Sunday, February 7, 2016

Building quality minutes key to moving forward

Blues found plenty of good in 4-1 win against 
Wild, looking to sustain the good, eliminate the bad

By LOU KORAC
ST. LOUIS -- The things the Blues preached during their recent stretch of goal futility came to fruition for one game.

But now the challenge after a 4-1 victory against the Minnesota Wild on Saturday at Scottrade Center is if the Blues, who picked up win No. 30 (30-17-8), can sustain the of one game.

That included a successful power play (3-for-6, which broke a string of 24 straight goalless power plays), a strong penalty kill (6-for-7), scoring those greasy, dirty goals, playing in the hard areas and getting great goaltending.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Vladimir Tarasenko (91) looks to make a pass with a trio of Wild players
defending on Saturday in a 4-1 Blues victory.

"Now we just have to keep going the same way," said center Jori Lehtera, who scored a power play goal and assist on another. "I think guys got a lot of self-confidence from this game. I think it's going to help us the next game."

The Blues had sustained zone time after winning offensive-zone faceoffs on the power play, which resulted in Vladimir Tarasenko's goal after a nifty pass from Paul Stastny through the crease, 

"A lot of movement, and when you do a lot of movement, guys end up in different positions," Stastny said. "When we have four lefties that can play different spots and 'DB' (David Backes) patrolling in front and popping up, they have to respect him. 'Steener' makes a good play, kind of sucks the guy in and then I throw across to 'Vladi' and instead of him rushing he polishes off a bit and bears down and puts it top shelf."

They got the goals from Lehtera and Stastny as a result of crashing the slot and collecting loose pucks or getting that fortuitous bounce, and on Troy Brouwer's goal, it was another example of working the puck well, getting sustained zone time to set up a one-timer in the slot.

"I saw more bodies to the net-front, yeah," associate coach Brad Shaw said. "The Stastny goal's a great example. That's not a classic hockey play, but it's a result of us with bodies and intent and effort. We probably get a fortunate bounce, but we worked real hard to get that bounce."

The Blues gave up a whopping 24 shots in the second period, mostly because of sustained offensive zone time on the power play by the Wild, but Brian Elliott, who made 38 saves, came up with some beauties during a 23-save period, including robbing Nino Niederreiter moments before Stastny made it 3-0.

"We got in a little penalty trouble again," Elliott said of the second period. "I was just talking with the guys. They were just throwing pucks and trying to whack away at it in the crease and that's how they ended up getting their goal. We did a good job of just making them kind of passing it around and not really have any wide open chances.

"We actually got to a lot of pucks and they managed to keep them in at the blue line; they're a pretty good team at that. If we cleaned that up a little bit, I'm assuming we wouldn't be seeing as many shots. It's stuff to work on and we escaped with two points."

Said Shaw: "Even the Stastny goal to make it (3-0), they just have a fantastic chance where it might be (Niederreiter) that gets stymied by 'Ells.' And then we go down 10, 15 seconds later and get a hard-working goal to go up (3-0). Both of those moments were real key moments in the game because you feel in the second that we weren't quite putting enough pressure on them and backing them off. They were sort of generating some momentum, especially through their power plays."

Elliott is 4-2-1 with a 1.43 goals-against average and .955 save percentage the past seven games; he's 7-3-1 in 11 starts since Jake Allen (knee) went down Jan. 8.  

"Brian has been the best player for our team for a long time," said Lehtera, echoing coach Ken Hitchcock's recent comments. "He played a good game today as well. That's nothing special anymore."

Stastny said, "He's just playing with confidence, playing good, we kind of rely on him. Whether it's him, whether it's 'Snake,' both of those guys, when they're playing their game, they're seeing the puck well, they're moving well. He's playing the puck a lot more too. Sometimes they dump it in and when he has a lot of confidence he does a lot more things than just play the net."

It wasn't the cleanest of wins for the Blues but one they'll take at this point. Building quality minutes and strong play will be the key moving forward, win or lose.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Blues defenseman Alex Pietrangelo (right) left Saturday's game in the third
period with an apparent right knee injury.

"We had a good power play today. That's good for the rest of the year," Lehtera said. "We scored goals. ... Good puck movement, good shots and guys hit the net. Simple stuff.

