Sunday, December 6, 2015

Blues searching for solutions to fix what's ailing them

Team has lost three in a row, won only two of 
past seven and being exposed in number of areas

ST. LOUIS -- It started to build slowly in games in the last little while but has turned into more prolonged stretches recently that's exposed the Blues in so many wrong ways.

The Blues are in their first so-called "rut," and it stems from a number of deficiencies in recent games that's left the team in search of answers before they slowly slip down the standings in the Western Conference quickly.

That's the last thing that the Blues (15-8-4) want to do, because if they have to climb back up, it will be a slippery slope.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Blues right wing Troy Brouwer (36) moves the puck away from Toronto's
Dion Phaneuf during a 4-1 loss on Saturday.

After losing 4-1 to the lowly Toronto Maple Leafs, who came in 28th in the NHL standings, on Saturday on home ice no less, the Blues found themselves talking about quitting working, looking for an easy game, trying to cut corners and cheating the system instead of putting in the hard work this team was built around since coach Ken Hitchcock came on board in 2011.

The Blues aren't scoring (one goal in each of the past three games), they're turning pucks over in the offensive zone, the neutral zone and in the defensive zone, their puck management is subpar and there's no chemistry on the ice.

Are the Blues in trouble? No, not yet, but with an important month in which they play 11 of 16 games at home and with some formidable opponents coming up on the docket, a recent losing stretch (0-2-1 the past three games and just 2-2-3 the past seven) can get you cast down the standings real quick.

"It's really disappointing to watch us have to go through this because it's not the right way to play," Hitchcock said after Saturday's loss. "The players know it in there, especially the veteran players, but I'm not sure what it's going to take for us to get back to what we're capable of. We're not doing it on a consistent basis; that's why we're a .500 hockey club right now the last little while because we're .500 in our game, the individual game and we're .500 in our record because of it."

The Blues needed a day off, and they got one Sunday. They got one to get away from the ice to refresh their bodies, refresh their minds and refresh their souls. But it's as if all teams tend to go through rough patches during a rugged 82-game schedule. The Blues have found theirs.

"If you don't go through a stretch like this during an 82-game season, then something might be wrong with you," captain David Backes said after the game Saturday. "The quicker we rectify it and move past it and get better from it, the better we are without sliding too far in the standings. We've got our last two-day break for a long time (Sunday) and Monday, so we've got to take a day off and get our day of rest and come to an on-point practice on Monday and get our legs under us and put everything on the ice on Tuesday back to the way we play when we're successful. That's our need right now. We've got to look forward and do something about it because this two points that were on the line tonight are gone and away."

It's not to say the Blues, who have been outscored 23-17 the past seven games and 8-3 the past three games, don't realize things have been going wrong. Case-in-point Saturday where the Blues come out firing on all cylinders, lead 1-0 on Vladimir Tarasenko's goal within the first two minutes, had the chance to lead 3-, perhaps 4-0 but with the lack of finish and the start of making mistakes, found themselves in a 1-1 game.

The Maple Leafs elevated their game and the Blues continued to regress.

"It's been too often in our game lately," right wing Troy Brouwer said. "We think it's going to be easy, we think that because we have such a good quality hockey team that teams are not going to want to play us or make it easy on us to play. We excel when we play that tough, hard-nosed game down low. Limit our turnovers, try and create offense behind the goal line and tonight, or the last couple games, turnovers have been extremely higher than they need to be and it's been biting us.

"As a team collectively, we're not panicking as far as not scoring in here. What's more of an issue is the fact that we're giving up too many goals a game. Four goals twice in the last (five) games. We need to tighten that up."

The Blues will continue their five-game homestand with four games in six days beginning Tuesday. It might be time for one of those leadership-lead-by-example moments to see if the veterans in the locker room can grab it back and everyone else follow suit.

That means Backes, Alexander Steen and Alex Pietrangelo (all guys wearing letters), Kevin Shattenkirk, Paul Stastny, other veterans with influential but new voices like Brouwer, Scott Gomez and Scottie Upshall. Guys that have been there, done that.

"We've got to lead the way, but it's everybody that needs to boost it up a notch," Backes said. "Find a way as leaders to show the path and then everyone else jumping on board. It's a consistent thing throughout the 20 guys that are in the lineup. We've scored one goal in each of the last three games. That's tough sledding, but we can't think that we've got to cheat to score more. We've got to play the right way, play solid defensively and catch teams transitionally, kind of the way that we were caught tonight.

"It's not a winning formula, no question, both sides of the ledger. Only scoring one for the last three games and giving up multiple, especially tonight, four, in almost every manner you can give one up. Four-on-four, delayed penalty, a rebound goal. It's disappointing. We need to play better. That's on us. We've got to look each other in the face and say that we're playing for each other and bring it for a full 60 minutes or else we're going to be having these dang conversations again."

Brouwer said it's a case of keeping the group together and not giving up.

"It starts with our leadership group, our older guys making sure that nobody's quitting," he said. "There's a lot of positive messages on the bench about not trying to quit, making sure that we're still working hard and trying to do the right things. Even late in games when you know it's going to be a tough comeback. We have to make sure that guys are doing it on their own and making sure that everyone's not quitting, not worrying about other intangibles and making sure that guys are working hard, doing the right things and everything else will kind of fall into place.

"We're fine in here mentally. We're approaching the games the right way. It's just putting that approach on the ice."

The Blues have been built on a system that requires all 20 skaters to help on any given night. But in the case of the scoring, they've become predictable to play against when Tarasenko and Steen have combined for 24 goals, or roughly one-third of the offense. Secondary scoring has been sorely lacking.

"I think it's been hard all year, to be honest with you," Hitchcock said. "It's been one or two guys (scoring). It's been the same two or three people that have done it. I think if you look at it, we do need a lot more help from other people, a lot more contribution from other people throughout the lineup, but it's been like that all year. We've had to live with that. 

"We've had to live on this edge for a little while, and now the part that bothers me is we're leaving the edge. We played a definitive way and now we're getting away from it trying to create things that aren't there. It's the mental toughness to stay with it, to stay on the program, to demand that you stay on the program and I think good things happen. We're deviating from the program. As soon as we don't have success, we start deviating from the program. ... The defensive issues are the direct result of the turnovers in the offensive zone or through puck management in the neutral zone. They're connected; they're completely connected. That has to get cleaned up. Whatever the jolt is from the play, whether it's tonight's game or whatever, we have to clean this up. Over a 60-minute contest, this is the improper way to play hockey."
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Paul Stastny will be one of the veterans called upon to lead by example to
help the Blues get back to winning ways.

So from a coaching standpoint, what needs to change?

"I think it's our conscience," Hitchcock said. "Our conscience has to change. So we've got to address that."

The Blues have been able to right things in the past pretty quickly. This will be another example of how quickly they can get back on the right side of things. Injuries are not an excuse anymore, even though the Blues lost veteran Steve Ott for three months. Ott will join Jaden Schwartz and Patrik Berglund on the sidelines.

"I think it's everybody," Hitchcock said. "It has to be important. Our thing has to become very important for the players."

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