Saturday, December 27, 2014

Blues' mistakes costly again in 4-3 loss to Stars

St. Louis falls to 0-3-1 in past four games, fall short in comeback bid

ST. LOUIS -- This time, there was a push-back. The Blues were knocking on the door in search of a glimmer of hope that their brief losing skid would end.

But at the final horn, the result was alarmingly the same.

The Blues, plagued by uncharacteristic gaffes in the defensive zone in recent games, had more of the same on Saturday night against the Dallas Stars.

Coach Ken Hitchcock cautioned about "loose play" Saturday morning coming off the Christmas break, in which the Blues took three days off after a third straight game without a win in Colorado on Tuesday.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
The Blues' T.J. Oshie (74) looks to break away with the puck from the Stars'
Travis Moen on Saturday night at Scottrade Center.

The Blues were able to get away with some of these games earlier in the season, but the old saying is sometimes, karma catches up to you, and the Blues are feeling some heat.

The Dallas Stars came into Scottrade Center and took back to Texas with them two points after a 4-3 victory against the Blues on Saturday before 19,683 at Scottrade Center.

The Blues (21-11-3) are winless in four straight (0-3-1). They've allowed 18 goals (scored nine) in the past four games. Their errors are magnified grossly with pucks in the back of the net, and it started Saturday with rookie goalie Jake Allen making a mistake playing a puck behind his net that would wind up as the first goal seconds later. 

And another rookie, Petteri Lindbohm, would make a poor decision of his own, and one he will learn from playing in only his ninth NHL game, that would wind up in the back of the Blues' net again that produced Dallas' second goal. And then to the penalty kill, which has been more of a buzz kill for the Blues in recent games, failed to produce.

The Stars (15-14-5), who won their first game within the Central Division (1-7-3), scored twice on their power play in the decisive second period and dropped the Blues to 23rd in the NHL in PK efficiency (78.3 percent) and 13th out of 15 teams in the Western Conference (only Calgary and Arizona are worse). The Blues have allowed a whopping 10 power play goals in 32 tries over six games.

And to top things off, all the teams around them in the Central Division (Chicago, Nashville and surging Winnipeg) all won and gained. 

"I think the mistakes have been the same they've been for four games," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said. "Other than the game in San Jose (a 3-2 overtime loss on Dec. 20), I think they've been the same mistakes. Can't defend our own zone. We're going to have to play with the same ferocity in our own zone than we do in the offensive zone. We won every board battle. 

"When we were chasing the game in the offensive zone, we won a lot of board battles. We came up with a lot of pucks, but the sense of urgency to do that in our 'D' zone is not there so we get scored on. I think it shows up on PK. It shows up 5-on-5."

So has that sense of urgency left the room?

"I don't know if it's disappeared," Hitchcock said. "It's not as good as it could be to win against good teams. It's not good enough. They get to play, too. 

"Our inability to win one-on-one battles, whether it's killing penalties or whether it's the tenacity against the boards, we're losing them. We're winning them in the other end and we're probably in reverse (in the defensive zone). We'd rather lose a few more in the offensive zone and win a lot more in the 'D' zone, but we're going to have to play with a much higher level of ferocity. We're not doing those things. That's the little difference between winning and losing."

Travis Moen, who missed five games because of an upper-body injury, returned to the lineup to score his first in 22 games this season after Allen mishandled a puck behind the net. The puck squirted to the side and Moen knocked it into an open net 2:08 into the game, and for a young goalie like Allen, that kind of mistake can only be magnified in his head, especially after being pulled from his last start, a 5-0 loss at Colorado in which the 25-year-old allowed five goals on 31 shots through two periods.

"That’s a mistake that can’t happen," Allen admitted. "It can’t happen in crucial games like this. It’s completely on me."

Alex Pietrangelo tied it for the Blues 27 seconds later off a shot from Paul Stastny that Lehtonen kicked into the slot, and Pietrangelo snapped a quick shot past the Stars goalie, but Lindbohm's turnover in his own zone, a cross-ice pass from deep in his end, was intercepted by Ryan Garbutt, who beat Allen with a slap shot top-shelf glove side with 5:14 left in the period to give the Stars a 2-1 lead.

