Blues finally get a practice in; power play
struggles; Olympic disappointment; line shuffling
HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- It's been so long since the Blues held a full team practice not including a morning skate, that those asked couldn't even remember.
"I don't know. It's been a long time," Blues coach Mike Yeo said.
"Today was probably our first team practice in four weeks," left wing Scottie Upshall said.
"No, it doesn't sound quite right. I'm sure there has been one in there somewhere," Yeo said. "It looked like it early; it looked like it had been four weeks."
You get the gist of it.
But the Blues (43-29-7) went through a crisp and quick practice on Wednesday after a 5-2 loss to the Winnipeg Jets on home ice Tuesday before leaving for their final regular-season road trip, to Florida on Thursday and Carolina on Saturday, before returning home for the regular-season finale Sunday at home against the Colorado Avalanche.
The Blues, 12-2-2 the past 16 games despite the lackluster loss Tuesday, have played a rugged schedule since their week-long bye that began Feb. 26 and will conclude Sunday, playing 22 games in 42 days. It's been grueling, strenuous and quite taxing, so the team has decided to use off-days as rest days.
But it was time to reaffirm some details in a practice format Wednesday.
"We needed it just for some of the habits of our game," Yeo said. "I'm a big believer in practice, but I'm also a believer that if you can't practice at the level that you need to, then you're wasting your time out there. Given the way that the schedule has been lately, obviously we've had to choose between a little bit of rust or making sure that we get the right rest and we've chosen rest. I think that's helped us. I think that energy-wise, we've been able to stay on top of a very grueling schedule, and we're a team that needs to work, needs to compete, needs to skate and obviously if you don't have your rest, then you can't do that, so we've chosen that. But on a day like today, it's nice to get our and to work our game a little bit."
All those aside from injured players Paul Stastny, Robert Bortuzzo and obviously Robby Fabbri, skated except for Alexander Steen, who had a maintenance day.
"It was quick. We needed to work on retrievals, going back for pucks," Upshall said. "That's been falling in our game, but just that opportunity for guys to go out there and work in traffic, goalies to get some work on a few things they need, too. This time of year, you really put everything into games. That's most important right now.
"For some guys who don't tough the puck a whole lot in games, it's a chance to get the puck back, feel it. You know you really focus on details. Today was a detail practice. It was crisp, it was short."
* Quick response -- When the Blues have one of these clunker games like Tuesday, it's been a team that's responded well.
So in light of the loss, it wouldn't be a surprise to see the Blues respond with one of their better outings of the season Thursday.
"It's been a really good, long month for us," Upshall said. "We've had a lot of tough games, back-to-backs, lots of travel. We've faced a lot of adversity and we've been able to really come together this time of year. It's important we continue that."
Yeo added: "I would expect us to play well. You're going out on the road, so there's nothing guaranteed. I'm not going to sit here and say that we're going to win the game. We have to go out there and do the right things. I feel no reason why we shouldn't be well-prepared and have the right focus to make sure that that happens. If we do that, it gives us a great chance at the end of the night.
"We have to get better. We have to get feeling good about that. That's another part of our game that and we want to make sure we feel good about going into the playoffs."
* Plenty to accomplish -- The Blues, who are still in a good position to finish third in the Central Division and open the first round of the playoffs against the Minnesota Wild, want to get their game into form before the playoffs begin.
There's three games left to do it.
"We need to play well going into the playoffs," goalie Jake Allen said after the game Tuesday. "It wasn't our best tonight. I think we're still feeling good about ourselves, but we need to focus on these next three games and hopefully have some good production, good play from everyone and just get some solid minutes under us and get some rest and try to be healthy."
That's why the Blues don't want to over-analyze one tough game in a stretch where they've played so well.
"Well, we've got three games left here before the playoffs, so I think we need to find our game," defenseman Alex Pietrangelo said. "Big picture, yeah, the last 15-16 games here we've really played the game that we want to play. Still, three games here to really kind of carry the momentum going into the playoffs."
"... Defensively we've got to continue to stay tight. We haven't been giving up very many goals lately. (Tuesday) is a bit of an outlier from how we've been playing, so we've got to get back to taking care of our own end and managing the puck and occupying the offensive zone. When we're down there, that's when we're playing our best defense, and tonight we just couldn't really find a way to get down there."
* Power play struggles -- After going 0-for-1 against the Jets, the Blues are now 1-for-20 in the past eight games, and the lone marker is an empty-net goal by David Perron at Arizona on March 29.
Yeo has tried to mix and match personnel, and it hasn't produced results.
The Blues, who have dropped to eighth in the NHL at 21.1 percent, still are in good standing, but they've recently had trouble with zone entries, winning draws in the offensive and starting with the puck along with making good decisions when they finally have access in zone.
