Saturday, April 25, 2015


Blues' lone goal to bring series back to St. Louis; Lehtera skates, status 
for Sunday undetermined; wide margin results; series goes back and forth

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- As the Blues head to Minnesota in a survive-and-stay-alive mindset, the objective becomes quite clear.

"That's our goal; just bring it home," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said. "That's the whole focus for us. Just bring this thing home, we get a nice rest and that's the focus."

Anything else, and the Blues' season will come to another disappointing end after a regular season that filled hopes for the Stanley Cup Playoffs with much promise.

But the Blues, who trail the Minnesota Wild in the Western Conference First Round best-of-7 series 3-2, have been in this position before.

Last season.

And in 2013.

Those circumstances against the Los Angeles Kings and Chicago Blackhawks, respectively, were different because the Blues led each of those series 2-0 before losing four in a row. But the one common theme was the Blues lost Game 5 on home ice, then went on the road and lost 2-1 at LA in 2013 and 5-1 at Chicago last season before having the opportunity to bring it home to a decisive Game 7.

They would love to alter the course this time around.

The puck drops at 2 p.m. (NBC, KYKY 98.1-FM).

"The last thing Minnesota wants to do is have this thing come back to our building," Hitchcock said. "That's the last thing they want. We've got to make sure they get to look that in the eye.

"This is a real quick turnaround for both teams. We'll see who has energy going tomorrow. They had to absorb a lot in the third period. We played the third period the right way in their end; they had to absorb a lot and hopefully, we can take advantage by playing on our toes again, but we're going to get a major league push from them at the start of the game. We're probably going to have to do more absorbing than we wanted to and then we're going to have to really push back. But our goal right now is bring this thing home because it's going to be great for us and it is the absolute last thing they want to have happen."

And despite a 4-1 loss on Friday that saw the Blues come out and pick up where they left off in Game 4 where they blasted the Wild 6-1 at Xcel Energy Center, the Blues won't lack any confidence.

"Yeah, absolutely," left wing Alexander Steen said. "We had a really good Game 4. First period last game was just the type of game that we want to play and we just have to get back to that and we'll bring the series back here.

"... We knew it was going to be a tight series. This is playoffs, playoff hockey. Things aren't just going to go easy. Right now we're down 3-2, but we're heading into Minny and we want to bring this series back. That's our focus. We just focus on the next game."

There should be a different kind of mindset. Confidence is one thing, but the Blues have their backs against the wall. It'll be a different circumstance when the puck drops.

"Well, certainly tomorrow's game is going to have to be our best," left wing Jaden Schwartz said. "Our season's on the line, really, plain and simple. We have to do everything we can to bring it back here and that's going to be our mentality and leave everything out there and have no excuses at the end of the game."

A good place to start would be getting some more scoring from someone other than Vladimir Tarasenko, who has six of the Blues' 13 goals in the series.  Minnesota also has 13 goals in the series, but they have 10 different goal scorers.

"That's going to be critical for us," Hitchcock said. "(Tarasenko's) not going to get the matchup on the road that he got. He's going to have a tougher matchup and it's going to be hard for him to get loose. Other guys are going to have to just contribute. Bottom line is guys are going to have to take responsibility and ownership to help us out there. 

"You look at the quality chances that two or three of our key guys got last night, they were great chances and they don't go in. So they're leaving the game feeling bad about themselves; they could have made a difference. We're going to have to just finish those off. It's either been feast or famine for us. We've been locked down in three of these games and got loose on two of them. It's been one thing or the other offensively. From our standpoint, when you get the chance against this goalie, you've got to bury it because you're not going to get a lot."

If all goes accordingly, the Blues will bring a winner-take-all game back home to be played on Wednesday. But the Blues have not won an elimination game since April 23, 2000 in Game 6 at San Jose. They've lost eight in a row since.

"That's what we've been playing all year for, to win a series and go all the way to the end," defenseman Barret Jackman said. "You can't stress the importance because if you lose you go home and that's something that will not sit well with this group. So we're going to come out, we're going to play our best game and bring it back to St. Louis."

* Back and forth -- It seems that whoever wins a game, the team that loses is the one that responds the best the following encounter.

This trend bodes well for the Blues, who have lost Games 1, 3 and 5. They've won Games 2 and 4. 

It makes one ask is it what the teams are doing to each other or more what they're doing to themselves?

"I think it's a little bit of both," Jackman said. "I thought they played a pretty strong game, they responded from the game in Minnesota and were a lot harder to play against and we fed into that. They were playing well. It's a little of both, a little of Jekyll and Hyde with us right now. We have to clean that up.

"I think both teams are playing a lot better when they're playing desperate, and when you feel that loss you feel like you have to step up your game. Now are backs are against the wall. There's no excuses for us. We have to play our best game of the series tomorrow afternoon and bring it back to St. Louis."

