Wednesday, December 4, 2013

First bit of adversity hits Blues

Team heading into game with Islanders coming off first
back-to-back regulation losses of season; Halak starts, Cole back in

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- Before they headed west to face a pair of familiar foes that had given them issues in the past, particularly the Los Angeles Kings, life was good for the Blues.

The Blues (18-5-3) hadn't been faced with playing multiple games with regulation losses. When they would lose, the team has done a sufficient job at nipping them in the bud.

The Blues have earned points in 21 of 26 games this season but came away empty-handed in consecutive losses at San Jose (6-3) and most recently at Los Angeles (3-2). And for the first time, it's time for the Blues to deal with some adversity. How does this team handle it is the big question moving forward.

(St. Louis Blues photo)
Kevin Shattenkirk (middle) celebrates with teammates Vladimir Tarasenko
(left) and Jaden Schwartz after scoring Monday in Los Angeles.
"You can't dwell on it. We have a good team here," defenseman Jay Bouwmeester said. "If we play the way we can, more often than not, we're going to get results. That's just the focus. You don't need to drag things along and make it too painful on yourselves."

Which is why when the Blues host the New York Islanders Thursday night, they'll do what they've always done: move on and tackle the next challenge.

"We have to realize that it has been 26 games since we've been through our first test, so this is it," defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk said. "This is our first time going through adversity of this magnitude. How we handle it is going to be important. It's going to be the team we are at the end of the year, so it's more of now just rallying together, trusting what we have in here and trusting the game plan and everything is what's going to work at the end of the day."

When the Blues took the ice Wednesday at St. Louis Outlet Mall's IceZone following a day off, they tackled some of the areas most glaring that the Sharks and Kings took advantage of: checking, particularly in the defensive zone corners as well as clean exits out of the d-zone.

"I think that's just understanding what the opposition did more than anything," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said. "They popped us right in the schnoz ... they gave us a good one right in the nose.

"Both teams came out in different ways. One came out with physicality and nastiness and the other one came out with speed and numbers. Both times we were a little bit overwhelmed by some of the checking that went on and weren't ready for it. It was the highest level of checking we had against us all year. It's learn your lesson. We regrouped in both games, but it was 20 minutes before we regrouped again and it's too late. On the road, you're down 2-0, 3-0 ... it's too late. I think our team learned the lesson of the other level out there, especially when you get out to the West Coast. Hopefully we learned that lesson and move forward."

The troubling aspect of both losses is that the Blues know both teams and know how they want to attack them. Yet, the Sharks attacked the Blues with speed and bodies in building a 4-0 first-period lead before the Blues pulled within one when they woke up, and the Kings attacked with a forecheck that helped them to a 3-0 lead before the Blues again woke up and made it a game.

"You always have to learn from it. Those are two good teams," Bouwmeester said. "We knew going into the games what they were going to be and we didn't respond. We beat ourselves the first period of both games. You learn from that, but the good thing about this year is you have a lot of games in a short amount of time. That helps. You just kind of move onto the next one. Yesterday was a write-off. You get home late, then today you practice and tomorrow you're back at it.

"The third period in both games was a lot better, more of the way we can play. It's just a matter of doing it right from the start."

If the worst if losing two games in a row during the course of an 82-game season, the Blues will have many nights that will result in two points. Some teams sustain such skids that it takes a plethora of days and games to recover from. If this is the worst, as Shattenkirk put it, "We'll take it. We have plenty of guys who have been through it before. It's not hard to turn the ship around.

(St. Louis Blues photo)
Vladimir Tarasenko celebrates after scoring Monday in Los Angeles
but it was too little, too late in a 3-2 loss, the Blues' second straight.
"We've been through worse in the past, and if we can limit this to two games and move on and keep moving upward from here, we'll be fine. When you get in these sort of low points in the season, it's important to remember what it feels like to win again and what it feels like to play the right way."

In the Blues' five regulation losses, they've been outscored 17-5 in the first two periods and 10-1 in the opening period. It's safe to say when the Blues play even or have a lead, they tend to get stronger as the game goes on.

"These are lessons to be learned. I think we started poorly (in both games)," Hitchcock said. "We were on our heels and that's not the way we play. Credit to both teams. They dug in and put us on our heels. In both games we mounted comebacks, but I think when you're on your heels, it's not a good way for our team to play. We talked about we take pride in being ready to go and I thought we were tentative at the start of both games and our play reflected it. We tried to play around their checking rather than through it and I think that's a lesson learned and I hope we take advantage of it."

* NOTES -- Winger Magnus Paajarvi, who sat out the loss to the Kings Monday with flu-like symptoms, was back at practice and feeling well again Wednesday.

Paajarvi joined Shattenkirk, who also missed a game, Nov. 25 vs. Minnesota, with the flu. Chris Stewart played through the flu when the Blues were in Buffalo.

"I guess I was the (next) victim," Paajarvi joked. "You try to prevent it, but it's that time of year and I got it. It's over now and I'm over it. I got all the energy back. I didn't have a whole lot of energy when I got it. It's almost I feel like a new man."

Paajarvi, who has one goal in 10 games, missed nine games earlier in the season with a shoulder injury suffered Oct. 26 in Nashville.

Paajarvi, 22, seems to gain traction when inserted into the lineup, then had to regroup after an injury and now being sick.

"It's been like that. It's been a fact," Paajarvi said. "I got going early on and then I got the injury that kept me away 3-4 weeks. Then I got going again now and got the flu.

"Hopefully I can be more consistent because I've never been away from games ever in this league before. I missed maybe one game in three years, so this is really new for me. I'm not known as a player that's usually gone. It's new for me, but I'm going to do everything I can to stay consistent."

. . . Jaroslav Halak will start in goal when the Blues host the Islanders Thursday, and Ian Cole, after being a healthy scratch in Los Angeles, will come back in. Carlo Colaiacovo, who played against the Kings, will sit.

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