Sunday, February 22, 2015

Blues' slow starts hampering recent home stretch

Team that prides itself on Scottrade Center ice 
allowing opposition to dictate early, looking for right fix

ST. LOUIS -- For a team that thrives on excelling on home ice, and they have backed that play up with solid results in past seasons, it's become quite common recently for the Blues to be slow starters.

For the Blues, Saturday's 4-2 home loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins uncovered even more of what's already been a recent alarming trend: playing catch-up hockey, particularly in the first period.

Entering Sunday's action, the Blues were plus-40 in goal differential on the season, which was No. 1 in the NHL. But they are just plus-1 (46-45) in scoring in the first period, which is in the bottom third of the league. And on home ice, they're plus-8 in 31 games.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Blues coach Ken Hitchcock (top) and players (from L to R) Paul Stastny,
Dmitrij Jaskin, Chris Porter and T.J. Oshie have to figure out how to solve 
recent slow starts on home ice.

But in the past eight games, they're minus-8 and in the past 10 home games, they're minus-7, outscored 10-3 in that span and have not scored more than one first period goal since Jan. 13.

It's a league-wide trend that applies to most teams, but for the Blues, when they score first, they're 26-4-1; when they don't, they're 12-13-3 which isn't bad but getting that early jump gives teams a much higher percentage of pocketing two points more so than not.

The Blues are plus-16 in each of the second and third periods, which enables them to be able to save some of those slow starts.

"The onus is on the players," right wing T.J. Oshie said. "We've just got to step up and play with some fire, especially out of the gate, especially in our own barn in front of our own fans. Other teams are bringing it and we're not, so we've got to improve in that area.

"... It has a lot to do with the start. When another team in your own rink comes out and starts better than you and picks up the momentum right away, I think the confidence lacks a little bit. It all comes down to working hard for each other, working back, giving guys support all over the ice whether it's in the d-zone, neutral zone or in the o-zone. We're getting too spread out right now, and that's because guys aren't working for each other, so that should be a staple of our game that we play with every night."

The Blues (38-17-4 on the season and 22-7-2 at home), are just 3-3-0 at Scottrade Center this month and two of those wins (2-1 in overtime against Tampa Bay and 2-1 at home to the lowly Arizona Coyotes) came as a result of great goaltending and the other (5-1 against the Boston Bruins on Friday) came against a goalie (Malcolm Subban) making his NHL debut.

"We recovered the game (Friday), but it was a young kid in goal that helped us along," coach Ken Hitchcock said. "(Saturday), we didn't recover the game. There's too many team errors with execution, puck errors ... we're not ... it's too much."

Added defenseman Jay Bouwmeester: "The first two shifts of the first period and the second period (Saturday) were good, then we kind of let them take over and dictate. That's not what we wanted to do playing a good team, they take advantage of the chances they get. We're kind of getting what we deserve.

"We've been talking about it, we've got to find a way to get playing here more consistent. We've been playing good teams too. They did to us what we wanted to do to them. That's what happens."

And why are the slow starts happening?

"I don't know. If it were an easy answer it would never happen because you would do what you have to," Bouwmeester said. "But, that has to be a focus for us to get off to a good start and try to get off to a good start and set the tone and gain some momentum from that and not play catch-up."

Maybe it's the unnecessary or untimely turnover, perhaps it's a bad or poor line change, or an ill-advised penalty. But the slow starts aren't attributed to just the skaters in front of the goaltender, but Blues goalies haven't been making that "timely" save early on that can be game-changers.

"Well yeah, that's your goal obviously, every game is to come out and try to dictate and play our style of game," said goalie Brian Elliott, who is 2-4-0 with a 3.85 goals-against average and .876 goals-against average in his past six starts that includes being pulled twice. "But we've been getting behind and partly that's loose structure or a lack of focus or a bad goal on our half on the back-end. It's a whole team thing that's kind of in a funk. 

"I think it's been there for a while but we've been able to grind out some wins. So it's a matter of trying to dig ourselves out and get back to the structure and the discipline that we know how to play."

Does it start with the goalie?

"I mean, it's hard to say but it doesn't really matter how you feel, it's how you come out and play for the guys," Elliott said. "It's making that big save at the right time. I didn't feel like it was there (Saturday)."

And when the Blues fall behind like they have been, they seem to get away from doing the things they do best and not stick to the game plan, which tends to convolute the game plan moving forward.

"We're playing a lot of teams that are playing that swarm in their d-zone," Oshie said. "You've got to move the puck quick and you've got to stay ahead of them. Typically we're a team that likes to shield guys with the puck and hold onto it. It's a little style for us, but it's something we've got to adapt to and something we should be able to do. We'll get better in that area, we'll get better in a lot of areas. We've got a really good core group here, we've got a lot of good players. The season's definitely not over; we've just got to clean up a few things."

In order to stick with the game plan, can every guy give a little more or remain patient? That seems to be the looming question.

"Yeah, but when we get away from what we do well, that gets frustrating and we kind of pile it on ourselves a little bit," Elliott said. "It's staying with that patiently persistent attitude that we can keep grinding away and play our game and our chances and goals will come. I think we haven't had the same patience and confidence in our game that we can do that. Like I said, it starts from goaltending and defense and forwards out and it's a thing that we all have to work together."

Oshie suggested that teams coming into their building lately are in "hockey playoff mode" and the Blues are "a step behind."
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Right wing  T.J. Oshie (74) said after a 4-2 home loss to the Penguins on
Saturday that the Blues "have to kick it into gear here."

Hitchcock was asked if he felt the same and cautioned, "One of the mistakes you make in this business is if you get too far ahead of yourself. I think if you get a week ahead, you're too far ahead. If you get two days ahead, you get too far ahead and it takes a lot to keep your focus singular.

"If we use this properly as a real eye-opener, then I think this will help us if we use this the proper way. We have to use it the proper way. This is a real eye-opener, a lesson and how we deal with it is going to determine the next level that we can get to."

With 23 games remaining in the regular season and the playoffs not locked up yet, the Blues seemed to have straightened some quirks out on the road. Now they have to get back to that home dominance. Fast starts can fix a lot of those issues.

"Collectively as a group, we've really got to kick it into gear here," Oshie said. "We want to be rolling, we want to be playing our best hockey come the postseason. We've got to find a way, especially the leaders. It starts with our goaltending and hope that can funnel on to the rest of the team."

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