Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Blues slumping at wrong time

Differing opinions between players, coach 
have raised concerns off ice with playoffs looming

ST. LOUIS -- When one of the players in the leadership group makes comments that are viewed as pointed towards the head coach this late in the season, or at any point in the season, they'll raise eyebrows.

Case in point after a frustrating 4-1 loss on home ice to the Vancouver Canucks on Monday. Right wing T.J. Oshie was asked about another slow start for the Blues, who haven't scored a first period goal in 10 straight games.

Oshie, who wears one of the team's four 'A's on the leadership squad, veered in a completely different direction.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Blues assistant captain T.J. Oshie (74) returned to the lineup Monday and
raised eyebrows with comments of "a lot of information" that's helped lead
the team to its recent slump.

"I think it's been a long year for us," said Oshie, who returned after missing one game with a stomach flu ailment. "The fact there's so much information we're trying to pack in here before the postseason. I know we're not there yet, but there's a lot of information going around, guys are getting a little indecisive. Maybe it looks like a lack of urgency or a lack of effort. I'm not sure what it looks like from up top (in the press box), but I think guys aren't really sticking with their gut and going with their first instinct. Once we get back on that page, things are going to start being a lot faster for us."

So the question comes to this: is there too much information coming down from the coaching staff, particularly Ken Hitchcock?

"I can't point one finger on it," Oshie said. "I'll just say that it was nice for me coming in tonight. I was mentally fresh. Physically I didn't feel my best, but I think mentally I was so sharp out there that my game looked a lot faster."

Oshie added, "I didn't think the flu would be good for me, but coming back in tonight and not having to sit through all the meetings and same old practices, it really felt good to get out there. I was excited again to do something as simple as change well for the next guy coming out."

Hitchcock was made aware of what was said and said himself that it's something he and the assistant coaches will discuss with the players.

"That's something we'll talk (about) with the players. If they think it's too much information, then we'll adapt there," Hitchcock said. "But this is really effort-based. ... This is two games in a row now where quite frankly, we've lost a lot of board battles, we've been indecisive with the puck, we've been slow in our head and I think sometimes when you're slow in your head, any information you're getting is too much information.

"We're playing slow. Everything we're doing is slow. We're surprised by pressure, we're surprised by getting checked, we're getting beat on board battles. This is your reaction to this time of year. Your reaction to this time of year, things are dialed up. We'll get another team on Thursday (Calgary) the same: desperate, hungry hockey club, and if you don't match it, then any information you're getting is too much because you're overwhelmed. We have to increase our competitive level. ... If we increase our competitive level, we'll increase our alertness. We're not alert right now. We're not alert as a group, and we're very much a group that needs to be alert together on the ice. We're not alert; not on a consistent basis. We have stretches where it's really sound, but we have stretches where it's not good."

And the "not good" category has come to the forefront in the past couple games. The Blues, 1-3-2 on their past six games and have dropped six of nine at home. They're 46-23-7, good for 99 points and still right in the thick of the Central Division title chase, but they're also on the verge of falling behind Chicago (98 points) and even Minnesota (94 points). 

The mistakes have been magnified recently, and even one of the newcomers (Zbynek Michalek) was as forthcoming as can be with what's been going on.

"It's not even close. We gave up so many chances and so many breakaways and odd-man rushes. It's ugly to look at," Michalek said. "That's no way to play this late in the season. The other team is hard to play against; every team is playing defensively. We're not playing good defensively, we don't generate enough chances defensively and just too easy to play against right now.

"Guys in this room have to look in the mirror and make sure everybody brings their best every single night. I think (Monday) from the get-go ... we can have all the meetings in the room. It's on the ice were we have to show up. Right now, we aren't showing up. We need to change that."

The second-guessing is a good place to start the process of elimination.

"I honestly think it’s just guys being a little bit indecisive, not going with their first instinct," Oshie said. "If a 'D' wants to pinch, that's fine because the forward can read that if he goes early. If he can get over the top, a 2-on-1 turns into a 2-on-2 pretty quickly. Or he can back off and a forward can come over and pressure. We just have to get quicker on our reads. Like I said, hopefully a day off for everyone can let their minds kind of settle down a little bit. Hopefully we get a little bit sharper with those decisions."

So is there a problem with players not being on the same page? Trying to do something out of character, out of element?

"This is the ying and yang you get with the players. Is it over-pursuit or is it mis-reads? I think a lot of this was mis-reads (Monday)," Hitchcock said. "... We're not desperate. Other teams are trying to fight for their lives to try to get in. We're not matching that. When you're not matching the level of tenacity on the ice, you're a step behind, and right now, we're a step behind and in some cases, two steps behind; whether it's in foot speed, thinking, reacting, whatever; we're a step behind."

A step behind that seems to be affecting the goalies, too.

"It's small details," goalie Brian Elliott said. "There's a mistake every shift on every team, every game in the NHL. It's how you react and who backs you up and works hard for each other. It's not going to change. It's how you react and how you cover up for your guys. And my job and Jake (Allen's) job is to be the last line of defense.

"... As a goalie and personally, our job is to kind of clean up that mess. I'm not surprised, I'm not alarmed, I want to be ready for that. Whatever happens, you've got to be there to back up your guys. You still want to make those saves for them. It's a game of mistakes and the less you make, the better it is. How you react to your mistakes determines basically win or loss."

The Blues allowed three breakaways and a multitude of odd-man rushes in the game Monday, and they all came down to proper reads and execution that has gone AWOL. A 4-2 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets showed glaring signs as well.

Maybe a day off to get away from hockey and what is viewed as information overload can be a good thing. It allows the mind and body to rest, recoup and reload. 
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Defenseman Zbynek Michalek scored his first goal with the Blues Monday
but after a 4-1 loss, said players "have to look in the mirror" in order to
break out of what ails the team.

"Hopefully a lot," Elliott said. "We have to take it in and learn from it. But it's good to spend some time away from the rink. We've just got to do a little soul-searching and come back with that fire and that determination that's needed to win at this time of year."

"It wasn't our worst game, that's for sure," Oshie said. "There were some good moments. But the same mistakes that seemed like happened last year against Chicago (in the Stanley Cup Playoffs) with a bad change that leads to a breakaway. I think it was a game-deciding goal against Chicago in the playoffs. Things like that are starting to creep in our game and that's something that we definitely got to get rid of. 

"Hopefully everyone can take a day off (Tuesday) and not think about hockey whatsoever and just get away."

* NOTE -- As of early Tuesday afternoon, there was no new update on the condition of right wing Vladimir Tarasenko, who sustained a lower-body injury midway through the third period Monday. 

Tarasenko, who leads the Blues in goals (36) and points (71), was seen walking through the locker room area after the game. He initially had his right leg wrapped in ice.

With the Blues having an off-day, left wing Alexander Steen (lower body) continues to be day-to-day after being injured Saturday.

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