Friday, December 2, 2016

Blues still searching for their identity but slowly finding it

Despite recent stretch of winning, team is forging ahead figuring out who they are

ST. LOUIS -- The Blues' third straight victory on home ice Thursday, a wild 5-4 win against the Tampa Bay Lightning, capped off a trio of games of what would be considered an anomaly.

The Blues (14-7-3) aren't known as this run-and-gun, slug-it-out kind of team, nor have they been under coach Ken Hitchcock's tenure.

The Blues have been known more for their structure defensively, smothering the opposition and winning those 2-1, 3-2 type games. 
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Veterans Alexander Steen (left) and Kevin Shattenkirk celebrate a goal on
Thursday in a 5-4 win against Tampa Bay.

But since that 8-4 debacle on Nov. 12 in Columbus, it was the start of nine straight games of scoring three or more goals after going nine straight with 14 goals total (two or less in eight of those games).

So is this who the Blues are? Are they going to try and be this high-powered team that scores a ton but gives up a lot as well?

Hitchcock was asked after the game Thursday what this team's identity is.

"I don’t think we have an identity yet," Hitchcock said. "We're winning hockey games, we don't have an identity yet. We're winning hockey games on spirit. We've got great spirit. I'm not sure if you can call spirit an identity, but we've got great spirit going right now. 

"We're going to have to play a lot better than this, though. A lot better. I think the players know that, too. Two points are two points and we don’t want to take away from that, but I think there's a time to ride and I think we're going to be like everybody else, there's going to be concerns all year. I think it's the first team to put out detailed definition that's gonna end up emerging from the Central Division. Whoever can put that detailed definition in their game is going to end up winning this division. Hope it's us."

Forging an identity for a team that came into this season in transition can be tough. But the Blues, who have won seven of eight since losing to the Blue Jackets and who are 11-1-2 at Scottrade Center, including six wins in a row and points in 11 straight at home (9-0-2) feel like the pieces are there.

Sorting through them and forging them consistently is the challenge.

"Throughout the year, you're going to win different ways," left wing Jaden Schwartz said. "You can flip that and say there's certain homestands where you win 2-1 or we win 3-2 and they're saying we're not scoring enough. There's always different ways to win, different ways to look at it, but it's something that we want to focus on and whether it's special teams or 5-on-5, you want to make sure you've got your guys covered, taking care of the puck and things like that. We're winning games, we're playing really good hockey. There might be some lapses I think in certain games where it might be, whatever it is, 5-, 10-minutes of a certain period where they're kind of bringing it to us a little bit. But that happens. I think we've done a good job of recovering from that.

"I think we've done a good job of finding that lately. We've learned a lot from that early stretch in the season. We've done a good job of responding and playing the right way that we need to play to win. I think guys feel comfortable in their roles and guys are excited coming to the rink. We've done a good job of learning and getting better. I think we have gotten better because of that stretch that we've had."

So for the Blues, who have averaged 3.67 goals per game the past nine, what exactly is their identity in the eyes of the players?

Whatever it is, there is a pulse.

"I think it's starting to come around," said defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, who had a four-point game himself (two goals, two assists) Thursday. "I think when we'll really start to see it come around is if we can do what we're doing at home on the road. If we can make it a consistent effort on the road and do the things that make us so great in tough conditions. We've really, not too much has changed, we always say it every year, there hasn't been too much of a different formula here. Now, we're sticking with it for an entire game. I shouldn't say an entire game. We still have some lapses, obviously, but we're starting to do it more consistently and for a longer period of time. That's why we're starting to get a little more success."

After thinking about it, Hitchcock said the identity for the Blues is there when the score is tight, but once it gets out of whack one way or the other, then it goes haywire.

"I'm seeing us have the identity until the score gets comfortable, and then we revert back," Hitchcock said. "We're seeing the start of it, we just have to stay on task for longer periods of time. 

"One of the problems we're having is we're not putting our foot on the throat. We normally did before and that's something guys are going to have to get used to. We've been a franchise that's done that for years here. It's our first experience as a coaching staff going through this, too. We're winning games, we've got a lot of spirit, a lot of energy, but we need to have a little bit different mindset when we have a lead halfway through the game. We're working on it, but it's not going to happen over night.

But make no mistake, Hitchcock said the Blues have to develop an identity at some point.

"It's the only way you can win," he said. "You have to have something you can trust and believe in. You can't throw your sticks on the ice and play. You've got to be able to have an identity, something you can trust when it's really emotional, hard, very intense. You have to have a foundation. Whatever it is, you have to be able to go back to it right away if you've had a tough outing. You know what it feels like and looks like and you have to get back to it. So we're not there yet, but we're getting closer to it. We're getting more and more minutes into it but we're not there yet and that's why these games end up being scrambly at the end."

