Friday, January 20, 2012

Blues winning, want more in front of net

Team feels it needs more consistent play around goal

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- The Blues have three wins in their last three games ... that's the good news. But the fashion in which they've won those games, particularly leaving teams around long enough to steal the two points on the line, that's got coach Ken Hitchcock and players thinking how to alleviate the issues.

Friday's skate normally would happen following a loss, one in which Hitchcock would put the players through a hard, swift and brisk practice. But on the heels of the Blues' second consecutive 1-0 shutout over Edmonton, the theme of the day for the Blues: work harder in front of the net, ramp up that intensity in front of the goaltender.

It was anything but a light day at the office.
(Getty Images)
Guys like David Backes (42) can help the Blues score goals in those dirty
areas. Here is Backes against the Detroit Red Wings earlier this season.

"We're playing well in our own end, but we need to score some more goals," winger Jamie Langenbrunner said. "It's not from a lack of chances, it's a lack of execution around the net."

That execution around the net has only brought the Blues (28-12-6) four goals in the last three games despite winning all three. They've scored those four goals on a whopping 233 shot attempts, which include ones on goal, ones that miss the net or shots that are blocked.

So in order to boost that shot percentage up, doing the dirty work in front of the net is a way to kickstart that plan of action.

"That's where you're going to break those kind of habits is getting the ugly ones around the net, banging them in, rebounds, tip-ins, that kind of stuff," winger Matt D'Agostini said. "We definitely have room for improvement getting body positioning in front of the net and whacking in some goals there. It's about getting more traffic more often.

"Sometimes we tend to play on the outside. Puck possession is one thing, but getting traffic to the net is something we need to be better at. I don't know what the percentage of goals in the league is that are banged in from the crease area, but that's where you get the easy ones. You've got to pay the price to get those."

When you add up the percentages of Blues goals over the shot attempts in the last three games, it only adds up to one goal in every 58.25, or 9.32 percent efficiency.

It's not so much the compete level. It's just the stop. We're in and out too quick," Hitchcock said, referring to the area around the net. "We get in, the play's there, we miss the puck and we keep going. I've been saying that for three, four, five days now. The patience and poise of positioning is what's not giving us the second and third opportunities. We're getting tons of opportunities, but they're all original and then out. We're not holding our position long enough to get the second and third whacks that we were before."

So what did Hitchcock do? 

"I showed examples today," he said. "Practice specifically today was just a poise and performance practice where we just wanted to hold our position longer, both at the net, in the slot (and) off the angles. I thought the guys really picked up on it. We've become impatient. We wanted to hit the home run right away, and if it's not there, then we're out of the area. We're just trying to get our guys to hang in the area a little longer."
(Getty Images)
Defenseman Alex Pietrangelo (27) is heating up offensively for the Blues.
His shot from the point can help in those dirty areas.

And by doing that, the defensemen can help in that regard by consistently getting pucks through traffic and into the crease. That's an area that needs to be sharpened up as well.

"Offensively, our job has to be getting the puck there," defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk said. "I think we've gotten away from getting some good, quality shots down to the net, maybe a little high at times and not allowing our forwards to get a rebound or goalies catching it and the play ends there.

"From our standpoint, good, quick shots. Looking for sticks while we're shooting, not just shooting without picking our heads up. When we don't have a shot, get it back down low and let them play."

When the Blues host the struggling Buffalo Sabres (19-23-5) tonight, look for more traffic in front of either Ryan Miller or Jhonas Enroth.

"We've been lucky in the last two games ... not lucky, but players have been able to grab this thing in the third period and play well," Hitchcock said. "But it's slipped. It's slipped and slid a little bit, and we've got to get our edge back. We've got to find our edge."

* NOTES -- Winger T.J. Oshie was the lone regular not to take part in the full practice today. Oshie has been dealing with a sore wrist but Hitchcock said Oshie's fine and with three games in four nights coming up, he was held back despite having his own cardio skate prior to the rest of the team taking the ice.

... Jaroslav Halak will get the start in goal against the Sabres, his fourth consecutive start, and why wouldn't he, coming off back-to-back shutouts.

"I've developed hoof and mouth disease because I put my foot in my mouth so I gotta keep going down that path with my shutout rule," Hitchcock joked. "I'm hoping he keeps going, but I hope he doesn't get tired, too."

Halak is 10-0-3 with a 1.50 goals-against-average and .941 save percentage. He hasn't lost in regulation since Nov. 22 and is how 13-7-5 on the season after a 1-6 start. He has a shutout string of 148 minutes, 25 seconds going into tonight's game.

... Winger Alex Steen, out the last 10 games with concussion-related symptoms, once again skated hard and skated well Friday. He was paired on the top line with David Backes and Matt D'Agostini. Steen, who has 13 goals and 24 points in 36 games, continues to be day-to-day.