Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Blues rally to defeat Canadiens 3-2 on Schwartz OT goal

Down 2-0 in third, St. Louis rallies to end homestand 4-0-1

ST. LOUIS -- Ken Hitchcock was searching high and low for the perfect combinations.

Sometimes -- no, a lot of times -- the Blues' coach and his persistent throw-em-in-a-blender and see what kind of combinations work irritates Blues fans, but this time, going back to a familiar pair saved a game destined for the 'L' column.

Hitchcock reunited Jaden Schwartz and Paul Stastny along with Alexander Steen and the instant chemistry bloomed and turned a third-period deficit into overtime magic when Schwartz scored with 1 minute, 12 seconds remaining as the Blues overcame a two-goal deficit to defeat the Montreal Canadiens, 3-2, before 17,646 at Scottrade Center.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Montreal right wing Brendan Gallagher (11) falls back into Blues goalie
Jake Allen during a 3-2 St. Louis win in overtime on Tuesday.

Schwartz had two goals and an assist, Stastny had a goal and assist and Steen set up Schwartz with the game-winner.

Schwartz took a pass from Steen and beat Canadiens goalie Al Montoya high glove side to give the Blues (15-7-4) their third win of the season (3-5-1) when trailing after two.

Schwartz may have scored the game-winning goal, but Steen did most of the work, first winning the puck from Canadiens forward Andrew Shaw behind the Blues net and then threaded the puck in stride to Schwartz going in on goal through three Canadiens.

"Steener, I think he won the battle in the 'D' zone," said Schwartz, who has seven goals and five assists the past 10 games. "They might have had a couple of tired guys out and he took off. I went with him and I think the defensemen were cheating his way a little bit and he made a great pass over a couple of sticks and it landed on my tape. I had a little bit of a step on the defenseman there. He was leaning down a little bit, so I just tried to get it up as quick as I could."

Jake Allen made 28 saves and is 8-0-0 in his past eight starts; he's 10-0-2 at home this season with seven straight wins. The Blues have points in 13 straight home games (10-0-3) and are 12-1-3 overall at Scottrade Center.

The Blues finished a five-game homestand 4-0-1, with four of those games going to overtime or shootout (3-0-1); they're 8-1-1 overall the past nine games.

"I was trying a lot of stuff once it wasn't working, and then I saw some things in the second period I liked," Hitchcock said. "A couple shifts and after the first three minutes ... they had a great shift with about five minutes gone in the third period and I just stuck on those lines.

"... Trying to find it. What looks like it works on paper and then it works for a little while, it wasn't working today. It wasn't going. We weren't doing the normal job of getting pucks deep and we were feeding right into their transition game.

"I thought the first period was an even period, even though we were down 1-0, we had lots of really good chances in the first, but I thought in the second, we were really losing our energy there. We were too stretched out, we were trying to hit home runs, we were trying to long-pass it. When we scored our first goal, we got the puck deep, and it was a great shot by 'Stas.' The shift was set up by three deep plays in a row. Once we got the puck below the goal line, we did a heck of a job with it. We struggled to get it into the areas the way we're built. I thought the other thing we did a great job of in the third was we came back together. We came up the ice together. We came back together, which was a good sign."

Tomas Plekanec and Paul Byron each had a goal and an assist for the Canadiens (17-6-3), who finished a five-game trip 2-2-1. Montoya made 28 saves and fell to 0-3-1 after starting the season 3-0-1.

"I've got to look at the big picture," Canadiens coach Michel Therrien said. "I thought we were pursuing the puck really well. We got some good scoring chances, especially in the second period. We hit two posts and the first goal in the third gave them some momentum, but you know what, we've got to be satisfied. Disappointed losing the game obviously, but we played against a really good hockey team."

The Blues ended Montoya's shutout 7:40 into the third when Stastny scored on a shot from the left circle short side to make it 2-1.

Stastny's goal came after Blues defenseman Colton Parayko kept Canadiens defenseman Jeff Petry's clearing attempt, then a strong forecheck in which Stastny and Schwartz won a puck battle with Petry gave Stastny a small shooting lane that he pinpointed top shelf over Montoya to get the Blues on the board. 

"I don’t shoot from that far out," Stastny said. "You know, if I don’t know where it’s going, he doesn’t know where it’s going. Sometimes we try to do too much. From that close, if he’s set straight, you almost got to shoot high. You’re obviously shooting to score, if not you’re shooting for a rebound just to kind of create some havoc and make them defend. Once we started getting shots through, started getting rebounds and second chances, that’s when we kind of played our game and had a lot of momentum."

It was clear the Blues were getting traffic to the net and finding success.

Schwartz tied it at 10:31. Jay Bouwmeester's shot (his 300th NHL assist) from the left point was loose and Schwartz popped in the rebound after Stastny's backhand attempt fighting off defenseman Shea Weber.

