Hutton to start Saturday; Schwartz skating; Blues get
early test; third-line success; too many penalties; will Rattie play
HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- Playing three games in four nights would certainly mean that both goalies would at least get to play.
And for Carter Hutton, he will make his regular season debut for the 2-0-0 Blues on Saturday against the 1-0-0 New York Rangers.
But not for the reasons one might think.
Jake Allen, who backstopped wins over Chicago (5-2 on Wednesday) and Minnesota (3-2 on Thursday in the home-opener), naturally deserves a rest after playing on back-to-back nights, but Allen could have been considered for a third game in a row based on facing only 40 shots in two games, which would be considered a pretty light workload.
Not so, said coach Ken Hitchcock.
"Well, he might not have had a lot of shots, but what he did have, he's had a lot of quality shots," Hitchcock said of Allen. "... He had three breakaways yesterday, he had two the game before. He's had a lot of really high quality scoring chances that he's turned back. I just think playing off back-to-back, three games in four nights under normal circumstances, if this was the middle of the season, we'd be playing Carter anyways so why not start it up now? I just don't want to see a guy like Hutton get too far away from the action here. I want to see him part of this team as quickly as possible. And you can't be a part of it unless you're playing in games."
Hutton, signed as an unrestricted free agent on July 1 to back up Allen, had a solid training camp, and Hitchcock wants to reward him with games early and to keep him involved and feeling like part of the team.
"We made the decision with the three games that we're playing, we wanted to take a look at guys and if we saw some chemistry, we'd lock in on it, but also on Hutton, it's an early reward for a job well done in training camp," Hitchcock said. "He did a great job during training camp; he was outstanding. And he's part of our team moving forward. We've got to get him in the action as quickly as possible to be honest with you."
The 30-year-old Hutton is looking forward to the opportunity.
"Obviously excited, what a crowd last night, what a fun win and obviously a big one to start in Chicago," Hutton said. "I'm just excited to get in there and looking forward to it.
"... You can get into every little detail but sometimes less is more in my world and just excited to get in there and play. Control what I can and play my game.
"It can be (rough watching) but it's something I've dealt with in my career a lot, especially with the minutes I played in Nashville. Two years ago, there was some three- or four-week stints and I struggled with it at times and last year I learned to deal with it and last year I found ways through practice with the goalie coach to deal with it. Same thing here. Just habits. It's like anything as a player, you develop and learn ways to make things work. At the same time, playing on a consistent basis is what we want."
* Schwartz on ice -- The Blues held a minimal optional skate on Friday, which consisted of defensemen Carl Gunnarsson and Robert Bortuzzo, Hutton and forwards Nail Yakupov, Dmitrij Jaskin, Magnus Paajarvi, Ryan Reaves, Ty Rattie and some guy named Jaden Schwartz.
Schwartz, who hyperextended his left elbow in a practice injury Sept. 29, was originally scheduled to be re-evaluated in four weeks, which would put him at the end of October.
Schwartz, who Hitchcock said will travel on the upcoming three-game road trip through Western Canada next week, is still on that time frame but it looked good for the Blues to see him skating hard, and more importantly, stick-handling and shooting pucks with no restrictions on the elbow.
"It's good news. It's a step, it's the next step in progression," Hitchcock said. "We're somewhere around the two-week plus window, so was anticipating he would start to skate and participate.
"He's not ready to play yet, but it's a good sign, good feeling to have him out there. Can't really give you a date. I think we were looking at four weeks. To be out there practicing in two weeks is a good sign, a real good sign."
Schwartz has been skating on his own for days, but Friday was his first practice with teammates.
* 2-0 Blues tested early -- Two wins against Central Division foes is reason for optimism moving forward, but for the Blues, it's a bit of evaluation time.
Playing against the Rangers on Saturday to give them three games in four nights to start couldn't have been a tougher test for the Blues to start, but it's one that has Hitchcock feeling good about the prospects moving forward.
"I think what you find out in this league is ... you find out in this league real quick the first 10 games, home and away, so really the first 20 games of the season are exactly as the playoffs," Hitchcock said. "Everybody's clawing and fighting, everybody's enthused, for the most part, everybody's healthy and teams just go at each other like crazy. That's what we're experiencing right now. It is really evident in the emotional level and the feistiness of veteran players. That's what you see is that the veteran players know what's going on and they're already locking in fighting for space on both sides, both teams, and they understand the importance of getting off to a good start. They also understand of having a real competitive framework in your culture and I know our guys are trying to set the tone and I know other teams' best players and top players are trying to do the same thing. It really has been evident these two games."
Why is that?
"You don't want to get off on a bad foot," Hitchcock said. "You don't want to start playing catch-up on the emotional level of your team. You want it up there, and the sense of urgency in our leaders is filtering down to the rest of our players. All of us understand that this is as important time as the middle of the season. You can really set the competitive tone of your team, and that's what our veteran guys are trying to do right now is set the competitive tone for our team."
So what has Hitchcock liked about the first two games?