"Good penalty kill today; we played well. ... We just fought through it. We played for our team. That's how you get rewarded."

The Blues were off Sunday and had no update on defenseman Alex Pietrangelo, who appeared to take a shot to the right knee after a check by Charlie Coyle. Shaw said after the game Pietrangelo was "a little sore" and the team would see how Pietrangelo felt Sunday. He was able to skate off on his own power.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Special teams, goaltending shine in Blues' 4-1 win over Wild

Power play breaks through with three goals, Elliott strong with 38 saves

By LOU KORAC
ST. LOUIS -- Greasy goals ... check. Power play efficiency ... check. Brian Elliott making saves ... double and triple check.

The Blues' offense had been anemic in recent games, their power play had been stagnant for nearly a month but Elliott has been good and that trend continued. 

The Blues threw power play efficiency and goal-scoring abilities into the fire with Elliott, and they all resulted in a 4-1 victory against the struggling Minnesota Wild on Saturday before 19,318 at Scottrade Center.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Brian Elliott (left) maneuvers to make a save in front of teammate Carl
Gunnarsson (4) and Minnesota's Zach Parise Saturday in a 4-1 victory.

Paul Stastny, Jori Lehtera and Troy Brouwer each had a goal and an assist for the Blues, who scored three power-play goals for the first time in more than a year. 

Vladimir Tarasenko scored, Robby Fabbri had two assists for the Blues (30-17-8), and Elliott made 38 saves, including 23 in the second period. 

The Blues had not scored three power-play goals in a game since Jan. 6, 2015, at the Arizona Coyotes. 

"Patience. I think we were a little hungrier," Stastny said when describing the power play. "We got a lot of possession off draws and then, more poise, I don't want to say patience, had more poise. We weren't forcing things that we were in the past.

"... Our power play was good and we simplified. We started getting more shots and from the shots we created more open spots. All three power-play goals were created from having shots on net and getting rebounds and getting them out of position and then we made plays from there." 

Matt Dumba scored for the Wild (23-20-9), who have lost five games in a row (0-4-1) and 10 of 11 (1-9-1). Goalie Devan Dubnyk made 20 saves; he is 0-7-1 his past eight starts.

The Blues got greasy goals, they got well-executed goals, and their penalty kill was extremely efficient in thwarting the Wild on 6 of 7 attempts.

All in all, it was a well-needed outbreak.

"The execution was a lot sharper," said associate coach Brad Shaw, who spoke to the media in place of coach Ken Hitchcock. "I thought we were very direct in our game. I thought our ability to cross the (blue) line with possession (on the power play) or get that initial possession really allowed us to use more of the zone time through the two minutes in what we've seen recently. I thought both units were sharp obviously. Both units scoring and just way more decisive, way more in sync and at the net and sort of play a smarter, more offensive game."

Despite allowing a season-high 24 shots in the second period, the Blues outscored the Wild 3-1. 

Tarasenko scored his second goal in 12 games to give the Blues a 1-0 lead when he beat Dubnyk with a wrist shot high on the short side after a saucer feed from Stastny at 2:47 on the power play. It was the Blues' first power-play goal since scoring two against the New Jersey Devils on Jan. 12.

"You can almost hear the collective sigh on the bench," Shaw said. 

Lehtera's first goal in seven games, another power-play goal, put the Blues ahead 2-0 at 9:19. Robby Fabbri's shot from the slot caromed off Dubnyk, hit Lehtera's leg and trickled back in.

It was the kind of goal the Blues, who scored five goals in their five previous games, felt would help them break out of their scoring drought.

"I think right now, we'll take everything we (can) get," Lehtera said. "You have to do the ugly ones before you can get the nice ones. ... Our team got way better after that goal. It was an important goal for us."

Scottie Upshall was the recipient of two penalties (Mikko Koivu for elbowing and Nate Prosser roughing) that resulted in the Tarasenko and Lehtera goals. 

"That's one of the things he does best, he gets under guys' skin," Shaw said of Upshall. "He's quick to get there, he's feisty, he's got enough nasty in his game that he aggravates that guy. 

"It was sort of that type of game. They're a team that with their recent lack of success, that sort of ramps up the anxiety sometimes and you get a little bit hair-trigger on your temper. He's just the type of guy that can sort of set guys like that off."

