Offense needs to find its way back; Schwartz ruled
out Saturday; Allen back on ice; Steen to stay at center
ST. LOUIS -- Fifty-four games in to the regular season, if one would have told fans that the 2015-16 Blues would have scored two or fewer goals (regulation or overtime) in a game 30 times this season, they'd be in dire straits.
Such is the case for the Blues, including 12 times with one or fewer goals and shut out four times.
The Blues come into today averaging 2.33 goals-per game, down from 2.91 last season.
But in that amazement is the fact that the Blues have won 11 times when scoring two or fewer (including two wins scoring one goal) and earning points in 15 of 30 of those games (11-15-4), which is remarkable in itself.
Chalk it up to great goaltending, and strong defensive play, especially in recent games.
But to continue to push ahead with 28 games remaining and the grind of the season kicking into full gear, the Blues (29-17-8) have hit another rut in the goal scoring department, scoring five times the past five games.
However, as evidenced in a 3-1 loss to the San Jose Sharks on Thursday, the Blues feel aside from the end result, the execution shouldn't change much.
"For us, we've got to find a way to stick to that game plan whether you're up 1-0 or down 1-0," center Paul Stastny said. "... You play a different game whether you're up one or down one. It's common instinct for anyone to play with a little more confidence. The biggest mindset for us is to try to get that early goal.
"If 'Tank' (Vladimir Tarasenko) scores on the first shift there, all of the sudden you're up 1-0 and it loosens everyone up. Sometimes it takes a bounce like that. ... Offensively, we had a lot of chances. A couple posts, a couple good saves by the goalie; there are days where they don't go in and you're in a funk right now. You've got to kind of create that traffic and just bring the puck between the dots there, find a way to drive through there. That's where all the havoc should be and all the bodies should be."
Case-in-point, the Blues, despite allowing 16 first-period shots, felt their best chances offensively came in the opening 20 minutes, but since they were unable to finish, they strayed away from what was going well, eventually got down and chased the game, which in essence saw them force plays and make mistakes.
"I see it as the formula is there, the recipe's there," coach Ken Hitchcock said. "What we need to do is duplicate a lot of things we did in the first period and show the ability to stay with it for a longer period of time, in a number of aspects. To score and win games in the National Hockey League, there's a defined plan that every team has, and that is, to win in the league you have to spend as much time in the offensive zone as you can. That's got to be our focus. We've got to spend more time in the offensive zone, whether it's with the puck, forechecking the puck, faceoffs, making the goalie make saves, we have to spend more time in there and the good part for us is that what we can change is well within our control, and that is that we can do a better job in those aspects on a consistent basis. We showed really good flashes like last night at being able to do that, but we need to be better for longer periods of time to score more, to win more games, it's all connected. When you're occupying the offensive zone more, you're forechecking more. When you're occupying the offensive zone, the goalie's having to make saves. They're having to defend more. And the other thing is the opposing team takes penalties on you. So they're all connected, but what you don't want to do is when you spend all the time to work it in there, you just don't want to give the puck away easily. That's what I want to see from us is stay on the program for longer stretches. We were right on the mark after the first period and we left the mark for a period of 10 or 12 minutes in the second and then it changed the momentum of the game. We had really good momentum after the first period but the momentum changed after we started to force the issue offensively.
"Sometimes when you get frustrated at times when you're not scoring, you force offense. The message to the players was the program works, but staying on the program just can't be the coaching staff staying on the program; everybody needs to be connected to it. It's coaches, it's players, it's everybody. If we do that stuff, man, do we ever have success."
The Blues were a team in the past that was among the league leaders in shots on goal; volume was always high. But as Patrik Berglund said, "We don't shoot nearly as many shots anymore, I feel like. The traffic is not there either. Throughout the (past) few years, we've doing a much better job of that. We've been kind of drifting away from it. ... Right now, we're trying to play a little bit too cute."
Too cute ... a common theme when things don't go right. But as Alexander Steen said, there's a time to shoot and a time to be smart.
"Shooting at the right times and getting secondary pressure on the net, so once you hit them with one blow, it's almost like you've got to hit them again," Steen said. "Obviously getting pucks through from the points and forwards creating havoc. That's how we score our goal last game. You've just got to get to the net, create havoc, make sure the goalie doesn't see everything, get some bounces and that's how it turns.
"It's hard to put a finger on exactly what's caused the drought or dry spell as of late, but we're working hard to try and change things. The only way to get through these times is by working hard."
The Blues' 1-0 win at Nashville coming out of the All-Star break was a perfect example of applying persistent pressure on the offensive zone and possessing the puck. Hitchcock feels the loss Thursday is more indicative of what works and what doesn't.
