Thursday, February 28, 2013

Blackhawks keep rolling, blank Blues 3-0

Chicago continues record with points in 20 straight games

ST. LOUIS -- The Chicago Blackhawks are on another level, and it's obvious the Blues aren't close to the planet they're playing on right now.

Blackhawks' historic run will live to see another day -- and they didn't need a sixth straight one-goal decision to make it happen.

Jonathan Toews scored twice, including a goal 12 seconds into the game, and the Hawks made it 17 wins in 20 tries by downing the Blues 3-0 at Scottrade Center on Thursday night.
(St. Louis Blues/Mark Buckner)
The Blues' Chris Stewart (right) battles Chicago's Brent Seabrook (7) and
Duncan Keith (2) Thursday night.

The Blackhawks now have at least one point in each of their first 20 games this season and 26 in a row dating back to last March. They'll try to extend those streaks when they host Columbus on tonight.

The Blackhawks (17-0-3) also made it 17 straight games earning at least a point on the road dating back to last season (13-0-4).

They made the Blues (10-7-2) look very vulnerable, and right now, Chicago is getting points everywhere, no matter what building they play in.

"We’ve had some good games to date, but that might have been the best," Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said. "... I just think we're taking pride in playing the game that's in front of us, being consistent and everyone challenging and pushing one another."

Andrew Shaw also scored for the Blackhawks, and Marian Hossa collected a pair of assists, Corey Crawford stopped six shots before departing after one period with an upper body injury and Ray Emery came on in relief to stop 15 shots.

Jaroslav Halak kicked out 20 shots, but it wasn't enough as the Blues were blanked on home ice for the first time since a 6-0 loss to Calgary on March 1, 2011. The Blues have scored only three goals in the last four games, covering 12 periods and one overtime.

"That's tough to say," defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk said. "I think we still need to get a little hungrier around the net, as defensemen, we need to get out shots through a little better here. Early we were getting those pucks through, we were getting tips and getting those second opportunities and putting them in.

"It starts with us getting pucks to the net and it also starts with our forwards getting pucks to the net, taking shots and maybe not trying to find a pretty play all the time."

It didn't take Chicago long to break out on top, as Toews redirected Brandon Saad's centering feed past Halak 12 seconds after the opening faceoff for a 1-0 lead. It's the fastest goal to start a game in for the Blackhawks since Dave Bolland [10 seconds] scored on March 16, 2012. Brent Sutter [eight seconds] has the franchise record when he scored on Feb. 5, 1995.

Hossa's long cross-ice pass to Saad allowed the play to develop, and Toews finished. The play was reviewed as the puck went in off Toews' skate, but without an intentional kicking motion.

"It was a good passing play," Toews said. "All five guys touched the puck. I rushed to the net. It went off my stick or shin pad ... whatever. It doesn't matter to me. It was a great way to start the game."

Blues captain David Backes, who left the game for a stretch in the second period but returned after taking the standard protocol concussion testing following a collision with Chicago's Brandon Saad, said the Blues' top line takes full responsibility for the poor start.

"It's a terrible start on our line's part," Backes said. "We've got to be better in setting the tone for our team. I don't know if there's a worse way to do it than 12 seconds in giving a goal up. We've got to improve that. That's on our shoulders.

"If stuff like that does happen, we've got to have the poise at some point in the game to get that back. We'll take full credit for the terrible start against a really good hockey team that you can't have that against."

The Blues pushed for the equalizer and nearly got it, but the Hawks were helped once by a post and another time by Emery's glove.

Shattenkirk's wrister from the point on the Blues' third power play midway through the second period had eyes and found its way through traffic but hit the inside of the left post but stayed out. Patrik Berglund fed Chris Stewart all alone in the slot moments later, but instead of redirecting the puck from the crease, Stewart tried to flip a wrister from the right of the goal; Emery and his mitt were up to the task and preserved the 1-0 lead.

Shaw's fifth of the season came after Bryan Bickell won a puck battle with the Blues' Kris Russell behind the net, fed Shaw for a one-timer from the slot 2:11 into the third period for a 2-0 lead.

"The game was right there for us at 1-0," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said. "We probably had more qualuty chances than they did, but the 2-0 goal took the wind out of our sails. I thought we had some opportunities in the first period like we talked about but didn't capitalize. ... I thought we had some good players today, but we also had some guys that looked like they struggled a little bit to keep up."

Toews got his second of the night off a rebound in front. Nick Leddy's shot from the top of the left circle was initially stopped by Halak, but Toews got inside position on defenseman Ian Cole to swat the rebound into the net at 6:56.

"On the last two goals, we made some pretty significant mistakes off the faceoff there and also down below our goal line," Hitchcock said. "... They're a good team, but they're a good team because they work. We didn't put them in enough vulnerable areas at times."
(St. Louis Blues/Mark Buckner)
The Blues' Scott Nichol and Chicago's Duncan Keith collide along
the boards Thursday night.

Added Shattenkirk: "We came out in the third and we just got out-battled, out-worked. Tough to see, but that's a team that's playing their best hockey and it's a team that's playing hockey the right way. I think that's what we were so well last year and we need to get back to it. We need to simplify, check hard, win those puck battles in the corner."

The Blues host Edmonton tonight and don't have time to fret. But being ordinary against Chicago is not good enough.

"I think our whole performance was OK," Hitchcock said. "But that's not good enough to beat a team like Chicago. That's probably the best way to describe it. We made too many mistakes in critical areas offensively and defensively to be effective. I don't think we went to the net hard enough and I think we got beat at our net a few times. That was the difference in the hockey game."

* NOTE -- Backes ties Gary Sabourin for 15th all-time on the games played list with 463.

(2-28-13) Blackhawks-Blues Gameday Lineup

ST. LOUIS -- Blues coach Ken Hitchcock still calls the left side of his defense "a work in progress."

So on any given night, aside from Barret Jackman, Hitchcock can use a rotation of Ian Cole, Kris Russell and Wade Redden for the remaining two slots.

But it seems Cole is being given a chance to run with a permanent slot.

Despite sitting out six games this season when Cole was part of the revolving door, Cole has dressed in eight straight games, is getting top-pair minutes with Alex Pietrangelo and still going through the learning process while doing so.

