Thursday, December 22, 2016

Blues flop late again, fall 5-2 to Lightning

Despite Megan's first NHL goal, team can't hold 
two-goal lead, allow five unanswered to limp into holiday break

TAMPA, Fla. -- Repeated deficiencies cost the Blues again heading into the Christmas holidays, and they'll have a week to stew on losing a two-goal lead on the road again.

It started out as what was going to be a feel-good story for Wade Megan, who the Blues recalled earlier in the day from the Chicago Wolves to play in his first NHL game because of the upper-body injury to Paul Stastny, and Megan scored his first NHL goal, but a common theme for the road bit the Blues again, and they succumbed to the Tampa Bay Lightning 5-2 on Thursday at Amalie Arena.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Blues goalie Jake Allen and teammate Brad Hunt (middle) look to defend 
a shot from the Lightning's Brayden Point on Thursday.

Megan and David Perron staked the Blues (18-12-5) to a 2-0 first-period lead, but as the temperature of the game ratcheted up, the Lightning (17-14-3) won the necessary battles that fueled five unanswered goals. 

Jonathan Drouin led the way with two goals and an assist, Brian Boyle, Michel Bournival and Alex Killorn each scored for the Lightning and Andrei Vasilevskiy made 21 saves, including the final 15 he would see.

To make matters worse for the Blues, Jake Allen, who made 27 saves, left after Drouin's goal with 1 minute, 40 seconds remaining after the Lightning wing fell on his leg and Allen would not finish the game, but coach Ken Hitchcock said, "He'll be fine." 

But it comes down to the same picture for the Blues, one that was very reminiscent to the game they played in Nashville on on Dec. 13: go up 3-0 on the road, lose the game 6-3.

And in recent losses, they've been attributed to losing puck battles along walls, allowing pucks to play out from the point and get through before ultimately losing battles in front of the Blues' net.

When asked why this seems to be a common theme why this happens as games move along, Hitchcock was very candid.

"You mean on the road? It's a competitive issue, isn't it," he said. "It's our job to figure it out, but the game's 60 minutes; you've got to play 60 minutes and we didn't."

Forward Jaden Schwartz agreed.

"We had a good start and just got away from it a little bit," Schwartz said. "They won a lot of 1-on-1 battles and ended up taking advantage of a few mistakes, but I just think it came down to board battles and net-front battles and we lost too many of them. And they took advantage.

"They might have wanted it a little more in the third period. The 1-on-1 battles, like I said, it came down to that. We'll have to bounce back after here after Christmas and regroup a little bit, but obviously it wasn't our best effort tonight as the game gone on."

Some solid saves from Allen, and two goals by Perron and Megan a 32-second span gave the Blues a 2-0 first-period lead.

Perron put the Blues ahead when he was able to pick off Brayden Point's pass to Braydon Coburn, went to his backhand and beat Vasilevskiy at 14:11. 

Then Megan, who was recalled earlier in the day from the Chicago Wolves, scored in his first NHL game when he dropped a puck to Ryan Reaves at the blue line, went to the net and followed Reaves' shot and beat Vasilevskiy from the side at 14:43.

"Obviously it would have felt a lot better if it came with a win, but it's certainly a good feeling," Megan said. "I was able to enter the zone there and kind of drop it off to Reaves, who made a great shot. A nice low, hard shot and it just ended up on my stick and pretty much an empty cage."

Allen made some key saves in the first, one on Nikita Nesterov in right off Tyler Johnson's pass, then another late in the period on Erik Condra from the slot.

The Blues didn't sustain much offense in the second period with only four shots and saw the Lightning draw even.

Both goals were as a result of deflections in front, something Hitchcock has lamented recently from his team.

Boyle's power play goal came after he was parked in front of Allen and tipped a Victor Hedman shot from the point at 9:48.

Then Bournival tied it late after the Lightning's J.T. Brown won the battle along the wall and below the goal line with Joel Edmundson, got it to the point, and Jason Garrison's shot was tipped by Bournival with 2:33 remaining in the period to tie it 2-2.

"They just took the game over. They just took the game from us," Hitchcock said. "We had a great first period. When they scored their second goal, they took the game over. They won the board battles, they had heavier sticks, they took her over. We weren't able to create anything, we weren't able to win any of the battles to do it."

It continued into the third period when Lightning defenseman Anton Stralman danced around Robby Fabbri, got the puck back to Killorn, who stepped into the high slot and beat Allen through a maze of traffic far side as the Blues had four skaters collapse. Neither forward (Kyle Brodziak or Dmitrij Jaskin) stepped up to pick up Killorn, and both defenseman (Colton Parayko and Jay Bouwmeester) took Allen's eyes away and couldn't get a shot block. 

The goal put the Lightning ahead 3-2 just 5:25 into the third and once the Blues were chasing, they didn't muster up much of a chance.

"It seems we get the lead, and we kind of go into a lull almost instead of keep pushing," Parayko said. "We're getting the lead for a reason, so I think we kind of deviate away from the game plan when we get the lead to try and hold the lead almost. It's an opportunity for us that we should keep pushing. That's the only reason we got to where we were, 2-0, but they came hard and we didn't really have an answer.

"A couple big bodies in the net-front there. It's always tough for the goalie, especially if there's screens and stuff. I think the first goal they scored tipped off my stick. I was just trying to get the guy in front. It's just the way it goes, but they're a team that throws pucks at the net and take the goalie's eyes away and if you can't see the puck, it's ultimately pretty tough to save it, especially with these kinds of players in the league that can pick corners and stuff like that. When you have three seconds, that's a lot of time to figure out where you're going to shoot."

"We had a good start to the third period," Hitchcock said. "Then we got scored on. When it went 3-2, we had a little bit of a push, but not near enough."

Drouin put the game away with 1:40 remaining after the Blues turned it over at the Tampa blue line, Valtteri Filppula cut the puck inside past Bouwmeester in the Blues' zone, found Drouin sneaking behind Patrik Berglund and he went to his backhand and beat Allen, who appeared to twist his left ankle on the play trying to cut back and make a save falling back towards the goal.

Drouin added an empty-netter with 31 seconds.

"It's one of those things where if you had the answer, you'd just fix it real easy," Bouwmeester said. "If we want to get to where we want to get to, we've got to clean it up. I think it's just keep playing a simple game, keep working. Tonight, I think they just kind of took over the game that way. They forced some turnovers, they did a good job. They kept going and we just kind of let them take the momentum.

"I don't think it's any X's and O's or anything like that. You've just got to decide as a group that you're going to do it. You can talk until you're blue in the face. It's pretty much what's been going on. But at the end of the day, you've got to buckle down and do it."
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Blues forward Jaden Schwartz (17) chases Tampa Bay's Brayden Point
during action on Thursday in the Lightning's 5-2 victory.

Asked what the problem is, Bouwmeester was also candid.

"It's everything, it's ... hockey. Everything's connected," he said. "It's not one thing. If it keeps happening over and over again, then it's just overall, you're not good enough. It's something that we can clean up. We've shown we've gotten out to leads and we've played well at times. But we just haven't been competitive enough."

The Blues, who just wrapped up 10 games in 17 days, including five in eight days, get some much-needed rest. Guys look tired and weary.

"Everyone's getting a few days off and get some rest," Schwartz said. "We've played a lot of games lately with some travel. It'll be nice to rest and regroup and we should be energized after the break."

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