"I think we were moving away from the net (early)," Hitchcock said. "We were trying to make the next play, the next play, the next play rather than play it off the goal, and when we're at our best, we play it off the goal. The next play gets made after we play it off the goal, but it's a tough sell to play that way because it's not easy. The whole league's full of that right now. It's a very difficult sell to ask the players to go and pay a heavy price to go to the net and stay in there and absorb shots and make plays after that, but that's the way you score. Once we started to do that ... look at the rebound goals and look at the rebound chances and all of the sudden, things started to open up. And I thought in the third period, we got three or four really good saves from Jake to keep it where it was. It was good."

Allen saved the game for the Blues with 1:18 remaining when he made a quick pad save on Canadiens captain Max Pacioretty's redirection of a Plekanec pass.

"Plekanec looked like he was going to shoot and he made a side pass and I got a pad on it there," Allen said. "Definitely one that I'll remember."

Allen was unable to handle Plekanec's shot from the left circle. Byron got a piece of it and the puck caromed off defenseman Carl Gunnarsson's skate and between Allen's pads to give Montreal a 1-0 lead at 10:06 of the first period.

The Blues failed to convert on three power plays in the first.

Plekanec scored his first in 14 games after receiving a saucer pass from Byron in the slot and beating Allen with a backhand shot high glove side with 2:18 remaining in the second for a 2-0 lead.

But they turned things around in the third period against a Canadiens team that came in 11-0-1 leading after two.

"That's a good win for us, especially against the No. 1 team in the league," Allen said. "It's good momentum to go on this road trip."
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Blues forward Patrik Berglund (21) checks Canadiens center Tomas 
Plekanec during action Tuesday at Scottrade Center.

The Blues, who started a stretch Tuesday of 10 games in 17 days heading into the Christmas break, now head on a four-game trip beginning Thursday at the New York Islanders.

"I was telling coaches today, starting tonight, it was 10 games in (17) nights, which is really challenging," Hitchcock said. "I think six of them are on the road. Conserving energy, playing the players the right way, not wasting energy on disappointing efforts, you've got to move on is going to be important for us. We've got to go on the road and play really sound, but we've got to play with a high level of energy. My biggest fear is we've had to put a lot of energy into these games, a lot of overtimes, a lot of 3-on-3 stuff, a lot of anxiety, a lot of close games. We'll see where our energy is. We've got to be really careful with ourselves right now."

* NOTES -- Blues defenseman Joel Edmundson returned after missing the past 12 games with an upper-body injury. Robert Bortuzzo was placed on IR with a lower-body injury, sustained in Saturday's 3-2 overtime loss to Winnipeg, and will be re-evaluated in six weeks.

(12-6-16) Canadiens-Blues Gameday Lineup

ST. LOUIS -- Joel Edmundson's return to the lineup for the first time in 13 games for the Blues (14-7-4) today against the Montreal Canadiens (17-6-2) couldn't have been timed any better.

Edmundson was activated off injured-reserve in time to play for the first time since Nov. 6 and the Blues placed defenseman Robert Bortuzzo on injured-reserve. 

Bortuzzo will be re-evaluated in six weeks after he was injured during the Blues' 3-2 overtime loss to the Winnipeg Jets on Saturday.

"The timing couldn't be better, unfortunately for 'Borts,' but fortunately for us because he was playing well when he got hurt," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said. "It's a big help for us because we go back to lefty-righty. 

"You feel for 'Borts' because that's a long couple injuries that he's had and it's a tough go for him; he was playing really well and helping us. But right now, we're in good shape. We've got our six that we started with that we played most of the time with, so we're back on schedule there."

It's the second time Bortuzzo has sustained what is suspected to be a knee injury. He was injured Oct. 27 against the Detroit Red Wings and missed 10 games only to return and play seven of the best games he's played with the Blues before being hurt.

Bortuzzo, in 11 games, leads the Blues in plus-minus at plus-6, and Hitchcock had a very interesting take on this injury.

"I think it's something we've got to look at," Hitchcock said. "It's a similar injury on both sides of the lower body, it's something we have to look at to help 'Borts.' He's a very valuable guy on our team and we need him healthy, but when you have the same injury on both sides, we have to look why it's happening physically and then help him through it so it doesn't happen again. It's something we have to look at and see if we can help him through it."

- - -

Blues right wing Vladimir Tarasenko received his award for being named the Missouri Athletic Club's Sports Personality of the Year.

Tarasenko is the seventh Blues player to win the award behind Mike Liut (1981), Brett Hull (1990), Curtis Joseph (1993), Brendan Shanahan (1995), Al MacInnis (1999) and T.J. Oshie (2014).

"It was a fun time for us and it means a lot," Tarasenko said. "I say a little speech yesterday. But it was yesterday. Today is a new day and we have a tough game coming, so no time to celebrate.

"It shows me how much people care about hockey and the other sports in St. Louis, so it was a really great time yesterday."

- - -

The Blues will not see two of the Canadiens' top players tonight.

Top-line center Alex Galchenyuk is out indefinitely with a lower-body injury sustained against the Los Angeles Kings on Sunday, and goalie Carey Price will get a rare night off for backup Al Montoya, who will make his first start since Nov. 18.

Montoya is 3-3-1 with a 3.13 goals-against average and .903 save percentage.

