Monday, January 23, 2017

Like lockout season, Blues looking to eliminate "debris"

Team's three-game funk littered with mistakes, deficiencies, subpar 
goaltending; team on brink of playoff line must go into playoff mode now

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- It was the 2012-13 lockout season, one in which the Blues had just lost five in a row and in a short season, prolonged losing streaks were not something recommended for teams seeking entry into the Stanley Cup playoffs.

The Blues (23-19-5), who play the defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins (30-11-5) on Tuesday before concluding the pre All-Star portion of the schedule Thursday in Minnesota, allowed 26 goals in that 0-4-1 stretch, a stretch coach Ken Hitchcock said was a team that played with a lot of "debris," and they needed to eliminate that debris before gaining traction.

The Blues were 6-5-1 at that point before finishing with five winning streaks of at least three games, including a six-game run where they only allowed five goals.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Winnipeg's Mark Scheifele (middle) scores against the Blues, who have
been on the wrong side of pucks lately in a three-game losing streak.

Fast forward four years and the Blues are actually there again, on a three-game losing streak in which they've allowed 18 goals -- they've allowed five or more goals in 11 times this season, or three more than all of last season -- and have done so with breakdowns all over the ice and subpar goaltending.

So in order to get things right, they have to eliminate the "debris."

"It's exactly the same," Hitchcock said. "We've got the debris, and the debris is the same thing. It's not in the effort. It is not effort-based. It is structural, discipline, stay-the-course-based. I can't say it in any simpler way. It's when you try to do too much, when it doesn't work, you're in a very vulnerable position, so it's trust your work and the skill will take over. You've got to trust your work and your work is keeping the puck in front of you as much as you can."

And as the Blues begin the day, they are in a bit of uncharted waters, much like they were in the lockout season. They're teetering on the brink of that playoff bubble, currently holding one of two wildcard spots but by the skin of their teeth (one point). They've relinquished the hold they had on third place in the Central Division, the all-important third place, which guarantees you a spot in the playoffs to the surging Nashville Predators by two points.

"They're not uncharted to deal with seven or eight," Hitchcock said of the seventh seed the Blues currently hold. "In the lockout year, same thing, and then we took off. What is uncharted for me, this is a brand new experience for me, is the way we're trying to come back in games. That's a new experience for me. I haven't seen that and having to deal with those circumstances, and that's a brand new experience. I'm sure other teams have gone through it, but we have not. So we are working hard with the players. We get it fixed, and then it rears its head. We get it fixed, and it rears its head. You're not going to win every game in the National Hockey League, but you want to have your structure in place for 60 minutes and you want to stay that structure regardless of the score because once the structure leaves with the puck, then you end up in a lot of chaotic situations and that's what we've put ourselves into. In our energy to try and come back in games, we've put ourselves in track meets quite frankly we're not going to win."

The Blues, who have boasted some of the best records in recent seasons and have had the most points in the NHL since Hitchcock arrived in 2011, haven't had to do a ton of scoreboard and standings watching during that time, at least not from a making the playoffs standpoint. Winning a division or gaining a high seed is an entirely different story and requires some scoreboard watching but never for being in danger of making the playoffs or not.

Now is that time, even with 35 games remaining. The Blues have to pay attention to what Nashville is doing, or Calgary, Vancouver, Dallas Winnipeg, Los Angeles ... all teams within grasp of a playoff position.

"I think this is the NHL and you have to monitor this stuff on a weekly basis," Hitchcock said. "There's a few teams at the top of the heap that get it the same way, but the rest of us are trying to find it and when you find it, it's like gold. It looks like it's never going to leave you , but you don't know when you find it. You keep trying like crazy to find it. 

