Blues looking for better 5-on-5 play; Schwartz
skating; Backes fine; Berglund happy to return
ST. LOUIS -- The numbers don't look great, but the Blues aren't panicking.
The Blues (23-14-4), who play host to the Ottawa Senators on Monday (7 p.m.; FS-MW, KMOX 1120-AM) have gone cold in one the aspects of their game they take plenty of pride in: the 5-on-5 game.
After another goalless outing in that department on Saturday in a 4-1 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Blues have gone 138 minutes, 5 seconds without a 5-on-5 goal; That came from a defenseman, Kevin Shattenkirk against Nashville last Tuesday. Go back 147:56 for a forward getting one, and that came from a rookie (Robby Fabbri).
But the Blues, who have lost three of four and are 8-12-2 when scoring two or fewer goals this season, feel they are on the cusp of getting things in order.
They feel like they're generating chances; players simply aren't putting pucks away right now.
"I think we're just squeezing our sticks a little tight because they're not going in," said center Paul Stastny, who has been at the center of players getting great scoring chances, including one on the backhand Saturday. "That's it. I think the chances are there. There's a couple empty-netters a couple of us missed last game. If those go in, it's a 2-1, 3-1 game instead of a a 2-1, 3-1 game against us. You've just got to keep battling through it. It's adversity everyone faces throughout the year. It's frustrating at times, but you try not to let it bother you. You've just got to keep playing your game. The minute we start playing too hesitant, too tentative and start worrying too much about that, that's when you get in trouble.
"I don't know about this year, but there's times where you're not playing well, the team's not playing well and you're just getting outworked, dominated the whole game not creating anything. That's not how it is here. You've just got to try and stop the bleeding, focus on the next one and get the 'W' and string wins together. It's all about that next game."
The Blues, who practiced Sunday at Scottrade Center after getting in from Toronto roughly at 1 a.m., got in a rare practice session and did so with risk, according to coach Ken Hitchcock. They worked on what a football coach would call "red zone" play.
"The schedule has not allotted us the opportunity to go on the ice and practice," Hitchcock said. "This was a risk today to do what we did hoping that we have the energy for tomorrow. Now we only went 38 or 39 minutes, but it was challenging today. But our feeling after the last couple of games was that we just can't keep counting on a pregame skate as being the only skate, so we've opted to kind of change tactics a little bit to see if we can get more from all these chances we keep getting.
"... I think if you look at the big picture, we've got to do a better job at what everybody calls red zone. We've got to do a better job offensively and defensively in the red zone area, so that's what we practiced today. We had a lot of red zone drills today. I think they have a same term in football that's similar for us. At the end of the day, you can talk all you want about scoring chances and about opportunities and that, but I think both offensively and defensively, we've got to do a better job in that area of the ice for sure."
The Blues have spent a lot of time talking about and watching video of areas they want to work on and improve on, but the lack of practice time has challenged them in areas that have been lacking.
This is a reason why Hitchcock said that, at least through the All-Star break, the Blues will alter their schedule of what they want to do.
It means perhaps no more morning skates and more time to practice on off-days.
"I might change my plan, but that is the plan until the all-star break is to flip this," Hitchcock said. "I was thinking about it on the plane (Saturday) night. We just can't keep talking about the things we've got to do. We've got to actually do them. Some of the things we worked on today, hopefully we'll see some of that activity tomorrow.
"Sometimes just flat not come to the rink. We're going to move it around a little bit and see what it looks like here. Might just not skate. Meet and go home. We might see some different venues here."
In the meantime, the Blues, who have 65 5-on-5 goals this season, an average of 1.58 per game, 15th in the NHL.
"If you look at it, we're not coming into the offensive zone, we're not managing the puck well, we're not putting the puck in the right position to keep possession of it when we are giving it up," Shattenkirk said. "If we have to dump the puck, put it in the right places where we can have an advantage and win it back and then when we get full possession of it in the offensive zone, we have to start getting pucks to the net with bodies. We can shoot until we're blue in the face, but if there's no traffic at the net, if there's nothing converging on rebounds making the goalie uncomfortable feeling like he's got a lot of Blues jerseys coming at him, it's an easy save for him. We just have to work mostly on that and having that shooting mentality but a shooting mentality with the right idea from the other guys wanting to get to the net finding rebounds by screens."
So don't necessarily look for that pretty, highlight-reel goal.
"You're going to see it turn around and it's not going to be anything pretty," Shattenkirk said. "It could be one that goes in off a shin pad on a rebound or off a chest. Those are the goals that we are probably going to start seeing more of when we do do those things. Once we establish that sort of game, then that other stuff starts to open up and we get some backdoor plays and whatever it may be and we look a lot better offensively.
"If you look at around the leagues nowadays, it's teams just really keep you from getting to the net and the way they play defense, the boxing out was something that used to be called a lot more and that interference used to be called a lot more. We're not seeing it as much. If we're on defense, we're going to try and keep guys boxed out as much as we can as long as we're not getting called. It's easier said than done just to get to the net. But as we create in the offensive zone, we keep possession, cycle pucks, we get movement, that's what makes it hard for the defending team to really stop you and keep your momentum from going to the net."