"One of the things we all agreed on before we left Montreal, we wanted to play 'Monty' for one game and that was the game that we pictured," said Canadiens coach Michel Therrien, whose team is 4-5-1 the past 10 games after starting the season 13-1-1. "We followed our plan. It's an important game for the team. It's a five-game road trip and we we all want to come back to Montreal with a positive record."

Galchenyuk leads the Canadiens in goals (nine) and points (23).

"Yeah, he's kind of Russian speaking guy," Tarasenko said of Galchenyuk. "I think all Russians follow each other. I don't know what kind of injury, but I hope he heals faster."

- - -

Goalie Jake Allen will start tonight; he is 7-0-0 his past seven starts and allowed 16 goals and is 9-0-2 at home. 

The Blues conclude a five-game homestand; they are 9-0-3 the past 12 home games and 11-1-3 overall at Scottrade Center.

St. Louis is 7-1-1 their past nine games after starting the season 7-6-3.

"It's a good test everywhere," Hitchcock said. "I think it's a good individual test for everybody. They're one of the top teams in the league for a reason. They're really well-coached, they play a really good style, a style when you watch, you appreciate and now we've got to find a way to beat that style. They use their speed to check and that's hard to play against, because when you have that attitude that you're willing to hunt down pucks and play the way they are, there's no breathing space. So you really have to control your frustration when you play Montreal because they can get on you and they can stay on you and they're pretty relentless."

Therrien is equally as respectful of facing the Blues.

"Tonight's game won't be any different than what we saw so far on this trip," Therrien said. "We're playing against a team, first of all, they're well-structured, this is a good hockey team, it is a good challenge, they play really well at home, but for us, we need to focus on our game."

Blues defenseman Jay Bouwmeester needs one assist for 300 in his career.

Forward Dmitrij Jaskin, who was sick and missed practice Monday, skated during an optional and will play tonight. 

- - -

The Blues' projected lineup:

Robby Fabbri-Paul Stastny-David Perron

Jaden Schwartz-Alexander Steen-Vladimir Tarasenko

Patrik Berglund-Jori Lehtera-Dmitrij Jaskin

Scottie Upshall-Kyle Brodziak-Ryan Reaves

Jay Bouwmeester-Alex Pietrangelo

Carl Gunnarsson-Kevin Shattenkirk

Joel Edmundson-Colton Parayko

Jake Allen will start in goal; Carter Hutton will be the backup. 

Healthy scratches include Nail Yakupov and Ty Rattie. Robert Bortuzzo (lower body) will miss at least six weeks.

- - -

The Canadiens' projected lineup

Max Pacioretty-David Desharnais-Alexander Radulov

Andrew Shaw-Torrey Mitchell-Brendan Gallagher

Artturi Lehkonen-Tomas Plekanec-Paul Byron

Daniel Carr-Phillip Danault-Brian Flynn

Alexei Emelin-Shea Weber

Andrei Markov-Jeff Petry

Mark Barberio-Greg Pateryn

Al Montoya will start in goal; Carey Price will be the backup. 

Zach Redmond is the healthy scratch. Alex Galchenyuk (lower body), Nathan Beaulieu (neck) and Charles Hudon (sternum) are out.

Monday, December 5, 2016


Bortuzzo out week-to-week, Edmundson to return; Lehtera back 
in against Canadiens; Jaskin misses practice; Tarasenko honored

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- The news on Blues defenseman Robert Bortuzzo is more than just day-to-day.

Bortuzzo, who left Saturday's 3-2 overtime loss to the Winnipeg Jets with a lower-body injury, will be sidelined what coach Ken Hitchcock said is "week-to-week."

It's unknown when Bortuzzo exactly was injured but he missed the later stages of the first period and played only one shift in the second before departing for good.

"Borts is week-to-week. He's got a lower-body injury on the other side of the lower body (that was previously injured) and he's week-to-week and we'll look at him in two weeks and see where he goes," Hitchcock said after Monday's practice at the Ice Zone. "We'll stay with the six guys right now for the game tomorrow and then decide what we're going to do taking it on the road. We've got obviously some guys on top of their games in Chicago right now with the Wolves, so Doug (Armstrong) and his staff have got to decide which guy is going to come up and when."

The good news is that Joel Edmundson, who missed the past 12 games with an upper-body injury, is set to return Tuesday against the Montreal Canadiens.

"It's been a long month, but at least I've been able to skate for about three and a half weeks," Edmundson said. "That's helped my mentality a lot. You want to be out there helping the team, but we've been winning, so it's been a lot easier.

"... If I feel good like this tomorrow, I think I'll be in the lineup. It's all I can ask for right now. I feel good. I definitely needed this amount of time. When I'm ready, I told them I'd be ready. This is the first day I've really felt I could play a game."

The injury comes at a tough time for Bortuzzo, who had been playing arguably his best hockey since returning from what is believed to be a knee injury.

"He was playing unreal," Bortuzzo's defensive partner Colton Parayko said. "He was one of our top 'D,' I think. He was making the right plays at the right time, jumping up at the right time. He was just doing it all. When you see a guy playing like that, it's tough to see him go (down), but he's going to get healed up and come back even better hopefully."