"I've got to tell you, we're coming back from California, there's a lot of people feeling really good about themselves (after a 4-0 win at San Jose and 2-1 overtime win at Anaheim). There's a coaching staff feeling really good about themselves, there's a bunch of players feeling really good about themselves and then five days later, it's like, 'Holy smokes, let's get this thing turned around again.' So you can either live in the denial that's not happening or you can deal with the issues. You know me, I'd prefer to deal with the issues and let's move forward. Not, 'Hey, what are you doing wrong?' A lot of this is swinging for fences. Guys trying to do too much, guys trying to come back next shift. It doesn't work that way in the NHL. They get to play, too. And that's what we've been guilty of is trying to hit the home run and bringing it back in the next shift."

But the Blues have to start locking into playoff mode now, because they don't want to continue to slip while the opposition continues to climb.

"It's definitely a dangerous game that we're playing," Blues defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk said. 'This isn't where we want to be, and it's not a spot that we've been in the last few years. We're usually in those top three or four teams. This is a little new to us where I think we all in here realize all these games are important now. I don't think we're looking at it like there's a lot of games left in the season; we want to get this done now. But this part of the ups and downs of playing on a team. It's not going to be all perfect every year and we've been fortunate that we've been a good team not having to worry about this situation the last few years, but hopefully we can use this in the right way to get us going. We don't want those teams to start pulling away from us too much.

"We have to embrace that win or you're gone mentality. I think if we can get our desperation into our game a little but more, we'll be on the right side of things."

They'll have to try doing so against the Penguins, who are 13-0-1 in their last 14 games at home, outscoring the opposition 70-35.

"They're a deep team," Shattenkirk said of the Penguins. "They have obviously great goaltending, great defense. There's a lot to worry about on that team, a lot of weapons. I think the best way that we can take them off their game is if we have the puck most of the time. We're good at possessing the puck in the offensive zone. We have to make sure pucks get in there and we're not being careless in the neutral zone turning pucks over to their transition game, but if we can play that grinding game and wear them down in their zone, that's the easiest way to defend the Crosbys, the Malkins and the Kessels."

The Blues have always risen to the occasion playing the top teams. The next two opponents should definitely grab their attention.

"We play really well scared. We play very well scared," Hitchcock said. "I'm really looking forward to it. They're an all-in mentality. Everybody's on the page. We want to win tomorrow, but it's impressive to see. To see people ... sometimes this isn't the way necessarily that you want to play or you think you should play, but they're playing that way. When they're on their game, they play that way. What's interesting is when they're not, they grab themselves. That's what championship teams do. I think we are capable of giving them a real go, we've just got to stay with it. We did the same thing ... we had really pushed Washington right to the edge, and then we let up. We had them pushed right to the edge and we let up and then they scored some ugly goals on us. We'll see."

* NOTES -- Blues left wing Jaden Schwartz, who was injured in the second period of a 5-3 loss Saturday at Winnipeg blocking a Jacob Trouba shot but finished the game, did not practice Monday, nor did defenseman Jay Bouwmeester, who missed Saturday with a lower-body injury.

Schwartz appeared to take a puck flush on the inside portion of his knee area, but Hitchcock said the Blues avoided disaster there.

"Where 'Schwartzy' got hit, if it hits anywhere else in that area, we're dealing with a whole different animal," Hitchcock said. "We're pretty darn lucky there.

"Both were maintenance days today, and unless something changes, will be players tomorrow, but we anticipate both guys in tomorrow."

The lines and d-pairings at practice today included:

Robby Fabbri-Paul Stastny-Alexander Steen

Nail Yakupov-Jori Lehtera-Vladimir Tarasenko

Dmitrij Jaskin-Patrik Berglund-David Perron

Scottie Upshall-Kyle Brodziak-Ryan Reaves

Robert Bortuzzo-Alex Pietrangelo

Carl Gunnarsson-Kevin Shattenkirk

Joel Edmundson-Colton Parayko

Carter Hutton will get the start in goal against the Penguins, and Jake Allen, who returned to practice Monday after not traveling with the team to Winnipeg, is slated to start Thursday against the Wild.

Pheonix Copley, who got his first NHL start in the 5-3 loss to the Jets, will be the backup Tuesday and is expected to be the backup Thursday.

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