But Cole, the 18th overall pick in 2007, is relishing the chance ... and doing his best to run with it as fast as he can.

"It is kind of like the first time in my career where I've played for an extended period of time," Cole said. "I don't come to the rink (anymore) wondering if I'm going to be playing anymore. It is kind of nice to be able to, I don't want to say expect to be in the lineup, but there's a good chance you're going to play and there's a good chance you're going to play with such a great player like Petro is. Not only are you playing with a great player, but you're playing quality minutes against usually the other teams' top line."

Cole is averaging 18 minutes, 13 seconds of ice time in this stretch of eight games. He has only one assist on the season but he's a plus-2 on the ice and the Blues are finally getting an extended look at what they really have.

"It's definitely something I look at as they're giving me a lot of responsibility," Cole said. "With that responsibility, there does have to become a lot of discipline, a lot of faith in me as a player to really perform and play well.

"It is nice. It's definitely awesome. I love playing obviously. I hate sitting. It is great to play, especially against top lines."

- - -

Although he's listed as day to day, Alex Steen (upper body) will not play tonight against the Blackhawks (7 p.m. on FSN, KMOX 1120-AM)

Steen and Andy McDonald (knee) were injured almost simultaneously in a scoring drill Tuesday near the end of practice.

Steen did take part in Thursday's optional skate, going for roughly 10 minutes, before departing from the ice.

He's feeling better and we'll just see how he feels tomorrow morning," Hitchcock said of Steen. "It's good that he's on the ice. It's good that he's skating. He doesn't feel like it's 100 percent, so I'm not going to take a chance right now. We've got so many games coming up, I'd like to make as close to 100 percent as we can and then let's just get playing from there."

McDonald is on injured reserve and is week to week.

- - -

The Blues will honor defenseman Barret Jackman prior to tonight’s game with a ceremonial puck drop. Fans are asked to be in their seats early tonight as the puck drop will feature several special guests.

Jackman played in his 616th game on Saturday, becoming the Blues’ all-time leader in games played by a defenseman. Jackman ranks fifth overall for the Blues, trailing Bernie Federko (927), Brian Sutter (779), Brett Hull (744) and Garry Unger (662).

- - -

The Blues will go with a worker bee lineup tonight, one that resembled a team that ran off a pretty good run last season en route to the second-best record in the Western Conference:

David Perron-David Backes-T.J. Oshie

Jaden Schwartz-Patrik Berglund-Matt D'Agostini

Chris Porter-Vladimir Sobotka-Chris Stewart

Andrew Murray-Scott Nichol-Ryan Reaves

Ian Cole-Alex Pietrangelo

Barret Jackman-Kevin Shattenkirk

Kris Russell-Roman Polak

Jaroslav Halak gets the nod in goal; Brian Elliott will be the backup.

Wade Redden and Adam Cracknell, recalled from Peoria Thursday, are the healthy scratches. McDonald, Steen, Vladimir Tarasenko (concussion/facial laceration) and Jamie Langenbrunner (hip) are out with injuries.

- - -

The Blackhawks, who have gotten points in 19 straight games to begin the season (16-0-3), has the following probable lineup:

Brandon Saad-Jonathan Toews-Marian Hossa

Patrick Sharp-Marcus Kruger-Patrick Kane

Bryan Bickell-Andrew Shaw-Viktor Stalberg

Daniel Carcillo-Michael Frolik-Brandon Bollig

Duncan Keith-Brent Seabrook

Niklas Hjalmarsson-Johnny Oduya

Nick Leddy-Michal Rozsival

Corey Crawford gets the start in goal; Ray Emery is the backup.

Healthy scratches include former Blue Jamal Mayers and defenseman Sheldon Brookbank. Center Dave Bolland (upper-body) and defenseman Steve Montador (concussion) remain sidelined with injuries.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

WHY NOT US: Blues want to end Hawks' streak

Chicago on record-setting 19-game streak (16-0-3)
with points to start season; St. Louis next in line

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- Nineteen teams have tried, including the Blues early in the season, but now that they're next on the Chicago Blackhawks' hit list again, the Blues are asking: 'Why not us?'

The Blackhawks, who come to St. Louis for a 7 p.m. puck drop Thursday night (FSN, KMOX 1120-AM), have set a National Hockey League record for consecutive games to start the season with at least a point at 19. They come to St. Louis with a 16-0-3 record and the Blues (10-6-2) are far and beyond playing the best team in the league.
(St. Louis Blues/Mark Buckner)
Kevin Shattenkirk (pictured) and the rest of the Blues will
be looking to give Chicago its first regulation loss.
"They're a really good team," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said of the Hawks, who beat the Blues 3-2 on Jan. 22 in Chicago. "Winning is a feeling. When you have the right feeling going, you win all the close games, you get the goal at the end, you win in overtime, you win in the shootout. It's a feeling, and they've got the feeling going right now. Somebody's going to have to break the feeling. Might as well be us."

The Blues will have to do it without Andy McDonald, who injured his left knee towards the end of Tuesday's practice during a drill, and could be without leading scorer Alex Steen, who was also hurt in the same drill moments before McDonald.

McDonald was placed on injured reserve and will be out week to week, while Steen is listed as day to day.

"Any time of the season this happens, it (stinks)," Blues defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk said. "We'd love to have our full lineup going into tomorrow, but that certainly can't be our excuse going into the game that we lost because we didn't have those two. We are more than capable of beating them and beating them with the guys that we still have in this locker room now."

That means guys like Chris Porter and Andrew Murray (recalled from Peoria in recent days) could get an opportunity to try and halt history.

"With our structure and our fundamentals that our team is based on, we can create scoring through that," Shattenkirk said. "It doesn't matter who it is. It doesn't matter if it's an Andy McDonald or if it's Scott Nichol. If we play the right way, our scoring chances are going to come. It's just a matter of guys putting the puck in the net. Now is the time for guys to shine. Now is the time to realize the opportunity here. Some of the young guys, hopefully Schwartzy (Jaden Schwartz) can step in here and have a big day for us."

But the Blues have the respect factor going into the game against the Hawks, who jumped to a 3-0 lead against the Blues on Jan. 22 before withstanding the Blues' third period rush.

It would be great," Blues defenseman Ian Cole said. "Obviously it would be icing on the cake, but I think that first and foremost, we have to get two points any way we can.

