Hitchcock mum on lineup changes; Blues need their best
to be best; containing Granlund line; importance of Game 4
ST. PAUL, Minn. -- For those expecting some sort of major announcement from coach Ken Hitchcock on Tuesday regarding any possible lineup changes ahead of Game 4 of the Western Conference First Round against the Minnesota Wild will have to wait another day.
The Blues held an optional skate on Tuesday at Xcel Energy Center, and it was a very limited optional skate. The only game players from Game 3 were center Marcel Goc and Dmitrij Jaskin.
The Blues, who trail the Minnesota Wild 2-1 in their best-of-7 series after a 3-0 loss in Game 3 on Monday, could be in line for a lineup change or two in hopes of evening the series in Game 4 on Wednesday (8:30 p.m.; FS-MW, NBCSN, KYKY 98.1-FM). However, Hitchcock, who was in a rather surprisingly good mood after losing on Monday, was not forthcoming.
"Possibly," Hitchcock said when asked about lineup changes.
He was asked about perhaps inserting a player like defenseman Robert Bortuzzo, and Hitchcock said, "I'm not commenting on who I'm putting in or taking out."
The Blues ended Game 3 playing with the "STL Line" as well as Alexander Steen with David Backes and T.J. Oshie, and their defensive pairs were mixed to have Jay Bouwmeester playing with Kevin Shattenkirk and Barret Jackman with Zbynek Michalek.
Could Hitchcock stick with what worked before?
"You've got to stop asking me those questions," he joked. "You're going to end this press conference and I'm in a good mood right now. ... You're right, I'm not going to tell you, nor am I going to show you in the morning at the pregame skate, so you're going to have to bring an eraser tomorrow."
The Blues feel they can still get back in the series and even perhaps win it, but one area that needs to change is scoring opportunities for.
Aside from the three empty-net goals scored against, the Blues have allowed five goals in three games, something Hitchcock noted in his gathering with the media. But the Blues, who have six goals in the series that includes an empty-netter, are not generating enough scoring chances.
"The opposition's scored, what, five goals? Our goalie's been excellent," Hitchcock said of Jake Allen, who's allowed two or fewer goals in 10 consecutive starts. "They've got five goals when you count the ones with the goalie in the net; that's not much. They're getting scoring opportunities, but we've allowed five goals. Any coach in the world would take five goals against right now after three games. It's what we're getting; we're getting not very much. Kudos to them, but if we want to get back in this series, we're going to have to get a lot more than we're getting right now. We're going to have to do more, we're going to have to get more."
What could the Blues use, Hitchcock joked: "Messier, Gretzky, I'll take an Anderson, Kurri's fine.
"What we've got, we've got enough to play. Let's play our game and let's play our best game, the way we can play and then we'll get a better judgment. We've had stretches of it where we've been excellent, and then we've had stretches where it's been very impatient and it's forced us into areas that are not our strength."
Getting more means getting it from the Blues' best players. Players like Backes, T.J. Oshie, Paul Stastny, Alex Pietrangelo, who have not registered a point in the series.
"Well, that's the conversation that every coach usually has but it's a little bit deeper than that," Hitchcock said. "We're playing a team that's played the best hockey in the League since the goalie change (Devan Dubnyk) and everybody is trying to catch up to them. I knew they were playing like this when we came in here and got beat right at the end of the regular season. It was our first experience at watching them play. They're on top of their game and it's our job to catch up."
"We’ve got to match their intensity," Pietrangelo said. "We’ve got to start taking control of the game earlier, taking control of the game the way we can and not let their best players dictate the play. I think we’ve got to be a little bit harder on their best players."
As captain, Backes takes the onus on his shoulders to lead by example.
"I need to be the first guy on the page and leading by example. Hopefully that creates guys joining the battle," Backes said. "That being said, I need to do a better job and be able to contribute more, especially on the offensive side of the game. That will help us as we go. Can't do anything about the first three games now, they're in the books, we've got to worry about Game 4 tomorrow night."
The Blues were able to get the matchup they wanted in Games 1 and 2 and it usually revolved around David Backes and whoever played on his line.
But with the Wild getting the last match in home games, Minnesota coach Mike Yeo inserted that line out against the Jori Lehtera, Alexander Steen and Vladimir Tarasenko line Tuesday.
The line has combined for 11 points in three games against the Blues. The Rest of the Wild has 10 points combined.
But being on the road, Hitchcock has to craft his counter-attack at the mercy of what Yeo does.
"Well, I'm looking for (the matchup), but Mike won't give it to me," Hitchcock joked. "We've got a little bit of an issue. I'll have to talk to him about that tomorrow ... get a free one from him.
