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."

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