Monday, March 31, 2014

Blues begin final push, end season with eight games in 13 days

Hitchcock puts team through brisk practice, searches for right line fits

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- It was a sight not seen often at the Ice Zone inside St. Louis Outlet Mall in the month of March: the Blues skating to a full practice session.

With games being so compressed and many of them away from Scottrade Center, the Blues got the last of two consecutive days off between games Sunday and Monday before the regular season ends April 13.

Sunday was an actual day off for players to get away and take a break both physically and mentally. Monday was a back-to-work, put on the hard hat, grab the lunch pail kind of day. It was a brisk 50-minute practice coach Ken Hitchcock and assistants Brad Shaw, Gary Agnew, Ray Bennett and Corey Hirsch put the players through.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Carlo Colaiacovo (left) and the Blues will look to gain revenge on Jakub
Voracek (93) and the Philadelphia Flyers on Tuesday night.

It came on the heels of a disheartening 4-2 loss to the Dallas Stars in which the Blues (50-17-7) fell into some bad habits throughout the game.

And with the Philadelphia Flyers (39-27-8) coming to town also in desperation mode and fighting for the playoffs like the Stars (36-27-11), the Blues are being battle-tested. 

"Some of it was a day's practice after a day off and some of it was obviously getting better in some areas, especially coordination offensively and defensively," Hitchcock said, referring to practice Monday. "Some of it was raising the compete level obviously, but it's nice to get 50 minutes in like we did today and hopefully we'll carry that level up to the next degree tomorrow. We'll need it against Philadelphia. 

"I don't think it's the playoffs but certainly it is the prep. One of the things you have to be careful about is that you hope the players don't get too far ahead of themselves. No point preparing for the playoffs if you're not going to prepare for the competition, which for me was the disappointing part of the Dallas situation. We knew it was a desperate team. If you turn down the volume, we played pretty well in some areas, but if you really turned up the volume in the game where it was in the desperate situations, they were more desperate than we were."

The players came in fresh and ready to move on and work on some fine-tuning.

"Unfortunately in the game of hockey, you're not going to win all of them," said defenseman Carlo Colaiacovo, who is expected to get back into the lineup against the Flyers after sitting out Saturday. "Obviously we would have loved to have a different result the other night. ... We had a day yesterday to get away, refresh our minds and stuff. Today you can see the work ethic with guys that they're ready to get back at it. I think tomorrow in having a team like Philly coming in is definitely a good response game for us. Time for us to refocus and make sire that we're bringing our 'A' game because we owe them something.

"Hockey is such a total grind, both physically and mentally. Maybe more mentally now at this time of year because there's so much going on. The beauty of having these mandatory days off is knowing that you can work your hardest up to a certain point knowing you're going to reach the benefits of it. We have a pretty older group in here, a good mix of guys that take advantage of those days when they get them for the most part and save their energy for the games. Today was a good work day and tomorrow we get right back it."

Newcomer Steve Ott, still looking for his first goal as a Blue, said taking advantage of an off-day was more than beneficial.

"It was a good, personal day," Ott said. "All the adjusting and moving stuff in. Family came down and what-not. It's nice to have your own cars again, your animals back and all that good stuff. That's kind of what I did was just settle into my place.

"It was nice to refresh yesterday and actually have a two-day break in there after a game. The rest of the way, it's going to be a game every other night and it's going to be a high level. Especially with Philly, all the teams fighting for their lives or trying to move in the standings, that's the effort you have to match and today's practice was all about the effort."
(St. Louis Blues photo)
A pair of No. 17's do battle against the boards in a game recently
in Philadelphia, with the Blues' Vladimir Sobotka putting the
squeeze on the Flyers' Wayne Simmonds (17).

The Blues will begin the final push, playing eight games in 13 nights, including a pair of four games in six nights. The players and coaches keep pushing that they're motivated for the top seed, which would be a huge asset for the Blues heading into the playoffs since they have one of the top home records in the NHL. Only time will tell.

"We've been used to it here from the last little stretch we've had having a ton of games jammed in," defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk said. "I think we're a team that almost likes that a little bit more, to just play games. We seem to rebound well off of losses, which is why I think we've been pretty successful here. 

"That wasn't the way we wanted to start our homestand, but I think it's great we have a team like Philly coming in tomorrow who's really playing some of their best hockey right now and a team we just saw a few weeks ago that we're seeking a little redemption on. It was a good, hard-working practice today and same thing tomorrow morning before the game."

* NOTES -- Hitchcock said after the loss Saturday that he would look to "send a message" to some players in hopes of jump-starting some more consistent play out of some players.

The Blues can't afford to only get production out of the David Backes, Alexander Steen and T.J. Oshie line to be effective.

Hitchcock was moving parts around in practice Monday in hopes of kick-starting some engines.

"I would use the word probing," Hitchcock said. "I would say we know we're going to need it, and we're doing probing and pushing behind it. 

"We're not looking for combinations that work. It's too late for that. We're trying to get people to understand when they play really well, how it looks and what it feels like. We had some conversations with people today; we'll have some more tomorrow trying to get more people connected and involved in the finishing part of our game. I think all of us feel as happy as we are for the one line, we can't win with just one line doing that. ... We had quite a few individual meetings today; no group meeting at all."

Hitchcock wouldn't reveal any lineup changes or changes other than Ryan Miller will get the start in goal against the Flyers. The Flyers defeated Miller and the Blues 4-1 on March 22.

... Right wing Vladimir Tarasenko, who hasn't played since March 15 after having surgery on his right thumb to repair some ligament damage, was cleared to skate and was on the ice briefly with his teammates.

Tarasenko, who has 22 goals and 43 points on the season, took a few twirls around the ice, holding a stick in his left hand and not being able to use his right one yet, skated for roughly 5-10 minutes and left as practice began.

... The NHL unveiled its Three Stars of the Week Monday, and Oshie was selected as the third star.

The Blues' forward, who recorded his first NHL hat trick in a 5-1 win against the Minnesota Wild on Thursday, scored four goals and had six points in three games.

The 27-year-old Oshie already has set career highs in goals (21), assists (39), points (60) and game-winning goals (5) in 73 games.

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