"Would we rather want to go out, dominate them and impose our will on them and really show we can be a really elite team like they are? Absolutely. But they're obviously a good team. They're not going to let us step on the ice and beat the (heck) out of them, right? It'll be a little harder than that."

The Hawks understand that until somebody does it, they'll get everyone's best game.

"I'm sure every team probably wants to be the first team to beat us in regulation," Hawks forward Patrick Kane said. "It seems like we're getting that.

"It seems like a new challenge every night. You want to be the guy to extend that streak or have the big game to keep the streak going to be part of this. It’s seems like it’s a new guy every night. It’s fun to be a part of. We’ll just keep it going as long as we can."

The Hawks broke the former record, which was held by the 2006-07 Anaheim Ducks, who started the season 12-0-4 and won the Stanley Cup that season, a team that McDonald was a part of.

"They're the best team in the league, but it doesn't matter," Blues winger David Perron said. "For us, it's playing our game and frustrate them by having the puck as much as we can. If Kane has to play in the d-zone and (Jonathan) Toews has to play in the d-zone and all that, it's not going to be a fun night for them."

Added Blues winger Chris Stewart, who could find himself playing with Schwartz and Porter Thursday: "That's a team that we want to beat. That's a heated rivalry. Any chance we get to stick it to them, we definitely want to."

Chicago is No. 1 in the league in goals allowed per game (1.97), their goaltending with Corey Crawford (8-0-3) and Ray Emery (8-0-0) has been scintillating, their power play is 13th and their penalty kill is 2nd. They're getting contributions from all four lines and former Blues coach Joel Quenneville's team had been winning the close games. They're 10-0-3 in one-goal games, including winning five in a row by one.
(St. Louis Blues)
The Blues' Chris Porter will likely make his season
debut Thursday night against Chicago.
"Their overall five-man group up and down the ice, offensively and defensively," Hitchcock said of the Hawks. "They're like a pack of five. That's how you win. There's no gap in their game. There's no offensive gap and there's no defensive gap.

"I think every team in the league's beatable, but like I said, winning's a feeling and when you're on the right side of that feeling, you feel like you're going to win all the close games, you're going to get the goal at the right time, you're going to get the save at the right time and then you just ride it out. It's like a hot streak. You ride it out for as long as you can. That's what they got going. They've played really good and any of the close games, they've found ways to win or get points. It's a pretty remarkable story to be honest with you."

But Hitchcock took a lot out of that loss in the third game of the season.

"When we played our game, they couldn't play with us, and when we played their game, we couldn't play with them," Hitchcock said. "It'll be interesting."

* NOTES -- Jaroslav Halak will get the start in goal for the Blues Thursday. From reports in Chicago, Crawford was named the starter for the Hawks.

Halak, who is 4-0-1 on the season, is 3-0-0 at home this season with a 0.33 goals-against average and .979 save percentage, allowing only one goal. He's 3-0-0 in his career at home against Chicago, including a 1.00 GAA and .959 save percentage.

Hitchcock indicated that Brian Elliott, who took the loss for the Blues early in the season in Chicago and who hasn't played since Feb. 11, will get one of two games either Friday at home against Edmonton or Sunday afternoon in Dallas, which will be the Blues' third game in roughly three-and-a-half days.

Blues' McDonald to IR, Steen day to day

News better than expected after both suffered weird
injuries at practice Tuesday; Murray, Cracknell recalled from Peoria
HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- The injury bug that's blasted some teams in this shortened National Hockey League season has left the Blues, for the most part, relatively unscathed.

Of course there's Jamie Langenbrunner's hip injury that has him out for the season, and the recent concussion/facial laceration suffered by Vladimir Tarasenko, the bug started finding the Blues.

And with Tuesday's freak-like incidents that claimed Alex Steen (upper body) and Andy McDonald (left knee) almost simultaneously, the Blues are starting to dig deep into their pocket of depth.
(St. Louis Blues)
Alex Steen (right) is listed as day to day with an upper body injury. 
The good news on Wednesday is that although McDonald was placed on injured-reserve and is week to week while Steen is day to day, it could have been worse and taken out two of the Blues' most productive forwards they have.

"One guy's day to day, not a big deal. We'll see in the morning. The other guy, week to week," Hitchcock said after Wednesday's practice. "(It) happens, but we've got lots of guys coming in that are hungry, guys that have played in the NHL, so we shouldn't miss a beat.

"This is not like it's a six-week or a four-week injury. These are short-term injuries. Everybody's got them. All you've got to do is read the NHL Network every hour and there's another injury that pops up. We've been lucky so far. We've got three or four quality forwards out, but everybody's got that going. We haven't lost any defensemen. Maybe the game's a little bit simpler, but we've still got the key guys. ... We'll get through this. We'll get through this fine."

And with the red-hot Chicago Blackhawks, who sport a 16-0-3 record, come to town for a 7 p.m. puck drop Thursday night, Hitchcock was asked if Steen, who has been dealing with a shoulder ailment, has been ruled out.

"No," he said.

But just to make sure the Blues are covered on their roster, they recalled forward Andrew Murray Tuesday night from Peoria under emergency conditions, then brought up forward Adam Cracknell on Wednesday afternoon.

The 31-year-old
Murray has played in 38 games with Peoria this season, tallying 19 points including 10 goals and nine assists. The 6-foot-2, 218-pound forward has appeared in five NHL seasons from 2007-2012, totaling 40 points (24 goals, 16 assists) and 36 penalty minutes in 220 games between San Jose and Columbus. He played for Hitchcock with the Blue Jackets.

"He's a good NHL player," Hitchcock said of Murray, who skated on the Blues' fourth line with Scott Nichol and Ryan Reaves Wednesday in practice. "He hunts, he's heavy on the puck, he's strong as heck on the boards. He's an NHL player. He's an NHL player that has played in the minors, but he can contribute.

"He's going to keep his game simple. He scored quite a bit down (in Peoria). He had a lot of offensive opportunities. He was probably a little more creative down there because he spent a lot of time on the power play, but he's a very dependable, strong, big-bodied guy that can really hunt the puck."

Murray could get a chance to step in against the Hawks if Steen is unable to go, as will Chris Porter, who was recalled last week from the Rivermen, where he had been playing some of the best hockey of his career.

