Thursday, March 31, 2016

Full group or not, Blues' defensemen thriving

Rookies Parayko, Edmundson, Lindbohm, Bortuzzo 
playing important role when experienced guys are down to injury

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- Take two of a team's top four defenseman out of it's lineup, it's normally a sign of troubled times.

It's been a common theme for the Blues throughout this season, playing without a full deck.

At times, they were missing stalwarts Kevin Shattenkirk and Alex Pietrangelo but never at the same time. But now with Jay Bouwmeester (upper-body injury) and Carl Gunnarsson (lower body) out together, the Blues have once again dipped into their pool of players that have been stockpiled for this very reason.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Alex Pietrangelo (right) is one of the veteran blueliners helping keep a
younger group focused and playing well while others are hurt.

Bouwmeester has missed three games, Gunnarsson the past two, and when the Blues plucked Petteri Lindbohm out of the minors to provide insurance, he stepped right into the lineup last Saturday against the NHL's top team, the Washington Capitals. 

On that night, along with Lindbohm, the Blues played two more rookies (Colton Parayko and Joel Edmundson) and versatile Robert Bortuzzo. All they did was pitch a 4-0 shutout at Verizon Center.

It was as if they didn't miss a beat. 

Someone goes down, someone is summoned to step in and make the transition seamless. 

"Organizational depth," Pietrangelo said. "You hear about it in the summers and you build it, all those little things throughout the year, the trades, the picks and all that adds up to situations like this where you have guys like 'Eddy' and 'Pary' and 'Lindy' and 'Bobbo' that when you're missing some guys can step in and you're not missing a beat."

And the Blues aren't missing a beat. They've won five in a row and 11 of 13 entering tonight's home game against the Boston Bruins, who are fighting for their playoff lives.

It's not the easiest and cleanest transition, and there can be and will be ups and downs when having to alter a lineup, but the Blues (46-22-9, 101 points) find themselves in a heated race for the Central Division title and top seed in the Western Conference.

And they're trusting their kid d-corps to get the job done, and the kids are getting the job done and thriving in the moment.

"I just think it's kind of coming together bringing everyone closer together," said Parayko, who leads the Blues with a plus-26 and is averaging 19:23 in time on ice. "You have to step up as a group and come together. I think that's kind of brought us closer together and made us closer. Obviously a key time to the season. It's tough to see them go down like that, but it's kind of made us closer and this time of the year, that's important going into the playoffs. It's kind of making us click and hopefully when we do get some guys back, it'll make us stronger and keep going forward.

"If you're a guy that doesn't get those opportunities, you want to make the best of those opportunities (given). I think that's where it all comes from. You want to get an opportunity, jump in there and make the most of it and prove that you can be that guy if need to be when guys do go down. We have an unreal group of guys where everyone can play in all situations. That's been proven in the backend. It's pretty exciting."

What they're proving is they can make it work because each player brings a little something different to the table.

Bortuzzo brings a physical edge with shot-blocking ability and has a penchant to jump in the rush and bring a precise shot; Parayko's long strides allow him to take more chances without worrying about getting caught out of position and bringing a big, heavy shot offensively; Edmundson is maturing and playing physical while cutting down some mental errors that were hurting him early in his rookie campaign and and he had to go back to Chicago of the American Hockey League to refine some things, and Lindbohm just gives you whatever you need: physicality, puck transition, back-checking and being responsible defensively. 

"They all bring a little different style of game," forward Alexander Steen said. "'Parry's got the big bomb and he likes to join the play. He's got pretty good speed for a big guy like that. 'Eddy' has his little meanness to him; that's been a huge addition for us. 'Bobbo' has come in and played great. He's so sound and poised with the puck. He ate like nine shots in the first period. Everything's sacrifice with him. He just throws his body without any regard for his own safety. He's been playing great for us."

Coach Ken Hitchcock wants to see an even-keeled game, not too many highs, not too many lows. 

When the Blues beat the Colorado Avalanche 3-1 on Tuesday, there were some dips in the game, particularly in the third period.

"We saw a little dip the last game. We'd like to avoid that, get back on the bike and do the right stuff again," Hitchcock said. "We haven't gone down deep yet, but if we had to play over an extended period of time, we'd have to do a lot of work because they're going to make young mistakes. As the temperature of the games gets up or the temperature of the season gets up, if you've got younger players, it's hard to keep them kind of emotionally connected where they're not trying to over-extend themselves. The last game was the first kind-of crack where they kind of overextended themselves. I thought 'Shawzy' (associate coach Brad Shaw) did a great job grabbing them back today."

But why does Hitchcock likes them?

"I think they're playing within themselves," he said. "We got a little bit out of it in the third period where we started to chase it and we got caught for some in-zone quality scoring chances. We addressed that with everybody today, we practiced that today, but I like the fact that they play within themselves. And when they do that, their size ad their reach and their competitiveness makes them very effective. That's the big challenge for us. When you're a young player or you're a player trying to prove yourself, you want more, you want to play more. Sometimes you over-extend yourself at the bank and you get playing out of sorts trying to force hits or you're trying to chase contact. If we can convince them that less is more and they buy into that, I think they can be effective no matter (if it's) regular season or playoffs. It doesn't matter; they've shown the ability. But when the game gets really revved up or a team comes in and plays a big risk like Colorado did in the third period, we kind of got sucked into that vortex a little bit. We got out of position quite a bit. We talked about it and hopefully we can get it sorted out."

And helping sort things out are the veterans of the group, those that were once in their shoes: Pietrangelo and Shattenkirk, 26 and 27 years old, respectively.

"It's weird. It's a strange, strange feeling," Shattenkirk said. "Twenty-sevens old. Even last year playing with 'Jax' (Barret Jackman), I was with the old man. Now, I guess he passed the torch down to me. It's a very strange feeling. I need those other guys to get back.

