Blues begin three-game homestand trying to kick funk;
Bortuzzo likely out, Hunt reassigned; Winter Classic jersey leaked
HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- It was an empty rink today at the Blues' practice facility at the Ice Zone.
No skaters, no coaches, no water bottles, no pucks, no nothing.
Blues fans could feel the same way about the team they're cheering for as far as results on the ice recently, but with a stretch of four games in six days, including three in four and back-to-back home weekend dates Saturday against the Columbus Blue Jackets (6 p.m.) and Sunday against the Colorado Avalanche (4 p.m.), the Blues (5-4-2) decided to keep it simple on Friday ahead of a busy weekend.
"Meeting, a couple videos, workout on ice and then get home," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said Friday afternoon. "Back-to-back games, early time.
"We'll skate as a group tomorrow. We flipped it. We were going to skate full today and not tomorrow, but we flipped it. We'll skate in full tomorrow and get ready for the game."
The Blues have hit the skids after a 3-0-0 start to the season, going 2-4-2 since, including 1-3-1 in the past five games. The goal-scoring drought has been a huge focal point (two goals or less in seven of the past eight games, including one goal or less in six of the past eight), and with that deficiency lingering, it's crept into what has been a staple for the Blues in the Hitchcock era: responsible defensive play and reliable goaltending.
"No. You change chemistry, you change leadership, you changed a lot of things," Hitchcock said when asked if he's surprised by those developments. "You're going to go through stages of it. You're in the storming stage and that's what you are. Not surprised at all."
The Blues, outscored 11-2 in losses to the New York Rangers (5-0) on Tuesday and Dallas Stars (6-2) on Thursday, were their own worst enemies at times.
"Yesterday is a perfect example," Hitchcock said. "We worked so hard to get back into the game to make it 1-1 (on Paul Stastny's goal). We did a great job, and then we put risk into the next shift and it ended up right back in our net. The goal was one thing, but the breakaway led to the goal and we just had to keep playing because we had just built all that momentum all the way back. We played 12 minutes of really good hockey, really brought a lot of the things we had been working on really were right there and then we didn't manage that shift very well and we gave up not only the goal but we gave up a breakaway before the goal. Now you're chasing the game again. You chased the game for 30 minutes, caught it, had momentum and gave it right back.
"... You don't score, you hear all the chatter, so you start pressing. You start forcing the play. You start trying to score before it's time to score and the next thing you know, you're out of position, you start adding a bunch of risks to get back in position trying to force offense. It's the same problems that happen to every team every year. You have to trust your work and we've been great to trusting our work to getting us back into it, but we're trying to score three goals in the same shift; it doesn't work that way. We've got to get back to just trusting the things that we know how to do really well, which is work and stay on the right side of pucks and trust that at the end of the night, whether it's the 59th minute or whatever, it's going to work out."
In the game against the red-hot Rangers, the Blues were out of it from the start and were overwhelmed. Mistakes turned into goals, and when they got down, it opened the floodgates/
"You get down or you're trying to score ... it's about winning the game, and sometimes you have to go through stages where you're winning 1-0," Hitchcock said. "We won a game against LA 1-0; we played great. Then we got down in a game and then we tried to really wind it up and open it up and just got burnt, burnt, burnt, burnt even worse. That's the lesson for me. You're going to get down in games 1-0, you're going to get down in games 2-1. You just got to stay with the program. We got off the program, we got off the script and boy, did we get burnt."
The players understand it's early, but it's not something they can get comfortable trying to fix either, because once a free fall starts, it can have damaging effects and plummet a team in the standings.
"Well, it’s not the end of the world, but we have to turn this around quickly, so it’s pretty close to being (must-win time)," forward David Perron said after the game Thursday. "I don’t know what the schedule is here for us (Friday) and all that, but we got to have some good practices. I think the schedule has been pretty heavy early on, but we've got to find some practice time that we can build some of our game in practice and bring it to the games."
* Lineup to stay in tact? -- Hitchcock said the combinations for Thursday's game gave him some hope things could change.
"I saw some stuff I liked," Hitchcock said. "I didn't see enough minutes of it. There's a lot of things I liked, but we've got to continue to get more and more minutes on it. You can't win in this league when you're getting 25 minutes. We need a little bit more. A lot of things I liked for 25 minutes ... a lot."
Nail Yakupov, who had been a regular on the third line since the Blues traded for him on Oct. 7, played on the fourth line with Scottie Upshall and Kyle Brodziak.
Yakupov began his Blues career with four points (two goals, two assists) in six games but much like his teammates, has no points in the past five.
"Young guy working his way through it," Hitchcock said. "Not much has changed. Young guy learning how to play the right way."
* Bortuzzo still absent, Hunt reassigned -- Defenseman Robert Bortuzzo, out since sustaining a lower-body injury Oct. 27 against the Detroit Red Wings, did not skate Friday after accompanying the team on the trip but for treatment purposes only.
Bortuzzo, who is on injured-reserve, could skate Saturday morning but is unlikely to be available for either weekend game.
"He didn't skate today," Hitchcock said. "I think he's going to skate before practice either Saturday or Sunday and then we'll get a better evaluation."
The Blues were comfortable enough to go into the weekend with six defenseman and assigned Brad Hunt to the Chicago Wolves of the American Hockey league.
Hunt was recalled for the game Thursday in case Alex Pietrangelo could not play, but the Blues' captain went through an optional skate Thursday morning and played 24 minutes, 57 seconds.
* Hutton in goal Saturday, Allen likely Sunday -- The Blues will give Carter Hutton the start in goal Saturday against the Blue Jackets, who played at home Friday against the sizzling Montreal Canadiens.
Hutton is 1-1-0 and last played in a 4-1 loss to the Calgary Flames on Oct. 25.
As for the Blue Jackets, who came into Friday's game 4-1-1 after starting the season with consecutive losses, Hitchcock sees similarities to a lot of Eastern Conference teams.
"I think they're like a lot of teams in the East," Hitchcock said. "They play with great tempo. That seems to be what's over there. Seems to be a lot of speed and tempo in that conference. They're just the same as a lot of those other quick teams. Got great mobility on the back-end, especially on the one pair."
Allen, who has allowed nine goals on 46 shots the past two games in 92:38 after shutting out the Los Angeles Kings on Oct. 29, feels like it's desperation time, too.
"It was a real tough trip for us, definitely not what we wanted, but we've got a chance this weekend," Allen said. "We're going to have to turn it around quick or we're going to fall behind too far. The bounces eventually will start going our way, I hope, for my sake personally and for our team's sake. If it doesn't, we're going to have to find another way to get some success."
* Winter Classic jersey -- The NHL mistakenly leaked photos Thursday on their shopping page pictures of the Blues' jersey, a retro power blue look with the logo retroactive to the look of the inaugural season of 1967-68.
Once fans found links to it and it began spreading on social media, the images and links were quickly taken down.
The official unveiling of jerseys of both the Blues and Chicago Blackhawks, the Blues' opponent at the 2017 Bridgestone Winter Classic on Jan. 2 at noon, will take place Wednesday at Scottrade Center.
The Blues and Blackhawks will play the first of three games Wednesday in St. Louis.