By LOU KORAC
DENVER -- Whenever Blues coach Ken Hitchcock talks after a loss, the topic that the veteran coach typically veers towards is the team's lack of checking and/or puck management.
Hitchcock was asked Tuesday morning before the Blues (21-9-3) played against the Colorado Avalanche (12-13-8) why players tend to steer away from checking when it brings positive results.
Hitchcock offered a wry laugh.
"Because it's hard. It's really hard ... hard to play that way," Hitchcock said. "Not a lot of fun, pretty demanding physically, really demanding mentally just to keep that focus. It's positional focus, it's 40 seconds of nothing but concentration. You can't drift, you can't take your foot off the gas. It's a very difficult way to play. It's very challenging.
"There aren't many teams that can play that way on a consistent basis. Probably other than two teams in the league, you've got another 28 searching for it every night. We're lucky we get as many minutes as we do, but we know to move forward, we've got to get more and more minutes of that ... puck management, checking game."
"I think what people fail to realize is maybe 20 percent of what you do checking-wise is without the puck," Hitchcock added. "Eighty percent is with the puck, and it takes a lot of effort and concentration and a lot of really good team support by everybody on the ice to manage the puck properly. That's kind of where we're at, managing the puck properly, getting that layer of support with it. We play awful well without the puck. We're not easy to play against without the puck. We don't give you many free-bees, but I think the biggest challenge for us has been puck management on a line by line, shift by shift, period by period basis. I think we have the tendency to try stuff that we haven't tried before and some of it is with the change in personnel, some of it is just the way the games get revved up. But I think that's the challenge for us, get better and better at checking which for us mostly in the management of the lines on the ice."
The concept of checking goes beyond just dumping a puck behind the opponent and simply going to hit them. It's calculated, precise and obviously very demanding not only on the body but on the mindset of the game.
Those aspects failed the Blues in losses to Los Angeles (6-4) and San Jose (3-2 in overtime) on the trip. In both games, the Blues failed to hold third-period leads.
"Checking is 80 percent what you do with the puck," Hitchcock said. "That's checking. Twenty percent is what you do without the puck, but 80 percent is what you do with it. It sets up proper changes, it sets up your offense, it sets up your puck control game, it sets up your time in each zone. There's a reason we're the No. 1 team in the National Hockey League in offensive zone time ... we're No. 1. And there's a reason for that. The reason is we do a very good job of managing the puck for the most part, but for us to get to the highest level, even our team has to be better at that. But that's the challenge for the coaches. Each line we have plays a different game. Some of our lines are dump and chase, some of our lines are puck possession, some of our lines play an old way, a Russian way from the 80's, 70's, but regardless of how we play, the more time you spend in the offensive zone, the better you are defensively. That's what's changed about the game nowadays. How much time you spend in the offensive zone usually dictates how good you are defensively."
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The Blues and Avalanche, who played at Pepsi Center 10 days ago (a 3-2 overtime victory for the Blues on a T.J. Oshie goal), will be in the national spotlight when the puck drops at 7 p.m. The game is televised on NBCSN (also on KMOX 1120-AM) and for the Blues, they want to gain a win on a trip that's seen them go 0-1-1. The Avalanche, on the other hand, are 3-0-2 in their past five games.
"For us, it's continuing to build our game," Hitchcock said. "The disappointment of what happened in San Jose after playing so well is a lesson learned. I think there's a couple good teaching moments from that, you move on. We've had some of those games where we've played some of those games against significant opponents and got points at the end and given points away at the end. It's just how close the league is. For us, it's just get ready and try to play our best game. Everybody agrees if you play .500 or better on the road, you're going to be a winning program. There's a little bit of pressure on us today to try to get this game to finish .500 on the road again, so that's kind of the goal, play our best game today."
The Blues, who are 2-0-0 against the Avalanche this season (including a 3-2 shootout victory at Scottrade Center on Nov. 1), will see Colorado come to St. Louis on Monday. It will be the third matchup in a span of 17 days.
"This game's a challenge because there doesn't seem to be ... it doesn't matter where each team's in the standings," Hitchcock said. "There's no gap in the game. It doesn't matter if they're ahead of us, we're ahead of them, whatever. The competition's so close. We came in here the last time and played really, really well and still took it to overtime before we won the hockey game. That's just how close it is. I think both teams offensively make the other team nervous. They've got a dynamic team off the rush. We've got a dynamic team off the grind and both teams make the other team's defense really, really uncomfortable."
