Sunday, April 14, 2013

Blues fall to Blackhawks 2-0 on national stage

Blanked on home ice for third time this season has St. Louis
averaging one goal in last five games; Elliott loses shutout streak

ST. LOUIS -- The Blues were on the big stage again against the team that has set the bar for greatness in the NHL this season.

It was a chance to shove aside that blip on the April schedule Friday, the 4-1 loss at Columbus that snapped the Blues' season-high six-game winning streak which thrust them firmly back -- for the time being -- into the playoff picture.

But the Chicago Blackhawks, as they've done to a number of opponents, painfully reminded the Blues that they're still lacking the complete-game mojo that ultimately casts themselves as serious contenders when the postseason begins in less than a month.
(St. Louis Blues/Mark Buckner)
The Blues' Jaden Schwartz (9) looks to avoid the stick of Chicago's
Niklas Hjalmarrson during Sunday's game at Scottrade Center.

The 2-0 shutout loss to the Blackhawks in front of 19,385 spectators -- many of them clad in red -- was a stark reminder of what's been a hidden ailment of the Blues in recent weeks because of the reborn goaltending of Brian Elliott: this team's lack of star power stepping up in big games and providing big goals.

Or in this case, any goals.

For the Blues in recent memory, multiple goals would be a plus, especially being showcased on the NBC Game of the Week.

They were shut out on home ice for the third time this season -- second time by the 32-5-4 Blackhawks -- their power play is as anemic and dry as the Sahara Desert and the formula for success has reverted back to last season: have the goaltending -- in this case Elliott -- stand on their heads like Elliott did during the six-game winning streak with three consecutive shutouts. He did so with back-to-back-to-back 1-0, 1-0 and 2-0 wins on the road earlier in the week, But eventually, that will catch up to you.

The Blues are now 3-2 in their last five games and have scored a grand total of five goals. They scored them on 133 shots, or an average of one goal every 26.6 shots per game.

Where is the offense? What's changed from a team that led the NHL in the month of January in scoring average with four goals a game?

As Blues coach Ken Hitchcock noted after Friday's loss to the Blue Jackets, it's players willing to sacrifice going to the hard areas, the dirty areas to score goals. There were flashes of it Sunday but not nearly enough to classify as plausible.

"I think it's a fine line the whole season at this time," Hitchcock said after the Blues fell to 23-16-2. They still remain in sixth place in the Western Conference but in the last two games have missed on the chance to jump into fourth.

"Everybody's on the fine line," Hitchcock said. "You need something positive to happen, somebody to step up and get us to the next level.

"We're playing pretty well 5-on-5, our penalty killing (23-for-23 in the last 10 games, 34 of 35 in 15 games) really gives us a chance every night, but whether it's top players scoring or whether it's a little more contribution from the power play, whatever, that's the edge. We have to find that edge."

Right now, that edge can be had with their top-money players stepping up and providing more than just the grit and determination needed to win.

Here's the rundown:

Andy McDonald has two goals in 12 games since returning from a knee injury.

Alex Steen has one goal in 11 games and three in 15 since returning from a shoulder injury.

Patrik Berglund has one goal in 12 games -- an empty-netter.

Chris Stewart has one goal in 11 games after tearing it up with nine in the previous eight games.

Alex Pietrangelo has zero goals in 17 games.

David Backes has two goals in 21 games.

David Perron has no goals in 15 games and one in 19.

Vladimir Tarasenko has two goals -- in the same game -- in 14 games since returning from concussion.

This team continues its journey on the wild side of this abbreviated season. There have been flashes of brilliance, but Sunday was just another perfect example of inept execution that leaves those following this team scratching their heads.

"Who knows. That's just the way hockey is," said defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, who has the Blues' lone goal in the last 120 minutes. "Sometimes it goes in, sometimes it doesn't. I think the most important thing is that we just stay with it. We don't let it get us discouraged. If it's not going in the first two periods, you can't assume that it's just going to happen in the third. ... I think we have to trust ourselves, trust our game. When it's not going our way, stay with the program."

The Blues fed off their fans early. They hit everything in sight wearing red with an indian head logo. They outhit Chicago 17-5 in the first period -- including a Backes hit on Jonathan Toews that rattled the Chicago captain and a jarring Shattenkirk reverse hit that KO'ed the Hawks' Andrew Shaw -- but had nothing to show for it offensively. It was a 0-0 game after Elliott, who lost his shutout streak at 214 minutes, made great stops on Patrick Kane and Dave Bolland in the period.

