Monday, December 15, 2014


Blues' gap in scoring chances for/against widening; Oshie 
scoring more; old nemesis visits St. Louis; Hitch mum on goalie

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- The Blues' recent four-game winning streak can be attributed to a variety of reasons.

Scoring goals has been right up there at the top of the list, as the Blues have outscored their opponents 19-11 in those four games. But going back to Nov. 22, the Blues have scored three or more goals in nine of 11 games and 19 total this season.

Scoring chances have been relatively even in most games until this recent stretch, but according to coach Ken Hitchcock, limiting them the other way seems to be more of a noticeable trait for the coaching staff.

"I don't know that they've gone up. I think what's affected us is the opposition's have gone down, which has given us a gap," Hitchcock said after practice Monday at the Ice Zone. "I think there was a lot of games where there was two, three, maybe four difference between us and the opposition and we were winning those games but not controlling it. Now you're starting to see gaps of five to seven to 10 even, which is good news for us. It means we're doing a better job of controlling the tempo of the game."

The biggest catalysts in recent games? The line of David Backes, T.J. Oshie and Alexander Steen.

Not only has it been adding up points, but the line is also dictating play with puck possession and limited opportunities at the opposite end.

"The biggest difference for us is that the Backes line is getting scoring chances and giving up absolutely nothing," said Hitchcock, who has played the trio in three games since Dec. 4 (Steen missed two games with a lower-body injury). "It's really impacting the game in a positive way. I don't think there's a lot of diminished return on (Jori) Lehtera's line. They're not scoring on their chances like they scored on earlier in the year, but they're getting them. I think the difference is the Backes line; it's really getting a lot of scoring chances similar to what they did at the start of the year. They're giving up fewer and fewer every game now."


"They're playing that game where they control (the puck) in the offensive zone, they're controlling the puck, they're dominating time on ice," said Hitchcock, whose team has had 40 or more shots on goal in four of the past eight games after only doing it once in 22 tries. "That's really helping us right now."

"We're starting to buy into the volume part of our game, which has been so effective," Hitchcock added. "It's what gave us all our offense last year. It was a very tough sell at the start of the year. That volume has started to come back and that's what's made us so effective. I think if you look at our scoring the last six or seven games, it's up significantly, almost half a goal a game, which is a lot in this league ... probably even more than half a goal a game. That's due to the volume. We're starting to put the volume up and it's showing up on the scoreboard now. I don't think you can control the hockey game unless you play a volume type of scoring game. You look at all the teams that are successful offensively, they've got volume coming left and right. Other than Toronto, they've got volume coming left and right." 

* Oshie feeling it -- Oshie, who has game-winning goals in consecutive games and 18 for his career, has attributed his string of six points (three goals, three assists) in four games to his linemates Backes and Steen. But for Oshie, who matched his point total of the past four games that he had in 19 to begin the season (six), getting back into a groove after sustaining a concussion Oct. 28 at Dallas that forced him to miss seven games has finally got him feeling good again.

"Yeah, I think so. Probably the last week, the last four games or so, I've felt like it's been the best hockey of the season for me," Oshie said. "I feel like I'm getting right back to that good hockey that I was playing last year. So, it feels good. I've got to pay tribute to Backes and Steener, the guys that I'm playing with, and Berg dog (Patrik Berglund) when he was with us. The linemates are going good and it seems like everyone is starting to get going now."

In the past, Hitchcock has called Oshie "the conscience of our hockey team," and with the way he's playing off the puck, that's the perfect indicator that lets everyone know that Oshie (12 points in 23 games) is going right.

"It's actually things away from the puck. It's stopping in good areas, it's not turning away, not guessing, not cheating for pucks," Oshie said. "My line is playing really honest right now and that's where we're getting all our chances from. We're not cheating to the offensive side, we're (forcing the opposition to turn) pucks over with good positioning and good support and then going on offense."

But to get one going, all three tend to have a hand in accomplishing such a feat. Oshie, Backes and Steen tend to light a fire for the other.

"There's some predictability with all three," Hitchcock said. "They're really playing predictable right now. There's no hesitation in where the puck's going, the puck placement, the cycle game ... there's some real predictability and I think that's why they look so much faster now, they play faster, there's more scoring chances, there's more offensive zone time, there's more forecheck. It comes with predictability, and when you're predictable to each other, you can have real success. 

