Team hopeful of all-stars; power play, penalty kill
working in unison; Elliott to play Saturday, Butler to stay in
ST. LOUIS -- Ken Hitchcock readily admits that he's a teacher when it comes to the NHL and the players that represent it.
But for the Blues' veteran head coach, it's natural to be a fan on Saturday when the NHL announces the remainder of the lineup for the All-Star Game, which will be played on Jan. 25.
And with right wing Vladimir Tarasenko (22 goals, 21 assists) leading the Blues with 43 points in 41 games, and defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk leading the league among defensemen with 36 points (seven goals, 29 assists), they are the logical choices for selection.
"To be honest with you, I've learned that ... first of all, it's a great event, but selfishly, we've had a number of players who have had all-star years," Hitchcock said. "I know the way it works. You've got 30 teams; everybody's got to be representatives. There's always people that are legitimately disappointed. That's the only thing that bothers me. There's always players that richly deserve to go who don't get a chance because we're representing all the teams. I'm hopeful the guys I think deserve to go get a chance."
No Blues were voted in by fan selection. Those distinctions went to five Chicago Blackhawks (Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Corey Crawford, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook) and Buffalo Sabres' Zemgus Girgensons.
But for Shattenkirk, it's only natural to want to hear his name called on Saturday. The situation is similar to a year ago when the United States announced its player selections for the Sochi Olympics.
"Kind of the similarities to last year at this time worrying about the Olympics," Shattenkirk said Friday. "The Olympics, that's obviously a much higher level a similar feeling and sitting around and waiting. Really just wanting the decision to be over with whether it's good or bad."
If it isn't called, he's pulling for Tarasenko, at least.
"He's someone who I've talked to about it," Shattenkirk said. "I don't see how he won't be there. Not only given his success but given some of the highlight reel plays that he's made this year. He's an exciting player. The whole thing is a weekend to showcase the talent in the league and show the fans a lighter side of the game and a fun side of the game. He's someone who we all know being around him really enjoys hockey and has fun with it. I think it would be a perfect weekend for him."
Right wing T.J. Oshie, who is on a career-best seven-game point streak with 13 (six goals, seven assists), has a broader view.
"Without a doubt, you can pick anyone on the (Jori) Lehtera line, but I'm sure you're going to go with 'Vova'" Oshie said, also including Jaden Schwartz. "The caliber of play when he has the puck is like nothing I've ever played with. And Shatty, his game's come so far. He's so mature, he's an offensive weapon back there on the blue line. ... And you can throw Lehtera in there with all the stuff that he's done."
* NHL's top power play -- After going 2-for-4 in a 7-2 win against San Jose on Thursday, the Blues continue to lead the NHL with a 26.4 percent efficiency rating with the man advantage.
Multiple reasons play into account as to why the Blues, who have scored seven times during a three-game winning streak with the man advantage, are rolling on special teams, including the penalty kill. They just feel teams continue to guess what is coming.
"I think due to our success, it's made teams to think a little more," Shattenkirk said. "That's maybe put them on their heels a bit. That's something that we've been able to take advantage of.
"We've had two units that can really go out there and score at any time. It's a matter of ... really, we go out there to get momentum for the team. We want to score, but at the very least, you want to get momentum for the team and don't create kind of bad habits and things that sink into your game by having a sloppy power play."
Assistant coach Kirk Muller, whose primary focus is to work with the team's power play unit, has preached consistent puck movement and cohesiveness even when there was a dry spell.
"There's a lot of people that work together on it," Hitchcock said. "He's responsible for the tactical part of it, but all the coaches work on it.
"I think the biggest adjustment we've made, a collective adjustment to adapt to what the other team's doing rather than ram our power play into a hole. I think we move it around and use more options than we've used in the past. Our power play was really good last year. We were top four or five in the league last year and we've adapted more. The big change for me is we've become more dimensional in the movement of players into different positions. We've adapted."
"'Muls' is doing a really good of keeping a structure and keeping a game plan," Oshie said. "Even in meetings, he tells is to make the plays. He's got me and 'Stas' working together as a pair because me and 'Stas' find each other pretty well. Obviously on the other unit, those three guys, they all find everyone really well. He's got guys going together that play really well together and really play to our strengths."
The Blues, who last week were 23rd in the league in penalty kill efficiency, have jumped up to 18th with a recent stretch of killing 18 of 19. Combined with the fact that the Blues have taken fewer penalties, including two kills against the Sharks on Thursday, is contributing not only defensively, but it's keeping players fresh for the power play.
"It's easy to increase your penalty kill percentage when you're only killing two penalties a game," Shattenkirk said. "If you're going to let good teams put their best players on the ice for 12, 14, 16 minutes a game, it's just going to feed their engine. The goals may not come on the power play, but we use a lot of guys on the penalty kill that we use on the power play for our big situations to cut down skilled players. Penalty kill's hard work. It tires guys out. You see how that affects you in the third period when we were losing some of those big games.
"Without a doubt. It fees up guys and really allows them to get on the power play, feel the offensive side of things, get going offensively not worrying about rushing around blocking shots on the penalty kill. Personally I can tell you that I love being on the power play more than the penalty kill. I think anyone will tell you that."
"I think the biggest thing is we've not had a stale period where one or both units have gone quiet," Hitchcock said. "It seems that one unit's going, the other one's not. It's almost comical looking at one unit goes cold, the other unit goes hot. There hasn't been a 10-game segment where there's been balance. It's been one group going, and the other one not all the time. We've been lucky there. That's the one part that's worked for us. It's either hot or cold."
Right now, both are working in unison.
"It's kind of like our 5-on-5 play. It's not just one thing," Oshie said of the power play. "It's everything going together. Puck possession, guys working hard away from the puck, chemistry goes a long way in power plays and all that stuff's clicking for us right now.
"I don't know what the statistics are, but I'd say the majority of the penalties are because people aren't moving their feet and when you're not moving your feet, it's usually because you're tired. Good changes just goes along with our 4-on-4 play. When we don't change well, a couple of the guys aren't able to go out there and that takes away from our team strengths."
* No changes -- When the Blues (25-13-3) host the Carolina Hurricanes (13-24-4) on Saturday at 7 p.m. (FS-MW, KMOX 1120-AM), there will be no changes made to the lineup.
Hard to tinker with a lineup that has outscored opponents 20-4 the past three games and looks to be hitting its stride.
That lineup will include goalie Brian Elliott, who registered 24 saves in winning his third straight game. He will be making his fourth straight start and fifth since coming back from a right knee sprain Dec. 30.
"There's such spacing. All I'm focused on is Saturday night and then it's re-evaluation time," Hitchcock said. "There's two days off between games, not one. Brian hasn't played very much and we need him to get up to speed. There were some times yesterday where having not played showed up in some of his mannerisms in the net and we need him to become smoother for us, so we've got a real gap between games, lots of rest at home. We'll take advantage of it. Re-evaluate when we're going to get the other guys in."
Chris Butler will remain in as the sixth defenseman, which means Ian Cole will have to wait his turn again.
"He's played really well the last two or three games, so we're going to keep going with him," Hitchcock said of Butler. "That's just the competition within the team. When Ian gets his chance, he's going to play and play well I'm sure. We're not six and one, we're a group of seven. Even with (Petteri) Lindbohm getting some action, we're almost a group of eight. We're staying with these guys right now. Probably as soon as it's Ian's turn, I'm sure he's going to jump all over and take advantage of it. This is the most he's played in his career. I'm sure he wants to play every night, but competition within the team is what it is, so when it's his turn, I'm sure he's going to take advantage of it."