Which is why if the Blues tighten the noose in their own end, the identity will forge itself.

"Yeah, I would say that's one of the things you can say, for sure," defenseman Colton Parayko said. "I think that from a defensive standpoint, it's going to be tough winning hockey games going out on the road with getting four goals and three scored against you. If you can limit them to ... obviously zero is the right answer, but two or lower, it just gives us a better opportunity to win hockey games. 

"I think the beginning of the season, we weren't scoring goals, but it was fortunate we were still getting points because our defense was really good. But just things like that, you want to make sure that they kind of balance our, but at the end of the day, we are getting points, that's the biggest thing. I think that when we need to push that extra mile or whatever, we're getting it done."

It's becoming evident that the younger Blues are catching up to their veteran counterparts and formulating the bond necessary to have that consistent identity. And the coaching staff knew it would take time.

"I thought probably closer to 50 (games)," Hitchcock said. "We're ahead of that curve, but we're also greedy. We want it to speed up. I knew it would take time. This is an identity that will stay with the team for a few years now. It's a different group. You're asking young players to play like mature players and that doesn't happen overnight. But we're getting better."

"We've always had good depth, but I think we've got a really good, deep team this year in all facets," Schwartz said. "I think we're taking care of the puck more, which is good. We're getting the puck deep when we need to, but we've got a lot of speed that we can make plays off the rush, whether it's taking it deep and cutting back and finding a late guy or just we've been known to have a big-bodied team to create a lot of o-zone time with our bodies. We're still doing that, but we've got a lot of speed, quickness and tenacity to get on guys quick. I think we're creating a lot of turnovers. Everyone feels comfortable in their role and seems like we've got different guys stepping up every night.

"You don't know what to expect. You want to build it as soon as you can obviously, but some teams find it earlier than others. Some teams change throughout the year, but we did a good job of responding in the right way from a stretch where we weren't playing our best hockey. We weren't really sure the way we needed to play. We've definitely found that the last few weeks."
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Blues defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk said an identity is important
for the Blues to develop. 

All it took was a good kick in the pants after surrendering eight goals in a game.

"I think that would show a lot of character and tell a lot about our team," Shattenkirk said. "I think a lot of teams could have hung their head. Tampa was a team last night that had taken some beatings in a couple of games before. When you have an expeienced team like this, I think it's most important when you're able to realize it in the locker room, not when your coach is coming in and telling you what looks wrong and the things you're doing poorly. When we're able to recognize it as players and then hold each other accountable, that goes a lot longer down the road than if it comes from your coaches.

"I think (an identity is) important because for two reasons. One, so you know what you can fall back on when things do start to stray away and they always will, so in the locker room we can have a set of fundamentals we can go back to and two, so the other team has something to worry about. I think you don't want Winnipeg coming in and saying, this team is really just a mish-mash of players and they don't have a focus. I think for our standpoint we want teams to have to worry about something and that's important."

* NOTES -- Blues right wing Vladimir Tarasenko, fresh off his third regular-season hat trick and four-point game against the Lightning on Thursday, did not practice on Friday but was given a maintenance day and will play Saturday against the Jets.

Tarasenko blocked a shot late in the game Thursday but seemed fine talking to reporters afterwards. 

"He'll play tomorrow, little banged up yesterday but he'll be in tomorrow," Hitchcock said.

-- Blues center Jori Lehtera was in the same colors Friday as fourth-line forwards Kyle Brodziak, Ryan Reaves and Scottie Upshall.

On Thursday, Lehtera centered the third line with Patrik Berglund and Dmitrij Jaskin; he has spent much of the season centering Tarasenko and Fabbri, and at times, Schwartz.

But he has just three goals and four assists in 20 games this season, and at $4.4 million in salary ($4.7 million average annual value), the Blues are looking for more production.

"We need more," Hitchcock said. "We need him to play back where he was before he went down with the injury. We need more.

"I want to sleep on it right now. We're going to need more from him. The position we have him in, we need more from that position."

-- Defenseman Joel Edmundson had another good day of practice, and for the first time since his upper-body injury on Nov. 6, the Blues appear set to declare him fit to be available to play.

"'Eddy' went through today 100 percent," Hitchcock said after practice Friday. "We're going to talk to him later today and see how he feels and then see if we're going to put him into the mix in the next few games, but today was the first day he went right through the whole thing and there was a lot of battling going on and he made out 100 percent, so that was a big step. If he feels like he's available for selection, we'll make a decision on when we're going to put him in. Today was the very first day he's gone through the whole practice no problem."

No comments:

Post a Comment