"I think we worked fine," said defenseman Jay Bouwmeester, who led the Blues in minutes played at 25:01. "We were doing some good things. It's one of those things where maybe if you do score a goal, it changes the game, get that momentum. You just have to battle through it. You know you're playing a good team.

"A game like tonight, you're playing a good team, so you know you're going to have to work for your chances. Whether it's working and getting bounces, those usually go hand in hand. We're a big team, we're good on the cycle. We've just got to get pucks to the net, guys to the net and it's hard to defend."

When the game settled down, it was Chicago's speed and skill that seemed to take the play to the Blues.

They got the first goal from Bryan Bickell, who jammed home a rush from the Blackhawks' end after rookie Vladimir Tarasenko passed on a chance to shoot and was either tripped up or got his skates crossed up and tumbled to the ice trying to make a move to the Chicago goal. Viktor Stalberg blew past Jordan Leopold along the right boards, threw a puck that Elliott stopped, but Bickell was there to bang in his third in five games.

"It bounced side to side and it went right on the guy's tape and he hit the post first and I almost got it on the second one," Elliott said. "I'm not concerned about the streak. It's getting the win."

Hitchcock said the play that led to the Chicago goal is an example of what's missing from the Blues' offense.

"The first goal is a perfect example. We're in a position to shoot the puck, we stick-handle it, try to put it through someone's legs ... five seconds later it's in our net," Hitchcock said. "Not the way you're going to win against good teams.

"You're going to have to funnel everything. You're going to have to put pucks and bodies on the net and continue in that mindset. Against good teams, it's going to be no different against Vancouver (Tuesday). They're a good team, too. They know how to defend. We're going to have to find small spaces to create offense. You're not going to get anything easy, especially at this time of year."

And then there's the power play, which came in a paltry 6-for-69 in the last 26 games. The last time the Blues scored more than one power play goal in a game came in Calgary Feb. 15. It came so long ago that fourth-line forwards Chris Porter and Adam Cracknell were not even on the radar.

"At times, yeah, we're static," Backes said. "As a penalty killer, that's what you love when you can get in the lanes and you know I'm in the shot lanes and that's his only guy's option and you know where guys are. ... I think we've been just too static or too hesitant to just shoot the puck. Let's create chaos in there and that's got to be the focus going forward."

Said Hitchcock: "Extra play. Too many extra plays. When we shot it, we had good success. We had all kinds of traffic, all kinds of stuff at the net. Extra play's not there.

"Plays come from point shots. You make plays after the puck's on net, and then they have to find it."

The Blues' third and final power play saw the Blackhawks rub salt in the wound, as Marian Hossa took Jonathan Toews' faceoff win and snapped a puck that caromed off Pietrangelo and between Elliott's pads 6:34 into the third period for Chicago's two-goal lead.

Game over.

That's because with the Blues averaging one goal over the last five, two seems like an enormous hurdle to overcome.

"Sometimes those things happen throughout the year where you go through a stretch where goals are hard to come by," Bouwmeester said. "We were winning some games ... 1-0 and it's all good then."

But winning 1-0, 2-0 games forces your netminder to have to play perfect, noth mentally and physically.

"No, it's just playing your game," Elliott said. "I think we've done such a good job in the defensive zone in the past staying in games here that you just do your job and everybody else does theirs. That's the way we've been as a team. We just need obviously a couple goals and we'll be fine. It's just getting those bounces. The harder you work, the more bounces you'll get."

Make it 6-for-72 now on the power play, a balmy 8.3 percent in 27 games. They're not getting the "bounces" there either.
(St. Louis Blues/Mark Buckner)
The Blues' David Backes (right) parks himself in front of Blackhawks
goalie Corey Crawford during Sunday's game in St. Louis.

"There's more of an emphasis to get shots (on the power play)," Bouwmeester said. "I wasn't here earlier in the year, but these guys were getting point shots, and you've got big guys around the net that win battles, screen goalies and that sort of thing. You sort of create those bounces. I think that's just the emphasis, you simplify. You don't really see any tic-tac-toe plays on any power plays anymore. You just throw pucks and bodies at the front of the net, and nothing should change from that aspect."

With seven games remaining and six of them at home, the Blues are an inexcusable 9-8-1 at Scottrade Center. This was a team that held the best home record (30-6-5) a year ago.

"There were good and bad things out there," Shattenkirk said. "We've got to hang onto the good things. We'll work on the problems tomorrow and the issues we need to correct.

"At this point of the year, we can't let this affect us for too long. We have seven games left, so it's just a matter of getting ready for Tuesday night and going forward."

"It was a good hockey game. It was a playoff game," Hitchcock said. "They had guys that were great, we had guys that were great. Some of our guys we need more from."

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