Sunday, November 1, 2015

Decimated with injuries, Blues finding ways to win

Playing shorthanded, they have to stay 
afloat with points in competitive Central Division

ST. LOUIS -- When they began to drop one by one, culminated with star Vladimir Tarasenko being the latest to sit out because of injury Saturday, Blues fans began to wonder who was left.

The Minnesota Wild came into a Central Division showdown Saturday with the Blues with a loaded lineup. The Blues on the other hand, not so much.

It's been a common theme lately around 1401 Clark Ave.

The Wild were missing Justin Fontaine, a third-line right winger who was injured Friday, but when the Blues submitted their lineup, they were missing $24.8 million in cap space with Tarasenko, Paul Stastny, Kevin Shattenkirk, Jaden Schwartz and Patrik Berglund.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Alexander Steen celebrates after scoring against Minnesota
on Saturday in a 3-2 overtime victory.

That can be constituted as a starting lineup by many. To the Blues, they're players the team hope to one day get back together at some point.

The Blues have been missing Shattenkirk for eight games, Stastny for six, Schwartz for four, Berglund the entire season and Tarasenko -- although coach Ken Hitchcock doesn't believe his injury to be serious -- for one. That doesn't even include Robby Fabbri missing six games with a concussion.

But as a arduous week begins with back-to-back games against Los Angeles on Tuesday and Chicago on Wednesday as well as Nashville on Saturday, the Blues are finding ways to win. 

They have to. There's no other choice.

At 8-2-1, The Blues own one of the top records in the NHL, but it's not even good enough to sit atop the rugged Central Division.

As for the players, who is left? Well, there's quite a cast of proven players who have been through the wars and enough talent that can help younger players grow, rookies (Colton Parayko in particular, Fabbri and Joel Edmundson) have stepped up when not expected, stop-gaps are plugging holes until the walking wounded return, and above all, quality goaltenders are stopping pucks.

Alexander Steen, David Backes, Jori Lehtera, Alex Pietrangelo, Jay Bouwmeester, Troy Brouwer, Jake Allen, Brian Elliott, Steve Ott, Kyle Brodziak and others are picking up the slack.

Scottie Upshall and Scott Gomez, who weren't even a thought until training camp, are filling holes. 

For the Blues, no player is selling himself short. And that's the way things will have to go until players return.

"Through this period, our veteran players are really stepping up here," Hitchcock said after defeating the Wild 3-2 in overtime on Backes' second goal of the game and season. "We've got a lot of guys that are playing roles and minutes that they haven't played before and doing a heck of a job.  You're missing five, six, seven players a night and you're still getting points against really good teams. I mean Minnesota's a really good team. You're getting a lot of quality minutes, heavy minutes from veteran players so our job now really for the next month is to really manage our rest, manage our off days and that so we can put all the energy into the games. But we're getting a lot from a lot of veteran guys right now."

The Blues were equipped to win shootouts with teams; they were equipped to play a run-and-gun game with teams if needed. Now the focus has shifted to grinding out low-scoring games. 

"Without Vladi and Stas, Schwartzy and Shatty, we may not be as apt to win a 5-4 game," said Backes, who went 10 games without scoring, which was the longest stretch to start a season in his career. 

"It's 2-1, 1-0, empty net, 3-2 type of games," Backes added. "That's where we've bound together and won those types of games and found success as a team. We're happy with that, and that's what matters. We're playing team-first hockey. Next guy to step up steps up and we move on, corral two points at a time."

Next man up on Saturday was Ty Rattie, recalled from Chicago of the American Hockey League when players started going down. He assisted on Backes' game-winner and arguably played his best game in the NHL.

"I want to prove that I can stay here and I want to prove that I can be a contributor night in and night out," Rattie said. "I felt really good tonight. To help out on that game-winner feels really good.

"You've got that feeling, you've got that confidence with the puck. I got to play a little bit with Steen and Lehtera there and that just gives you more confidence. This is probably the best I've felt in an NHL game. I've just got to keep proving to myself and keep proving that I can stay here."

Rattie, who has four assists in 16 NHL games, began the game on the fourth line but deservedly worked his way up.

"I started him deep down the lineup and then when I saw he had jump, I just put him up there," Hitchcock said of Rattie. "He played very well. This is the player that we saw last year, came up and played. If he can play at this pace, he's going to help us.

"... He was a threat. This is the player that everybody saw in the American (Hockey) League and junior and stuff, so yeah, he was a threat."

The Blues hope to get Tarasenko back for their next game. Shattenkirk is on the cusp of returning. But the others, they will be missing a while, so it will come down to whoever gets the opportunity, make the most of it.

"Everybody's been playing really well. We're 8-2-1," Steen said. "Everybody's pulling their weight when you're 8-2-1.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Rookie Robbi Fabbri (left) has been one of the players asked to contribute
in light of injuries to the Blues' forward group.

"I think this outside stuff is you guys get more caught up in it than we do. We just kind of go about our business here. We know guys are going to get hurt, there's going to be tough bounces, there's going to be all kinds of stuff that happens from game to game during the whole year. I think we do a good job of not overreacting to anything. We just kind of stay even-keeled. When something happens, we adjust to it. If a guy goes down, we've got to fill that void with something. Usually it's not just one guy or two guys. We've been pretty good at collectively pulling together. Obviously when you're playing like this, your goaltending's fantastic. 'Jakey' and 'Moose' have been lights-out for us."

Allen won a third straight start and has allowed four goals in those three starts. Elliott is 4-0-1 and not showing signs of wanting to give the net up.

"Through this stage, the goalie's got to be your best player," Hitchcock said. "That's a good sign.

"... No matter who's in the lineup, we're trying to show that we can play. Every division game, right now, feels like it's an eight-point game because it's so close, there's so many teams and you're sitting there thinking ... I'm watching these games, and all of these division teams winning earlier in the day (Saturday), and you're going, 'Man, who's going to leave this picture,' because there doesn't seem to be anybody."

Nobody at  the moment. Dallas is at 9-2-0, Nashville 7-1-2 (before Sunday), Minnesota (7-2-2), Winnipeg (7-3-1) and Chicago (6-5-0). Only Colorado (3-6-1 before Sunday) was under .500 within the division.

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