"We had some really good things happen in the end of Game 1 through Game 2 but then they got their speed burn-and-go back yesterday. They caught us again and took advantage of it. They're a great team through the neutral zone and if you give them opportunities to use that element, you're just feeding -- especially the Granlund line -- and that's what we did. They took advantage of it."
* Adjusting to the Wild -- The difficulty in playing the Wild is that it's tough to adjust when things aren't going according to plan.
The Blues found that out in Games 1 and 3.
"This is a lot ... playing Minnesota is a lot like playing Tampa," Hitchcock said. "They've got a lot of team speed, they've got a lot of agility, so we have to play a game that's different than theirs. And when we get them in our game, it's extremely difficult for them. But when they get loose, they're awful good, awful good. We've got to get them more into our game. We've got to get our game out there for more minutes than we played yesterday. We had flashes of it in the first period, some good stuff and didn't finish at the net with shots.
"I think one of the things you can't lose sight of right now is that we haven't even reached double digits in three games on even-strength scoring chances for. That's the job that they're doing against us and they've done it against a lot of teams. That's something for us to get better, we have to have more scoring chances even strength, 5 on 5. And we don't have enough right now. We don't have enough to sustain a lot of pressure. We're going to have to find ways to create more 5 on 5 scoring opportunities to maintain control of the hockey game. Otherwise it just into what it did yesterday, which is back and forth, which is not to our advantage."
Those adjustments include the Wild doing all they can to prevent the Blues from getting shots at the net. The Wild have blocked 52 shots through three games, an average of 17.3 shots per game.
"Well, they play for the goalie," Hitchcock said. "Since the change, they play for the goalie. When you play for the goalie, you block every shot, you get in front of every puck, there's no gap, no space, no room, they play for the goalie. We're going to have to get through that."
The sacrifices that Yeo is seeing from his players is certainly appreciating seeing from his players.
"It's the way a d-man moves back and takes a hit to make a play, it's the way a guy blocks a shot, the way that teams try to impose themselves physically on us," Yeo said. "We keep playing our game. That's our mindset and that's the approach that we have to have.
"Guys are definitely willing to get in front of those lanes to block those shots. That's not an easy team to do it against. They've got a great defensive group. ... I would expect them to try to maybe get a little more motion in there, but something that we've worked pretty heavily on how to play in our own zone. Guys have had pretty good composure in there, playing in there. There's a lot of things involved in it, but it comes down to definitely being willing to sacrifice the body."
"We're losing the race to the red line ...so the gap looks like the d-men are on their heels, but we're losing the race to the red," Hitchcock said. "That's the whole thing. When you're involved in a team that plays with a tight gap, you've got to win the race to the red. You've got to control all three lines; we're not controlling the red line and it's forcing us to be uncomfortable because we're not sure if some pucks are coming back at us, so there's no gap. We're anticipating that we're moving north and now we're going south right away. There were seven of them in the second period and we lost the race to the red. We had the puck, didn't get the red line, next thing you know, big gap coming back at us."
* Bad being bad; wakeup call -- The Blues have had their fair share of losses this season in which the team didn't look good. Nine times this past season they've lost games by three goals or more.
The reasons for those types of games?
"Impatience with the puck. Checking does that to you," Hitchcock said. "When you get checked hard, you feel like there's 12 guys on the ice and what you do from there becomes relevant. It's not like guys aren't trying hard and all that stuff. You just become impatient, so you chase the game. We've chased the game. We chased the game because we gave up the puck too easily and allowed them to get into their transition. Now we're chasing them back down the ice and that happened in Game 1 also. Their checking sets up their offense, they're great at it, so are we, but they've been a little bit better at it so far."
"I don't know if that's entirely true," Backes said of the moniker of being really bad. "There's been times where we've been able to regroup, whether it's been in between periods, or at a timeout, and have been able to bring a bit of a better game. But there's part of this you need to tip your cap to the way that they played last game. But we control what we do and we could have asserted ourselves a lot better, played a better game, even after you weather the storm in the first period. You say, 'Hey, they played a good first period, but we can come out and play our game, play more physical, do what we need to do to win and it's still a 0-0 game thanks to some big saves and keeping them to the outside a little bit.' Resiliency, showing that character, I think those are lessons we've learned all year.
"We've had rough patches where we've been able to turn it around. I think losing Game 1 and being able to come back Game 2 and play a better game; Game 3 was really like Game 1. We need to make Game 4 more like Game 2."
The Blues went 4-4-1 in the following game after a three-plus goal loss, which isn't bad and shows they have the ability to bounce back quickly.
Monday's 3-0 loss marks another opportunity to see how this team responds, which begs one to ask why do do these wake-up calls happen so frequently?
