Thursday, January 19, 2017

Blues can't find element of consistency

Fail to build off two straight wins on West Coast, now 
have to face red-hot Capitals; Tarasenko in scoring funk

ST. LOUIS -- When the Blues typically go on a West Coast trip, it involves playing big teams with a heavy presence.

That means getting accustomed to a certain style, one the Blues have known quite well the past handful of seasons or so under coach Ken Hitchcock. So when they finally felt like they had a pulse on something, a winning streak -- albeit a modest two-game streak -- that perhaps had the Blues on the verge of putting together a string of wins, became a reminder of what has been the past month and a half: consistency, followed by inconsistency, rinse and repeat.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Blues defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk (right) battles Ottawa's Chris Kelly
for a loose puck on Tuesday in a 6-4 loss to the Senators.

This is who the Blues (23-17-5) are these days after returning home, where they have been dominant. But in losing 6-4 to the Ottawa Senators, a game certainly there for the taking, the Blues find themselves going back to the drawing board with a plethora of questions.

The Senators came in with a different brand of hockey, one which involved an element of speed, which the Blues have maintained that they've tried to incorporate into their game more so this season, with what Hitchcock called a team that checks hard.

But what led to the Blues allowing five or more goals for the ninth time in 45 games (they only did it eight times all season last year) was glaring mistakes again, ones the Blues say normally wind up in their back of their net.

"A few of those same mistakes like you say that we’ve been making, they play an interesting game in that they’re not as physical," Blues defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk said of the Senators. "We just came off the road against three physical teams. We’re used to guys finishing every check. These guys are a little more, not passive, but they keep their speed. They kind of cheat on the pass instead of taking the body first. That sort of anticipation was what broke up a lot of plays for them and allowed them to turn pucks over on us. Like you said, we did a lot of good things. I thought we possessed the puck really well in the offensive zone. We really seemed to manhandle them there. Not enough time doing it. We need a little more time doing that."

The Blues, who will entertain the red-hot Washington Capitals (29-9-6 and 9-0-1 their past 10 games) on Thursday, built momentum throughout this game even after falling behind 3-1. Given the way they were playing at that point, there was a sense that this was a game they could win, and after Shattenkirk scored with under a minute left in the second and Alexander Steen scored 1 minute, 35 seconds into the third, the game was there on a platter.

But then came the mistakes, four chances, including the fatal one by Jaden Schwartz after failing to clear a puck falling down, that led to Ottawa's go-ahead goal exactly one minute later and it was the "oh no" feeling again.

"I’d like to see us be more overwhelming for longer stretches of games than just periodically," Steen said. "We were generating chances all game. They got a few as well, though. We gave up some pucks in the neutral zone, and against a team that’s looking to just counter you, that’s tough."

Building off good play seems to be a real sticking point, and Tuesday was a perfect example.

The Blues, tied 1-1 at that point, had great, lengthy shifts in the Senators zone but scoring chances at the net were minimal at best. And instead of taking the game over there, they allow a couple fluky goals, including one by Bobby Ryan the Blues felt should have been whistled dead after goalie Carter Hutton had the puck pinned under his right skate, and now it's back to chasing hockey.

"We built a lot of momentum off of that," Hitchcock said. "We had some great shifts in the second and we've got to build momentum off that, but we didn't. The second goal was kind of fluky, and then the third goal allowed them to sit back more. They front pucks a lot, so we didn't get a lot through even though we had zone time. This is a frustrating loss to mount a comeback, to come all the way back like that, it's a frustrating loss right now."

As it should be, because the Blues are down to 37 games remaining and looking to gain some traction in the playoff race.

"It was tough," Shattenkirk said. "It definitely, like you said, it seemed like we worked to get the momentum back in the right way. That’s what we have to keep focusing on. We went down 4-3, we had some good chances after that. I wish I had a better play on that fifth goal. I kind of lose my guy there. But that was the bad breaker really. The 4-3 goal, it hurt but we’re still in the game there. We have the momentum and it’s just a tough game because I think when we look back on it and we wake up tomorrow, we’re going to feel like we had it. We played a pretty good game and again just some mistakes that bite us."

* NOTES -- Blues right wing Vladimir Tarasenko went without a goal again, the fifth straight game without one, which is the second-longest stretch without a goal this season after going seven straight Oct. 20-Nov. 3. And playing the past three games with Jori Lehtera and Nail Yakupov, it's been tough generating Tarasenko any scoring chances, and it's something Hitchcock and the coaches have noticed.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Blues right wing Vladimir Tarasenko (left) battles two Senators for a puck
Tuesday. Tarasenko has gone five games without a goal.

"He's not getting any chances," Hitchcock said. "He's not getting near enough chances either. Something we've got to talk about. Not scoring is one thing, but he's not getting any Grade A chances, he's not getting any quality chances, there's no second chances. That's something we've got to talk about how we construct things."

It wouldn't be a surprised in the least to see Tarasenko paired with different linemates against the Capitals.

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