"(But) they're holding up great. 'Rob,' I think especially has been a guy who's been asked to be the seventh D-man, sit out 15 games in a row and then asked to come right in and almost pretend like you haven't missed any games and play like you've been playing all year. I think he's done a good job of that. It takes him a game to kind of get adjusted and then he looks like he's just natural out there, he's feeling good. We know the rookies are kind of adjusted to it now. Colton and Joel really, they had that kind of Game 60 sort of, not slump, but the season starts to hit you mentally and physically and I think we saw that for about 10 games. Now they're getting ready to gear up for the playoffs. Lindy's someone who's been asked to come up late in the season when the hockey in the NHL is at its finest. He's still adjusting, but hopefully tomorrow will bring the best out of us and it's going to be a team we're going to have to be completely aware every shift out there."

Pietrangelo added: "Well it's funny because what am I, two or three years older than 'Pary; I'm not much older than him. But I've gone through a little more than he has in such a short period of time. To still be able to relate to him on a personal level and helping a professional, it certainly means a lot to him, it means a lot to 'Eddy.' What 'Shatty' and I have been trying to do is be a backbone for those guys."

Bortuzzo, who has spent the majority of the season being that seventh defenseman and used when needed, plays like a top-six D, which makes the transition smoother.

"Yeah, fortunately we're one of the teams with a lot of depth and it's just kind of been like that all year, the next man up," Bortuzzo said. "You do everything you can to be ready to contribute when called upon because you never know when that might be. Obviously those are two big pieces for our team, but it's nice to having guys step in and contribute.

"Defense is a different animal than forwards in terms of continuity. There's 6-8 of us who all get along, understand the position and understand how big communication is as far as getting out of our end and moving pucks forward. I think we do a nice job of talking to each other and reading off each other. You do what you can in practice, but ultimately it's just a little easier to find some continuity because there's less of us."

But when push comes to shove and when the players need to come together as one for a common goal, there's no straying away from the task, and when the younger guys need guidance, the veterans are there whenever needed.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Blues defenseman Colton Parayko (55) is averaging 19:23 this season and
is having a strong rookie season.

"I think where they followed them is on the 24-hour clock," Hitchcock said of the veterans. "They've done a great job at being professional. The one good thing we've got going is a lot of good pros in here. Between fitness and conditioning and nutrition, lifestyle, we've got a lot of guys to follow. I think that sets a great example for all the younger players. You look at the maturity that a younger player's behaved with, all these little things like what time do you show up for a meeting, what time do you show up for an off-ice day, what time do you show up for an optional. All those things are directed by the veteran players. If the players even get a little bit out of sorts, they get straightened out. It never reaches our office, it never reaches my desk. It's already straightened out. I think that just shows you how many good pros we've got in that locker room."

And it's obviously brought the entire group closer together.

"Just guys around you. We have a great team," Parayko said. "They kind of make it easy on us when we do have guys around us that are so good. Obviously we're going to make little mistakes; everyone's going to make mistakes, but lots of people around us don't even know we make mistakes. They're just so subtle because those guys pick it up. But at the same time, I think we're all improving greatly in our first year. I think everyone's just trying to push together and have a strong connection."

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Balanced scoring catching up to goaltending, defensive structure for Blues

Team ended March averaging 3.5 goals per game, 
head down stretch tied for first in Central Division

ST. LOUIS -- For large chunks of the season, the Blues have relied on their goalies to not only perform at a high standard but to steal games.

Brian Elliott and Jake Allen have obliged, but there have been too many occasions where the Blues' goalies have been asked to win games with the Blues scoring two goals and at times, one goal. Well, one can do the math there and see there's not much wiggle room, but Elliott and Allen have done more than asked in those areas.

A small sample size was Jan. 20 through Feb. 18 when the Blues played 11 games. They scored two or fewer goals nine times. Their record: 7-2-2 overall, but it was 5-2-2 in those games scoring two or fewer goals.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Center Paul Stastny (26) battles for puck possession against Colorado on
Tuesday. Stastny has 14 points the past 10 games.

Why? Goaltending.

Scoring 21 goals in 11 games, averaging 1.9 goals per game, leaves the games in the hands of the goalies, who surrendered 15 goals in 11 games.

The Blues have scored two or fewer (non-shootout goals) 38 times this season and are an impressive 16-17-5, with points in 21 of 38 games.

"They've been the story all year," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said of the goalies. "They're whats kept us afloat all year and they're doing it again." 

But now the Blues wrapped up their schedule for March 10-2-0. One thing that hasn't changed is the stellar play of the goaltending, which set franchise records with four straight shutouts and consecutive scoreless minutes at 258:39, but what has coincided with the stellar goaltending and defensive work is the offensive output.

The Blues averaged 3.5 goals per game in March and scored four or more goals eight times, three or more 10 times.

Believe it when Elliott said the goalies appreciate what has to feel like a plethora of goal support. There is some wiggle room and it can be beneficial when things aren't going so well between the pipes.

"It feels good when you're down there and the pressure's a little bit off your shoulders," said Elliott, who is 10-0-1 with a 1.41 goals-against average and .951 save percentage his past 12 starts which includes a 4-0-0 record with a ridiculous 0.25 GAA and .989 save percentage since returning from a knee injury. "When they score anything over two is usually a win in the NHL here. Jake and I kind of pride ourselves if we do get a lead, we're not going to give it up."

Balance and depth among the lines has been the key contributing factor, but in order for all that to come to fruition, the Blues have been getting healthy up front, including the return of Alexander Steen (upper-body injury), who missed 15 games.

They've received great  scoring from the Paul Stastny line that includes Troy Brouwer and Robby Fabbri; Stastny has 14 points (three goals, 11 assists) the past 10 games and leads the Blues in points (21) since the All-Star break. Fabbri, who was injured in the third period during a 3-1 win against the Colorado Avalanche on Tuesday, has 11 points the past 13 games and 19 points in 24 games since the All-Star break and Brouwer has picked his offensive production up with points in seven of the past 10 games (four goals, five assists).

The "STL Line" with Vladimir Tarasenko, Jaden Schwartz and Jori Lehtera explains itself with the leading scorer in Tarasenko on it, and now that Steen is back -- Dmitrij Jaskin held down the fort well with Steen out -- with David Backes and Patrik Berglund, options are aplenty.