"He just came back from injury and he was playing excellent hockey," Edmundson said of Bortuzzo. "It's tough to see a guy like that go down. He brings a lot of energy to our team, but since he's out, I'll try to hop in and fill that role."

The fact the Blues have Edmundson returning softens the blow.

"'Eddy's back in and he's ready to go, so we're at our six again," Hitchcock said. "It's not a big adjustment for us right now.

"'Eddy' was really ready for about three or four days. We wanted to put him in every battle situation we could, so it worked, and he's worked really hard and making sure that he's pain-free there and ready to go."

* Jaskin misses practice -- Blues forward Dmitrij Jaskin, who scored his first regular-season goal in the past 35 games Saturday against the Jets, was absent along with Bortuzzo for Monday's practice but is expected to be ready in time for tomorrow's game,

"He has a sickness situation that hopefully will be OK for tomorrow," Hitchcock said. "I think we will be, but he was sick today."

* Tarasenko honored -- Blues right wing Vladimir Tarasenko was named the NHL's Second Star of the Week on Monday by the league.

Tarasenko shared the NHL lead with four goals in three games (four goals, one assist), including a pair of game-winning goals helping the Blues (14-7-4) earn five of a possible six points to maintain second place in the Central Division and Western Conference.

Tarasenko scored his sixth career overtime goal – and second of the season – in a 4-3 win against the Dallas Stars on Nov. 28.  He followed that performance with his third regular-season hat trick and matched a career high with four points in a 5-4 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning on Dec. 1.

Tarasenko is third in the NHL with 27 points (13 goals, 14 assists) in 25 games.

Philadelphia goalie Steve Mason was the First Star and San Jose goalie Martin Jones was the Third Star.

* Lehtera to return to lineup -- Blues center Jori Lehtera, a healthy scratch for the first time in his NHL career on Saturday, will return to the lineup against the Canadiens on Tuesday.

Lehtera was skating on a line Monday with Patrik Berglund, Nail Yakupov and Ty Rattie.

"I want him to play through the competition and not to the competition," Hitchcock said. "I want to see the forceful player we had last year, the player we had in the playoffs, I want to see that. I understand ... you're out for a little while, you come back from an injury, but we need a good player in that position right now. We need the player that we had last year and the player that we had through the playoffs. I think it's been 10 or 11 games he's been back, but we need to see a different player. We need to see a player that we saw before."

Lehtera, who has seven points (three goals, four assists) was taking shifts at left wing Monday and was asked if that's an option.

"Possibility," Hitchcock said. "We've really liked 'Bergy' there a lot because he really gets a beat in on the defenseman. He's got great speed, he's skating really well. We like him there quite a bit. I think we can be a little bit flexible. They can read off each other, but either guy can play over there pretty well. 'Lehts' has played a lot of left wing in international play, Olympics, World Cup, World Championships, so he's familiar with that, too."

* Allen's big test -- Jake Allen will return to play Tuesday and will have a big test facing Canadiens goalie Carey Price, if he plays, on Tuesday.

Allen has won his past seven starts and has won six in a row at home; he's 9-0-2 at Scottrade Center this season.

"He's the best in the world and he's the best in the league," Allen said of Price, who leads the NHL with 14 wins, is tied for third in goals-against average (1.82) and is second in save percentage (.942). "He's a huge part of their team. ... It is, especially against a team that we don't get to see much. They're fast, quick and very offensive. It'll be a good challenge. We've played a lot of divisional games lately, a lot of tight-checking games, teams that we know well. This is going to be a little bit of a different challenge for us. It's going to be interesting.

"I really hope one day that I can get to that level where he's at. I think it's a good challenge for me tomorrow."

Allen played his junior hockey in Montreal and knew right away Price would be where he's at today.

"I played junior in Montreal when he was starting (in the NHL)," Allen said. "You knew then. He was young, he was still one of the best and he came a long way. He's obviously proven over the last four years that he is the best. Goalies are very rare like that to find. They obviously have a good one and hopefully we can get the best of him tomorrow."

* Adjusting lines -- Hitchcock flipped Jaden Schwartz and Robby Fabbri at practice on Monday, moving Schwartz to Alexander Steen's line with Tarasenko and Fabbri to Paul Stasty's line with David Perron.

"It's a combination of tomorrow, but it's also a combination for the road," Hitchcock said. "We're going to need two lines to play against top players on the road, so we might as well get it started now."

And getting started means going against the top team in the East in the Canadiens (17-6-2), who have 36 points.

Getting back on the saddle for the Blues means they'll have to do it against them, and when Hitchcock was asked if this is a good opponent to do it against, "Nope," he said. "We like to play the sisters of the poor to be honest with you, but we don't get that. 

"One thing Montreal does that they don't get enough credit for, they use their speed, but they use it to check, and that's why they're so hard to play against. They got speed, every team's got speed, they got quickness, every team's got quickness, but Montreal uses it to put pressure on you to force your mistakes, and that's the difference. That's why they have a winning record, they've got a great goalie, a lot of teams got great goalies, but they make you pay a price to move the puck and they put a lot of pressure on you and they use your speed as a checking mechanism and that's why they're always difficult and they always will be."