Elliott prevented the Wild from making it 2-1 when he robbed Nino Niederreiter on a chance in the slot, and Stastny came back and scored at the other end at 16:51 to make it 3-0.

"That's the one that kind of makes you happy," Elliott said. "Guys take that kind of momentum and go down there and put it in the back of the net. It was good. We've been struggling scoring and tonight, we kind of clicked on the power play a little bit and really made some nice plays."

From potentially being a 2-1 game to going to 3-0 was uplifting for the Blues and deflating for the Wild.

"Everyone noticed it too," Stastny said. "They're a team that's struggling right now, we're a team struggling to score, that makes it a three-goal game instead of a one-goal game, it completely changes the way both teams look at the way the game was going. We take that save and get momentum whether we score on that play or just keep going. That's a play that uplifts the whole team and the whole energy of the building."

The Wild got one back on the power play at 18:14 when Dumba collected a rebound after a wild scramble in front of Elliott and scored into an open net after the Blues goalie thought he had the puck covered. 

The 24 shots for the Wild set their road record for a period and tied their all-time record. It was also the most shots the Blues allowed in a period since Chris Osgood faced 25 in the third period Oct. 29, 2003 against the Detroit Red Wings.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
The Blues' Patrik Berglund (21) splits betweem Minnesota's Charlie Coyle
(left) and Mikko Koivu with the puck Saturday.

"He was great again; he was fantastic," Shaw said of Elliott. "He gets a little spun around on the goal they ended up scoring, but we have to do a better job on shot lanes on our penalty kill and you have to stay out of the box. You can't take that volume of penalty kills against anybody. I thought the game was the type of game that had a chance to get out of hand; it almost got there, but we have to keep our heads above us a little bit better than that."

Brouwer scored his 11th of the season at 2:38 of the third period. From the slot, he one-timed Fabbri’s pass from below the goal line for the Blues' third power-play goal. 

Blues defenseman Alex Pietrangelo appeared to take a check on the right knee from the Wild's Charlie Coyle with 7:20 remaining in the game and did not return.

Shaw said Pietrangelo was "a little sore," and he would be evaluated on Sunday. 

(2-6-16) Wild-Blues Gameday Lineup

By LOU KORAC
ST. LOUIS -- Both the Blues and Minnesota Wild are eager and anxious to get their respective games back in the right direction when they oppose one another tonight.

For the Blues (29-17-8), it's working on producing more offense. Despite being 2-2-1, they've put five goals on the board in that time frame. 

"If we can apply pressure and get on the right side of things, I think that will hopefully discourage them," defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk said of the Wild, who will make forwards Thomas Vanek and Jason Zucker healthy scratches tonight. "Then we'll be able to take over the rest of the game.

"... We're trying to find ways to score. It might just take a couple ugly ones to go in for us. It might not be the pretty play. I think we have to remember that and stick with it. It might be just something silly as getting everyone to the net and bouncing off a goalie or off one of our guys and in. That's how these things start falling back into your favor. Hopefully that happens for us tonight."

Also, the Wild (23-19-9), who are 0-3-1 the past four games and 1-8-1 the past 10, will be a team that can be a wounded animal that can jump up and bite in desperation or one that can be had with some early success from lack of confidence with their recent play.

"I don't think we can fall into the trap thinking they're just going to roll over for us," Shattenkirk said of the Wild. "They seem to play a very patient and almost boring game against us but it works. It's worked recently against us. We just want to make sure they don't come in here feeling like we're a team they've had success against lately and they're going to get right back in the swing of things by getting a win against us tonight."

- - -

Associate coach Brad Shaw took coach Ken Hitchcock's spot addressing the media Saturday morning but after addressing some questions, was cast aside for Hitchcock ... wait, no, it was right wing Ryan Reaves channeling his inner Hitchcock complete with wardrobe and baby powder to give him the shiny white hair.

For a team that keeps it loose, it certainly drew funny laughs from attending media and quite creative for Reaves, who is one of the top pranksters on the team.

It was quite unexpected but so very much like Reaves, who has had a penchant for using his locker room slipper as a recorder and jumping into player interviews. Also, he has some YouTube videos up playing pranks on -- or scaring -- teammates that are quite creative.