"We have the potential for four lines," Hitchcock said. "I know this is coach-speak, but if we can get a higher level of execution on a consistent basis, that's what we're going to need. We've got real potential with even 14, 15 forwards here now who could really help us. But I think we have to get ... first of all, there's the mental part about sharing ice time, which I think is a little bit of an adjustment going on now. Guys that were playing 18 minutes are now playing 15, 16 and you've got to get used to that. The second part for me is we can really wheel these lines and play deep with four if we get execution with the first three, so to me, our execution with our first three sets up our fourth line. If we can get that, then we're going to be in good shape. If you're limping along and having poor execution on one of those top three lines, it takes us out of our rhythm because we're kind of a hard-working group that can do a lot of damage in-zone and wear you down, and when we have that execution going, we're very very effective."

It's no denying that Steen's return is crucial. He's one of the more underrated two-way forwards in the NHL and made an immediate impact with two assists against the Avalanche on Tuesday. And it's no coincidence that the power play was 2-for-3 Tuesday after scoring three power play goals the past eight games on 23 tries. Steen plays a ton of minutes (he played 19 minutes, 41 seconds upon his return) and shifts per game and is among the leaders in the NHL among forwards.

"He was good," Stastny said of Steen. "That first game's always a lot of emotion, a lot of adrenaline so I think that's always the easiest one. He's just got to keep getting his legs under him because it'll take him a couple games to feel 100 percent. For not playing for whatever it was, (five) weeks, I didn't think he skipped a beat. Hitch obviously didn't want his minutes because he played as much as anyone out there, important minutes too. You didn't notice any rust out of him.

"I think when we're playing like that, it's tough to match. We all bring something different to the table. When we're playing well, we're hunting the puck down. I think all four lines can create a lot of chances, a lot of puck possession, and I think that's when we're at our best."

What's really solidified the lines has been the recent play of Kyle Brodziak, Scottie Upshall and Ryan Reaves on the fourth line providing not only grit and energy, but also puck possession and scoring chances.

"I think we've had that pretty much all along," said Steen, who is second on the team with 49 points. "Everybody plays pretty similar. I honestly think that our fourth line's been one of our best lines the last few games, most consistent line. 'Fabs' and 'Stas' and 'Brouw' have been terrific, but I think they've been the most consistent. They played unbelievable, killed huge penalties and played really well."
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Alexander Steen (left), battling with Colorado defenseman Tyson Barrie on
Tuesday, returned to the lineup after missing 15 games.

Five games remain and the Blues and Dallas Stars are neck and neck in the Central Division race with 101 points. Winning the division and earning home ice in the Western Conference would be huge for the Blues, but depending on what happens with some of their injured guys down the stretch (Jay Bouwmeester, Carl Gunnarsson, Steve Ott and Fabbri, who departed in the third period with a lower-body injury), the Blues are rounding into form at the right time.

"Now we're over 100 and that's another feather in our cap," Backes said. "... Hundred points is nothing to take for granted. It's a lot of work, a lot of effort, a lot of battle from the guys in this room. We've had different guys stepping up on a regular occasion. We've got a heck of a group in this room."

* NOTES -- The Blues were off Wednesday and an update on Fabbri's condition won't be known until Thursday at the earliest. He left favoring his left leg after falling awkwardly following a cross-check to the hip by the Avs' Jack Skille. 

"I think the good thing is, he's 20, he's young, he recovers quick," Backes said of Fabbri. "If something is wrong, we've got two and a half weeks until the playoffs begin."

. . . The Blues announced Wednesday they have signed forward Mackenzie MacEachern to a two-year entry-level contract, and forward Adam Musil to a three-year entry-level contract.

The 22-year-old MacEachern was drafted by the Blues in the third round (67th overall) of the 2012 NHL Draft. Maceachern, who is 6-foot-3 and 205 pounds spent the past three seasons at Michigan State University. He led the Spartans with 30 points (14 goals, 16 assists) in 37 games. Overall, he had 68 points (33 goals, 35 assists) in 108 games with the Spartans.

Musil, 19, was drafted by the Blues in the fourth round (94th overall) of the 2015 NHL Draft. The 6-foot-3, 196-pound Musil, the son of former Blue Basil McRae, spent the past four seasons with the Western Hockey League’s Red Deer Rebels. He had 19 goals and 24 assists this past season. In 2014-15, the Delta, B.C., native appeared in the Canadian Hockey League’s (CHL) Top Prospects Game and earned a gold medal with Team Canada at the 2015 Hlinka Memorial Tournament. Overall, Musil has 111 points (45 goals, 66 assists) in 195 career WHL games.

Shutout streak ends, Blues' winning doesn't in 3-1 victory over Avalanche

Elliott allows first goal in four games; streak 
ends at 258:29, winning streak extends to five

ST. LOUIS -- Brian Elliott could hear the cheers. He had to think for a moment because he had just allowed a goal and received a standing ovation.

Elliott and the Blues carried a franchise record four-game shutout streak into the game Tuesday against the Colorado Avalanche in search of tying a modern NHL record established by the Phoenix Coyotes and goalie Brian Boucher (Dec. 31, 2003-Jan. 9, 2004).

But when Elliott allowed a late first-period goal to the Colorado Avalanche in a 3-1 Blues victory at Scottrade Center on Tuesday, the sellout crowd of 19,263 showed its appreciation for a pair of feats that go down in Blues history.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Blues captain David Backes (left) tips a puck past Avs goalie Semyon
Varlamov to give St. Louis a 1-0 lead Tuesday during a 3-1 victory.

Elliott said he couldn't recall something like that ever happening.

"No, not in this building. It was awesome. That's our fans," Elliott said. "They recognize we played five hard games that we took a shutout streak in; that doesn't happen often. ... It's trying to get your mind around it. It's almost like the pressure's off now. You let the goal in and you can move on from the streak and start another one. It was a helluva run, the guys played great and they continued tonight. Obviously in this League, you're going to let in a couple goals. All the credit to our guys and our team game."

