Friday, November 10, 2017

Blues "playing with silent confidence," finding different ways to win

Thursday's 3-2 shootout win perfect example of winning when not at 
their best; gaining experience through confidence, tough lessons learned

ST. LOUIS -- Forty minutes were in the books, and the Blues were down a goal against he last-place Arizona Coyotes on Thursday, a game that on paper looked like a total mismatch.

Last season, they likely don't win this game, like the Blues did so this time, winning 3-2 in a shootout and banked another two points.

But these Blues are different. 

These Blues have a different sort of intestinal fortitude.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Goalie Jake Allen, making a save Tuesday in New Jersey, said the Blues
are playing with a silent confidence right now.

These Blues, 13-3-1 and owners of a franchise record for most victories through 17 games to open a season, have a confidence about them that feels it can overcome even those times when play doesn't go according to plan.

It's a change that has the Blues, who host the New York Islanders today at 7 p.m. (FS-MW, KMOX 1120-AM), feeling good about their game and feeling good about the guy they're playing for next to him.

And goalie Carter Hutton said it best after the game, a game in which he was instrumental with a 27-save effort and making both saves during the shootout Thursday.

"That’s what we talked about, good teams trying to get better every night," Hutton said after improving to 4-0-0 on the season with a 1.71 goals-against average and .946 save percentage. "Even if we lose a game, we bounce right back. It’s almost like we come to the rink knowing we’re going to win right now. That’s huge. I thought last year, early in the year, we kind of struggled sometimes, you could feel the (lack of) confidence. Where at this point we never felt, I think from my standpoint and from probably any fan or anyone in the building, there was never a doubt that we were out of that game."

It takes time to feel like that, but the Blues have absorbed enough body blows in recent memory to gain some tough love, that experience of what it takes to be not only a competitor but a winner in all facets.

"I think we just have a silent confidence about us," said goalie Jake Allen, who will start against the Islanders. "I can just kind of tell in the room. I don't think anyone's getting too high (or) too low, but everyone's pretty confident in themselves and what they bring to the table every night. 

"I don't think we played very well for 40 minutes last night. Everyone knows that, but we ended up winning the game. I think that's tough to teach and I think it's a long thing to learn, to be honest. You learn over years of doing that. I think we've just got a good group right now that's jelling well. Teams find ways to win games. I think if you look back in the past four or five years, teams that won the Cup, they might not play great every night, but they find a way to win games and I think right now, that's sort of just what we're doing."

And just how have the Blues gotten here? Well, getting to the Stanley Cup Playoffs six straight seasons gains you the first measure of respect, but then come the growing pains of hard experience when you don't win it all. The Blues were initially their own worst enemy in losing in the first round twice after holding 2-0 series leads, then finally breaking the barrier and reaching the Western Conference Final in 2016 and winning another playoff series last season. All that experience plays a part in moving forward.

"It's a combination of things, but experience, too," Allen said. "For me, some guys have been around longer than I have. Steener's (Alexander Steen) been here for ages. I think it's just years and years of watching other teams do it. I think we're just comfortable in our setting now, our group, comfortable with 'Yeozy' (Blues coach Mike Yeo). I think that comfort level with the coach is at an all-time (high) right now. I think it's easy for everyone. They're just playing their game and not asking anyone to do too much. I don't think there's any panic really. Yeah, there's frustration on the ice. It's part of sports, it's part of what we do, but coming here in the locker room, it hasn't been like years past where there are some frustrated individuals, frustrated lines this year. It's not like, 'Aw, we had four or five great chances but we didn't bury (them). We're going to go there and get one in the third or we're going to get one in overtime,' whatever the case may be. It's nice to see, especially from my end. I know that they're going to go out there in some shape or form and get the job done."

Even earlier in the season when the Blues had their hiccups of losing third-period leads, in Pittsburgh on opening night before winning in overtime, in Brooklyn against the New York Islanders losing a 2-0 third-period lead before winning in a shootout, and even in Las Vegas before losing to the Vegas Golden Knights late in overtime, the Blues found ways to get points. 

It's not always pretty, but effectiveness is what Yeo is looking for, and as long as the Blues are channeling their play in the right direction, Yeo will be pleased with the results.

"I want us to have the expectation that if we play our game and do it for 60 minutes, that we will win, but I don't want us to come in here just to expect or assume that we'll win without putting the work in," Yeo said. "I would say yes and no to that answer. I do think that there's a very healthy belief in our game and what that does for us. ... For me, it comes down to there's a difference between confidence and arrogance. I think that when we have confidence, we're still humble in knowing that we need to put in the work and have the detail.

"You want that feeling. You want the feeling of being in control. I think when things are not going well, we have a pretty good understanding of why they're not going well, and when things are, it's because we're getting the job done."

The biggest bonus for the coaching staff for this type of mindset is that they can't teach this stuff. This is more of an acquired mentality that the players have to buy in to, and they've certainly done it.

For those that have been around like Allen, Steen, Paul Stastny, Alex Pietrangelo, Jaden Schwartz, Vladimir Tarasenko and even the injured Patrik Berglund and Jay Bouwmeester, being knocked out of the playoffs gives a newfound perspective and humbling feeling of what success entails.

"I think the three or four guys that are really stepping up and bringing the other guys into the fight makes them play that much better," Allen said. "The way Schwartzy's playing, his engine. The way Steener just brings himself to the rink every night; guys watch him. It just makes them that much more professional and ready, confident and ready to go and know that there's accountability too. Guys are going to let you know if you're not ready to go at the game, you're not playing well, you're not pulling your weight and I think that's huge on a team. I think you need that. I think you need someone to kick you in the rear end when you need it, and I think that's what's we're having right now and that's what we're seeing.

"It's something that you learn. You learn as a person what you need on and off the ice, what you need and what you don't need and how you can better yourself on the ice. That only goes from experience to playing from the professional hockey ranks from the American (Hockey) League to the NHL or whatever it may be. For me personally, that's sort of what has happened to me and I think probably if you ask everyone else, they can speak the same way. Year after year you learn something new about yourself. It doesn't always have to be as a hockey player. Things could change you off the ice, even away from the game that makes yourself a better player and it's just the little things that go a long way.

"I think the last couple years, we struggled with it; we really did. We'd play well and for some reason, we'd get games to overtime or be up by two or three goals and we only win by one goal. This year, I think we're doing a better job of playing simple. You even see Vladi, who's one of the most skilled players in the NHL who loves to carry the puck, he's dumping the pucks in, he's chipping pucks, he's forechecking. When you see that, I think that goes to show right there that everyone's sort of bought in to what we're doing and it's winning hockey games right now. It might not be the most fun hockey right now for guys, but it's sacrifice that translates to wins."
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Jaden Schwartz (17) is one of those leaders on and off the ice that's leading
by example for the Blues, who are 13-3-1 so far this season.

Nobody knows how this will all unfold for the 2017-18 Blues, but it's surely gotten off on the right foot. Clunker or not, the Blues have managed to learn to give themselves a fighting chance night after night, and building a winner is the reward for the process.

"Yeah, we definitely don’t want to make a habit of that, but yeah it is nice to know," fourth-line winger Chris Thorburn said. "There’s a lot of character in this room. There’s a good mix of older and younger guys. The older guys definitely know how to lead here and it’s great to be a part of that and help out a little bit. They’ve got a great culture here and I think it transforms onto the ice."

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