- - -

Left wing Jaden Schwartz will not play but took part in the optional skate Saturday. The Blues don't play again until Tuesday when they host Winnipeg and could mark his return. Schwartz will miss his 48th consecutive game.

Left wing Magnus Paajarvi will skate in his 100th game with the Blues tonight.

The Blues' power play, 0-for-23 the past eight-plus games dating to Jan. 12, will look to get off the schneid tonight. The Blues have converted five times the past 13 opportunities against the Wild the past five games.

- - -

The Blues' projected lineup:

Patrik Berglund-Paul Stastny-Vladimir Tarasenko

Scottie Upshall-Alexander Steen-David Backes

Robby Fabbri-Jori Lehtera-Troy Brouwer

Magnus Paajarvi-Kyle Brodziak-Dmitrij Jaskin

Jay Bouwmeester-Alex Pietrangelo

Joel Edmundson-Kevin Shattenkirk

Carl Gunnarsson-Colton Parayko

Brian Elliott will start in goal. Pheonix Copley will be the backup.

Ryan Reaves and Robert Bortuzzo are healthy scratches. Jaden Schwartz (ankle), Jake Allen (lower body) and Steve Ott (hamstring) are on injured reserve.

- - -

The Wild's projected lineup:

Zach Parise-Mikko Koivu-Charlie Coyle

Nino Niederreiter-Mikael Granlund-Jason Pominville

Ryan Carter-Tyler Graovac-Justin Fontaine

Chris Porter-Jarret Stoll-Erik Haula

Ryan Suter-Jared Spurgeon  

Marco Scandella-Matt Dumba  

Christian Folin-Nate Prosser  

Devan Dubnyk will start in goal. Darcy Kuemper  will be the backup.

Jonas Brodin (foot) was placed on injured reserve Saturday and will miss 3-6 weeks with a broken foot. Niklas Backstrom, Thomas Vanek and Jason Zucker will be healthy scratches.

(2-6-16) BLUES NOTEBOOK

Offense needs to find its way back; Schwartz ruled 
out Saturday; Allen back on ice; Steen to stay at center

By LOU KORAC
ST. LOUIS -- Fifty-four games in to the regular season, if one would have told fans that the 2015-16 Blues would have scored two or fewer goals (regulation or overtime) in a game 30 times this season, they'd be in dire straits.

Such is the case for the Blues, including 12 times with one or fewer goals and shut out four times.

The Blues come into today averaging 2.33 goals-per game, down from 2.91 last season.

But in that amazement is the fact that the Blues have won 11 times when scoring two or fewer (including two wins scoring one goal) and earning points in 15 of 30 of those games (11-15-4), which is remarkable in itself.

Chalk it up to great goaltending, and strong defensive play, especially in recent games.

But to continue to push ahead with 28 games remaining and the grind of the season kicking into full gear, the Blues (29-17-8) have hit another rut in the goal scoring department, scoring five times the past five games.

However, as evidenced in a 3-1 loss to the San Jose Sharks on Thursday, the Blues feel aside from the end result, the execution shouldn't change much. 

"For us, we've got to find a way to stick to that game plan whether you're up 1-0 or down 1-0," center Paul Stastny said. "... You play a different game whether you're up one or down one. It's common instinct for anyone to play with a little more confidence. The biggest mindset for us is to try to get that early goal.

"If 'Tank' (Vladimir Tarasenko) scores on the first shift there, all of the sudden you're up 1-0 and it loosens everyone up. Sometimes it takes a bounce like that. ... Offensively, we had a lot of chances. A couple posts, a couple good saves by the goalie; there are days where they don't go in and you're in a funk right now. You've got to kind of create that traffic and just bring the puck between the dots there, find a way to drive through there. That's where all the havoc should be and all the bodies should be."

Case-in-point, the Blues, despite allowing 16 first-period shots, felt their best chances offensively came in the opening 20 minutes, but since they were unable to finish, they strayed away from what was going well, eventually got down and chased the game, which in essence saw them force plays and make mistakes.