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Little's OT goal gives Jets 3-2 win over Blues

St. Louis extends home point streak, plays 
sloppy game, ends 17 seconds into extra session

ST. LOUIS -- The buildup had been there from the past few games, and the Blues got away with points on each occasion during this five-game homestand.

Saturday, the Blues got a point, but in coach Ken Hitchcock's words, they were lucky to get one.

The Blues looked sloppy, lethargic and slow, played sideways when they had the puck, which was not often.

Bryan Little's goal 17 seconds into overtime gave the Winnipeg Jets a 3-2 victory against the Blues before 19.362 at Scottrade Center.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Blues left wing Dmitrij Jaskin (right) chases Jets defenseman Paul Postma
during action Saturday. Jaskin scored, but the Blues lost 3-2 in overtime.

Little was the beneficiary of rookie Patrik Laine's backhand bass through the crease on the backdoor past Alexander Steen and Little, who along with Laine had a goal and an assist, slammed the shot home past Carter Hutton to end a six-game road losing streak (0-5-1).

The play started off the opening faceoff when Little won the draw from Steen back to Dustin Byfuglien, who started with it behind his goal. Byfuglien fed a streaking Laine, who had all sorts of room on his forehand before pulling it to his backhand by Alex Pietrangelo before feeding Little.

The Blues never touched the puck in the extra session.

"'Vladdy' (Vladimir Tarasenko) and I got a little mixed up at the front and we gave them a little bit of space," Steen said. "He made a nice play back door.

"We got mixed up in front and that gave Little that little bit of space. I was trying to back check."

Hutton, who made 20 saves, had to respect Laine coming down the left side looking at his right.

"I didn't think we were going to get beat backdoor because it looked like a 1-on-1 to me, so I'm just playing the player and it's not really my guy," Hutton said. "Obviously it's frustrating, right? If I know he's going to get beat, I know that, but it's one of those things. 

"I'm not sure. I'm going to have to look at it again obviously. Laine is the best goal-scorer in the league, so I'm just doing my job. I don't know, it sucks obviously, right? Away she goes."

Little said: "All I had to do was put it in the empty net there."

Chris Thorburn scored shorthanded for the Jets (12-13-2). Michael Hutchinson made 20 saves.

"I don't know where the two Blues guys were," Laine said. "That was a good find from 'Buff' and that was a 2-on-1. I saw Little going backdoor and I just wanted to pass it to him and it was an awesome finish." 

Steen and Dmitrij Jaskin scored for the Blues (14-7-4), who earned a point for the 12th straight home game (9-0-3) but had their six-game winning streak at Scottrade Center come to an end.

The Blues also ended a streak of nine straight games scoring three goals or more.

"I don't know if we thought the opponent was something different than what they were," Hitchcock said. "We certainly didn't want to play the way we have or the way we're supposed to. We played slow, east-west, not skating.

"I think we looked like a distracted team again. We looked like a team that's won a lot of hockey games and wanted things to be a little bit easier and you get that sometimes. ... I think we were fortunate to get a point, so we'll take the point and move on."

Right from the get-go, something just didn't seem right with the Blues.

The Jets were putting pucks behind the Blues, who in turn were not crisp on zone exits, nor were they sharp with the puck in the neutral zone and putting them behind the Winnipeg defense.

"It's not weird. It's back to the beginning of the year game," Hitchcock said. "We want to play a different way. ... We grabbed it a little bit in the second, but we didn't want to play the game we had to play out there against them, so they looked faster than we did."

The Jets capitalized on a took a 1-0 lead on Thorburn's shorthanded goal at 12:27 of the first period, which came off a 3-on-1 after Tarasenko whiffed on a wrist shot from the right circle.

The Jets' penalty kill unit was on its toes and was ready to move quickly up ice after Tarasenko's whiff on the power play, and Blake Wheeler's saucer pass was perfectly in stride for Thorburn to finish off.

It was a sign of things to come for the Blues, who allowed multiple odd-man rushes.

"You have to engage and you've got to move your feet," Hitchcock said. "We wanted to play the game flat-footed and sideways and slow it down. We were caught in this rut earlier in the year, got out of it and did a great job, went back in it today."

The Blues finally grabbed the game, scored twice and appeared ready to seize control.

Steen's 200th NHL goal was at 5:16 and came off an outlet pass from Pietrangelo and ensuing slap shot that may have glanced off defenseman Jacob Trouba's stick past Hutchinson to tie the game 1-1.

Jaskin's first of the season came 2:10 later. It was his first in 35 games and came after he kept a puck in the offensive zone after coming off the bench, then had possession of it for eight seconds before getting into the middle of the ice, turning and firing a slap shot through traffic.

"It was a good shift," Jaskin said. "Sometimes it happens. Keep the pucks on our sticks. Have good shifts.

"... It's been a while. I'd be happier if we won. It's nice."

But the Blues' bubble burst when the Jets and Laine tied it at 9:18 of the second on a give-and-go with Little.

