Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Blues lacked gap coverage in loss to Senators

Video session shows team some flaws that have been evident recently

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- When they came in Wednesday for their daily routine of meetings, video sessions and/or practice on ice (which was optional), the Blues got a good look firsthand at just what went wrong Tuesday against the Ottawa Senators that cost them a point.

Sitting down in a video session, the Blues, who blew a 3-1 third-period lead that resulted in a 5-4 shootout loss, the biggest problem for the entire team? Gap closure.

There wasn't enough of it, and the high-flying Senators, playing their third game in four nights, made the Blues pay for three goals in a 2-minute, 35-second stretch that turned a 3-1 deficit into a 4-3 lead.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
The Blues' Alexander Steen (20) was on the hunt for the puck, which was
on the stick of Senators defenseman Patrick Wiercioch's stick Tuesday.

The Blues were able to tie it on Jordan Leopold's first goal with the Blues, but in the end, the Senators benefited from some miscalculated plays by the Blues.

"Too many odd-man rushes ... same stuff," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said. "Lots of scoring chances for, lots of work in the right areas, but too many scoring chances on odd-man rushes and some issues we need to get fixed on down low d-zone coverage. 

"It's the same scoring chances that we've been giving up for the last month or so. Yesterday we got beat because of it. We created a lot, we did a lot of really good things yesterday as I said in the postgame, but it's kind of what you leave and yesterday we left too much. I think if you took away the power plays (the Blues were 0-for-7, including 2:10 of 5-on-3), there wasn't much difference in the scoring chances between the two teams. We've got to find a way to get more 5-on-5 and give up less. That was what the meeting was about today was finding some continuity in our checking and giving up less 5-on-5 scoring chances because there's too many of them and when you get against good teams and teams that are focused ... the next two teams (Boston on Thursday and Winnipeg on Saturday) are playing really well and then you look at what's coming in after the break (at Vancouver, at Anaheim and at Phoenix), we're going to have to be a lot better 5-on-5."

Breaking down two of the three Senators goals in the third period, here is what you have:

On Milan Michalek's goal that made it 3-2, and the goal Hitchcock was most disturbed by, the Blues' top line of David Backes, Alexander Steen and Chris Stewart initially had the Senators where they wanted them, making a play from their own blueline and the defensemen in a position to close any gaps through the neutral zone. But when Stewart moved into the middle to force an outlet pass, Steen was in the middle of the ice and couldn't close the gap and move to the right where the puck was going. Now the puck was past the Blues' forwards and the Sens were able to move into the Blues' zone from the left. As the three Senators' forwards entered the Blues' zone, Barret Jackman and Kevin Shattenkirk were left to fend the three Senators forwards (Michalek, Jason Spezza and Mika Zibanejad). The Blues' defensemen were forced to back-track and allow easy entry on the 3-on-2 when the forwards were beat. Spezza was given a lane between the Blues' d-men to get the puck from Zibanejad, and Michalek worked his way to the back post, where he would get the backhand feed from Spezza as Stewart was late back-checking the far-side forward. Jaroslav Halak has no chance and it's in the net on a one-timer.

On the Senators' go-ahead goal, it all started behind the Ottawa goal, when the Blues got caught with two forecheckers (Jaden Schwartz and Derek Roy) going after one player that allowed the left-handed defenseman to make a long-range outlet pass into the neutral zone. Senators defenseman Marc Methot was able to get a clean pass into the neutral zone. The Blues back-tracked well and were in a good position, but the problem was that Jay Bouwmeester allowed Spezza easy entry into the Blues' zone. The Blues were still good on numbers, having five back to Ottawa's three skaters, and Spezza's cross-ice feed to Michalek was off the mark. Despite the initial problem of allowing the long pass out of the Senators zone, and then allowing easy access into the Blues' zone, Roy was in position to get to the puck and get it out of the zone and out of danger. But Roy was not able to clear, the Senators turned the Blues over and Spezza was able to get a shot off from the top of the red circle. It deflected off Bouwmeester's stick and into the top half of the net.

"We had the puck in the gray zone, six feet inside the blue line and we didn't get it out," Hitchcock said. "And that created all the problems. That's another area of checking. Puck management is as important or more important than any part of checking. When you're good in the gray zones and you're good inside and outside both blue lines, really good things happen. But we made a mistake and it ended up in our net because of it."

The Blues were in scramble mode for a couple minutes there, but there were other times in the game that the Senators were able to move freely in all three zones. Against a Blues team that's known for locking down leads and putting away teams, Tuesday was another example of when things go awry, the puck ends up in the net.

"You want to get up and make your gap as tight as possible, but at the same time, you have to get the puck stopped on their breakouts," Shattenkirk said. "If anything, just slow the play down or reverse the flow of the puck. It stops them. They have to stop and get moving again, and that's what you have to really do is just stop their momentum and then even if they still break out, you can gap up and have that tight support when you play defense that we do so well."
(St. Louis Blues photo)
T.J. Oshie (74) said the Blues played a good game Tuesday, aside from a
few minutes in the game that cost them in a 5-4 shootout loss to Ottawa.

Hitchcock said the forwards are most responsible for the gap coverage and balancing it out, but Shattenkirk calls it the units working hand in hand.

"You kind of think of it as a rubber band, it gets stretched out and always pulls back together," Shattenkirk said. "We just have to be a little bit of a tighter rubber band, have a little more tension. 

"The reason we're good defensively is not because of the six guys here (on defense), it's because of the forwards. They come back, they track back so well. That allows an easy game for us. It;s a tough job for them. It's a lot to ask of them night in and night out. Sometimes it's not there, so you have to find a way to get back to it and that's kind of the points we're at in the season right now, to find our way back to the things that work during games."

Even if the Blues felt like there was 50-plus minutes of good play, the cliche of not playing 60 minutes can come back and bite at the most inopportune times.

"I don't think there were a lot of mistakes, but I know after a loss, everyone looks at a bunch of different negatives and it seems like more things come out that we could have done better," T.J. Oshie said. "But I think for the most part, the guys worked really hard and we worked hard to get that one point."

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