Tuesday, January 5, 2016


Blues hit the road looking to build on new line 
chemistry; Backes OK to play, not practice; Paajarvi dodges scare

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- An 0-2-1 is no time to be feeling good about the way things are going.

But for the Blues (23-14-5), who headed West to begin a three-game trip into Colorado, Anaheim and Los Angeles, it's a chance to get away and play their first extended trip since early November.

Coming off a tough 3-2 overtime loss to the Ottawa Senators, a game in which they blew a 2-0 lead late in the second period, Blues coach Ken Hitchcock wants to see some of the good play the team built after a few line wrinkles that produced some good play.

Troy Brouwer, who scored for the first time in 10 games, switched lines on right wing with Vladimir Tarasenko, who rejoined pal Jori Lehtera with Robby Fabbri. Brouwer played with Alexander Steen and Paul Stastny.

"That line got better and better as the game went along," Hitchcock said Tuesday of the Stastny line. "(David) Backes' line has been really consistent. You'd like to see them get rewarded for all the work and zone time they do, but I thought we got really good play from Lehtera's line. I thought they were really dangerous on the rush, in the zone, on that attack and then we got some energy from our fourth line. We got some real energy from it. 

"So we had a lot of things from a line combination that looked in sync. It looked like it had the potential ... if we could finish on some of the opportunities we had and do a little bit better job of hitting the net, shooting for rebounds a little bit more, it looked like it had the real potential to really grow."

The Blues have played 17 of the past 26 games at Scottrade Center and haven't had a trip longer than two games, so this is the chance to perhaps get away, simplify their game and go back to playing a basic brand of hockey.

"I think with what's been going on the last couple games here, you go on and lose a few games, you've got to find a way to stop the skid," defenseman Alex Pietrangelo said. "No better time than on the road against tough opponents, tough travel. We need a lot of character wins here.

"It's been a long homestand here. Sometimes a good change of pace, get the guys back together on the road, come back for another homestand."

Goalie Jake Allen, who will play Wednesday against the Avalanche, agreed.

"For our club right now, I think it is," Allen said. "I think it's the first time we've been to California and it's always a tough stretch out there every year and we're going to have our hands full. Colorado plays well in their building all the time. Every time you go to step foot into California, you're in for a test. We're definitely going to see what we're made of and see what kind of resilience we have from the last couple games.

"We do get a chance to redeem ourselves here on the road. And you're right, be able to get together. We don't have to impress anyone on the road. We just play to win and play to get points, that's it. Points, points, points. If we can come out of this trip with a positive amount of points, it'll be great for us."

Hitchcock thinks the extended distractions being around the comforts of home too long played a role.

"We played a lot of home games, so sometimes you get a lot of distractions," Hitchcock said. "I think this time of year, it's more the distractions and the obligations that you get into that can kind of take your focus at times. 

"We had a lot of things go right yesterday, a lot of combinations that we're kind of excited by. We'd like to see them continue, hopefully even get better, but there were a lot of things yesterday for me that you can really get excited about. We'll see how it works. Obviously on the road, we don't get the matchup; they're going to get the matchup, so that's going to put things in a little different vein, but the way they played yesterday together, two or three of those lines, and the way they came back and practiced today, it gets you pretty excited."

The Blues better bring their best game, or else.

"We're going to have to or we're going to get our asses handed to us," Allen said. "... If we're not on our toes this trip, it could be tough for us. I think it's the perfect opportunity at the perfect time of year for us to take the ball and run with the opportunity."

* Backes OK to play -- Backes, who missed the second practice the past three days Tuesday, will be good to play against the Avalanche Wednesday.

Hitchcock said Backes is dealing with "an upper-body ailment" sustained Saturday.

"He'll play. He's dealing with an upper-body ailment that'll keep him off of practice for the next week, but he'll be able to play the games no problem," Hitchcock said. "It happened in Toronto at the end of the game."

* Brodziak set to go -- Center Kyle Brodziak, who was scratched from the game against the Senators on Monday, is slated to regain his position as the fourth-line center against Colorado.

Brodziak, who missed five games in December after sustaining a skate cut above his right knee, has not been up to par on his conditioning. The coaches noticed it, he noticed it, so everyone felt it was best for him to get some extra work in to get back up to speed.

"It's pretty simple. Since coming back, I don't think I've felt the greatest on the ice and the coaches recognized it," Brodziak said. "It's just an opportunity to take a few days and get some good skates in, just try to get my legs back under me. Definitely not something you take personally or anything. You've got to look at it as an opportunity to make yourself better.

"I think early on after being off for a while, I was maybe running off adrenaline a little bit or I thought I felt OK but then after a little while, the skating didn't feel it had the same jump in my step and the same endurance. Just something you've got to work on and keep on top of. Hopefully, next time I get the opportunity I'll be ready."