Laine's goal, which tied him with Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby for the NHL lead, was a build-up for the rookie from three-quarters of the ice, in which he perfected a give-and-go with Little, who split Blues defensemen Kevin Shattenkirk and Carl Gunnarsson before beating Hutton between the pads.

"I think if you look at their second goal, that was our game," Hitchcock said. "A chance to go north with the puck and we turned it over twice on the line and it's in our net. That was the game for us. Got beat back up the ice too many times."

And to make matters worse, the Blues' power play, which was 0-for-4, had a chance with 2:22 remaining to perhaps steal the second point in regulation, but much like the three they got in the first period, very little rotation, ineffective movement and insufficient zone time.

"It didn't surprise he," Hitchcock said. "I think the power play was a reflection of our whole game, slow, methodical, unaware. We had a lot of culprits out there today. 
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Blues defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk (22) slides the puck by Winnipeg's 
Mathieu Perreault on Saturday at Scottrade Center.

"We had a lot of ... other than (Patrik) Berglund and Jaskin, you wouldn't be overly thrilled with some of the performances today. I think we were fortinate to get a point, so we'll take the point and move on, but we didn't want to engage in the elements that we had to engage in. Therefore we looked out of sync."

Jaskin said: "When I was out there in first period, I think it was great, had bunch of shots, didn't go in, think as game went on, ice not at best, couldn't keep in on sticks. Couldn't get it in.

"I was more pissed about my penalty. That was stupid. It was a great time to score but we didn't and they got one after."

The Blues, 3-0-1 on the homestand, wrap it up Tuesday against the Montreal Canadiens.

* NOTES -- Defenseman Robert Bortuzzo left the game early in the second period with a lower-body injury. Hitchcock said Bortuzzo is day-to-day and with the team off Sunday, no further update will come until Monday.

(12-3-16) Jets-Blues Gameday Lineup

ST. LOUIS -- The last time the Blues made a prominent player a healthy scratch (Robby Fabbri), it made a difference.

They're hoping the same happens for center Jori Lehtera, who will sit out today's 6 p.m. game against the Winnipeg Jets (FS-MW, KMOX 1120-AM).

Lehtera will be a healthy scratch for the first time this season and in his career in a move coach Ken Hitchcock said is a situation the Blues (14-7-3 and winners of seven of the past eight) feel they need more from that position.

"We just need more from that position," Hitchcock said. "That's a three position or a two position. It doesn't matter who grabs it, we need more from that position. And we don't need more points, we need more playing through the competition. So whoever grabs it, whether it's 'Bergy' (Patrik Berglund) or whatever I decide, 'Lets' will go back in right away here, but we just need more from that position. We need more definition, more identity, more determination, whatever. We need to know that that position on our team is a very important position and we need to see the other team pay more attention to it.

"... He's a really effective player, when he plays the way he can play, he's a really effective player. But we saw it at the start of this year and we haven't seen it since he came back from the injury. So we've got to see it at a higher level."

With Lehtera out, Nail Yakupov, a healthy scratch in eight of the past 13 games, will step back in and play with Berglund and Dmitrij Jaskin in an ever-going battle to find consistency from that line.

"He's had three good practices," Hitchcock said of Yakupov. "He's getting better at understanding what it's like to be a player on this team. I've seen a real emergence here in the last three practices where the things that are important for us are becoming very important for him."

Which are?

"Positional, structure, spacing, all those coach words," Hitchcock said. "But we're starting to see it now, so it's a real good sign."

- - -

Blues goalie Carter Hutton will get the start tonight, the first in four games and second in the past nine.

Hutton, who is 2-4-0 with a 2.98 goals-against average and .891 save percentage this season, will give starter Jake Allen a breather.

Allen has won his past seven starts and is 9-0-2 on home ice but has allowed 10 goals the past three games.

"Jake's been outstanding," Hutton said. "It's obviously nice to get the nod and I couldn't be more excited to get in there."

- - -

It's the first meeting between the Blues and Jets (11-13-2), who are 2-6-0 the past eight games. 

And it's the first chance for the Blues to get to see in person rookie Patrik Laine, the No. 2 overall pick in this past summer's NHL Draft.

Laine is second in the NHL in goals (15) behind Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby.

"Whoo boy, he's right at the top," Hitchcock said of Laine. "Watching him play against (Connor) McDavid, you wish somebody would give us last place just for a week. He's impressive. That line, I told people after the World Cup, I knew (Mark) Scheifele would go up to another level. He was dominant against men. I knew he was going to go to another level. But to see those three guys play together, if you just make a little mistake through the neutral zone, they're gone on you. They've got the ability to create instant offense off of anything: 3 on 3, 2 on 2, 3 on 2, they just create it right away and there's always a quality scoring chance. When you've got to players with that skill set that can play at that top speed, it's dangerous. You can't afford to make mistakes against those top two lines. With (Bryan) Little back in there now, they've got a lot of dynamite on the first six forwards."

- - -

Blues right wing Vladimir Tarasenko is tearing it up right now.

Tarasenko, who missed practice Friday but will play tonight, has nine goals and nine assists in 11 of the past 13 games.