"Our sense of urgency in our own zone has to increase a lot," Hitchcock said. "Just assuming the other team's not going to play there, or they got good players and they can dial it up, too. We're going to have to dial it up in our own zone. I think if we do that, we'll spend less time there and we're not going to get occupied like at times we get occupied now."

Vladimir Tarasenko's team-leading 21st of the season and 100th NHL point on the power play, off an Alexander Steen shot that was blocked towards the left circle with 3:50 left in the period tied the game 2-2. 

The Blues had life, they went into the second period all squared and ready to get back to their winning ways.

But then came the undisciplined game. More penalties, four of them, in the second period.

Eventually it catches up, and the Stars got two goals from Trevor Daley, who weaved through a trio of Blues players before beating a sliding Pietrangelo and Allen with a wrister on the short side 7:41 into the period.

Then a coverage mistake came late in the second, and Jason Demers converted a tap-in with 37.4 seconds left as four Blues players were slanted towards one end of the ice, and Demers snuck in behind Steve Ott.

"If you look at the penalties we're taking, they're stick fouls, so that's a little bit frustrating for everybody," Hitchcock said. "The biggest change in that, they're not spread out. If you look, they're four in a row, three in a row, five in a row and that ends up tiring out people, or keeps people out of the game that should be in the game. Quite frankly, we're not getting the job done. We're not getting the job done. That's everybody, that's the goalie, that's the PK guys, that's won faceoffs, that's won board battles, it's cleared pucks. We're not getting the job done. We've been very successful here for a few years doing it, but we're not getting that job done right now."

The Blues have gone on the penalty kill now 32 times in the past six games -- and have allowed 10 goals.

"The penalty kills got to get the job done," Steen said. "We are taking too many penalties. So some stuff to tidy up for sure. Five on five, I thought we played a lot better, but D-zone’s got to be cleaned up a little bit.

"A lot of it is taking penalties. We’ve been sitting in the box and having to kill off -- I think tonight was probably 10 minutes. So 10 minutes and we’re just defending. That’s probably No. 1 that needs to be cleaned up."

Pietrangelo agreed.

"You never want to get behind like we did. We’re taking a lot of penalties right now, penalties that don’t need to be taken," Pietrangelo said. "Penalty kill, too. Those penalties that are being taken, we have to find a way to start killing penalties because it’s losing games for us where usually it’s winning games for us. So we have to get that back on track.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Stars defenseman Jason Demers (left) scores on Blues goalie Jake Allen in
second period action of the Stars' 4-3 victory against the Blues.

"It’s a number of things. We have to start winning some battles, winning some one-on-ones and start trusting the structure that we put together on the penalty kill that’s given us success over the last few years."

David Backes cut the Stars' lead to 4-3 when Backes redirected Jay Bouwmeester's point shot past Lehtonen at 5:40 of the third period.

The Blues pushed and pushed the rest of the period, but Lehtonen was up to the task making big saves on T.J. Oshie and Pietrangelo to keep it a one-goal game.

"I thought we came out with a little bit of bite in the third," Pietrangelo said. "We just took too much a little too late."

"We could have scored quite a few goals in the third period today, but that's not winning hockey," Hitchcock said. "Chasing games is not winning hockey, and that's what we're doing. All those games that we caught up to earlier, that we were able to come back ... we did it in Dallas, same thing. You can't win like that, keep playing like that."

If they do, they'll fall down a slippery slope in an ultra-rugged Central Division and have to play what would be an insurmountable game of catch-up.

And despite allowing four goals on 24 shots, Hitchcock won't blame his goaltender for the team's recent woes.

"He's a young kid. Let's just leave it at that," Hitchcock said of Allen. "I'm not going to get into that stuff right now. He got dealt a tough hand. He'll look back on this as a learning experience."

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