Blues need to pick up slack in second half, searching for
consistency; Bortuzzo ready to return; Hitchcock undecided on goalie
HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- Earlier this season, coach Ken Hitchcock said the goal for the Blues was 25 points in blocks of 20 games.
That's approximately breaking the season down into quarters, which would put the Blues at 100 points and a likely candidate to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The Blues hit that goal right on the mark after the first 20 games but as they finally head West for a three-game swing through California beginning with the Los Angeles Kings on Thursday, the Blues (21-15-5) have 47 points and are short of what they feel their target is.
"We're behind," Hitchcock said. "We're behind three points from where we should be so we're going to have to work hard because more road games than home games, we're going to have to work hard to get there. I think our point total is a direct reflection of our play. I think it's been inconsistent game by game, not so game by game but period by period. I think the five-man unit of hockey that we've become so well known for has been the inconsistent part of the game here and we have to find it."
Why is that?
"Because it's difficult. It's challenging to play that way," Hitchcock said. "It needs to be an all-in mentality. And if you have people that aren't dug in in that aspect or think keeping up is too hard to keep up, you're in trouble. That's what we've had. We've had some body language that, quite frankly, when it's getting really hard, we've had trouble keeping up."
The Blues went 11-6-3 the first 20 games of the season but have since gone 10-9-2 and have alternated wins and losses the past nine games. They're not exactly where they want to be, but nothing will change that except to right the ship themselves.
"There's no sympathy for us right now," Hitchcock said. "We've been licking on teams for five years now and now teams are getting their licks in on us. There's no sympathy for us. It's all on us to dig in, coaches, players, everybody, to dig in together to become a better five-man unit and if we do, we're going to be very successful. If we don't, we're going to leave points on the table, we're going to leave points out there, we're going to leave games out there. That's the second half challenge for me, we've kind of nurtured it along, sometimes it's turned, sometimes it hasn't, we're past the nurturing stage, we've got to get it done or you don't get the opportunity to play."
What changes drastically the second half of the season is the Blues will play 25 of their final 41 games on the road, where they have one of the worst records away from Scottrade Center at 5-10-1.
"It's one of those things where we've been here for a while and we're almost excited to get back on the road a little bit and get things going," defenseman Colton Parayko said. "We haven't been great on the road. It's a good opportunity, a good challenge. Three great teams in four nights, it's going to be a fun road trip, a good opportunity to bring us together. On the road, it's always just the guys. A lot of time with the guys; it's going to be great.
"... We've got to find ways to win games on the road. It's going to be tough but that's what good teams do, find a way to win. It's going to be a great challenge for us."
The Blues will play six of the next eight on the road heading into the all-star break, and 12 of the next 19 heading into their bye break from Feb. 21-25.
"I look at it from a road trip standpoint, first it will be really good to get on the road," Hitchcock said. "We're too comfortable at home right now, there's too many distractions, there's too many guys that have lost their focus because we've spent so much time at home, it's gotten too comfortable. Now we're going to go into some really uncomfortable barns and have to collect points.
"If we expect to win and get in the playoffs, we're going to have to two of three for the rest of the year on the road. That has to be the goal. That's what I want to see our players going to is winning two of three every time we come back from whether it's a three-gamer, we're going to have to win over the course of every five games, we're going to have to win three."
* Recipe for consistency -- The Blues tried to pave a level of consistent winning hockey during a season-high six-game homestand, but the 3-3-0 record following Tuesday's 5-3 loss to the Boston Bruins did anything but.
So now the Blues will try again, and it'll have to be against three West Coast heavyweights in the Kings, San Jose Sharks and Anaheim Ducks in a four-day span and moving forward, doing it at the opposition's home rinks will have to do.
And in order to do so, the Blues have to start defending as a five-man unit much better than they have.
The Blues are eighth in the NHL in goals for per game at 2.83, which is up from the 2.67 from a year ago, but after being fourth in the league in goals-against at 2.40 a season ago, the Blues are an alarming 24th at 2.98 goals-against this season.
Yes, goaltending has been an issue, including that from starter Jake Allen, but defending has been an issue all season long.
"I look at it from 41 games, the record is what it is, but it's how you're going to get better," Hitchcock said. "To me, we're going to get better in a five-man unit, we're going to get better with our checking, we're going to get better with better puck management.
"If we expect to be a playoff team we're going to have to cut down on our goals per game against on average, which means our puck management, our checking, our five-man unit hockey is going to have to improve and become way more consistent. We're too inconsistent at that level, so we're never in control of a hockey game because we've always got part of our game that seems to be in recovery mode. I think we've been like that all year, we show flashes where we're really on the mark, and then we show flashes where the hard work looks like it's hard work, so that's what we're going to do.