"I see it as the formula is there, the recipe's there," coach Ken Hitchcock said. "What we need to do is duplicate a lot of things we did in the first period and show the ability to stay with it for a longer period of time, in a number of aspects. To score and win games in the National Hockey League, there's a defined plan that every team has, and that is, to win in the league you have to spend as much time in the offensive zone as you can. That's got to be our focus. We've got to spend more time in the offensive zone, whether it's with the puck, forechecking the puck, faceoffs, making the goalie make saves, we have to spend more time in there and the good part for us is that what we can change is well within our control, and that is that we can do a better job in those aspects on a consistent basis. We showed really good flashes like last night at being able to do that, but we need to be better for longer periods of time to score more, to win more games, it's all connected. When you're occupying the offensive zone more, you're forechecking more. When you're occupying the offensive zone, the goalie's having to make saves. They're having to defend more. And the other thing is the opposing team takes penalties on you. So they're all connected, but what you don't want to do is when you spend all the time to work it in there, you just don't want to give the puck away easily. That's what I want to see from us is stay on the program for longer stretches. We were right on the mark after the first period and we left the mark for a period of 10 or 12 minutes in the second and then it changed the momentum of the game. We had really good momentum after the first period but the momentum changed after we started to force the issue offensively.

"Sometimes when you get frustrated at times when you're not scoring, you force offense. The message to the players was the program works, but staying on the program just can't be the coaching staff staying on the program; everybody needs to be connected to it. It's coaches, it's players, it's everybody. If we do that stuff, man, do we ever have success."

The Blues were a team in the past that was among the league leaders in shots on goal; volume was always high. But as Patrik Berglund said, "We don't shoot nearly as many shots anymore, I feel like. The traffic is not there either. Throughout the (past) few years, we've doing a much better job of that. We've been kind of drifting away from it. ... Right now, we're trying to play a little bit too cute."

Too cute ... a common theme when things don't go right. But as Alexander Steen said, there's a time to shoot and a time to be smart.

"Shooting at the right times and getting secondary pressure on the net, so once you hit them with one blow, it's almost like you've got to hit them again," Steen said. "Obviously getting pucks through from the points and forwards creating havoc. That's how we score our goal last game. You've just got to get to the net, create havoc, make sure the goalie doesn't see everything, get some bounces and that's how it turns.

"It's hard to put a finger on exactly what's caused the drought or dry spell as of late, but we're working hard to try and change things. The only way to get through these times is by working hard."

The Blues' 1-0 win at Nashville coming out of the All-Star break was a perfect example of applying persistent pressure on the offensive zone and possessing the puck. Hitchcock feels the loss Thursday is more indicative of what works and what doesn't.

"I think the Nashville game's a throw-away game," Hitchcock said. "I think it's a game, two teams with equal energy, no room on the ice. I think yesterday's game is a great lesson game. To me, yesterday's game is a great lesson game of the things that we did really well and the things we need to get better at."

On the flip side, the Blues have allowed two goals in a game 10 times, one goal
in a game 10 times and six shutouts, including nine in the past six games. They're not allowing as any scoring chances that they did earlier in the season which bodes well. If they can get the offense and defense to work in unison, it would make things much brighter.

"Our defense has been way better as of late," Steen said. "If we're going to look at anything positive, there's your positive. The penalty kill's been great, the power play's been lacking a little bit; that's part of the offense. We're looking to change that, but early (in the season), the offense was going and the defense wasn't going. It's all relative."

* Schwartz ruled out -- The news on Jaden Schwartz is ... there is no news.

At least no new news.

Schwartz, who's on the cusp of returning from a fractured left ankle that's sidelined him the past 47 games, was a participant for a third full practice this week but his status hasn't changed.

Schwartz will not play Saturday against the Minnesota Wild, pushing his earliest potential return to Tuesday against the Winnipeg Jets.

The Blues are at the point where Schwartz has to come tell the coaching staff he's ready to play.

"He's not playing tomorrow," coach Ken Hitchcock said after practice at Scottrade Center. "He did some quick-feet drills today, looked good, but he's got to come and tell us now."

Hitchcock said Wednesday that when Schwartz does return, he's slotting in with Stastny and Tarasenko. That stance has shifted ... slightly.

"I want Schwartz either playing with Stastny or (Alexander) Steen, one or the other when he's ready to go," Hitchcock said. "I want him playing with one or the other. That's where he's going to end up."

Schwartz will be a welcomed addition to the lineup.