"I think the guy that's hungry is Porter," Hitchcock said. "I'm curious to see how Ports plays. He's a cut above most guys in the AHL. He's a dominant player down there. He scores. He looks like he's gained a lot of confidence with us. I'm curious to see how both guys look. We're a little bit of a different team, but I don't know ... we don't look like we're going to be easy to play against with this group right now.

"... Ports has been looking for this chance for three months now. If we were a 24-man team, if we could have picked the 24 guys or we could have picked anybody we wanted on our team, he would have been part of the mix and quite frankly he'd be playing by now. ... This is why he signed with us, because he trusted management and the coaching staff. He could have signed with 10 other teams and taken the same deal. He signed with us because he knew he'd get the opportunity and when he got it, he'd take advantage of it. When you're down there (in Peoria) and dominating like he is, you know that you can help. I think he's going to be more than just a puck chaser. He's going to be a good, solid player who plays a very hard, physical game. That's going to be good for us."

Porter, who had seven goals and 10 points in just 12 games, is eager to stick after being the last one sent down when the Blues made their final cuts heading into the lockout-shortened season.

"It's a big opportunity," Porter said Wednesday after skating with Jaden Schwartz and Chris Stewart. "It's a big game tomorrow night; we all know what Chicago has done. I'm just going to continue what I was doing in Peoria and hopefully help the team win.

"Hopefully, by me playing my game, I add a spark to the team. I'm going to play with energy, play physical and not try to do too much."

Add Schwartz to the mix of guys wanting to prove themselves, and the lineup the Blues will use against the Hawks, who continue to set an NHL record with each passing game for points to start a season (which has reached 19), will be one that was a grinding group that had much success in last year's run.

"This is what we expected was going to happen during the season," defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk said. "We knew we were going to get some big injuries on the way. We've been fortunate that it hasn't hit us too hard up to this point. Now we've got to roll with the punches.
(St. Louis Blues/Mark Buckner)
Andy McDonald injured his left knee Tuesday at practice and was
placed on injured reserve.
"It's a freakish series of events there that goes down. We've had three great practices the last couple days and I think that's obviously what's going to stick out, those two guys going down but I think as a team, we made some strides, took some steps forward. Now it's a matter of guys stepping up and filling those key roles."

Added Hitchcock: "I can tell you there's guys chomping at the bit wanting more. Somebody's demise is somebody's opportunity and you never know if a guy runs with it. It's just a different line, it looks different. It's more straight lines, probably a little less creative. We're harder on the puck, so it's not forever. It's not a big deal. We'll be up and running tomorrow and we'll play well tomorrow."

Unless something changes, the Blues know they'll get Steen and McDonald back at some point, which is a relief considering what transpired Tuesday.

"The unknown injury is Tarasenko, because we don't know a date," Hitchcock said. "The other guys, it's really defined. When it's an unknown injury, that's a little more concerning because you don't have a date to start up, you don't know when the guy's going to feel good, so we don't know. He's day to day but could turn to week to week. We don't know, but when you've got a defined injury and how long it's going to be, it's pretty simple. You slot guys in and you just play."

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

McDonald, Steen injured in practice

Near end of spirited practice, both suffer undisclosed injuries in drill

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- Another fast-paced practice that featured plenty that coach Ken Hitchcock and the Blues were pleased with suddenly took a wrong turn.

While participating in a short-game drill of one-on-one, two-on-two and three-on-three players at different times, forwards Alex Steen and Andy McDonald -- both in separate, heated battles -- were suddenly taken off the ice with injuries.

Steen was first, suffering an undisclosed upper-body injury and seconds later, McDonald got tangled up with teammate Vladimir Sobotka, with McDonald going down writhing in pain before going off the ice and not placing any weight on his left leg.

Steen left the ice and momentarily sat on the bench before leaving on his own power. McDonald also left on his own power but gingerly and not placing a lot of weight on his leg.
The Blues on Tuesday evening recalled forward Andrew Murray from their AHL affiliate, the Peoria Rivermen under emergency conditions.

The locker room was a bit subdued and fairly quiet afterwards and Hitchcock had no immediate update afterwards.

"We won't know until tomorrow," Hitchcock said in a media session. "Both guys fell in the last drill there, so we'll see in the morning."

When asked if it was serious, Hitchcock was non-committal Tuesday.

"I don't know," he said. "We'll know tomorrow."

The Blues' coach continued when pressed on it in a more stern manner.

"It happens. It could happen anytime," Hitchcock said. "They could lose an edge, but let's not get all wound up until we see what it is. Let's evaluate it tomorrow and see what it is.

"It happens. ... It happens. It's not the end of the world, okay? Injuries are part of the game. Why don't evaluate tomorrow when we see where these guys are at."

McDonald and Steen make up the Blues' second line along with Chris Stewart and account for 27 points, with Steen leading the team with 15 points. It was at the end of a spirited practice for the second day in a row in which the Blues were looking for more tempo leading up to Thursday's game with the Chicago Blackhawks, who are unbeaten in regulation (16-0-3).

"Unfortunately when those two guys went down kind of took out from another really good practice," Hitchcock said. "We'll see where they're at tomorrow. We had a lot of fun, guys were working hard, we're really accomplishing a lot here, so hopefully we can take a good lineup into the game on Thursday."

The Blues have used the last two days to put some extra pep in their step, and aside from the unfortunate turn of events near the end of Tuesday's practice, they feel like they're ready to tackle the beast known as the Blackhawks.

"But I've really liked what we've done the last two days. We've really embraced. We've tweaked a couple changes, guys have really responded with some good play, kind of got good continuity going with the lines. We'll see if we can keep it up."

"I think we're really getting better," Hitchcock said. " ... (The tempo) is really good right now. It's unfortunate, like I said, that thing happened at the end. What are you going to do? But man, the tempo was good today, really good ... even better that it was yesterday, so that's a good sign."


Russell regaining form; high-tempo practices
in full swing; Tarasenko not ready to skate

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- Kris Russell understood why he was the odd-man on the Blues' defensive unit recently. It doesn't mean he had to like it.

"It's frustrating," Russell said Monday. "Doesn't matter who you are. It's just one of those things that ... there's a reason you're in the NHL. It's because you're a competitor and you work hard. You know when you're not playing your best and you understand sometimes there has to be a decision made. Sometimes it could be you."