Hitchcock feels he's ready.

"He was good yesterday, a real hard skate and good again today, so he's ready to go," Hitchcock said.

Brodziak said the fast-paced practice Tuesday was good for him.

"Any time you can work game-like situations where you're trying to push it and push yourself at game speed, it's going to help out," Brodziak said. "Hopefully it'll help transfer into the next game.

"Other than the fact of five games (missed), I really didn't skate for probably almost nine or 10 days. You're sitting around doing it, doing too much and even when you come back, it's still a little sore and we didn't have a whole lot of practice time. It's not really an excuse, it is what it is. It's a long season and I just want to make the most of the opportunity and get myself to feeling back good every day."

* Paajarvi dodges scare -- Left wing Magnus Paajarvi left practice early Tuesday after being hit with a deflected puck in the face during a drill.

Paajarvi was skating in towards goal when a puck deflected off another player's stick, hitting him in the face. He left the ice holding a towel on the left side of his face.

"Magnus, we'll see how lump-lump looks after he goes on the plane and does that stuff," Hitchcock said. "That's a tough break to get a deflected puck like that. We'll see how he looks tomorrow."

* Gunnarsson's first fight -- Defenseman Carl Gunnarsson's first fight didn't go unnoticed in the Blues' locker room.

Gunnarsson, who fought Ottawa's Max McCormick on Tuesday, didn't win his fight but got marks for standing up for teammates.

"I liked that," Hitchcock said. "Fought for his teammates, fought for the goalie ... I liked that. And that wasn't exactly a lightweight that he went against. That kid's a fierce competitor, so that's a good sign."

Gunnarsson came into the game with 14 penalty minutes but accrued nine with a pair of minor penalties to go with the major.

* Blowing games in the third -- Prior to the Blues' past three games, they were a combined 19-1-1 either tied or carrying a lead into the third period.

But the past three games, they were tied twice and led once and went 0-2-1.

"I think what's really concerned us a little bit is we've put ourselves in great position in the last three games to win; we've been tied or better going into the third period and we've kind of given up ... even though we started the period really well, we've given up a goal and then started having to chase it from behind," Hitchcock said. "It's a fine line. ... We've put ourselves in position to win them all. I think that's what's been disappointing, We wern't chasing the games. Before we've chased them and caught them. This time we're in great position and I think we want to take better advantage of that."

There's always talk of taking the foot off the gas, which has really seemed to frustrate the fan base to hear why a team tends to be playing well, and then all of the sudden, slow down.

"I think we're getting away from our game," Pietrangelo said. "Usually when a team scores against us, you know what's going to happen. You've got to find a way to get momentum and keep doing what we're doing. Obviously it seems right now teams are scoring and we're letting them gain that momentum whereas we're used to stopping that and putting our foot down and not letting them get anything. It's no different here. Usually we lose a game and the next game we play outstanding. It's up to us to make sure we shut them down right away.

"I wish we could put a finger on it, but I think it's the other team getting momentum, too. I think everybody's just trying to find a way to get us back on track whereas we're better off just sticking to what's working and what got us to that point. Sometimes it's guys trying to do too much. What's working is working and stay status quo."

*Avalanche up next -- Colorado, which came into St. Louis and beat the Blues 3-1 despite being outshot 43-18, has gone 2-2-2 on the heels of a five-game winning streak. The Avalanche did defeat the Los Angeles Kings 4-1 Monday and will bring a similar game to the one the Blues will get in back-to-back games against Anaheim Friday and L.A. Saturday.

"I would have said that a month ago, I would have said that two weeks ago, but the physicality that Colorado's playing with, they look exactly the same as Anaheim and L.A.," Hitchcock said. "I think we've got three physical tests, three highly intense, emotional games that will be good for our team. I'm kind of curious and excited at the same time to see these combinations and see how they look and see if we've got the potential to have some ... you wouldn't want to go overboard on it, but there was some good stuff and you want to see if you can build that forward."

* Finland wins gold -- Finland's 4-3 overtime win against Russia in the gold medal game of the 2016 World Junior Championships in Helsinki, Finland had a Blues flavor to it.

Defenseman Niko Mikkola, a fifth round pick in the 2015 NHL Draft, was on Finland's team. He went against Russia's silver medalist Dmitrii Sergeev, who the Blues signed as an undrafted free agent.

Finland's win gave bragging rights to Lehtera on good friend Tarasenko.

Also, Ryan MacInnis and Matthew Tkachuk, sons of Blues alumni Al MacInnis and Keith Tkachuk, represented the United States, which won the bronze by defeating Sweden 8-3.

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