"There wouldn't be too many teams in the National Hockey League that don't have a special player," Jets coach Paul Maurice said. "His ability to get it off his stick, change directions ... there's a shooter over in Russia named Sergei Mozyakin is almost the same look. He leads the KHL in the history of scoring. ... The longer (Tarasenko) has the puck and the longer that lane is open for him, the chances increase drastically. All the standard stuff you get in a great player, time and space, keep the puck out of his hands and make sure there's not a lot of open people around him."

- - -

The Blues' projected lineup:

Jaden Schwartz-Paul Stastny-David Perron

Robby Fabbri-Alexander Steen-Vladimir Tarasenko

Dmitrij Jaskin-Patrik Berglund-Nail Yakupov

Scottie Upshall-Kyle Brodziak-Ryan Reaves

Jay Bouwmeester-Alex Pietrangelo

Carl Gunnarsson-Kevin Shattenkirk

Robert Bortuzzo-Colton Parayko

Carter Hutton will start in goal; Jake Allen will be the backup. 

Healthy scratches will be Jori Lehtera and Ty Rattie. Joel Edmundson (upper body) is out but close.

- - -

The Jets' projected lineup:

Nikolaj Ehlers-Mark Scheifele-Patrik Laine

Drew Stafford-Bryan Little-Blake Wheeler

Mathieu Perreault-Adam Lowry-Brandon Tanev

Marko Dano-Andrew Copp-Chris Thorburn

Josh Morrissey-Dustin Byfuglien

Toby Enstrom-Jacob Trouba

Ben Chiarot-Paul Postma

Michael Hutchinson will start in goal; Connor Hellebuyck will be the backup.

Healthy scratches include Alexander Burmistrov, Kyle Connor and Mark Stuart. Joel Armia (lower body), Shawn Matthias (lower body), Tyler Myers (lower body) and Nic Petan (lower body) are all out.

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."

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Tarasenko hat trick, Shattenkirk four-point game highlight 5-4 win over Lightning

Blues have won seven of eight, gained a 
point in 11 straight home games in wild affair

ST. LOUIS -- The lids were reigning down on the Scottrade Center ice, many of them Blues hats, and Vladimir Tarasenko was on the bench humbled.

But little did the Blues' right wing know that those souvenirs, some new, some now, belonged to him

"(Do) I get (them) after," Tarasenko said when asked what he would do with all those hats after his third regular-season hat trick and fourth of his career including playoffs following a 5-4 win against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Thursday. 
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Vladimir Tarasenko scored three times and finished with four points in a
5-4 victory against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Thursday.

"I don't know. I just want to say thanks to fans for support. It was really a good feeling."

Blues fans were chanting Tarasenko's name after a four-point night that helped the Blues (14-7-3) improve to 11-1-2 at home. 

Kevin Shattenkirk had two goals and two assists for the second four-point game of his career, Alexander Steen had three assists in his return after missing six games with an upper-body injury and Robby Fabbri had two assists for the Blues, who have scored a point in 11 straight games at Scottrade Center (9-0-2) for the first time since going 9-0-2 from Jan. 12-Feb. 19, 2012. 

Jake Allen made 22 saves to win his seventh straight; he's 9-0-2 at home.

But for the third straight game, the Blues found themselves in a pinch late, having to fend off the opposition on home ice. 

Against Minnesota last Saturday in a 4-3 shootout win, they allowed a goal with 1 minute, 8 seconds remaining before winning it. They did come from behind in that game, so it was a different set of circumstances.

But against Dallas on Monday, the Blues blew a 2-0 lead before winning 4-3 in overtime on a goal by -- who else -- Tarasenko, and on Thursday, the Blues led 3-1 after one period (the first time they've scored three in the first all season) and 4-1 early in the second and appeared to be on cruise control.

The problem is it was set in cruise control and the Lightning shifted into overdrive, twice pulling within one goal before the Blues held on late despite a little bit of drama after Paul Stastny was called for a faceoff violation with 2.2 seconds remaining.

I thought we played better today," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said. "The score wasn’t indicative of the play but the score was indicative at the end of the way we were paying. Just, I don’t know the right way to tell you, I just know where it’s going to take us in a week or so. It’s not going to be comfortable. But we just take the two points and probably move on, but it’s not going to be comfortable in a couple weeks.

"... It's a little deeper than technical. I said that to you before. We need to fix it. But I’m not sure right now. I think we’re just better off riding the horse and seeing when it needs a drink of water. So, I think that’s what we’re better off doing right now. There’s no point in … sometimes you just got to ride out these type of games and we’re doing a lot of great things from the red line in. We’re pressuring people, we’re doing a lot of really good things, but we’re struggling in our own zone. We’re struggling with communication. We’re struggling with tenacity. We’re struggling with the details that have been here for a long time. And we got away from them but we’re not paying the price yet. So now’s the time to just ride it as far as we can go and then let’s see how we do."

The Lightning (13-11-1), who lost their fourth in a row and fifth in six games, got two goals from Cedric Paquette. Tyler Johnson and Nikita Kucherov also scored. Andrei Vasilevskiy made 12 saves before being pulled in the second after allowing four goals. Local boy Ben Bishop replaced him and made nine saves and took the loss because he gave up the fifth goal.