For a stretch of two games, Russell was "you." His game wasn't necessarily at the point where he and defensive partner Roman Polak were playing at a top-notch level like they had been for the Blues in last season's playoffs.
(St. Louis Blues/Mark Buckner)
Kris Russell (right) battles Columbus' Matt Calvert for position in
Saturday's 2-1 Blues victory over the Blue Jackets.

Not that Russell was the sole contributor, but the left-handed defenseman had just come off back-to-back games (losses against Nashville and Detroit) in which he was a minus-2 in each contest.

Blues coach Ken Hitchcock went with the trio of Ian Cole, Barret Jackman and veteran Wade Redden from the left side and made Russell a healthy scratch.

"I'm not saying I didn't deserve it. I needed to play better," Russell admitted. "Hopefully I'm on the right track of establishing myself.

"We have seven great defensemen. We're lucky with our team because our depth, it's incredible. That's a strength and I think that's been a strength this last stretch. That's why we've been playing better."

Russell played two games, then sat two more but arguably his best two games of the season have come in the last two outings (a 1-0 overtime loss at Colorado and most recently, Saturday's 2-1 win over Columbus).

"Last two games have been better," Hitchcock said. "The last game was better where he used his skating to evade checkers to get himself some open space to move the puck. He's doing less thinking and doing more with his legs to get himself out of trouble, which is a big help."

Russell, whose ice time was 16:00 and 15:51, respectively, in the last two games that also saw him pick up his first point of the season Saturday, did admit that he and Polak were not on the same page earlier in the year.

"I thought me and Roman finally put a good effort together," Russell said. "Earlier we weren't making our reads together and kind of felt off. With that, the d-lines kind of got jumbled up and then it was a matter of who you were playing with and who's in the lineup."

Added Hitchcock: "I don't think they were using each other. I think they were over-handling the puck. There was no patience in their game. They weren't patient in finding each other and now they are. That's a lot better now."

It's a competition that Hitchcock calls from the left side "still a work in progress," but it's a case where Russell hopes he can stick regularly.

"I'm just trying to get better every game," Russell said. "I thought it was a good game for me (Saturday), but there are still things I can improve and I want to contribute to this team, especially getting up the ice, get my transition going. I think that can be a big part of my game with this team and help the team out. I watched video and just like everyone else in this room, I'm working hard to get better for the team."

* High tempo practice -- Hitchcock said following Saturday's win over the Blue Jackets that the team would get Sunday off and need it, because Monday and today for sure would be practices where "we need to get the tempo in our game back," Hitchcock said.

If Monday's hour, hour and 15-minute workout was any indication, the veteran Blues coach wasn't kidding.

"Everything we're practicing are game-like situations, but they're done at really high tempo," Hitchcock said ahead of the Blues' next game, against the 16-0-3 Chicago Blackhawks. "We're trying to really get as much as we can from every drill.

"What we're trying to do right now is extend the working time, so we're trying to make guys play with proper precision while being tired. And that's a big challenge. Every drill that we did (Monday) was extended so you still had to perform at a high level even though you were tired trying to catch your breath. I think if we do that for three days, by the time we get ready to play on Thursday, we'll be a better team because of it."

With a limited number of practices available because of the compressed schedule, the Blues (10-6-2) are looking to take full advantage of their time on the ice to practice.

"It was a really good one for sure," winger David Perron said. "It's good though. We have two more days after this to get rested up and get ready to go for Thursday. They're going to be tough practices. Hitch isn't fully happy with the way things are going and I think as a team, we understand that and we want to make it better."

"When you have three days off here, you've got to use it to your benefit and get some good practices in," winger Chris Stewart said. "We had the benefit of doing that last year and I think that's why we were so sharp last year.

"There's only so much you can correct on video. You want to have good practice habits because that's what carries over to the games. Those are part of the breakdowns we've had this year. We can correct them in practice and that's what we were doing today. We really pushed it out there, got a great sweat in and we're going to come back tomorrow and have another good work day."

* Tarasenko update -- Rookie Vladimir Tarasenko (concussion/facial laceration) was not on the ice Monday and hasn't skated since taking a hard hit from Colorado's Mark Olver Wednesday night.

Tarasenko, who has 12 points (six goals, six assists) in 17 games this season, can come off injured reserve and be eligible to play Thursday against Chicago but that seems highly unlikely.

"He's out," Hitchcock said. "He's not able to practice, doesn't feel good enough to participate physically. He's feeling better but not at the level where he can come on the ice.

"When he starts being able to come around and practice and perform, then that's a big step for him, but he's not there yet."

* Cleaning up -- Hitchcock was asked following Monday's practice about the boarding penalties in recent games, most notably two the Blues took against the Blue Jackets Saturday by Polak and Barret Jackman.

Hitchcock has bigger issues to deal with, though, as the Blues have taken too-many-men penalties in three of the last five games.

"We're too impatient," Hitchcock said. "We've gotten caught three times this year already where we've been coming out of a power play and we've had a forward change for a d-man and the d-man's gone on too quickly and we've ended up with three d-men on the ice. We've just got to get more precision there. The second part for me is we've gotten caught on lazy changes. Those are the two things for me that we've got to clean up quickly here."

Monday, February 25, 2013

Jackman tops among Blues defenseman in games played

Peers, alumni say 31-year-old has earned every step climbed in NHL ladder

ST. LOUIS -- When Barret Jackman first slipped on a Blues uniform as a young 20-year-old, most would be in awe to be interacting and competing for the first time with the likes of MacInnis, Demitra, Tkachuk, Weight and Pronger.

But that wasn't the immediate focus on Jackman's mind heading into that NHL debut in Detroit's Joe Louis Arena on April 14, 2001.

Something to do with selecting a number for him had Jackman feeling peculiar.

Barret Jackman - Minnesota Wild v St Louis Blues
(St. Louis Blues/Mark Buckner)
Blues defenseman Barret Jackman is all alone in franchise history for
games played by defenseman after lacing up the skates in Game No.
616 Saturday night against Columbus.

