way more time in the offensive zone. We're not in the offensive zone near enough for extended time. Our offense comes from extended time. We're not a quick-strike team like some other teams are. We are one of the best teams in the league with extended time in the o-zone and we just don't have enough extended time (during a 3-2 shootout loss to Ottawa on Tuesday). We've got to find combinations that get on the grind, stay on the grind and that's what makes us so effective. It's what makes our power play so effective. We've scored so many goals late on power plays because we stay with it. That's the same way our 5-on-5 game is. We've not done that as much as we'd like to this year and we'd like to get back to that element."
The Blues will be looking to get the details back into their game that saw them win twice on the tail end of a four-game trip that culminated with a strong 4-2 win at Winnipeg on Sunday.
The details seemed to lose themselves Tuesday against the Senators, when the Blues blew a 2-0 third-period lead.
"Tired legs make tired minds," Hitchcock said. "Our legs were tired and you want to be sharp in the mind. We had tired legs and then what happened, we managed the game really well. We had a 2-0 lead going into the third period and then we started managing the puck very poorly. We took a couple penalties because of it and we started turning it over in the gray zones and started complicating our offense and it got to where we allowed the other team to come back. It's not the way you want to play."
* Calm, cool Allen -- With Jake Allen taking the reigns in light of Brian Elliott's lower-body injury (believed to be a knee sprain), Allen will be thrust into the spotlight as the go-to guy in goal for the Blues.
And despite the team announcing on Wednesday that they are bringing in future Hall of Famer Martin Brodeur for a tryout to potentially team up with Allen while Elliott is sidelined, no matter what the news or challenge thrown Allen's way, he seems to keep an open and even-keeled mind.
"What Jake has is this calm demeanor," goalie coach Jim Corsi said. "That calm demeanor allows him to focus on his game as opposed to the meaning of the game.
"The nirvana of what we're trying to do with our goaltenders is if the game is in September, it's an exhibition or it's Game 7 in June, we want to reach a level where it's consistent so there's no pressure because pressure is really trying to do something that you're not prepared to do. That's what I feel is pressure. What we're trying to do is have our guys trust the work that they've done. It prepares them for the game.
"(Allen's) a pretty relaxed guy as far as his skill-set. Jake and Ells are high-end goaltenders. There's no peaks and valleys. Both guys have this calm demeanor. It's quite nice. I'm the guy that's more skittish. That's being the way I am, but it's not with regard to their play; it's my nature. You have to have that kind of calm in the storm.
Allen has been in this position before, when he was called up from the team's then-American Hockey League affiliate, the Peoria Rivermen, back in 2012-13 when Jaroslav Halak was injured. Hitchcock at the time said Allen saved the team's season during the lockout-shortened campaign that enabled them to make the playoffs.
"It seems like he never panics in there," Oshie said of Allen. "He never panics in the locker room, he never gets frustrated it seems like. Maybe underneath the mask he does, but he definitely doesn't show it. He did a pretty good job back then (in 2012-13). I think every goaltender always wants to be No. 1, a guy you can count on. Jake's stepping up to the plate right now."
With a heavy, compressed schedule the Blues are staring at in December with four games in six days to begin the month, Allen feels he's capable of playing most or all of the games. He did so last year with the Chicago Wolves of the AHL.
"I played a lot last year. I'm used to it," Allen said. 'I've done a lot of it in my career. I'm not too worried about it. You've just got to focus on your energy a little bit."
"The really good part for me is that he took this load big time mentally and physically last year, so he's used to this," Hitchcock said of Allen, who is 6-2-1 with a 2.12 goals-against average and .920 save percentage. "He played a ton last year. He played some three-in-three nighters, three in two-and-a-half days a couple times. He's more than capable handling this load mentally. ... We trust him. He's done a great job all year.
"I've never seen a guy so even-keeled for me. It looks like not much bothers him. ... I'm not sure quite frankly some days if he even knows who we're playing. He just comes and plays and gets ready. He's got a really good attitude towards being a goalie. He's very unique."
One thing is for certain. With Allen in goal, there is no shortage of confidence among Blues players.
"I think this is a good opportunity for him, too, to kind of step up and assume that No. 1 role for a little bit," defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk said of Allen. "This is only going to be better in the future for him going forward. He's shown it, and he's shown that he can do it.
"You see the guys that do it in the league, they do it night in, night out. It's going to be a good way for him to kind of learn and become a mature goalie."
* Binnington's stay short-lived? -- Before the Blues decided to invite the 42-year-old Brodeur into camp for a tryout, they recalled Jordan Binnington, a 2011 third-round pick under emergency conditions.
Binnington, 21, was at practice Wednesday after making the trek down Interstate-55 from Chicago. He spent the night Tuesday in Bloomington, Ill. before making the final three-plus hours into St. Louis Wednesday morning and is ready to do whatever's necessary.
"I feel confident with myself," said Binnington, who was 6-2-1 with a 1.89 GAA and .925 save percentage with the Wolves this season, his first in the AHL. "... Whatever happens, happens. Work hard and wait for any opportunities that come about.
"It's not my call. My job is to just work hard and make it difficult for these guys to score in practice, stick with it and just push myself every day to get better."
Hitchcock has noticed Binnington's numbers get better by the day.
"What's interesting for us is he had an average training camp and then played great in exhibition," Hitchcock said. "He went to Chicago and his play at the end of the exhibition has elevated where he's a top-three goalie in the American Hockey League. He's got a goals-against average of like 1.90, save percentage almost .930, so his numbers are excellent. The only thing he lacks is experience. It's unfortunate for him he's not going to get a lot of playing time here, but man, he's had a great start to his American League career. It feels similar to where (Allen) was at three years ago. He's got a high profile reputation coming out of junior. Had a learning curve that he's gone through already. Now he's starting to emerge as a top goalie in the American Hockey League. Now he's got to come and be a little bit of a backup here. Hopefully it isn't for long, but he's really had a great start to his season."
Binnington carried his play in 2013-14 with the Kalamazoo Wings of the East Coast Hockey League, where he was 23-13-3 with a 2.35 GAA and .922 save percentage, to this season.
"It was definitely a bit of a change, but there's good players out there," Binnington said. "There's competition everywhere. It's really a good test every night. Any given team can win, any goalie can play and steal a win for a team. It's a lot of fun and I've enjoyed it so far.
"I think I've been working on my foot speed quite a bit. I was talking to Jim (Corsi) about that. At this level, the puck moves really quick, so you've got to keep up and shots are harder. You've got to read the play and stop the puck."