"I think the Nashville game's a throw-away game," Hitchcock said. "I think it's a game, two teams with equal energy, no room on the ice. I think yesterday's game is a great lesson game. To me, yesterday's game is a great lesson game of the things that we did really well and the things we need to get better at."
On the flip side, the Blues have allowed two goals in a game 10 times, one goal
in a game 10 times and six shutouts, including nine in the past six games. They're not allowing as any scoring chances that they did earlier in the season which bodes well. If they can get the offense and defense to work in unison, it would make things much brighter.
"Our defense has been way better as of late," Steen said. "If we're going to look at anything positive, there's your positive. The penalty kill's been great, the power play's been lacking a little bit; that's part of the offense. We're looking to change that, but early (in the season), the offense was going and the defense wasn't going. It's all relative."
* Schwartz ruled out -- The news on Jaden Schwartz is ... there is no news.
At least no new news.
Schwartz, who's on the cusp of returning from a fractured left ankle that's sidelined him the past 47 games, was a participant for a third full practice this week but his status hasn't changed.
Schwartz will not play Saturday against the Minnesota Wild, pushing his earliest potential return to Tuesday against the Winnipeg Jets.
The Blues are at the point where Schwartz has to come tell the coaching staff he's ready to play.
"He's not playing tomorrow," coach Ken Hitchcock said after practice at Scottrade Center. "He did some quick-feet drills today, looked good, but he's got to come and tell us now."
Hitchcock said Wednesday that when Schwartz does return, he's slotting in with Stastny and Tarasenko. That stance has shifted ... slightly.
"I want Schwartz either playing with Stastny or (Alexander) Steen, one or the other when he's ready to go," Hitchcock said. "I want him playing with one or the other. That's where he's going to end up."
Schwartz will be a welcomed addition to the lineup.
"He's probably one of the more important pieces in our lineup," Stastny said of Schwartz. "I think as a scoring threat and as a playmaker, he's a lot more deft, a two-way player that's dangerous every time he's out there. When he got hurt, in here we knew how important it was that he'd be gone and how it would hurt us and how we'd have to keep battling to stay in the hunt and be in a good position until he got back."
But as Steen said, Schwartz has been gone for so long, the rest of the team continued to battle without him, and they had no other choice.
"We've been playing all year basically without him and we've been scoring goals," Steen said. "There's no magic quick fix. Same guys have been doing it all year, so we've got to find a way to start scoring again. The reasons are so technical, it's hard to explain. The easiest way for me to explain it is just work ethic. You've just got to work through times like this. Doesn't matter if it's goal droughts or defensive lapses. Now we're looking at that as a negative."
* Allen makes appearance on ice -- Goalie Jake Allen, out since sustaining a knee injury Jan. 8, took the ice at the end of practice and worked on some agility drills with head athletic trainer Ray Barile.
Allen returned the ice this week, but until he begins to practice with the team, is a non-factor at this point.
"Until he's in the net stopping pucks, he's like a typical non-player," Hitchcock said of Allen. "Nice to see him out there, but we're a ways away there."
Allen's appearance surprised the coach.
"I had to look twice when the guy came on the ice," Hitchcock said. "I didn't even know he was coming on the ice.
"You can rule him out for a little while."
* Steen to remain at center -- Apparently, Hitchcock likes the experiment so much, that the natural left wing-converted-to-center Steen will remain playing down the middle ... for the time being and foreseeable future.
Hitchcock proposed the change over the All-Star break to Steen and David Backes, who has been playing center but moved to his natural right wing and after a slow start at Nashville on Tuesday, the results to the coaching staff have been impressive.
"I thought Alex was outstanding yesterday," Hitchcock said. "I thought it gave us exactly what we needed in the middle of the ice. Great reads down low, got us out of all kinds of trouble in our own zone; we didn't spend any time in our zone with that line. This is two games in a row for a guy to go into a few position, I've got to tell you, I was really impressed.
"It looks like a helluva fit, to be honest with you. ... The big thing for me is if this is how Steen's going to play center ice, this is a big help ... a big, big help. I don't know what his faceoff percentage was (73 percent on 11 of 15 faceoff wins), but it helps us exit the zone way, way better."
Backes perhaps needs a bit more adjusting after playing down the middle for so long. But Hitchcock feels it'll come back naturally.
"David's still got some things he's got to get used to," Hitchcock said. "One of the problems ... when you play center ice and you've got to put the puck in the zone, you usually put it in from behind. Center ice position is put it in (the zone), let the wingers forecheck. Now he's a winger with the puck, and he's still got the mental things in his head like a center. He's got to learn when he puts it in, he's also the guy that needs to go and get it. That's the mentality ... give him two or three more games he's going to have. Yesterday was a lot of put it in and boom, you've got to get going. There's still hesitation and there's still thinking like a center. He got better as the game went on again."