"He's probably one of the more important pieces in our lineup," Stastny said of Schwartz. "I think as a scoring threat and as a playmaker, he's a lot more deft, a two-way player that's dangerous every time he's out there. When he got hurt, in here we knew how important it was that he'd be gone and how it would hurt us and how we'd have to keep battling to stay in the hunt and be in a good position until he got back."

But as Steen said, Schwartz has been gone for so long, the rest of the team continued to battle without him, and they had no other choice.

"We've been playing all year basically without him and we've been scoring goals," Steen said. "There's no magic quick fix. Same guys have been doing it all year, so we've got to find a way to start scoring again. The reasons are so technical, it's hard to explain. The easiest way for me to explain it is just work ethic. You've just got to work through times like this. Doesn't matter if it's goal droughts or defensive lapses. Now we're looking at that as a negative."

* Allen makes appearance on ice -- Goalie Jake Allen, out since sustaining a knee injury Jan. 8, took the ice at the end of practice and worked on some agility drills with head athletic trainer Ray Barile.

Allen returned the ice this week, but until he begins to practice with the team, is a non-factor at this point.

"Until he's in the net stopping pucks, he's like a typical non-player," Hitchcock said of Allen. "Nice to see him out there, but we're a ways away there."

Allen's appearance surprised the coach.

"I had to look twice when the guy came on the ice," Hitchcock said. "I didn't even know he was coming on the ice. 

"You can rule him out for a little while."

* Steen to remain at center -- Apparently, Hitchcock likes the experiment so much, that the natural left wing-converted-to-center Steen will remain playing down the middle ... for the time being and foreseeable future.

Hitchcock proposed the change over the All-Star break to Steen and David Backes, who has been playing center but moved to his natural right wing and after a slow start at Nashville on Tuesday, the results to the coaching staff have been impressive.

"I thought Alex was outstanding yesterday," Hitchcock said. "I thought it gave us exactly what we needed in the middle of the ice. Great reads down low, got us out of all kinds of trouble in our own zone; we didn't spend any time in our zone with that line. This is two games in a row for a guy to go into a few position, I've got to tell you, I was really impressed. 

"It looks like a helluva fit, to be honest with you. ... The big thing for me is if this is how Steen's going to play center ice, this is a big help ... a big, big help. I don't know what his faceoff percentage was (73 percent on 11 of 15 faceoff wins), but it helps us exit the zone way, way better."

Backes perhaps needs a bit more adjusting after playing down the middle for so long. But Hitchcock feels it'll come back naturally.

"David's still got some things he's got to get used to," Hitchcock said. "One of the problems ... when you play center ice and you've got to put the puck in the zone, you usually put it in from behind. Center ice position is put it in (the zone), let the wingers forecheck. Now he's a winger with the puck, and he's still got the mental things in his head like a center. He's got to learn when he puts it in, he's also the guy that needs to go and get it. That's the mentality ... give him two or three more games he's going to have. Yesterday was a lot of put it in and boom, you've got to get going. There's still hesitation and there's still thinking like a center. He got better as the game went on again."

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Anemic offense can't produce in 3-1 loss to Sharks

Blues have scored five goals in five games, four in past three

By LOU KORAC
ST. LOUIS -- Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said Thursday morning that the Blues' lack of offense going through "an unlucky phase" right now and they'll "get lucky" in the next week or so and start scoring.

He wasn't kidding when he said a week, because a lot of what's been going on lately didn't change Thursday night.

The good was the Blues got good goaltending -- enough to keep them in the game and perhaps win -- from goalie Brian Elliott. The bad was another performance from an anemic offense in a 3-1 loss to the San Jose Sharks before 18,803 at Scottrade Center.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Defenseman Alex Pietrangelo (left) battles with San Jose's Melker
Karlsson for a loose puck Thursday night at Scottrade Center.

Coupled with Chicago and Dallas both winning in overtime Thursday, the Blues fell eight points behind the first-place Blackhawks and five behind second-place Stars in the Central Division.

That makes five goals in the past five games for the Blues (29-17-8) despite going 2-2-1 in those five games, and three goals the past four.

And a common theme continues to be getting enough scoring chances, but not enough end results.

Frustration seems to have seeped in, players are squeezing sticks and with 28 games remaining, whether it's help from the outside or help from within, things need to turn in the right direction offensively despite the defensive side of the game making marked improvements. 

