Blues looking for consistent 5-on-5 play; Parayko
questionable; which save has been Allen's best; Bortuzzo's near-goal
HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- For the Blues, a victory and ensuing two points looked good on paper Thursday.
But coach Ken Hitchcock said the Blues, who defeated the Buffalo Sabres 3-2 in a shootout to improve to 13-6-1 on the season, won't be able to last playing the way they did.
The Blues' special teams were certainly special. The penalty killing unit, now a perfect 14-for-14 the past four-plus games, thwarted the Sabres for a total of 2 minutes, 36 seconds of two separate 5-on-3 power plays and the power play has heated up since the return of Kevin Shattenkirk. It went 2-for-3 in scoring both goals Thursday.
But 5-on-5, where the Blues look to strive, not so much of anything.
"That's not the way you want to live, though. You don't want to live counting on your special teams," coach Ken Hitchcock said after an optional skate Friday. "We're at over 90 percent at killing penalties right now, we're at 35, almost 40 percent on the power play (in recent games); you're not going to keep those numbers up.
"I think the thing we've got to get better at is our 5-on-5 play. We've got to start getting back and eliminating a lot of the time that we're spending in our own zone. We're spending far too much time in our own zone, and it's all connected. It's obviously not enough time in the offensive zone, so you end up in your own zone too much and giving up scoring chances. And I think it's also making the simple play. We just want to be better 5-on-5. We've got come continuity killing penalties and we feel confident killing penalties, but our 5-on-5 game has to get a lot better. We're giving up too many scoring chances and we're giving up too many shots, and as we start getting these really good tams like Detroit coming in and we're playing in Pittsburgh and we've got Columbus again, we're going to have to play better even strength."
The Blues have been hemmed in their zone for large quantities of time at various points in recent games, and it's forcing things to get their game out of whack, particularly with transitioning the puck out of the defensive zone. Exits aren't as clean as they'd like them to be.
"I think it's our first option, we're complicating it too much," Hitchcock said. "We've got to get back to more ... our first option has to be, even though it might be six feet away, 10 feet away, we've got to hit that first option. We're trying to hit too many home runs on our exits. If we can get through that, I think we're going to be in much better shape. It's all connected. ... We're not occupying the offensive zone with enough minutes in the game. So when you look at the minutes that we're spending in the offensive zone right now compared to where we were three weeks ago, it's down, and it's down quite substantially. That's getting on the same page and this happens quite frankly when you don't practice. We've opted for energy over practice. We're going to have to just live through this thing until we get some quality practice time in.
"It's affected everything. It's affected puck management, checking, it's affected puck support, it's affected everything. You have to make a decision and we've made the decision to run on energy and try to keep that as high as we can and I'm over-playing guys and that part's on me. But that's just the way it is right now. So we've opted for rest over work and hopefully it works for us. We've kept up, pretty good pace getting points in games. We've got another week to 10 days of doing it this way and that's what we're just going to have to live with."
* Allen's acrobatics -- When it comes to the acrobatic save for Blues goalie Jake Allen, take your pick.
There have been a number of them this season, and they've all come at critical points of the games.
It started with a dazzling save against the Los Angeles Kings' Anze Kopitar on Nov. 3, then another on Nashville Predators' Mike Ribeiro on Nov. 7 before Allen absolutely robbed Marko Dano of the Chicago Blackhawks at home on Nov. 14 and then there was a crucial save on the Sabres' Ryan O'Reilly during a two-man advantage.
"To me, there's been so many ... I think the one quite frankly last night, nobody recognized on O'Reilly was exceptional," Hitchcock said. "I think it was in close, but man, it was ... I didn't even notice it from the bench and when I started looking at scoring chances this morning, it was like, 'Oh my God. I didn't know the puck had popped free,' and then he made the save there. It's pretty incredible."
Allen's pick is?
"I've got to say the Dano one because I knew he was there," Allen said. "It was sort of little 2-on-0 sweet play, but I knew that that could be a possibility. It was pretty cool because I watched it go straight into my glove. I knew it didn't cross the line. I pulled my handle I think quick enough to give them a good glimpse on the video."
Lets not forget where it all started. Two seasons ago in Calgary against the Flames, Allen made what turned out to be the save of the year on TJ Brodie with the paddle of his stick.