The Blues (46-22-9) won their fifth straight game and 11th in the past 13, but their franchise record shutout streak ended at 258:29 when Colorado’s Mikhail Grigorenko scored to tie it 1-1.

David Backes and Troy Brouwer each scored on the power play, Alexander Steen had two assists in his first game since Feb. 20, and Vladimir Tarasenko got his team-leading 36th goal to help St. Louis keep pace with the Dallas Stars in the race for first place in the Central Division. The Blues and Stars, who defeated the Nashville Predators 5-2, each have 101 points.

"It's really important (to keep winning)," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said. "It could be a difference-maker. You look at the eight teams (in the Western Conference) that are going to be there, it's tough sledding for anybody right now."

Elliott made 20 saves, but his shutout streak ended at 193:12. He is 10-0-1 in his past 12 starts with a 1.41 goals-against average, .951 save percentage and four shutouts, and 4-0-0 with a 0.25 GAA and .989 save percentage since coming off long-term injured reserve.

Grigorenko’s goal was the first allowed by St. Louis with a goalie in net in 280:02 and first at 5-on-5 in 304:39. 

"'Ells' was fantastic as long as he was in the net and had a chance at it," Backes said. "That was a defensive breakdown in front of him. It doesn't matter who you are, it's a tough one to stop backdoor after you're sold on the shot. Just a breakdown in front of him and that was bound to happen

"Maybe we can stop talking about that streak and start another one."

Colorado goalie Semyon Varlamov made 24 saves. 

The Avalanche (39-34-4) are five points behind the Minnesota Wild for the second wild card into the Stanley Cup Playoffs from the Western Conference. Colorado and Minnesota, which defeated the Chicago Blackhawks 4-1 on Tuesday, each has five games remaining. 

"We try not (to notice the Minnesota score) but we all look up and see what’s going to happen," Avalanche coach Patrick Roy said. "They are playing good hockey and unfortunately now we’re five points back and have to find a way … what we’ve been doing all year. We never give up and there’s no reason for us not to keep pushing and keep going. It’s up to us to try to do some good things."

Brouwer scored the Blues' second power-play goal 9:30 into the second period off a feed from Paul Stastny, who received a long stretch pass from Steen. Stastny's saucer pass over former teammate and ex-Blue Erik Johnson set up Brouwer in the slot for a 2-1 Blues lead; it was Stastny's 14th point (11th assist) in the past 10 games.

"I tried to kind of out-wait EJ," Stastny said. "'Brouws' just finished it off.

"It's simple for me. If (Johnson) takes pass, then I'll shoot. If he does (slide), then I'll pass. For me, it was a slow 2-on-1, so I had a lot of time. It was easy for me to try to ke more patient than try to make a move from there."

The Blues' power play, 3-for-23 the past eight games, was 2-for-3 on Tuesday and an area Hitchcock talked about needing a pick-me-up.

"I thought the power play was strong tonight," Hitchcock said. "Strong on the puck, strong on the movement. Back to point shots, in the net. I think that's the third or fourth time now in the last three game we've scored off the rush, too. I thought it was a great play on catching them in transition, on changes and stuff like that. We were alert, really alert on the power play."

Tarasenko took advantage of defenseman Chris Bigras’ error in the Colorado zone. Bigras whiffed on an attempted outlet pass, and Tarasenko beat Varlamov with a high wrist shot on the short side at 12:28 of the second.

"... I really liked the last 10 minutes of the first and the whole second period," Hitchcock said. "I really liked the way we played. We kind of took our foot off  the accelerator in the third, got on our heels and probably backed off a little too much, but I really liked the way we played the second period, especially the last 10 minutes of the first; we were really on top of them." 

The Blues opened the game in dominant fashion, and Backes reached 20 goals for the sixth time in his NHL career and for the fifth straight season.

"It's one of those plateaus that, you'd like it to be 30, but in certain circumstances, you'll take what comes along," Backes said. "Everyone in this room, I think, has taken a ton of pride in putting the team first. Those personal statistics will come along and the accolades will come along with our team success." 

Backes was in front of Varlamov and was able to tip Steen's shot from the point 1:48 of the first period to give the Blues a 1-0 lead.

"It's nice to get that one as early as we did," Steen said. "I could feel the puck again and get back into the pace of things. ... I felt fine. It was good."

Steen missed 15 games with an upper-body injury and played 19:41.

"It was a good start," Steen said. "I thought we played good for the most part. The third period we shut them down for the most part, kept things simple."

Backes added: "I'm actually kind of mad at him that he looks that good after missing 15 games and comes back and just ... everything's so fluid and he sees the game so well. He was dynamite. ... He makes everyone around him look better every night. Tonight was no exception."

Colorado settled into the second half of the first period and tied it with 1:48 remaining when Grigorenko converted Tyson Barrie's pass to the left circle to beat Elliott, who made 74 consecutive saves over four-plus games.

And with the Blues climbing the standings and the regular season winding down, players and coaches notice the building being full and fans getting behind the team.

Tuesday was a Blues-Cardinals themed night and the players wore retro Cardinals powder blue warmup jerseys.

"What the players really notice right now is that this is a full building in warmup, this is a full building at the start of the game," Hitchcock said. "The fans are excited, excited for the way the team plays and they're excited with potential and possibilities. It's an interesting dynamic because you come out and the building is ready to go; the fans are ready to go, the building's ready to go. I've never seen the building so full just for warm-up. It's really, really impressive. This is a Tuesday night game. It's packed, and I'm sure it'll be packed against Boston (Friday). It's pretty impressive."
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Jori Lehtera (12) celebrates with teammate Vladimir Tarasenko after
Tarasenko scored in the Blues' 3-1 victory against the Avalanche.

Rookie left wing Robby Fabbri left the game in the third period after landing on his left leg awkwardly following a check from Colorado's Jack Skille.