"We're really going to push through on this and see where we are the end of the day and see who's left standing. We've kind of begged and pleaded and tried to work with guys, but now we're at 41 games, we just have to go with the people that are doing the job. It's in those aspects, the guys that are managing the puck properly, the guys that are playing in that five-man unit that we've had so much success with, we just have to elevate those guys' responsibilities and if you're not doing it, then you've just got to the back of the bus."
* Bortuzzo set to return -- Robert Bortuzzo went through another full practice on Wednesday before the team boarded a plane for Los Angeles and both he and Hitchcock declared the Blues defenseman ready to return.
"I feel good," Bortuzzo said. "I've gone through all the steps to make sure we're ready to go, off ice, on ice and everything. Now it's kind of up to them. I feel confident and now we're ready to try and contribute.
"... Barring any crazy setbacks over the night or how we feel tomorrow, I don't see why if they called my number we wouldn't be ready to go. I feel confident. The biggest thing is just getting back out there with the guys and doing the fun part, which is playing games."
Bortuzzo has missed the past 16 games with a lower-body injury sustained Dec. 3 against the Winnipeg Jets; he was skating with Joel Edmundson as Hitchcock shuffled the d-men around, moving Parayko with Alex Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester and Kevin Shattenkirk rounding out the six, making Brad Hunt the extra defenseman.
"He's a definite option," Hitchcock said of Bortuzzo. "We'll see how he feels getting off the flight but he practiced full yesterday and today so he looks like he's a real option for us.
"We wanted to look at it. These were some pairs we used last year and we wanted to see how they looked this year. So, we'll see if we carry it into the game. There's a good chance we will."
The forward lines remained the same from the past two games, but here's how the practice lines looked Wednesday:
Alexander Steen-Paul Stastny-Nail Yakupov
Robby Fabbri-Jori Lehtera-Vladimir Tarasenko
Jaden Schwartz-Patrik Berglund-David Perron
Scottie Upshall-Kyle Brodziak-Ryan Reaves
Alex Pietrangelo-Colton Parayko
Jay Boumeester-Kevin Shattenkirk
Joel Edmundson-Robert Bortuzzo
Defenseman Carl Gunnarsson (lower body) was not on the ice Wednesday but Hitchcock said he would travel, and Dmitrij Jaskin skated as the extra forward.
* Goalie uncertain -- Hitchcock, as of Wednesday after practice, hadn't made up his mind on a starting netminder for the game against the Kings.
Allen was pulled after the first period -- the third time in the past five games (once due to injury) after allowing three goals on 11 shots -- and was not given the vote of confidence that he would return on Thursday.
Carter Hutton, who replaced Allen to start the second period against the Bruins and actually absorbed the loss because he technically surrendered the fourth and game-winning goal, was strong with a 26-save effort on 27 shots.
"No. Not yet," Hitchcock said when asked if he made up his mind. "How about I take a plane ride and then I let you know?"
* Tarasenko grateful -- One day after being named to the Central Division All-Star team for the third straight season, Blues right wing Vladimir Tarasenko, who leads the team in goals (20), assists (23) and points (43) was asked what it means to him.
"It means I get a couple good days in LA with my family," Tarasenko said. "Thanks for my teammates and Blues organization for making it happen for me again."
Tarasenko, named assistant captain this season, has rounded his game into form since he first arrived in the NHL in the strike-shortened 2013 season, but always strives for more.
"No, there is some stuff to improve for sure," Tarasenko said. "I think we have better chemistry right now with Robby and Jori. We have some stuff to build on and that's what we try to do every game. Not every time it works, but we try to play our best out there."
Asked what will it take to get more consistency in the team's game, Tarasenko said, "We need to believe in ourselves more and stay in our program no matter what happens. Not every time things are going to go our way, but we need to be ready for the games and wins some games when we're down by a goal or two."
* Monkey shed -- Blues defenseman Colton Parayko was finally able to shed that season-long monkey on his back after scoring his first goal of the season, a power-play goal, in the loss to the Bruins.
"It was good," Parayko, who had nine goals and 24 assists in 79 games his rookie season, said. "It was tough with the circumstances at the time. It would be nice to get the win. At the same time, it felt good for myself and I'm looking forward to moving on."
Moving on as in putting more biscuits in the basket.
"Hopefully," Parayko, who has 17 assists, said. "As we talked about with Jake before, I just try to focus on playing defense right and we're allowing too many scoring chances per game against right now. If we can limit that as a defense, that's my first focus of emphasis right now. Worry about that and hope I can … if it's one of those things where it's a breakthrough, great, but focus on (defense) first and go toward that."