Coming in right away, (it was) more of a 'Why am I wearing No. 5. Why would they want me ... everybody else has (No.) 47, 75, 98,'" Jackman recalled. "Right away I got the story, I got the background from a couple different people. (Former Blue enforcer and current radio color analyst) Kelly Chase was really big at teaching me the history of the St. Louis Blues. I got to sit down and talk to him about Bobby Plager and getting to know Bobby, it was a huge honor, even at 18.

"I realized the significance. You put that jersey on, not only the Bluenote, but to have Bobby Plager on your back is something that's unexplainable when you don't know Bobby."

Jackman, the 17th overall pick of the 1999 NHL Draft, would don the No. 5 jersey, which belonged to Bobby Plager, who was the lone owner of No. 5 from 1967-78. Others have followed (most notably Rob Ramage) but how ironic was it when Jackman, now 31, became the franchise leader among defensemen in games played when he suited up for Game No. 616 Saturday night and when he became No. 5 on the all-time list wearing No. 5 and passing up ... of course ... Bobby Plager's 615 career games?

"I was telling JD (former Blues president John Davidson) we thought he was a good hockey player, we figured he'd be a good hockey player, but passing me in all those records he's getting now, I didn't realize he was that great a hockey player," Plager joked. "... Over the years, Barret is not just a great hockey player with what he does on the ice, you couldn't ask for a better person off the ice in what he does and the charities he's involved in. He's just a player anybody would love to have, not just on the ice as a player but off the ice."

Plager took the words to heart from former Blues scout Patty Ginnell, who convinced the Blues Jackman is the guy to pick in the draft, and it was easy for Plager to be at peace with No. 5 going to a rookie, since it was worn proudly by Ramage.

"Nobody was going to wear it for a while. It was put away ... and he's done good," Plager said of Jackman. "I'm proud. I look out there every night and I'll tell you, there's people in here that get on Barret Jackman, but Barret Jackman is a team player. He's done everything for this city.

"You do watch. When you had a number, you're always interested who gets your number. I was very fortunate here that Rob Ramage came in here, and nobody wore the No. 5 sweater better than Rob Ramage."

It's the only number Jackman has ever known, and one he still wears proudly to this day.

"It's a huge honor," Jackman said. "I worked really hard just to get to the NHL and even harder to stay. There's been injuries that I've had to play through, and the business side of it with a couple lockouts, but to be up there with Barclay Plager, Bobby Plager, Al MacInnis, Chris Pronger and what they mean to the franchise is pretty cool. For me to do it with the No. 5 on my back and the Bluenote on my chest ... the way Bobby Plager did it is even that (much) more special.

"Getting to know Bobby, there's no awkwardness whatsoever. Just his personality, he makes everybody feel at ease. I love being around him, I love hearing his stories, his non-jokes but true stories that he always tells. He's a guy that I idolize and I’d like to be just like. He never misses a charity event, he never misses any kind of hospital visit. He’s alway's around, he’s always there to promote and to be an ambassador of the Bluenote. That's something I try to do as well."

And to add pressure on Jackman coming in as a rookie, his defensive partner would be ... of course, MacInnis, who played in 613 games with the Blues.

"I remember him as a rookie coming in, even from Day One he showed poise, he showed confidence, showed in a confident but not cocky way that he belonged," said MacInnis, the Blues' senior advisor to the general manager. "And he's had a very good, consistent career to this point. That's not surprising really, just the way he approached the game, so I’m not surprised that he’s played 616 (games), and he’s got a number more ahead of him.

"Hats off to Jacks. I mean, really to be able to do a good job adjusting his game, especially the way the game was played when he first started to now, it’s a huge, huge change. You've got to break a lot of old habits and he's been able to hang on and have a pretty consistent career. ... Jacks is a pro. Comes to play hard every night, he's hard to play against. He comes ready to play at the start of the season. He understands the conditioning part. He’s just an old-time pro and that’s what you get out of him every night. I’m not surprised he’s having a great career and obviously he has years ahead of him as well. It’s nice to see."

Jackman, who has 22 goals, 143 points and 858 penalty minutes during his career, went on to win the Calder Trophy (rookie of the year) in 2003, beating out Henrik Zetterberg and Rick Nash for the honor and was part of some terrific Blues teams early in his career.

But then came the lean years following the 2004-05 lockout, a year in which Jackman, a Trail, British Columbia native, chose to remain in St. Louis and play for the now-defunct Missouri River Otters in St. Charles.

Jackman went through the 2005-06 season, which saw the Blues plummet to 30th in the league, change ownership from Bill Laurie to Dave Checketts and begin the process of rebuilding, something he chose to tackle instead of bolting for bigger and better opportunities.

"The records haven’t been there. The first couple of years we were awesome, and then the records weren't there, but the pride in the Bluenote and the guys in the dressing room really made it still something that was a learning experience but it was fun to go through with the group of guys," Jackman said. "Everybody cared so much. Some really good friends have come out of those years -- Jay McClement, Ryan Johnson, Matt Walker, Eric Brewer ... all guys I talk to regularly. Some of my best friends have come out of some of those down years. Sometimes you need struggles to find true character. We’ve always had that in this room.

"Even when we were bad, we were losing games by one goal. You work so hard and everybody around the league said they might not be the most skilled but they’re the hardest working team around. That’s something that we've struggled with. You take a lot of pride in wearing that Bluenote, and we definitely did in those down years."

It's a lasting memory Davidson, who was brought in by Checketts to clean up the mess left behind by Laurie, will remember most about Jackman.

"A lot of people went through (the bad times), but even when contracts were up, he wanted to stay," Davidson, now president of hockey operations for the Columbus Blue Jackets, said. "He knows the situation, he understands that he's a Blue. For young people getting into an organization, you want the Barret Jackmans around because it expedites the whole process for them becoming better pros. It's not only on the ice, it's off the ice. He's a gentleman, he's a pro and as far as athletes go, he's one a lot of young ones should look up to."

And through change, Jackman continues to embrace his role as a shutdown defenseman playing the tough minutes shutting down talented opposing foes.

"To have longevity, you have to be healthy," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said. "I think it's more significant to role players. We take skill players who play a long time for granted, but role players who do all the tough stuff ... Jackman winds up playing heavy minutes every night. He plays 20 minutes a night, they're all heavy, all of it is on PK or against top opponents. That's a hard way to make a living. I think that stuff is what you really admire. When a guy is able to stay healthy, still provide a certain level of high-quality play and then play against the other team's best players and be able to block shots, playing at the end of games, I think you really learn to admire that stuff."