"That was a different era," Allen joked. "That was American League Jake."
Allen has raised the level of his play with each passing start. He lost two of his first three starts and Brian Elliott carried the ball going 4-0-1 to begin, but it's been Allen, who is 9-4-0 with a 1.91 goals-against average and .935 save percentage on the season.
It was quite the learning lesson he took after losing to the Minnesota Wild in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. But Allen went into his summer with a choice of improving his physical game or his mental game, or perhaps both.
"I don't think physically, skill-wise that much," Allen said. "I feel like smarts, I guess, hockey sense, learning the game a little bit more. I think the skills that have got you here to this stage doesn't change a whole lot. I think it's just your ability to read and react and understand situations around you, understand the game a little bit more and understand the league. Those are the things that I took into consideration this summer, thought about and tried to put them into my game."
With the injuries the Blues have sustained thus far this season, goalie play needed to be at the forefront of success.
"I think both goalies have been huge; I think they've been the story of our team," Hitchcock said. "'Ells' really gave us a chance at the start of the year, played great in Columbus. Jake's played great every night. They give us a chance right now. When you're going through what we're going through right now injury-wise, and you start taking our quality players, cracks get shown. I think from that standpoint, we needed people to step up. Your goaltender masks a lot of mistakes. These guys have really helped us. They've given us a fighting chance every night to win a hockey game."
* Air Bortuzzo -- Blues defenseman Robert Bortuzzo wouldn't be classified as the most nimble of skaters.
Bortuzzo carries size (6-foot-4, 215 pounds), but he nearly pulled off a Bobby Orr-esque move that would been the game-winning goal Thursday when he made a beeline towards the Sabres goal in the third period, split a trio of players and darted through a hole before before throwing a backhand at goalie Linus Ullmark.
"I thought it might squeak through," Bortuzzo said. "I don't know how to feel about that everyone's so stunned by the one play. I don't know how to take that. We're just happy to pull out the win.
"Normally we're kind of thinking head-man the puck there. Something they preach here is skate. I kind of saw a guy flat-footed, so I kind of figured it was a low-risk situation with some speed. Unfortunately it didn't go in."
* More 3-on-3 views -- Magnus Paajarvi got a taste of the new overtime format last season in the American Hockey League.
He likes it, and why wouldn't he?
Paajarvi, one of the fastest skaters on the Blues' roster, had a chance where he curled around a Sabres player before Ullmark knocked the puck away before Paajarvi could get a chance at a game-winner of his own.
"I woudn't do it if I didn't think so," Paajarvi said. "I tried a move and it worked, but the second move on the goalie didn't work. That would have been nice to score, but we got the win so it's nice."
So what does the Blues' winger think of the 3-on-3?
"That it's very open and no matter what, it's going to be a chance," Paajarvi said. "You can be passive, but you kind of have to know who's on the ice, too. But you've got to try and do something for sure because the other guys are. It's coming back no matter what if you don't score."
* Injury update -- With the Blues holding an optional, only 12 skaters plus both goalies took in the skate. Among those not skating was rookie defenseman Colton Parayko, who's missed two games with a lower-body injury.
Parayko was hurt late in the 3-2 victory against the Winnipeg Jets on Monday and hasn't played since. He did take part in the pregame warmup Tuesday at Columbus but did not play.
Hitchcock wouldn't rule Parayko or anyone else dinged up for Saturday's home game against the Detroit Red Wings.
"We kept a lot of guys off the ice today on purpose by design," Hitchcock said. "I don't know what our roster's going to be tomorrow, and I don't think the players know until we come to the rink tomorrow. If there was a game today, there were a lot of guys that wouldn't have been able to play, but we'll get it propped up and get it going tomorrow. Right now, everybody's potentially available."
Allen will get the start against the Red Wings, who played at home against the Kings on Friday night and who beat the Blues twice in overtime last season.
Detroit is guided by a new bench boss in Jeff Blashill, who took over for longtime coach Mike Babcock, who's since moved on to the Toronto Maple Leafs.
"It looks like the same system with a ton of speed," Hitchcock said of the Red Wings. "Our checking game is going to have to be right on the mark tomorrow."