Hitchcock said after the game that Fabbri is day-to-day. The team won't practice Wednesday and won't have an update on him until Thursday. Fabbri has 18 goals and 19 assists in 71 games.

It would be tough to see Fabbri havr to miss any time considering the way he, Stastny and Brouwer have been playing together as a line.

"That happens," Stastny said. "Just a little tweak there and hopefully he'll be fine. Whether he misses a couple days or a couple games, we're in a good enough position where we just want him to be healthy for the playoffs."

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

(3-29-16) Avalanche-Blues Gameday Lineup

ST. LOUIS -- Records are made to be broken, but when the Blues (45-22-9) play host to the Colorado Avalanche (39-33-4) at 7:30 p.m. today (NBCSN, KMOX 1120-AM), they'll look to keep one going while staying focused on a greater goal.

The Blues are not only looking to keep pace with the Dallas Stars in the race for first place in the Central Division, they have the chance match a modern NHL record Tuesday against the Avalanche. 

The Blues, who come in with a franchise-record four consecutive shutouts, can match the record held by the Phoenix Coyotes and goalie Brian Boucher (Dec. 31, 2003-Jan. 9, 2004) with a shutout victory tonight.

Goalie Brian Elliott, who had the first three shutouts before Jake Allen blanked the Washington Capitals on Saturday, will start against the Avalanche and has a personal 180:00 shutout streak of his own going.

The Blues have a franchise-record 240:18 shutout streak on the line, and they haven't allowed a goal with a goalie in net in the past 261:51, and it goes back further in 5-on-5 play at 286:28.

How have they been doing it?

"Other than getting good goaltending, I think it's timely everything," coach Ken Hitchcock said. "Timely saves, timely scoring, timely good penalty killing. I think winning in the League is based on the time and the score and everything. We've been able to get away with it at times. You look at the game in Washington, we made them pay for their mistakes and we didn't pay for our mistakes but both teams made quite a few of them. Scoring chances between the two teams were in the mid-30's and we ended up getting a shutout. They had almost 20 scoring chances. I think the timing of everything is giving you the edge. I think every player in that room knows that we can play better. We're really happy with what's happened the last little while since the road trip in Alberta, but we also know we're going to have to play better and we're going to have to limit teams' chances and that, but it's our sense of timing that's given us this little edge right now."

The Blues and Stars each have 99 points and play Tuesday; Dallas hosts the Nashville Predators. 

Colorado, which won 4-3 Monday at Nashville, trail the Minnesota Wild by three points in the race for the second wildcard in the Western Conference.

"Both teams want something out of this game," Blues right wing Ryan Reaves said. "You're going to get a big battle. ... There's a desperate team coming in tonight. If you can't get up for this game, you've got to get out of the building."

The Wild host the Chicago Blackhawks tonight.

"I don't even look at the league," Hitchcock said of the parity. "You're so fixated on the Central Division. I think the part that amazes me is how competitive the Central Division is and how good the teams are and how well a lot of them are playing."

- - -

The balance of the Blues' forward lines can traced to a number of different areas.

Paul Stastny, who has 13 points in nine games (three goals, 10 assists) including five multi-point games in the past seven, and his line with Robby Fabbri (11 points in 12 games) and Troy Brouwer (eight points in nine games) have caught fire offensively, but it can't be overlooked what the fourth line of Kyle Brodziak, Scottie Upshall and Reaves have done to give the group the kind of spark and energy it needs.

Hitchcock has been playing the group more and they're responding with more offensive zone time, more sustained pressure and they're leaving the next group coming on in a better position on the ice.

"I just think Brodziak's at another level now, which is good to see," Hitchcock said of his center, who has goals in back-to-back games. "They're playing hard, and then the coach is playing them more and then the confidence grows because of that. I think in order to win in this league, you've got to have a fourth line that can contribute and that's exactly what they're doing now.

:... We have had a few meetings with that group about style of play, leaving linemates and next line up in a better position. I think they've really taken it to heart. I think they have a real sense of pride that they want to leave whatever line is coming up next in a much better spot, and I think with that attitude has made them a more effective line. There was a period of time where the line was spending far too much time back-checking, and it wasn't making the line effective and now the line is spending way more time forechecking, finishing at the net and making it hard on the opposition. I think it's made us a better team and it's certainly made them a way better line."

They're taking advantage of every opportunity they're getting.

"We're kind of hitting our groove," Reaves said. "We're playing like a fourth line should. We're wearing lines down, we're playing physical when we can and we're playing the right way. We're taking care of our end, but we're making sure that pucks are getting deep in their end and we're grinding teams. We're hard on their 'D' and when we can be physical with their forwards, we're taking pucks to the net and stopping in front. Everything that you need from what a coach asks from a fourth line, I think the last couple games have been w hat we want to do.

"We always say, 'We'll set them up, you knock them down.' We grind out the teams and let the big guys go score. ... I think when you're playing the right way and you're grinding on d-men, it's only natural that they're going to start making mistakes. They're not going to want to go back for pucks as quick when you've got three guys bearing down on them and you're taking away their other options."

Communication plays a big role in it as well.

"I think we're all on the same page of we don't want to make any mistakes in the neutral zone," Brodziak said. "We're trying to just keep the puck going north and I think looking at the speed of the two wingers there, they're good at getting the puck stopped in their end and we're able to create zone time because of it. We've got to stick on the same page. If we get it in our end, lets get it out as fast as we can and get on the attack. 

"Like all year, we've been trying to build consistency in our game and the way we play. He knows what to expect from us and hopefully if we keep providing some positive shifts, we'll get rewarded from it."

With Steve Ott, who continues to be on the mend after tearing both hamstrings in early December, getting closer to full health, and Dmitrij Jaskin and Magnus Paajarvi on the outside looking in, the internal competition is growing by the day.

"That's the St. Louis Blues. We're a deep team," Reaves said. "It's been like this for a couple years now. There's been competition on this team and it's healthy. It makes you stay on your toes and makes you always wanting to play your best. Nobody wants to come out of the lineup when you have guys breathing down your neck to take your spot. You're definitely trying to put your best foot forward."