"Zone entries, faceoffs and then because of that, I think some frustration leaks in and then you get into the zone and you have a weak turnover, a sloppy play that the puck goes down the ice," Yeo said. "There's a number of areas.
"We've had a really good power play all year long. This is a stretch that hasn't been good enough. We just have to collect ourselves, look at video, hit the ice tomorrow for practice and get doing the little things right. It's not going to turn by us just going out and scoring a goal. We have to get doing the little things right. If we lose a faceoff, be real tough for them to get the puck down the ice. If we have to break out, we have to have the right roots, the right timing, the right execution. It's all those little things that add up to scoring a goal and if we can do those things, then we'll be fine."
Should the players be concerned though?
"Yep, we only had the one opportunity tonight but those are the times ... playoffs they're hard to come by," Pietrangelo said. "You may only get one opportunity a game, you've got to make sure you find a way to capitalize."
With only 19 opportunities in these past eight games, it's an average of just under 2.5 opportunities per game, so there's something to be said for trying to generate more opportunities.
"Yeah, I think we're giving up a lot more than we're getting right now," Pietrangelo said. "I think if we end up being a little bit harder to play against, we're going to generate more opportunities. We all like being on the power play, so it's a good way to carry the momentum."
* Lineup updates -- With Steen out, rookie Ivan Barbashev was between Jaden Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko in practice Wednesday, Zach Sanford moved to the left wing with Patrik Berglund and David Perron and Magnus Paajarvi moved to left wing with Jori Lehtera and Dmitrij Jaskin.
With Steen getting a maintenance day, he will play Thursday. As far as the other subtle changes, Yeo said some things could stick.
"I would think that you can expect us to shuffle things around a little bit tomorrow," he said.
Nail Yakupov started practice but left after roughly 10-15 minutes. Yakupov has been dealing with a nagging injury the past few days.
"He's a little dinged up. Definitely don't see him available tomorrow," Yeo said.
As for defenseman Carl Gunnarsson, who's missed the past four games with a lower-body injury, he could be ready by Thursday. If he is, that means Petteri Lindbohm would have to be reassigned to the Chicago Wolves since he was on recall under emergency conditions.
"He looked good today, so we'll see how he feels tomorrow," Yeo said of Gunnarsson.
* Olympic disappointment -- Players around the league voiced their disappointment -- some strongly, some cautiously -- regarding the NHL's decision to not allow their players to participate in the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics in South Korea.
"It's obviously hugely disappointing," said Steen, who represented Sweden's silver-medal squad in Sochi, Russia in 2014. "It's such an amazing tournament. There's nothing really like it. You can make World Cups and other types of tournaments but there's nothing like going to a tournament like that and being part of your country's team and the whole atmosphere that goes on there. It's unfortunate that us as players didn't have more of a voice in it maybe. It's obivously disappointing. Everybody wants to play in those games, have the chance to represent your country in an event or tournament like that."
For Jets rookie Patrik Laine, who would be a shoe-in for Finland, it's a bitter pill to swallow.
"I think it's unfortunate to see that the NHL said no," Laine said. "Everybody that is playing here, I think they would want to go and represent their country in Olympics. It's always huge for every country to be a part of it. It's just unfortunate to see that.
"I think everybody would want to go. That would be a huge thing for me to be in the first Olympics and that would be a huge opportunity for me to be there with my country and try to win the gold medal. It's unfortunate to see that."
Jets captain Blake Wheeler, a member of the United States in Sochi, said it wasn't a surprise that the decision came down to this.
"It felt like it was trending in that direction," Wheeler said. "I think at the end of the day, the players made it pretty clear that we wanted to be a part of it, wanted to participate. I guess you always held out hope that they were going to be able to figure something out, just because of the success we've had in the past few Olympics we've been a part of. To see it just kind of nipped in the bud I guess is a little bit of a shock to the system, but at the end of the day, it always looked like it was heading in that direction.
"I think all the players are disappointed. It's a unique opportunity to showcase our sport. The stage probably doesn't get any bigger as far as we're concerned. You don't get as many people to pay attention, people to watch as you do at the Olympics. It's too bad, a real good opportunity wasted."
Some players feel this is the NHL's big chance to grow the game in other markets where hockey hasn't caught on, like South Korea.
"Not just for Sweden and Europe, this was a big chance to get into other markets, I think that, especially in recent years, have been grasping at hockey and hoping to get more involved in it," Steen said. "Asia has a couple KHL teams now and it was a good opportunity for us to have a big tournament over there. It's not going to be the same without the NHL guys at the tournament. It's unfortunate, it's disappointing, it is what it is."
But players aren't quite putting it to bed just yet, considering the opinions of Russians like Alex Ovechkin, who vows to go anyway.
"It's a long way to the Olympics," Laine said. "There's going to be a lot of games before that and there's a lot of things that can happen. I'm not thinking about that right now."