"Frustration manifests in different ways," Hitchcock said. "You decide if you're getting scoring chances, first of all, what level are they: Are they 'A,' 'B,' 'C' chances? And I don't think we have enough 'A' chances quite frankly. Second is ... this team fronts and blocks a lot of shots (San Jose had 26). You have to decide how long you can stay with it. What we're doing is not having success early enough and then getting off the page. And trying to force plays that aren't there. This is that 30-game mark where everybody checks and everybody defends and everybody plays with a high level of determination. What did they have 30 blocked shots? I think there's a little bit too much of us leaving the program. The first period was a perfect example of how to stay with it. And then we didn't have the success and we got away from the program."

The Blues got off to another rousing start in the first period, creating a plethora of quality chances, including one from Vladimir Tarasenko just over a minute into the game, but San Jose goalie Martin Jones pushed the right pad across to keep the Blues' leading scorer from getting off the schneid himself.

Instead, it was a microcosm of things that have been happening. It includes another goalless game on the power play, which is now 0-for-23 the past eight-plus games dating to Jan. 12.

"I don't think we need to be worried about it; we just need to remedy it," captain David Backes said. "We hit a post or two tonight, which at crucial times could sway the momentum of the game. We've got other glorious chances, just got to put it in the back of the net, through the back of the net. We get to celebrate, it's a lot more fun and we get to win games. It's pretty simple, but we've got to execute. We've done a lot of work to get to those hard areas. Now it's just putting it by the goaltender.

"Yeah, I think our lack of goal scoring, whatever we've got, four goals in the last four games or maybe five in our last five. There's not a lot of that good feeling that goes around even though we've had some decent team success with limited goal scoring, there's not that swagger where the next time it hits your stick, it's going through the back of the net. We've got to get back to that, smiling and picking each other up. When those chances come, make the most of it and put a crooked number up for 'Ells' because he's battled his ass off in the net for us."

Joonas Donskoi and Joe Thornton scored 3 minutes, 20 seconds apart in the second period, and the Sharks (27-19-4) continued their dominance on the road.

They improved to a Western Conference-leading 17-7-2 away from SAP Center; they are 7-1-1 in their past nine road games and 9-1-2 in their past 12 overall. 

Matt Nieto scored late in the third period, Joe Pavelski had two assists and Jones made 26 saves. 

San Jose is 19-0-2 when leading after two periods. 

The offensively challenged Blues got their lone goal from Jay Bouwmeester, and Brian Elliott made 29 saves.

"It's human nature when it's not happening for you," Bouwmeester said of squeezing sticks. "You get a little antsy, but when we are playing well, we are creating chances. It's just a matter of putting them in. We've got to find a way."

Despite 13 first-period shots, the Blues still came up empty-handed and eventually wound up chasing the game.

"Today, the first period was the best period we played in a long time," Hitchcock said. "It was a great period, and then we got away from it in the second and gave them the momentum. We funneled pucks at the net, we put shots at {Jones') feet, we had lots of scoring chances close at the net, and then we got frustrated and started making plays rather than continuing with that program and so we ended up with lot of zone time but mostly playing sideways rather than that attack mode that we did in the first period."

Donskoi's first goal in four games put the Sharks up 1-0. After an offensive zone turnover by the Blues' fourth line, Pavelski raced through the middle of the ice and flipped a backhand pass to Donskoi, who beat Elliott from the right circle short side 3:55 into the second period.

Thornton's 4-on-4 goal at 7:15 put the Sharks ahead 2-0. He beat a sliding Elliott with a one-time shot from the right circle. It was Thornton's 49th point (12 goals, 37 assists) in 45 games against St. Louis. 

The Blues cut the deficit in half when Bouwmeester's shot from the left point looking for a tip from Tarasenko actually deflected off defenseman Paul Martin's stick and past Jones with 3:06 remaining in the second. It was Bouwmeester's first goal in 37 games. 

But Nieto's sealed the win when he scored on a backhand shot with 3:16 remaining after he won a loose puck with Colton Parayko. 

"I saw (the puck) in a couple of skates there and was able to get it out of that scrum," Nieto said. "Everyone was kind of eye-watching the scrum and I found a way to get in behind and make a move right in front of the goalie there."