The Lightning was on the cusp twice after trailing 4-1.

"I thought we deserved points," Lightning coach and former St. Louis Bandits coach Jon Cooper said. "I'm not going to sit here and say that we deserved to win the game, but we definitely deserved points out of this game. But in the end, special teams was a factor in the game, but it's tough though. You're kind of battling a few things and ultimately they had ten minutes of power play time, we had ten seconds, so now you're sucking a lot of momentum because you're killing so many penalties and eventually that cost us." 

Tarasenko gave the Blues a 1-0 lead 1:39 into the game after a power move to the net past Lightning defenseman Jason Garrison. Colton Parayko had poke-checked the puck away from Alex Killorn to keep the puck in the zone and enable Tarasenko to beat Vasilevskiy.

"When he scored early, you knew that was going to be there," Hitchcock said. 

Then the Blues went to work on the power play, scoring three times in four tries and finished 3-for-7.

Tarasenko made it 2-0 on the first of three power-play goals on a one-timer from the right circle at 9:37, ala fellow Russian and Washington Capitals forward Alex Ovechkin, after Steen's great fake shot and pass.

"Perry did a great job in front of the net on all our power play goals today," Steen said. "'Fabs' winning the draws obviously and Perry also winning the draws, but I don't think the goalie sees the puck to 'Tank,' which is why I think he has a little space to get that in. 

"We had a few opportunities where I think Parry just took his eyes. He's been playing really well for us, I think carrying a very heavy load. Tonight he was the reason we scored three on the power play."

Paquette got the Lightning within 2-1 at 10:39, but Shattenkirk made it 3-1 with a wrist shot off Paquette's skate at 13:17 from straightaway inside the blue line. 

Shattenkirk scored the Blues' third power-play goal on a slap shot from the high slot at 1:44 of the second period that chased Vasilevskiy. 

"Power-play had great rotation," Hitchcock said. "We almost were given too many power plays where we started getting cute, but the first four power plays were excellent. We really rotated the puck, moved it. We were crisp, hunted it down. Fabbri was great on face offs. Won a lot of face offs, David won face offs on it so we kept the puck there. First four power plays were just a clinic. They were really well organized and we shot the puck at the right time. People were in the right positionings, it was impressive."

"I think from my standpoint more of the same," Shattenkirk said of his game. "I think our power play looked like we were back at it again, having 'Steener' back out was huge. We simplified it but we were able to get a lot of chances off of that. It was one of those nights where things were kind of going our game. When you're playing with Vladi a lot, you just give him the puck on nights like this and you seem to get some points."

Johnson scored for Tampa Bay at 14:25 to make it 4-2, and Kucherov's power-play goal 1:41 into the third cut the Blues' lead to 4-3.

"I think we played well, some foolish things allowed them to get back in the game," Steen said. "But we were able to shut the door, so for the most part it was a good game. I'd say there was a few things we want to clean up."

Tarasenko's third goal and fourth point came at 8:11 of the third against Bishop to give the Blues a 5-3 lead. It was his most difficult one but most impressive. The way Tarasenko settled the puck to get a shot off after Fabbri's tough pass by kicking it to himself and quickly shooting it beat Bishop but hit the post. It did come back and carom off the Lightning goalie's skate and back in.

"Yeah, finally. Thanks for the guys," Tarasenko said of pucks going in Thursday. "They create a lot of good chances for me today. They helped me a lot before when puck doesn't go in so many times. It's a really important win for us. It's always nice to keep winning the homestand."

"He's the best player I've ever played with, hands down," Shattenkirk said of Tarasenko. "... For a player like him to get that first goal early, you could see it just kind of make him settle into the game right away and on the bench we were kind of licking our chops waiting to see what he was going to do with it because he still had 55 minutes to work with. It was just great and they were hard working goals. He had a few other chances where he was just hanging around the net and finding loose pucks. He's one of those guys where loose change seems to find him. He's able to capitalize on a lot of his chances."

Paquette's second of the game at 11:56 made it 5-4, but the Blues were able to win the third of a five-game homestand.

Perron and Jaden Schwartz each had their eight- and seven-game point streaks, respectively, but the Blues could care less at this point as long as the two points are in the bag. But they are living dangerously playing like this.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Blues forward Robby Fabbri (left) fends off Lightning defenseman Andrej
Sustr on Thursday. Fabbri had two assists in a 5-4 win.

"I think so. I think the fact it's happened three games in a row, it's going to become a main focus of ours," Shattenkirk said. "But again, I think the only thing we need to work on is making plays when we have the puck, not just dumping pucks in. It's something we went through last year and we even went through in the playoffs and we just have to have the confidence to do that."

One thing that has been fixed is scoring goals. The Blues have now scored three or more goals in nine straight games after scoring 14 total the previous nine.

"It wasn't like this when season starts," said Tarasenko, who has nine goals and nine assists in 11 of the past 13 games. "We have tough time from you guys and it was so many bad words about our offense, but we just keep working and like I said, we just fight for each other every game and try to stay on our program, and most important thing, we believe in each other. We believe in our game."