Monday, November 18, 2019

Blues shuffle lines in hopes of sparking scoring

Berube trying to gain spark through three-game 
winless slide he feels is due to lack of 5-on-5 goals

ST. LOUIS -- Craig Berube had no interest in the goings of Sunday's NFL action. Apparently, he also didn't have a direct interest in the CFL semifinal encounters either.

The Blues coach spent most, if not all, of his day coming up with a new look with his line combinations in light of a three-game winless streak (0-1-2). 
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Blues forward Oskar Sundqvist (70) will line up with Robert Thomas and
Zach Sanford on Tuesday against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

"Most of it, yeah," Berube said. "Yeah, pretty much."

The blender was out and there was plenty of tinkering at practice on Monday at Enterprise Center:


McGinn-de la Rose-Brouwer

Tyler Bozak, a staple as the third-line center for much of his one-plus seasons with the Blues, has been moved up to the top line with Brayden Schenn and Jaden Schwartz on the right wing, Sammy Blais has been reunited with Ryan O'Reilly and David Perron, Robert Thomas was the third-line center with Zach Sanford and Oskar Sundqvist and Klim Kostin replaced Sundqvist with fourth-line grit guys Ivan Barbashev and Mackenzie MacEachern.

For Bozak, who admitted he's played virtually little to no right wing, said it doesn't matter to him. Having two centers on one line can actually be a benefit.

"Not really (much), I need to be honest, but just at end of games and at certain times of games, but it's not that big of a transition," Bozak said. "We've got two centermen on our line. We can both play low, we can both play wing, we can switch in and out of positions. It shouldn't be too bad.

"Me and Schenner will kind of just rotate wherever we are at that time. It'll be nice. We'll be able to take draws on our strong sides. I guess whoever's back in the d-zone first will play low. It won't be too much of a change."

The new-look top line can now be dubbed the All-Sasky Line since all three are natives of Saskatchewan.

"Yeah, why not? First time we've got the Sasky boys together," Schenn said. "Bozie being obviously a very good two-way forward, good centerman. I've played a little bit of both too. I think we'll read off one another. I've done it before where I've kind of played a little bit of a hybrid center and kind of whoever's low will play low and we'll both take face-offs and see if we can get something going here."

Blais started the season with O'Reilly and Perron, and Thomas, a center by trade, will be given a look at his natural position in hopes to enhance his playmaking skills.

"I wanted to get Robert Thomas in the middle of the ice for a game, more than one game hopefully here," Berube said. "He's a great player that has skating and open ice puck play is really good. Hopefully maybe he can get something going there.

"That's where his natural position is and he's a puck distributor. He's a good playmaker."

Berube's hope as the Blues (12-4-5) host Tampa Bay on Tuesday: improve their 5-on-5 scoring. The Blues entered Monday tied for 27th in the league with the New Jersey Devils in 5-on-5 scoring with 35, or 1.67 per game.

Overall, the Blues are 14th in the league averaging 2.95 goals per game but since Tarasenko went down, they've scored 30 goals (2.73 per game) in 11 games.

"It's been down and we've go to generate more 5-on-5 scoring," Berube said. "Just trying a few guys around and see if we can get something going.

"We go over chances all the time and how we mark them and stuff. We're doing a good job of getting lots of chances, but I think that we have to execute better in a lot of our Grade A chances. We could hit the net more, bear down a little bit more in those areas. It sounds like a little thing, but it becomes a big thing. The chances are there, but we've got to do a better job of hitting the net and executing a little bit better there. ... It's not about shot attempts. You've got to shoot the puck and we all get that, but it's the quality of shots is the most important thing."

It was inevitable that when leading goal scorer Vladimir Tarasenko went down with a dislocated left shoulder, the Blues would have moments like this where the well would run dry on scoring. It's been held to a higher ground because of a power play that's ranked fifth in the league, and defensively, they've only allowed 36 5-on-5 goals (1.71 per game). But Tarasenko isn't coming back soon, so the players must work with what they have, and they know they have the tools to get the job done without No. 91.

"I think we always defend hard 5-on-5, no doubt about it, but I think when we maybe go into a little bit of a lull, it's when we're not scoring 5-on-5 and I think when you do score 5-on-5, it gives confidence of guys, it gives swagger of guys for sure," Schenn said. "Sometimes it just comes and comes naturally and right now, it's not. You have to find ways to get out of the funk 5-on-5 and that's whether it's communicating with guys on your line or when you're on the ice with them or finding different ways to score, we all have to do it together as a group."

Scoring 5-on-5 can many times come from getting around the net and finding those loose pucks, which the Blues haven't done a ton of, although they did well in the 4-1 loss to Anaheim on Saturday.

"I thought we went to the net hard last game," Berube said. "It didn't work out very well, but you still have to go to the net, and I thought we did a good job of that last game. Their goalie played well. We've got to keep going there. But we've got to execute better on our good chances that we're getting."

So when guys were driving to the rink Monday morning, they probably had a feeling some maneuvering was on the horizon and understandably so.

"We've lost three in a row, I know two were in overtime, but obviously make a few changes here to try and get a little spark," Bozak said. "I think that's what you do when you're on a little skid. We're playing a really good team again tomorrow. Hopefully the new combos work and get some chemistry right off the bat and start putting some more pucks in the net.

"I think the last few games, we haven't been around the net as much as we'd like to. The goalies are so good now, you have to take their eyes away. It's going to be tough to score on that first shot. You usually get the best opportunities on the second and third chances. We have to get more traffic in there, get more guys in front of the net and get some more rebounds."

One thing the Blues want to squelch is the idea fatigue is a factor and that there's a lack of energy, but it's hard to ignore, especially with the month of November that has featured already three sets of back-to-backs and another on the way. Beginning Tuesday, the Blues finish November with seven games in 12 days and playing into last June is bound to catch up to you.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Ryan O'Reilly (90) will have a familiar winger on his line Tuesday when the
Blues host the Tampa Bay Lightning.

"I don't think fatigue's a factor at all," Schenn said. "You can probably say that, but you still get your two and a half, three months off in the summertime and the way it is now, guys train all summer now as it is. Even coming into this season, we've had a good start, but teams are slowly starting to creep up on us and catch us and I think we have to start realizing that now. As far as energy and fatigue goes, the coaching staff does a great job giving guys days off, time off, optional skates, stuff like that."

All in all, the Blues are still tied atop the Western Conference with 29 points, and are in a good spot. They just want to remain on top of things and not get into any prolonged dips, like the ones they went through last season.

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