"The best way I can sum it up is now you see what happens when you've got three guys who play with the sum of parts. They look effective collectively, and they look like they're playing well individually too."

* Blues-Kings get reacquainted -- It's another test for the Blues against one of the conference powers, the defending Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings (15-10-6) make their only visit to Scottrade Center on Tuesday at 7 p.m. (FS-MW, KMOX 1120-AM).

Judging by the stats, the Blues (20-8-2) won every category when the teams met in Oct. 16 in L.A. but the one that mattered.

Kings goalie Jonathan Quick withstood the flurry of Blues shots, all 43 of them (a season-high), and the Kings got a Jeff Carter shootout goal in a 1-0 victory.

Since the Blues swept the Kings and won all four regular season meetings in 2010-11, the Blues have gone 2-7-2 against L.A. since.

"They've got our number," Hitchcock said of the Kings. "As small as the gap's been, they've been better and it's our job to play catch-up. Everybody knows even as well as we've played, the first time we played them in L.A. early in the season, we still didn't score a goal. Those are things we've got to address and have an honest conversation. Every time we play them, they're good hockey games. They're really well-played. They feel like playoff games. I think the players' heightened sense of urgency on both sides is there. Quite frankly, they're fun to play in and they're fun to coach in. You get such a true assessment on your own personnel.

"I think this is more about energy. What's their energy going to be like the last game of a road trip (L.A. is 1-2-1 on a five-game trip). Are they going to be enthused and put in (the effort)? What's our energy going to be like knowing we go on the road right after. I think this game's all about energy." 

Quick, who likely gets the start for the Kings, has had the Blues' number. Overall he's 7-8-1 with a 2.12 goals-against average and .926 save percentage in 16 career games against the Blues, but most of the wins have come in the past three seasons and eight more in two playoff series wins in 2011-12 and 2012-13 when he went 8-2.

"I think the goalie gets a lot of credit, and he deserves it, but they contest every part of the ice," Hitchcock said of the Kings. "That's the fun part. They don't give you any easy ice. You get no room, you get no space, you've got to fight for your space, you've got to fight for your puck battle, you've got to play a heavy game one-on-one, so you get a true read on how involved in how your players can become. 

"I think when these two teams play each other, the players on the ice that are kind of looking for space, they get exposed. That's why you like this type of evaluation. I think it's a great evaluation for both Darryl (Sutter) and myself."

The two teams will get very acclimated with one another. The rematch, and final game of the season series, is Thursday at Staples Center.

"This is probably what, the third time we've done this this year," Oshie asked. "It seems like the second game, tensions are high, there's maybe a fight or two. We'll just focus on this first one. They're a tough team and it's always fun to rise to the challenge when you play LA.

"They've got a real maturity to their game where it seems like they never go away no matter what. They're always playing hard. I think the last game we played them really well. We each played the full 60 minutes and then OT and then into a shootout. I think we did a good job against them. We've got to stay patient and just play a little bit longer than they do."

* Crowded 'D' corps again -- It's a revolving door when it comes to the Blues' defenseman carousel again, and Ian Cole is in the middle of it ... again.

And even despite the injury to Carl Gunnarsson (concussion), 2012 sixth round pick Petteri Lindbohm has made life tough on the coaches.

Cole, a healthy scratch in two of the past four games after playing in 26 straight games to begin the season, is in the logjam mix with Kirkwood native Chris Butler, who has played well in nine games since his recall from the Chicago Wolves but was a healthy scratch against the Colorado Avalanche on Saturday.

It's not the ideal situation for players who want to play every night, but it's a good situation for the Blues, and Lindbohm, 21, has made it a crowded house.

"He's obviously a good, young player," Cole said of Lindbohm, who has no points in six career games. "We've got some talent. Any time you can help a team win, it's a good thing regardless of who you're playing with, regardless of whatever extracurriculars there are with the situation."

* Mum's the word -- Hitchcock has been forthcoming on revealing his starting goalie for the next game but not so on Monday.

Jake Allen has started the past two games and won both. But when asked who's in goal, Allen or Martin Brodeur, Hitchcock said, "For L.A., I'm not sure. For us? I'm not sure ... yet."

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