Thursday, February 4, 2016

Anemic offense can't produce in 3-1 loss to Sharks

Blues have scored five goals in five games, four in past three

ST. LOUIS -- Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said Thursday morning that the Blues' lack of offense going through "an unlucky phase" right now and they'll "get lucky" in the next week or so and start scoring.

He wasn't kidding when he said a week, because a lot of what's been going on lately didn't change Thursday night.

The good was the Blues got good goaltending -- enough to keep them in the game and perhaps win -- from goalie Brian Elliott. The bad was another performance from an anemic offense in a 3-1 loss to the San Jose Sharks before 18,803 at Scottrade Center.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Defenseman Alex Pietrangelo (left) battles with San Jose's Melker
Karlsson for a loose puck Thursday night at Scottrade Center.

Coupled with Chicago and Dallas both winning in overtime Thursday, the Blues fell eight points behind the first-place Blackhawks and five behind second-place Stars in the Central Division.

That makes five goals in the past five games for the Blues (29-17-8) despite going 2-2-1 in those five games, and three goals the past four.

And a common theme continues to be getting enough scoring chances, but not enough end results.

Frustration seems to have seeped in, players are squeezing sticks and with 28 games remaining, whether it's help from the outside or help from within, things need to turn in the right direction offensively despite the defensive side of the game making marked improvements. 

"Frustration manifests in different ways," Hitchcock said. "You decide if you're getting scoring chances, first of all, what level are they: Are they 'A,' 'B,' 'C' chances? And I don't think we have enough 'A' chances quite frankly. Second is ... this team fronts and blocks a lot of shots (San Jose had 26). You have to decide how long you can stay with it. What we're doing is not having success early enough and then getting off the page. And trying to force plays that aren't there. This is that 30-game mark where everybody checks and everybody defends and everybody plays with a high level of determination. What did they have 30 blocked shots? I think there's a little bit too much of us leaving the program. The first period was a perfect example of how to stay with it. And then we didn't have the success and we got away from the program."

The Blues got off to another rousing start in the first period, creating a plethora of quality chances, including one from Vladimir Tarasenko just over a minute into the game, but San Jose goalie Martin Jones pushed the right pad across to keep the Blues' leading scorer from getting off the schneid himself.

Instead, it was a microcosm of things that have been happening. It includes another goalless game on the power play, which is now 0-for-23 the past eight-plus games dating to Jan. 12.

"I don't think we need to be worried about it; we just need to remedy it," captain David Backes said. "We hit a post or two tonight, which at crucial times could sway the momentum of the game. We've got other glorious chances, just got to put it in the back of the net, through the back of the net. We get to celebrate, it's a lot more fun and we get to win games. It's pretty simple, but we've got to execute. We've done a lot of work to get to those hard areas. Now it's just putting it by the goaltender.

"Yeah, I think our lack of goal scoring, whatever we've got, four goals in the last four games or maybe five in our last five. There's not a lot of that good feeling that goes around even though we've had some decent team success with limited goal scoring, there's not that swagger where the next time it hits your stick, it's going through the back of the net. We've got to get back to that, smiling and picking each other up. When those chances come, make the most of it and put a crooked number up for 'Ells' because he's battled his ass off in the net for us."

Joonas Donskoi and Joe Thornton scored 3 minutes, 20 seconds apart in the second period, and the Sharks (27-19-4) continued their dominance on the road.

They improved to a Western Conference-leading 17-7-2 away from SAP Center; they are 7-1-1 in their past nine road games and 9-1-2 in their past 12 overall. 

Matt Nieto scored late in the third period, Joe Pavelski had two assists and Jones made 26 saves. 

San Jose is 19-0-2 when leading after two periods. 

The offensively challenged Blues got their lone goal from Jay Bouwmeester, and Brian Elliott made 29 saves.

"It's human nature when it's not happening for you," Bouwmeester said of squeezing sticks. "You get a little antsy, but when we are playing well, we are creating chances. It's just a matter of putting them in. We've got to find a way."

Despite 13 first-period shots, the Blues still came up empty-handed and eventually wound up chasing the game.

"Today, the first period was the best period we played in a long time," Hitchcock said. "It was a great period, and then we got away from it in the second and gave them the momentum. We funneled pucks at the net, we put shots at {Jones') feet, we had lots of scoring chances close at the net, and then we got frustrated and started making plays rather than continuing with that program and so we ended up with lot of zone time but mostly playing sideways rather than that attack mode that we did in the first period."

Donskoi's first goal in four games put the Sharks up 1-0. After an offensive zone turnover by the Blues' fourth line, Pavelski raced through the middle of the ice and flipped a backhand pass to Donskoi, who beat Elliott from the right circle short side 3:55 into the second period.

Thornton's 4-on-4 goal at 7:15 put the Sharks ahead 2-0. He beat a sliding Elliott with a one-time shot from the right circle. It was Thornton's 49th point (12 goals, 37 assists) in 45 games against St. Louis. 

The Blues cut the deficit in half when Bouwmeester's shot from the left point looking for a tip from Tarasenko actually deflected off defenseman Paul Martin's stick and past Jones with 3:06 remaining in the second. It was Bouwmeester's first goal in 37 games. 

But Nieto's sealed the win when he scored on a backhand shot with 3:16 remaining after he won a loose puck with Colton Parayko. 

"I saw (the puck) in a couple of skates there and was able to get it out of that scrum," Nieto said. "Everyone was kind of eye-watching the scrum and I found a way to get in behind and make a move right in front of the goalie there."

A scoreless first period produced 29 combined shots, 16 by San Jose. 

Elliott made several strong stops, including one on Pavelski’s one-timer during the Sharks' first power play midway through the period and then a flurry of saves in the final seconds. 

The Blues allowed the same number of shots to the Sharks in the first period as they did in 60 minutes of a 1-0 shutout victory against the Nashville Predators on Tuesday.

"There's no doubt that we're trying," Elliott said. "It's not coming easy. You go through stretches in any season that goals don't come easy and right after or right before, they do come easy. It's what makes it a little frustrating, but you have to push through those times. We've got an experienced group that knows how to get through those times. 
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Vladimir Tarasenko (91) can't get the puck past Sharks goalie Martin
Jones during a 3-1 St. Louis loss to San Jose on Thursday.

"We've eliminated a lot of chances against as of late. That helps, but when you're trying to score goals, that's when you open up holes a little bit in your defensive structure. That's where we can't get too antsy to score goals because you've got to keep them out, too. It's a give-and-take and we've got to push through it. ... We're not playing that bad. It's not a big, big issue. It's small things that are going to take to turn the corner. I can't worry about that too much. It's the other guys that are the goal scorers. We've got a lot of good guys that can put the puck in the net. It'll come."

Backes said the Blues can't get too worked up about it. Stick to the process and feel things will change.

"We've got to concentrate on the process and know that we're going to get chances and the law of averages are going to work themselves out," Backes said. "We're going to have a night where everything seems to go our way and back on track. That doesn't come unless we put the work in, get those chances, make those opportunities happen and continue to go to the hard areas to score."

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