And that's the sort of game and personality both on and off the ice Jackman is sharing with today's younger Blues players. And in the meantime, they have found their way back to being among the top competitive teams once again.

"You can't say enough about what Jacks has done for the organization," Blues defenseman Alex Pietrangelo said. "He stuck through some tough times here. Now, his character shows and he's still here. It's kind of a reward for everything. There were some tough seasons. Now he's on an awfully good team. You wouldn't ask for more success from a better guy. Every day, he brings the same attitude to the rink. He and his family have been great for me, great for every young guy. To see a guy like that have success, it's fun.

"It's not the hockey stuff, it's the things that you go through in life, especially as a young guy, there are things that you need to learn. Jacks has always been there for me, even if it's a silly question, he's going to give you his honest answer and how he feels. That's what makes him a special player and special guy. He's there for anybody and it shows on the ice."
Barret Jackman - Columbus Blue Jackets v St. Louis Blues
(St. Louis Blues/Mark Buckner)
Barret Jackman is 46 games away from tying Garry Unger for
fourth place on the all-time games played list in Blues
franchise history.

Jackman added: "I try to. You encourage guys to do everything they can off the ice. To use any kind of celebrity for the greater good, never turn down an opportunity to sign an autograph for a kid, visit a hospital or talk to people that are maybe down on their luck. That’s something Chaser has been a huge part of over the years. Bobby, Al’s done a lot, so it’s something that I try to get the guys involved in, too."

Even though he's been through a pair of lockouts, an injury-riddled 2003-04 that caused him to miss all but 15 games (shoulder) and various other injuries, Jackman feels like he can still chase down Garry Unger (662), Brett Hull (744), Brian Sutter (779) and Bernie Federko (927), but he understands it will take some good luck and prolonged health. And of course, the Blues will have to want to keep him around. he's signed through the 2014-15 season.

"Yeah, physically I feel the best I have in many years," Jackman said. "Obviously things change year to year, but right now I feel great. I've been a part of some down years but now that this team is on the upswing, I hope to be a part of it for a long time."

One never truly understands where a career will take him, but Jackman got some pretty good advice early on in his career. It's been something that's stuck all these years from a familiar franchise face.

"I think it was after my second game in the league. It was a playoff game against Detroit, we ended up losing but going down the lineup and shaking hands with guys like Chelios, Yzerman and Brett Hull, he (Hull) stopped me and said, 'Hey kid you’re going to be a helluva player,'" Jackman said. "That was pretty special for me, and then my entire first year playing with Al and all the friendships that I gained and a lot of the things I tried to earn during that first year was big for me."

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Blues get rare stretch of days between games

Rest, practice top items on things-to-do list
before Blackhawks invade St. Louis Thursday

ST. LOUIS -- After a week that began tumultuously and got tougher with a pair of narrow losses, the Blues will welcome some rare down time in the shortened NHL schedule.
Following Saturday's 2-1 victory over Columbus that snapped a five-game home winless skid (0-4-1), the Blues (10-6-2) went into a stretch of days in which they won't play again until Thursday.
After a day off Sunday, what do they plan on doing between now and Thursday when the Chicago Blackhawks come to town?
(St. Louis Blues/Mark Buckner)
Chris Stewart (25) and Jaroslav Halak (41) played key roles in the Blues'
2-1 victory over Columbus Saturday night, snapping a five-game home
winless streak (0-4-1).

"Practice," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said. "We need our tempo back up. We need to practice really fast and really hard for two or three days ... at least two days. We need Monday and Tuesday to be very high-tempo, really crisp, movement of the puck. All of the things that we need to work on, this is our last opportunity.

"I told the players (Saturday) I don't think we've got 12 hockey practices left until the end of the year. That's not very many. So every time we're on the ice together really counts. This, and that opportunity after the game in Vancouver (March 19) are the two opportunities that we have to really improve our team, and we've really got to take advantage of this."

What else is on the agenda?

"It's a good opportunity for us to catch up on some rest, get ready for obviously a tough opponent in Chicago," said defenseman Alex Pietrangelo.

"Get some rest, get some crispness to our game, work on some exits and neutral zone," added teammate Barret Jackman, who broke a Blues franchise record for defenseman by playing in his 616th game Saturday night. "Our all-around game could improve. We're going to get a couple workouts in, which is going to be big and our team game needs to improve.

"Get timing, get your tempo back. I think late in the third there (Saturday night), we did a good job of coming over the top with our back-check and that's really a staple in our game and that's something that we need to do. I'm sure we'll work on that. There's not one thing we can't work on right now and improve and get ready for the second half of the season."

The Blues raced out of the gates in January, going 6-1-0 for the month but creaks were clearly visible in their structure. It began to catch up to them in February, where they are currently 4-5-2 after snapping their 0-for-February home stretch with Saturday's narrow win.

"I think we've got to carry this into our next game against Chicago, playing the best team in the league," said left winger David Perron, who scored the game-winner midway through the third period Saturday. "We'll have a lot of practice time this week to figure some things out and I think it's going to be much-needed. With the short season, it seems we don't practice a lot and it's going to be good to have two or three practices in a row."

The Blues needed a win badly against the team in last place in the Western Conference but one that's played gritty, tough hockey so far this season under former Blues president John Davidson, who recently added former Blues director of amateur scouting Jarmo Kekalainen as his general manager. It's a win that Hitchcock feels like can be a springboard for a team that was 30-6-5 on home ice last season looking to get some mojo back in front of the home folks.

"Getting the feeling of winning again is going to do wonders for us at home now," Hitchcock said. "I really believe that. This helps us so much because we play at such a high level on the road (6-2-1 record) and with such a higher level of intensity. We're waiting for things to happen at home and then they don't happen and we get discouraged.

"We needed a goalie to step up. Jaro (Halak's) back. Looks like he's on the mark again. That helps a lot, but I think just the energy that we played with in the third period helped a lot, too."

It all originated from the top line of Perron, David Backes and T.J. Oshie, who started slow but finished with a flourish. Backes and Perron worked a 1-2 punch, with Backes avoiding a hip check from Tim Erixon to set up Perron in the slot.