- - -

The Blues will be looking for their first win against the Avalanche tonight.

They're 0-1-2 against Colorado, losing here 3-1 on Dec. 13 despite outshooting the Avs 43-18, then losing 4-3 in overtime on Jan. 6 after giving up a late lead in the third period, which they also did on Jan. 22 in a 2-1 shootout loss.

"We haven't made Colorado defend as much as we would like," Hitchcock said. "They've gotten loose on us. They've got a lot of speed and they've got a lot of people who can put a lot of pressure on you. If we allow them to come out with numbers like has happened with some of the games, then they're going to be dangerous just like they were last night in Nashville. We've got to limit the amount of bodies that get to come out of the zone with speed and if we do that, good things are going to happen. We've done a really good job at times in this series, probably one of the best games we played was the game we lost here 3-1 (Dec. 13), but all they need is three or four chances every period with numbers and they've really got so much speed, they can attack your net."

- - -

Defensemen Jay Bouwmeester (upper body) and Carl Gunnarsson (lower body) will not play tonight, meaning Petteri Lindbohm and Robert Bortuzzo remain in as the third d-pairing.

Alexander Steen, who missed 15 games with an upper-body injury, returns to the lineup and will make Jaskin a healthy scratch.

- - -

The Blues' projected lineup:

Jaden Schwartz-Jori Lehtera-Vladimir Tarasenko

Robby Fabbri-Paul Stastny-Troy Brouwer

Patrik Berglund-Alexander Steen-David Backes

Scottie Upshall-Kyle Brodziak-Ryan Reaves

Joel Edmundson-Alex Pietrangelo

Kevin Shattenkirk-Colton Parayko

Petteri Lindbohm-Robert Bortuzzo

Brian Elliott will start in goal. Jake Allen will be the backup.

Healthy scratches include Dmitrij Jaskin, Magnus Paajarvi and Anders Nilsson. Steve Ott (hamstrings), Jay Bouwmeester (upper body) and Carl Gunnarsson (lower body) are out.

- - -

The Avalanche's projected lineup:

Shawn Matthias-Carl Soderberg-Gabriel Landeskog  

Mikkel Boedker-Mikhail Grigorenko-Blake Comeau

Andreas Martinsen-John Mitchell-Jarome Iginla

Cody McLeod-Andrew Agozzino-Jack Skille

Chris Bigras-Erik Johnson

Nick Holden-Tyson Barrie

Francois Beauchemin-Nikita Zadorov

Semyon Varlamov start in goal despite playing Monday night in Nashville. Calvin Pickard will be the backup.  

Healthy scratches include Zach Redmond and Andrew Bodnarchuk. Matt Duchene (knee), Nathan MacKinnon (knee), Eric Gelinas (elbow), Jesse Winchester (concussion) and Brad Stuart (back) are out.


Elliott earns NHL honor; Bouwmeester, Gunnarsson 
ruled out Tuesday; Selman signs entry-level contract

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- It was quite the week for Blues goalie Brian Elliott.

Well, come to think of it, it's been quite a season for Elliott until a knee injury Feb. 22 derailed what was becoming arguably his best NHL season to date.

Elliott, who will get the start tonight when the Blues (45-22-9, 99 points) host the Colorado Avalanche (39-33-4, 82 points) at 7:30 p.m. (NBCSN, KMOX-1120-AM), was named the NHL Second Star of the Week after going 2-0-0 with two shutouts (he has three in a row and the team has a franchise-record four in a row).

Elliott stopped 52 shots in wins at San Jose (1-0) and home against Vancouver (4-0); he made 37 saves against the Sharks on Mar. 22, and followed it up with 15 saves against the Canucks on Mar. 25. In doing so, Elliott matched a career-high with his third consecutive shutout, something he achieved Also did it April 7-11, 2013 and March 22-27, 2012. 

Elliott, who is 20-7-6 with four shutouts in 37 games this season, leads the NHL with a 1.95 goals-against average and .934 save percentage. He's 9-0-1 with a 1.61 GAA and .950 save percentage his past 11 appearances.

"Sometimes you get ones that go off the post and out and sometimes they go in," Elliott said. "It was on our side this week.

"I think we have a good feeling in here right now, especially after last game. Guys took care of business in a tough rink against the first place team in the league. I think that gave us a little but of pump-up and a measuring stick that we can beat any team in this league if we play our game. I think with that confidence moving forward, I think it will help us for sure."

* Bouwmeester, Gunnarsson out Tuesday -- The Blues will dress the same six defensemen that played in a 4-0 win at Washington on Saturday because Jay Bouwmeester, who has missed two games with an upper-body injury, and Carl Gunnarsson, who sat out Saturday with a lower-body injury, will not be available against the Avalanche.

Coach Ken Hitchcock has classified each as day-to-day; he was hopeful of having both available but with neither on the ice Monday, it was evident that they were not going to play Tuesday.

"They're out," Hitchcock said. "They didn't skate today and they're certainly not playing on Tuesday."

* Selman signs EL contract -- The Blues dipped into the collegiate pool on Monday and signed forward Justin Selman to a two-year, entry-level contract.

Selman, 22, played the past four seasons at the University of Michigan, where he had 29 goals and 38 assists in 113 regular season games.

Selman, who attended the Blues' developmental camp last July, will report to the Chicago Wolves of the American Hockey League.

The 6-foot, 198-pound Selman, who was impressive at the developmental camp,  played in 38 games for the Wolverines this past season and ranked sixth on the team with 31 points (13 goals, 18 assists). 

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Lessons learned in Alberta, Blues have soared since

Losses to Calgary, Edmonton dusted aside, refocus 
made clear; response has been four straight shutouts

ST. LOUIS -- Those two games the Blues played in Alberta, Canada against Calgary and Edmonton ... remember those?

Those games that were supposed to simply be a blip on the radar? An easy two points on each occasion that turned into a train wreck twice? Two losses that could have sent the Blues into a late-season downward spiral that would have pulled them away from the race for the Central Division title and with more questions heading into the Stanley Cup Playoffs?
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Blues players Colton Parayko (55) and Vladimir Tarasenko are all
smiles, which has been a common theme lately.