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The Blues will go with the same lineup that played Saturday in San Jose, including Jake Allen (11-3-2 with a 2.49 goals-against average and .907 save percentage) in goal.
Jay Bouwmeester and Alex Pietrangelo, the team's No. 1 defensive unit for much of the season, will not start the game together once again. The two ended up together at the end of the game against the Sharks.
Bouwmeester will start with Kevin Shattenkirk and Pietrangelo will start with Chris Butler.
"We're trying something new," Hitchcock said. "It doesn't matter. Shatty's played the best of all the defensemen at the start of this year, but it doesn't matter if we play Bouw with Petro or Shatty.
"I think the thing that's helped us the most is quite frankly Butler's play. Butler's play has been exceptional and it's really helped us win hockey games. (Carl) Gunnarsson really hasn't played much for us yet this year, and by Butler coming in ... when we traded Leopold, we gambled that Butler had gotten his game in order in Chicago and we were right. It's really helped us."
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Since his recall from the Chicago Wolves of the American Hockey League, forward Dmitrij Jaskin has a goal and an assist in two games playing with Paul Stastny and Patrik Berglund.
But don't ask Hitchcock, who seems to jinx the 2011 second round pick.
"I don't want to talk about him right now quite frankly because every time I talk, something bad happens," Hitchcock joked. "All I know is just whatever he's doing, just keep going because every time this comes up, it goes south, so I'm not talking about him."
Jaskin played 11 minutes, 24 seconds against the Kings and 14:54 against the Sharks.
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Oshie and Jori Lehtera celebrate birthdays today. Oshie is 28 and Lehtera is 27.
The Blues are looking for a fourth straight win on Pepsi Center ice, which is a franchise-best.
Alexander Steen has five points in five games since coming back from a groin injury, which forced him to miss two games.
Berglund has a point in three straight and seven of 10 games.
Pietrangelo is on a seven-game point streak (one goal, six assists).
Shattenkirk has 10 points (three goals, seven assists) in the past eight games.
Vladimir Tarasenko, who needs one point for 100 in his career, saw a personal seven-game point streak snapped Saturday, but he does have 14 points (six goals, eight assists) in the past 11 games.
The Blues held an optional skate this morning and will be off for three days after tonight's game. They resume their schedule with a home game Saturday against the Dallas Stars.
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The Blues' probable lineup:
Joakim Lindstrom-David Backes-T.J. Oshie
Alexander Steen-Jori Lehtera-Vladimir Tarasenko
Patrik Berglund-Paul Stastny-Dmitrij Jaskin
Steve Ott-Maxim Lapierre-Ryan Reaves
Chris Butler-Alex Pietrangelo
Jay Bouwmeester-Kevin Shattenkirk
Barret Jackman-Ian Cole
Jake Allen will start in goal. Martin Brodeur will be the backup.
Healthy scratches include Chris Porter and Magnus Paajarvi. Brian Elliott (knee), Carl Gunnarsson (concussion symptoms) and Jaden Schwartz (foot) are on injured reserve and are out. Elliott is the only one that traveled.
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The Avalanche's probable lineup:
Maxime Talbot-Matt Duchene-Nathan MacKinnon
Gabriel Landeskog-Ryan O'Reilly-Daniel Briere
Alex Tanguay-John Mitchell-Jarome Iginla
Cody McLeod-Marc-Andre Cliche-Dennis Everberg
Jan Hejda-Erik Johnson
Nate Guenin-Tyson Barrie
Brad Stuart-Zach Redmond
Semyon Varlamov will start in goal. Calvin Pickard will be the backup.
Healthy scratches include Reto Berra, and Nick Holden. Jamie McGinn (back), Jesse Winchester (concussion), Ryan Wilson (shoulder) and Patrick Bordeleau (knee cap) are out.
Varlamov returns tonight after missing 12 of 14 games, including six straight with a groin injury. Rookie sensation Pickard was 6-5-2 with a 2.06 GAA and .939 save percentage in Varlamov's absence.