"I don't know if any of them got alarm clocks for Christmas, I'm not sure," Hitchcock joked. "I don't know. I don't know what more wake-up call ... you're in the NHL playoffs. I don't know what the wakeup call is. The wakeup call was we got beat."
* Ott drawing attention -- Blues left wing Steve Ott is up to 22 penalty minutes after getting 12 (two for roughing and a 10-minute misconduct) towards the end of the game.
But Ott, who has gained a lot of media attention throughout the series for his physical nature, is doing things right, according to his coach, if so many people are consumed with him.
"That's how he plays. You all are talking about him, it's good for us," Hitchcock said. "You stop talking about him, that's not good for us. He's an agitating guy, he's got great moxey on the ice, he's a guy if you're writing in the newspaper today, you probably hate him and you talk about him. If he's on your team, you love him because he has a way of getting your attention. If you're just talking about him, he's got your attention because it means somebody has to be aware when he's on the ice. He's a real good teammate."
The Wild understand this very attitude and feel it's best to play thing cool.
"Yeah, that’s what he does," Wild forward Charlie Coyle said. "We’re just going to stick to our game plan. That’s been our focus."
Added former Blue Chris Stewart: "I think we did a good job of trying not to get caught up in that and getting the best of us. Whistle to whistle toughness is what we need from here. ... That's not our game. We're trying to play a fast-paced hockey game, not get caught up in that stuff. You don't want to do anything to jeopardize your team this time of year."
The hits have been pretty even throughout the series, but the Blues can't seem to find a way to get under the Wild's skin.
"Hits aren't relevant," Hitchcock said. "If you're talking like us running them over, it's not relevant. Every player in the NHL takes a hit in the playoffs; doesn't matter. You just get up.
"Their physical play has been with numbers. They're winning the physical numbers game. We got one, they got two; we got two, they got three. They're winning the swarm game. So we have to figure out a way to adjust. Their physical play is different, but it's still very physical. They press up on you, they lean on you, they work low to high, they do a helluva job with it, and they're very good at what they do. They're winning that part of the game. I think that's been the difference in the series. The big hits and everything, they have a tendency to wear on teams as the series goes on at times, but as far as running people over and knocking people on their arses, it's not relevant. What's relevant is when the battle's on the boards, who comes out with the puck, and they're winning more of that than we are right now. That's an element that has to change for us."
* Game 4 pivotal -- Historically, the Blues haven't fared all that well in winning a series that's tied 2-2 or down 3-1. But odds are in their favor to win Game 4 and at least turn the series into a best-of-3 with home ice advantage.
In their history, the Blues are only 2-11 when falling behind 3-1 in a series. They're 8-12 when a series is 2-2 but just 1-9 in the past 10.
Still, the odds become heavily favorable to winning than losing when 2-2.
"Look we came here to win a hockey game," Hitchcock said. "If we win the game tomorrow, we've got home ice. It's all doom and gloom, but it was a 2-0 hockey game. They played very, very well. We can play better and we'll play better. But they've got another gear in them too, so it'll be an interesting game. But if we win tomorrow, then it's advantage us. That's why for me, for the home team in every series, Game 4 sets us as a lot. And that's what tomorrow is, it's a big game for bot (Monday, h teams, but I like our ability to rebound and play a better hockey game. But we're going to have to do some things that are really relevant in our game at a much higher level because they're team ... I don't see any change for the last three months in their team. It's playing the exact same way it was in January."
* Wild expecting Blues' best -- Don't think for one second the Wild will rest on its laurels.
Despite thoroughly dominating Monday, Minnesota expects the Blues to come back with their best effort in the series.
"Obviously we know what to expect from them," Yeo said. "I think both teams recognize the importance of the game. It's going to be up to which team can go out there and execute their game plan the best, which at the end of the night will tell the story.
"It's an experienced group over there. They'll collect themselves today and I certainly would not expect them to carry anything of what happened last game into the next one. They did a good job of responding in Game 2 of the series and I would expect themselves to collect themselves and be ready for tomorrow as well."
Stewart, who used to play with a number of the Blues, agreed.
"We know for a fact that they're going to come to play tomorrow," Stewart said. "They're not going to show like they did last night.
"You're up 2-1, but it's called a series. We can't dwell on that fact. We've got to approach it like any other game. We know they're going to get a push back the next game. I think you can expect a better response. We can't dwell on it for too long. We enjoyed it last night, got back to work this morning. You have to have a quick memory in this game. ... We obviously want to go up 3-1. That would be ideal. We're not going to put any more pressure on ourselves. It's a race for four games. You've got to win four to win the series."