Yeah, a distant memory.

Long gone.


With two days to lament after a discouraging 6-4 loss to the Oilers that came on the heels of an even worse 7-4 loss to the Flames, how would the Blues respond to those two stinkers?

For starters, ask Brian Elliott. Ask Jake Allen, who was pulled from the loss at Calgary and then allowed five goals in the loss to Edmonton.

Since allowing 13 goals in the two losses, the Blues have been a full-proof seal. They haven't allowed a goal since. Four straight shutouts (a franchise record), 240 minutes, 18 seconds without allowing a goal (a franchise record), and it goes to 261:51 of shutout hockey since the last time they allowed a goal with either Elliott or Allen in net, and it goes to 286:28 since the last 5-on-5 goal ... scored by Taylor Hall at the 13:32 mark of the first period on March 16.

It didn't take much reflection on those clunkers, that's for sure, even though those losses came after a six-game winning streak.

"We took it to heart for the time being and we erased it completely," said Allen, who pitched a 32-save shutout Saturday in a 4-0 victory at the Washington Capitals. "It happened. It is what it is and we had a meeting and said, 'Forget it; let's move on.' From myself to everyone in the lineup, it wasn't us and we sort of erased that from our season and not worried about it and got back on the path. We're moving up now."

Are they ever.

Even though those points would certainly be precious at this point, they're gone and dwelling on them too much would have hindered any progress, so the Blues (45-22-9), who have won four in a row and 10 of 12, righted a couple of very bad wrongs.

And according to coach Ken Hitchcock, all it took was different outcomes on special teams.

The Blues gave up five power play goals (four to Edmonton) and a pair of shorthanded goals at Calgary. Yikes.

But since, the Blues have killed 10 straight penalty kills, and the power play, well it hasn't been lighting things up but it hasn't had to be.

"I don't think there's much difference (to the way we're playing now)," Hitchcock said. "The difference in the games in Alberta, the two games were just sloppiness on special teams. Five-on-five, we've been playing at this level for a long time now. So I don't think our 5-on-5 game's gone anywhere. What's picked up is our penalty killing. Since our penalty killing's been better, it was unnerving in Calgary and Edmonton because every mistake seemed to end up in our net. It's not doing that now, so I think our power play still has to pick up, but overall our 5-on-5 play has stayed pretty consistent."

Elliott has a three-game shutout streak going, and he'll get the chance to extend that Tuesday against the Colorado Avalanche. Allen was given the keys to contain that potent Capitals offense that was second in the NHL and tops in the Eastern Conference, and most importantly, get his game going.

"It was the first time we've played them all year, first time I've ever actually played against them," Allen said of the Capitals. "You always watch and see the Capitals power play and they're the standard to get to in the NHL, especially with (Alex) Ovechkin out there. You've got to be on your toes and stay out of the box as much as you can."

Hitchcock has downplayed the play of the goalies, always referring to just putting them in there and they just play. But even he was impressed following the latest shutout.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Blues players (from left) Patrik Berglund, Alex Pietrangelo, Colton Parayko
and Paul Stastny celebrate a goal Saturday in Washington.

"To me it's about the process and the process for me is that we're getting better at not allowing space and time for people to score and I think we're learning when to collapse and when not to collapse from a coverage standpoint," Hitchcock said. "So to me, we're giving up initial chances but we're not giving up second and third chances now. I think that's helping the goalies. In saying that, man, the goalies have been just outstanding. They've been the story all year. They're what's kept us afloat all year and they're doing it again. We missed three really good players (Saturday) and they're doing it again for us. They are the story of the team this year and they're keeping us afloat again."

"This is the way we want it," Allen said. "We've had a weird year with injuries, missing bodies. We really haven't had a full team all year and we still don't. We're still missing 'Bouw'  (Jay Bouwmeester) and 'Steener' (Alexander Steen) and 'Otter' (Steve Ott), which are huge key pieces to our team. I think we're only going to get better coming into the playoffs whenever they're healthy again. It's just a credit to everyone in this locker room to get to first in the division with the year we've had."

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Allen joins in shutout parade in 4-0 win against Capitals

Blues goalie helps set record for consecutive shutouts with four 
after Elliott's three in a row; St. Louis keeps pace with Dallas in Central

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The Blues knew what the Dallas Stars already had done earlier in the day, so like a heavyweight tennis match, they had to hold serve.

Easier said than done against the team with the best record/most points in the NHL looking to clinch the Presidents' Trophy.

The Blues put those plans on ice for one night, even though it will eventually be a formality for Washington, but the Blues held their end of the bargain and kept pace with the Stars in the race for the Central Division title with an impressive 4-0 victory against the Capitals on Saturday night at Verizon Center.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Jake Allen's 32 saves Saturday helped the Blues establish a franchise
record with their fourth straight shutout in a 4-0 win against Washington.

Jake Allen made 32 saves for his sixth shutout of the season and 11th of the season. Along with Brian Elliott's three previous shutouts helped the Blues establish a franchise record with their fourth shutout in a row and consecutive shutout minutes, which sits at 240 minutes, 18 seconds. 

They haven't allowed a goal with a goalie in net for 261:51.

And the Blues (45-22-9, 99 points), who've won four in a row and 10 of their past 12, got second-period goals from Kyle Brodziak, Colton Parayko and Vladimir Tarasenko to break a scoreless duel. Patrik Berglund scored in the third period.

It was a happy homecoming for Troy Brouwer, who spent the past four seasons here in D.C. before getting traded to the Blues last summer in a package for T.J. Oshie, who missed the game because of the flu.

Allen, who allowed nine goals on 43 shots his previous two games against Calgary (a game in which he was pulled) and Edmonton, played one of his best games of the season against the highest scoring team in the Eastern Conference.

Perhaps he was jealous watching his friend Elliott throw up goose egg after goose egg.