"Our competitive level at the puck has really stood out for me," he said. "The games haven't been clean, they've not been perfect, but our competitive level at the puck has been good. The other thing is, I talked to the coaches about it, every thing that we've spent time with on the ice in practice, we've showed good execution. Anything that we haven't spent enough time on still needs work. We have elements of our game that still needs a lot of work, but we haven't spent as much time on those items. We've talked them through, but we haven't spent physical time doing it because we haven't had our team together. Everything we have done, pops out as, 'Man, we're doing a decent job here,' so moving forward, things that we need to get better at, we need the physical plan going, too. We need to make sure that we're doing those things physically because there seems to be ... the more we've repeated, the more we do it, the better we get at it quickly."
* Need more discipline -- Now to some of the bad points, and penalties seem to be at the crux of the issues that have led to some inconsistent play for the Blues.
Through two games, the Blues have been shorthanded nine times but have fortunately been able to kill off eight of them after a perfect 5-for-5 on Thursday.
"It's a concern that ... there's two things that need to get better for sure. No. 1 is our stick foul discipline. I said that last night, we've got to clean that up," Hitchcock said. "No matter what happens, you can't take penalties in the offensive zone of you want to be a good team because it takes us out of our rhythm. We end up overplaying people because of it. It hurt us a lot. Second part for me is, the scoring chances we're giving up, they're not earned. They're us, and with a lot of cases, it's us with the puck and that's an element of our game I want to see us clean up. That's continuity, that's just being strong on the puck. The chances we gave up yesterday in most cases were us with the puck, in either forcing a puck or being slow to move to it. The nice part is the things that we really need to get better at quickly are things we're in complete control of. Us with the puck, we're in complete control of."
Being on the penalty kill more often than not is also taxing other players and not getting the third and fourth lines more involved, which is something Hitchcock wants to see more of considering the way Patrik Berglund and Kyle Brodziak's lines have started.
"It's really tough for both the third and fourth line, because our fourth line's playing as well as anybody's fourth line right now," Hitchcock said. "Our fourth line (with Brodziak, Scottie Upshall and Ryan Reaves) has a chance to be one of the top lines in the league because they all know how to check, because they all know how to play their positions, they all play with the proper conscience, but it doesn't work if you're taking poor penalties because of two-thirds of the line plays or the line doesn't get on as a line, it doesn't work. We've played two games and we've got to cut down on those penalties. We've got to cut down on the stick fouls on the other side of the red line. We've got to cut down on that, we've got to get down to zero and be proud of being at zero, because it's not going to work if we don't.
"... The whole (fourth) line is (bringing it). We've got highlight video clips to show how to play the proper way. The whole line does it. We need it on the ice more. The only way we get it on the ice more is if people stay out of the damn box."
* Five for three -- A five-point night Thursday from Yakupov (goal, assist), Berglund (two assists) and Paajarvi (game-winning goal) is cause for optimism and reason for Hitchcock to leave the trio together.
It was their first time on the ice after Paajarvi made his debut in place of Jaskin, who played Wednesday in Chicago.
"That's the goal," Hitchcock said. "But any time we see it, we want to stay with it. We saw a little bit of it yesterday, so we're considering staying with it."
Paajarvi is one fighting to stay not only on the line but in the lineup.
"I've been in and out of the lineup," Paajarvi said. "I'm trying to bring my game, but (Thursday), it was good except their second goal. I should have been a step ahead. But all-in-all, our line did good.
"If more guys than the first and second line contribute, then you're a dangerous team."
Hitchcock, who's opened the competition to multiple wingers, called it an important step for Paajarvi.
"I think it's important because somebody's going to take that spot, and like we said after the Ranger game, we'll put something a little more solid together," Hitchcock said. "Right now, everybody's going to move it around. He's like a few other guys, he's competing for not just a spot on the team, but he's competing for a spot to play every night. When you've got a good team like we've got, people want to compete every night. They want to be on it, they want to be on the ice every time and contributing."
* Sheriff Berglund? -- Berglund has been the mainstay, along with Yakupov, on the third line through two games, but Berglund has been the catalyst that's brought positive elements to the unit.
"He's great on the faceoff dot. He can keep the puck against anybody," Paajarvi said of Berglund. "He's like a sheriff out there almost. It's nice to play with him."
In simpler terms, more of a leader.
"What he's done is he's organized, whoever he's played with, he's organized the line in a good way because he's really playing strong in the middle of the ice," Hitchcock said of Berglund. "He's playing in the middle where you can be a winger and know where he is all time time. He's there, he's down low in our zone. Like I said, his separation skating is as good as he's ever done. He's pulling away from people out of trouble and it's really helping us exit. Whoever's on that line, he's making it an effective line by the way he's controlling the middle of the rink."
* Where's Rattie? -- Rattie has yet to get in a game this season, the only player on the active roster to not play.
After receiving a one-way contract this past summer, Rattie hasn't been able to crack the lineup, and with the acquisition of Yakupov, it will be even tougher sledding.
But Hitchcock hasn't ruled Rattie out for tomorrow, although it's more probable he makes his season debut sometime on the trip next week.
"We're not sure. Whether it's early on the road trip or tomorrow, we're not sure yet," Hitchcock said. "We're just talking about it. We did like Bergy's line from yesterday, so we might keep that line together, but we're going to get Ty in. Obviously going back to Western Canada where he's from, we'll get him in there, too, probably."
Hitchcock was asked if Bortuzzo, who played Wednesday, would get back in the lineup. The coach said he liked Gunnarsson's game Thursday but didn't rule Bortuzzo out.