"Looks like that the way the games have gone," Schwartz said. "The reasoning for that, I'm not sure. But definitely, it's been back and forth. We have to do the same thing in their building that we did last game."

Steen, who has a goal and four points in the series, said a good place to start would be better 5-on-5 goals.

"Yeah, that's -- generate more 5-on-5. We had our fair share of chances, I thought," Steen said. "Myself, I had two and didn't bury (in Game 5) and obviously they get one on the other end a few minutes later. So, that's playoffs, those pucks have to get in.

"... It's playoffs. There's tight margins. The chances aren't as wide open and you need to find ways to bury them and when you do get grade-A chances, they have to end up in the net."

* Large margins -- For all the pundits that claimed that this would be the tightest series in the first round, each game has been decided by two goals or more, and the tightest margin was Game 1, a 4-2 Wild victory.

And to think, every series but the Blues-Wild and Vancouver-Calgary (prior to Game 6 between Canucks-Flames) have had at least one game go to overtime.

So why the larger margins?

"I'm not sure," Schwartz said. "Usually, series in the past it's been one-goal games and it's just not the case, whether it's empty-net goals or late goals that kind of separate it, but that's the way they've been ending up and I don't really have an answer for it.

"... I was talking about that the other day, we thought there would be a little more one-goal games or overtime even, but like I said, it hasn't been, but we knew coming into this series that it wasn't going to end early."

Which is why Hitchcock said not to look too closely into the notion.

"I think you've got to be careful how you evaluate that because I think it takes so much to score in this series that it is a little bit like swimming upstream to try and get scoring chances," Hitchcock said. "Once a team gets locked down on a lead, it's pretty difficult. I think the thing that's been pretty evident is that there isn't this wild swinging of lead chances and everything. Once a team gets it in and gets it locked down, it's difficult. We had a lot of zone time yesterday in the third period, but not a lot of second and third opportunities. They got five guys packed in front of their goalie and they're letting him take the original shot. I think both teams are so committed in that area. 

"It's hard to describe this series, but I said this before, the checking is so close and the players are so committed to it. If you make one mistakes, they're going to take advantage of it. When you get the numbers above the puck like both teams play with, when you make a mistake, it seems like it sets up a snowball affect of mistakes. You take a look at the second goal that we got scored on, it started with a neutral zone turnover that we didn't get deep, that we ended up icing the puck, ended up taking the faceoff and then get scored on. Those are the little mistakes that in a regular season game wouldn't have mattered, but those are the big errors that one side or the other's making right now."

* Lehtera skates -- Center Jori Lehtera, who sat out Game 5 with a lower-body injury after being plunked with a shot off the stick of Jay Bouwmeester in the third period of Game 4, skated on his own prior to a team optional skate at the Ice Zone on Saturday.

Hitchcock, who listed Lehtera as 50-50 for Game 5, was more hopeful of a return Sunday.

"He skated full today," Hitchcock said of Lehtera, who has two assists in the series. "Skated before everybody else. We'll see. He had a good day today."

Lehtera's absence scrambled the line combinations for Game 5 and it showed.

"He's a big part of our team," Schwartz said of Lehtera. "He does a lot of little things right, very reliable in all three zones. Like I said, he's a big part of our hockey club, so hopefully we can get him back in the lineup next game and kind of help us in that depth area."

* Special teams -- The Blues felt that the momentum of what they did during the regular season on both the power play and penalty kill (they finished fourth on the power play and eighth on the penalty kill) would give them an edge in the playoffs.

And since Minnesota finished 27th on the power play, one would have felt it was a big advantage for the Blues.

But the Wild have converted 4 of 11 opportunities against the Blues' PK in the series, while the Blues have converted 2 of 9 power play opportunities against the NHL's regular season's top-rated PK.

"We haven't generated as many power play opportunities as we maybe had hoped, but when we've had them, we've looked pretty good, I think," Steen said. "Penalty killing wise, I think we've been pretty good. Obviously they get one, one last game on an unlucky bounce, but for the most part it's been pretty decent."

Hitchcock agreed.

"It's hard because there isn't a lot of them," Hitchcock said of the penalty kills. "They've had a couple flukies go in. I think the one thing that I've noticed is that when you don't kill a lot of penalties, it's hard to get into a rhythm. We're not in a rhythm right now. I don't know that it's been a factor in the series yet. I know the percentages aren't great; I don't think it's been a factor in this series mostly because there just hasn't been that many on both sides. I think the series has been played 5-on-5 and there's been cases here where both teams have completely dominated the other team 5-on-5. I think that's more the case, but like yesterday's (Wild power play) goal was a fluke goal. We got a lucky one two games ago. That's a hard go when you're only killing one or two penalties."

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