"No, I'm just so happy for 'Ells' to be able to come off an injury and playing so well and playing the best in the league from Christmas on is pretty incredible," Allen said. "I'm just trying to do the best I can to keep up. Tonight was a good step for me after a nice little break."

Allen said after the time off and Elliott's re-emergence that he needed some practice time. He got little to none after being thrust into action after missing six weeks of his own when Elliott went down with a knee injury.

"No, I had a great week of practice," Allen said. "I worked  really hard. Just got back to being myself and felt good out there. I just wanted to keep it simple and slow the play down, back-to-back, tired legs a little bit. We did a good job tonight."

It's to the point where the Blues don't really care who's in goal. They're getting the necessary work from a great 1-2 punch.

"I feel like it just goes back and forth," said center Paul Stastny, who had two more assists Saturday to give him 13 points (three goals, 10 assists) the past nine games. "Early on it was 'Snake,' then he got hurt, then 'Moose' came in and he got hurt. 'Snake' came in and started playing great again. I think it's that internal competition that can be bad for you and sometimes it can be good. These two guys have found a way to make it competitive on a good standpoint that benefits the team.

"... 'Snake' was phenomenal. There's so much I can say about both of those goalies. Throughout the year when we're playing our best, we're getting chances and they're letting us take chances. Today early on, (Washington) had a couple chances, almost kind of off turnovers where they kind of had quick point-blank chances and 'Snake' just read it well, controlled the rebounds. When it was 2- or 3-0 there, we kind of turned it over a few times and one of the d-men walked in and Ovechkin got a couple shots, but he held his ground. He played good. It could be tough a little bit because he's been watching lately and obviously 'Moose' has been playing unbelievable. These guys kind of support each other; keep your head down, keep working and we're comfortable playing with either goalie."

The Blues had to play the game without another injured player. This time, defenseman Carl Gunnarsson (lower-body injury) joined Jay Bouwmeester (upper-body injury) on the shelf. Already down Alexander Steen (upper body) and Steve Ott (hamstrings), and the Blues' season-long injury list grew more against the Capitals (53-16-5), who had previously lost only six home games in regulation.

Petteri Lindbohm stepped into Gunnarsson's spot, and he formed half of the Blues' defensive unit with rookies Joel Edmundson and Parayko, who was a plus-4 in the game making him a rookie-best plus-27.

"I though they were not fun to play against," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said. "(Robert) Bortuzzo, Lindbohm, Edmundson, they weren't fun to play against. They made full account of themselves. They're big guys, they're physical, not a lot of fun to play against, and I thought they did a great job in managing the game properly, managing the puck properly. There was a lot of good players on other side that put pressure on you and I thought they handled it real well."

Brodziak's second in as many games, both coming in consecutive days after the birth of his third son (Luca) when he was on the doorstep and tapped a puck into an empty net after Scottie Upshall's initial shot was blocked, David Backes fired a quick wrister from a sharp angle that Capitals goalie Philipp Grubauer couldn't handle and Brodziak was there to make it 1-0 4 minutes, 45 seconds into the the second.

"I don't know, same thing happened with 'Reavo,'" Brodziak said of linemate Ryan Reaves, whose wife recently delivered the couple's first child and he scored the next game. "He scored right after; it's funny how it works that way. ... Thursday morning had our third boy and family's very excited about it.

"I actually thought we came out and had a really good start. Second half of the first, they really started to pour it on a little bit. We weathered the storm and Jake was great for us. We found another gear in the second period, I think. We were fortunate to capitalize on a few bounces and carried us over to the third."

Parayko scored 4-on-4 on a shot that may have surprised Grubauer after the Blues' defenseman raced coast to coast from behind his goal, entered the zone and fired a wrister from the high slot at 11:05. 

The Capitals challenged offsides on the play and Jaden Schwartz was close to entering the zone, but replays seemed inconclusive and the goal stood.

Tarasenko's team-leading 35th of the season and 200th NHL point made it 3-0 after Stastny's cross-ice feed to Jori Lehtera, who found Tarasenko in the slot for the quick strike at 12:45.

"Brody's goal, Tank's goal, both of those goals started just from a good forecheck and controlling the puck for 10, 15, 20 seconds," Stastny said. "That's when we're at our best. It's not the most exciting hockey, but conditioning-wise, it's way easier playing offense than defense, so for us as offensive players, it's nice when we have the puck and we're controlling and moving with each other.

"I think it was a good challenge for us, especially both teams are coming off back-to-backs. Early on, you just want to get your feet under them. First period I think we kind of played their way a little bit and it's kind of open hockey. Once we started playing the way we wanted to play, we wanted to try and get more puck possession and create that cycle. That's when we started getting those chances."

The Blues were content to play smart and not take too many chances in the third leading by three and keeping the Capitals in front of them.

Berglund capitalized on an Alex Pietrangelo pass with 2:15 remaining.

Then it was all about preserving Allen's shutout and capping off another stellar defensive gem.

And of course, Allen said it's about the team in front of him, not all about the goalies.

"Yeah it is; it's huge," Allen said. "Especially on a couple of those shutouts we limited the teams and the shots. That's an aspect from mine and Brian's standpoint where that's a credit to all the 20 guys in front of us. It's not just us. It goes to show we're on the upswing right now, we're playing well and the playoffs where we want to be."
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Paul Stastny (26) gets a shot off that Washington goalie Philipp Grubauer
saves Saturday during the Blues' 4-0 victory.

Allen's rebound control was key, especially with the Blues playing at home on Friday and not getting to their hotels until roughly 2:30 a.m.

"Yeah, especially for the guys. It gives them a chance instead of scrambling around, just to refresh, get a whistle, take a breather and start again," Allen said. "That was the objective coming into the game and we did a good job."

"They really earned them," Hitchcock said of the shutouts. "Today we scored on our chances, they didn't score on theirs. Both teams pressured each other into a lot of mistakes in your own zone. We were able to capitalize on it because of it. Tarasenko's goal was a big goal, it gave us some mental breathing space because I thought both teams with back-to-back looked a little bit tired in the third."