"I think we get bodies there, but we leave too early," Hitchcock said. "I think we've got to hang around longer. I think we've got to start scoring some of these fluky goals that other teams are scoring. When you run a tape and let it play of the night's scoring 5-on-5, there's a lot of fluky goals that go in. We're not scoring those fluky goals. To me, I just think we've got to find a way to hang around a little bit longer so it's off our leg or we get a second whack at it. You look at the goal that Jaskin scored (against Nashville last Tuesday), he just hung around a little bit longer, the defenders left the area and the puck showed up and he beat the goalie. I think we've got to have more of that. The more we practice this, the more we have these type of practices, they can be short but hard but I think it's going to make us better quickly."
* Schwartz skating -- Left wing Jaden Schwartz, out since Oct. 23 when he fractured his left ankle during a practice drill, has resumed skating, including a session on ice Sunday with head athletic trainer Ray Barile.
The Blues are 18-12-4 with Schwartz out of the lineup but could use his intense two-way game. The original prognosis of four months, which would put him roughly right after the All-Star break, is still on schedule.
"I don't know. He just started to skate," Hitchcock said of Schwartz. "Went out for a little bit today, so I'm not sure where he's at to be honest with you. I think the projection is post All-Star break and I think we're still assuming that."
* Backes fine -- Blues captain David Backes was the lone skater not to participate in practice on Sunday.
But Hitchcock said the Blues' center will be available to play Monday against the Senators.
"Maintenance day, he'll be in tomorrow," Hitchcock said of Backes. "We reserve right to change our lineup tomorrow a little bit, but David will be in."
With Backes out, Kyle Brodziak served as the center in his place between Patrik Berglund and Magnus Paajarvi.
* Berglund glad to be back -- After eight months without any competition, Berglund made his return to the Blues' lineup Saturday and played 13:37.
Berglund has two shots, two hits and one blocked shot with no points.
"It's nice to be back with the boys again," Berglund said. "... It's been a long way, a lot of rehabbing, a lot of skating by yourself for a period of time. Obviously even in regular practice, I'm really excited to be out there working hard and trying to get better.
"It's been what it is for a while. Obviously it feels good. The shoulder is fine and I can focus on going out there and helping the team."
Berglund originally hurt his shoulder at the end of the 2013-14 season at Dallas and hasn't been the same since. He tried to play through the injury, opting to rehab over the off-season but in the end, needed surgery.
His biggest obstacle?
"I think just the timing," Berglund said. "You've been skating a whole lot throughout these two months here, but it's nothing like if you would have five other opponents out there who want to ruin your play and be in the way for you. The timing and that real competition out there, you can't really practice that. It was really hard in the first period, but after that, I think I settled in a little bit better."
* Third period deficiencies -- The Blues have lost two in a row when tied after two periods. Not exactly earth-shattering news there.
But for a team that started the season 8-0-0 in that very situation before the past two games, it makes a difference.
The Blues were able to accrue points when the game was on the line in the final 20 minutes but have hit the skids in games against Minnesota and Toronto. They've been outscored 5-0, which includes two empty-net goals.
"The third period, we flattened out a little bit from where we are normally at," Hitchcock said. "We've been the "Comeback Kids" most of the year. Last two games, we've kind of flattened out. We've had some drop in our emotion. That's one thing we've been able to maintain and sustain. We've dropped it a little bit. Looking to get that back and continue the fight. We've had so many comebacks, one goal down, two goals and our spirit's been there. We seem to have gotten a little discouraged, especially the game against Minnesota took a lot out of us. Looking back on the games, we probably haven't won as many 1-on-1's to start the third period as we have in the past."
* Elliott starts -- Goalie Brian Elliott will get the start against the Senators.
Jake Allen has been between the pipes six of the past seven games.
* Plager passes away -- Billy Plager, one of three Plager brothers -- including current team ambassador Bobby Plager -- to play for the Blues, died early Sunday morning; he was 70.
Plager, who joined the Blues JUne 13,1968 following a trade with the New York Rangers, played in 127 regular season games and 19 playoff games. Plager moved on after being claimed by Atlanta in the 1972 expansion draft.
Plager is the youngest brother of Barclay and Bobby Plager.
"The St. Louis Blues and the Blues Alumni organization are deeply saddened by the passing of Billy Plager," the Blues said in a statement. "Along with his brothers Barclay and Bobby, Billy was a part of the beloved Plager brothers trio that played together with the Blues from 1968 to 1972. Billy spent more time with the Blues than any other franchise and engrained himself in the St. Louis community during his tenure. His tireless work ethic and dedication was influential in establishing the identity of the Blues during the early years of the organization. Our most heartfelt condolences go out to his brother Bobby and the entire Plager family."
Billy Plager appeared in 294 NHL games, including stints in Minnesota, St. Louis and Atlanta.