"We really needed that line to step up in the third," Hitchcock said. "They had a rough night (early in the game), we needed them to step up in the third and they did, which was a great sign for us. They were a threat every shift in the third period, they were really determined and strong on the puck. That was really good to see.

"To get that line back working and sometimes at home, we're too impatient to start offense and so we get kind of where we're just trading chances. I thought they were forcing the issue in the first period and then they really settled in halfway through the hockey game and started to put their work boots on. With their skill and the work boots that they have, they're capable of really dominating games. I thought as the third period wore on, that line was really good for us."

(St. Louis Blues/Mark Buckner)
Vladimir Sobotka (right) congratulates Jaroslav Halak after the netminder
came up big for the Blues in the closing minutes of a 2-1 win Saturday.
Working the next couple days with a win under their belt certainly is better for the psyche than a third straight loss, which is what the Blues would have been looking at after falling at home to San Jose (2-1) and at Colorado (1-0 in overtime) the following night.

"You feel better," Pietrangelo said. "It's definitely kind of a weight off our shoulders, especially after losing a couple at home. To have four days off coming off a win and the best team in the league coming in here, it's a good feeling right now.

"... Even tonight, we played well, we found a way to win, but there's still a lot of things we're trying to get better at. We're trying to keep the intensity up to get ready for that game because (the Blackhawks) going to be coming.

As Jackman pointed out, the "second half" of the season begins Thursday, when the Blues begin another brutal stretch of 10 games in 17 days. So get some rest and relaxation in, allow the body clock to catch back up and be ready to hit the ice running Monday morning.

"You get a couple days off, and now we played. I think everyone's well-rested, we got the win," Jackman said. "I think the next few days will be nice to recharge, to mentally and physically get ready for a tough game against Chicago."

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Blues hold off Jackets, snap home skid

Perron's goal snaps tie, sends team into break with win to work off of

ST. LOUIS -- It wasn't always clean. It wasn't always pretty.

But when a team is all of the sudden laboring at home, a win is a win.

The Blues got one. Now they can only hope it propels to bigger and better things.

It better now that they have four days to figure out some kinks in their game, and the 14-0-3 Chicago Blackhawks next up on the docket Thursday.

(St. Louis Blues/Mark Buckner)
Jaroslav Halak makes one of his 19 stops in a 2-1 win over
Columbus Saturday.
The Blues got a tie-breaking goal from David Perron midway through the third period, and they were able to hold off the pesky Columbus Blue Jackets' late flurry that included an awkward-falling game-saving stop by Jaroslav Halak in the final half minute of a 2-1 Blues win Saturday night at Scottrade Center.

The Blues (10-6-2) were 0-4-1 in their previous five homes games. They had not won here in the month of February and needed to find a way to get back on track in a building that was the toughest in the NHL top play in last season when the Blues were 30-6-5.

The whole win was a relief," said Blues coach Ken Hitchcock. "... We knew it was going to be hard to get back off the schneid here. A win is a win. It doesn't matter, especially with the way things have been going at home. We were expecting bad things to happen, and when we got that second goal, it was like we were a completely different team."

Perron picked up his 11th point in the last 10 meetings against the Jackets, as he finished a David Backes feed, beating Sergei Bobrovsky 9:51 into the third period. Backes avoided a hip check from Columbus defenseman Tim Erixon.

"A bad play," Erixon said. "I have to get him."

"He made a really good play to get down there," Perron said of Backes. "I made a good one before to get it to him with one hand on my stick. He made a great play to get it to me. I was driving the net, created the space behind. I kind of fanned on it a little bit, but it seems like when you're in good spots, shots like that find its way in."

It was a crazy final couple minutes for Halak, who was able to keep an airborne puck out of the net, making a glove save that started a mad scramble. And the Blues had to kill off a late penalty on Barret Jackman, who broke the franchise record for games played by defensemen with his 616th game, but was whistled for boarding Cam Atkinson.

Halak had to re-adjust after Fedor Tyutin's shot was blocked, sending the puck into the air and dropping fast towards the net with 29 seconds left.

"I think I did," Halak said when asked if he got a glove on the puck. "I just tried to reach for it. It came out, but lucky for us, our guys were there after. We got it out. We sorted it out. We just killed it, and it was great.

"It's a crazy end for us. Taking two minutes and then being in our zone for a whole two minutes, guys did a helluva job tonight, especially in the second and the third blocking the shots. We didn't give them a lot in the third and in the second."

Chris Stewart picked up his ninth point in eight games by opening the scoring, and Halak stopped 19 shots in his second game back from a groin injury.

The Jackets, who snapped a six-game losing streak on the road with a come-from-behind 3-2 win at Detroit Thursday, got a shorthanded goal from Matt Calvert, while Bobrovsky stopped 21 shots in a losing cause.

The Jackets seemed to have the better of the play, outshooting the Blues 12-7 in the opening 20 minutes, but the Blues carried a 1-0 lead on Stewart's seventh of the season.

Stewart took Kevin Shattenkirk's drop pass and blasted a slapper past Bobrovsky top shelf 13:55 into the game. Stewart's goal snapped a goal-less streak of 111:49, dating back to Tuesday's 2-1 loss to San Jose.

"I knew I was going to put it through heavy, and it had some eyes," Stewart said. "It’s not often you score from there, so you take them when you do, right?"
The Blues outshot the Jackets 13-3 in the second period, but the Jackets scored on their third shot, as Calvert took a breakaway pass from James Wisniewski and beat Halak with 1:03 remaining in the period. The Blues' Matt D'Agostini fell near center ice trying to backhand a puck into the Columbus zone but his pass was picked off by Wisniewski, springing Calvert loose.

(St. Louis Blues/Mark Buckner)
Chris Stewart (left) got the Blues on the board with a goal, as he and
teammate Andy McDonald (10) battle against Columbus Saturday.
"We obviously said some words," Jackman said. "'Let's go, let's pull it together and respond.' I thought the boys did. We handled the play throughout most of the third period, got a lot of shots and had some good zone time."

The goal was the first allowed by Halak on home ice in the last 168:32 dating back to March 31, 2012 against these same Jackets.

The win was the Blues' 26th in 36 meetings between the two teams in St. Louis (26-8-2).

"Sometimes it's not easy," Halak said. "It wasn't pretty at times, but we got it done. We got two points and lets keep moving forward."