A scoreless first period produced 29 combined shots, 16 by San Jose. 

Elliott made several strong stops, including one on Pavelski’s one-timer during the Sharks' first power play midway through the period and then a flurry of saves in the final seconds. 

The Blues allowed the same number of shots to the Sharks in the first period as they did in 60 minutes of a 1-0 shutout victory against the Nashville Predators on Tuesday.

"There's no doubt that we're trying," Elliott said. "It's not coming easy. You go through stretches in any season that goals don't come easy and right after or right before, they do come easy. It's what makes it a little frustrating, but you have to push through those times. We've got an experienced group that knows how to get through those times. 
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Vladimir Tarasenko (91) can't get the puck past Sharks goalie Martin
Jones during a 3-1 St. Louis loss to San Jose on Thursday.

"We've eliminated a lot of chances against as of late. That helps, but when you're trying to score goals, that's when you open up holes a little bit in your defensive structure. That's where we can't get too antsy to score goals because you've got to keep them out, too. It's a give-and-take and we've got to push through it. ... We're not playing that bad. It's not a big, big issue. It's small things that are going to take to turn the corner. I can't worry about that too much. It's the other guys that are the goal scorers. We've got a lot of good guys that can put the puck in the net. It'll come."

Backes said the Blues can't get too worked up about it. Stick to the process and feel things will change.

"We've got to concentrate on the process and know that we're going to get chances and the law of averages are going to work themselves out," Backes said. "We're going to have a night where everything seems to go our way and back on track. That doesn't come unless we put the work in, get those chances, make those opportunities happen and continue to go to the hard areas to score."

(2-4-16) Sharks-Blues Gameday Lineup

By LOU KORAC
ST. LOUIS -- It's Feb. 4, 2016, and Western Conference foes are facing one another for the first time.

It's a unique situation this deep into a season, but such is the case for the Blues (29-16-8), who will host the San Jose Sharks (26-19-4) on Thursday (7 p.m.; FS-MW, KMOX 1120-AM).

It's the 53rd game for the Blues and 50th for the Sharks, but they haven't gone against one another since Jan. 8, 2015.

"They're new because we haven't played them for a while, but they're not new with their personnel," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said of the Sharks. "They've got those good players that have been in the League a long time, keep playing well. Every year, it's the same four, five guys leading their team. They obviously have one of the best, if not the best road records in the League because they know how to play the game the right way and they know how to manage the game the right way. It'll be a big challenge for us. It'll be a big wakeup call coming from playing against Nashville to coming and playing this one."

The Sharks, who will play the second of a four-game trip Thursday, own the best road record in the Western Conference at 16-7-2 with the Los Angeles Kings.

"I think we have a group of guys that has won a lot of games on the road over the last 10 years, veteran guys that lead the way," Sharks coach Peter DeBoer said. "There's no excuses in the dressing room, travel, getting in at 4 or 5 o'clock on the morning. You never hear any complaining. They just deal with it and move on and when your best players have that mindset, everyone else follows.

"It's hard not to be (impressed). You can see why the core group's won so many games here over the last decade. The young guys are following and we like where we're at right now."

The Blues just finished a four-game trip where they went 2-1-1 but scored four goals, thanks to goalie Brian Elliott, who allowed four goals in the four games. 

"Results are what's important," said Blues right wing Troy Brouwer, who scored the game-winning goal in a 1-0 win at the Nashville Predators Tuesday. "The goals will come and we've been able to score timely goals all season long. We want to score more goals, but they're going to come. Scoring throughout the entire league is down and we've had a lot of injuries, which creates a lot of new line combinations. A little bit of unfamiliarity between guys. I think with jumbling lines again, hopefully we can do something to spark some creative output."

Hitchcock would rather his team play this style, simply because the Blues have got back to limiting the opposition's scoring chances.

"I think we're just going through an unlucky phase," Hitchcock said. "We'll get lucky here in the next week or so and start scoring. I think we're playing well. I've said this before that when we were playing loose, we were scoring more and giving up more. I'm not sure which is the right way to do it. When we had our high-water marks as far as offense goes, it was just a wide open affair. I'm not sure. It does boil down to winning hockey games. To me, the zero or the one is the most important thing against. It gives you a chance to win every game. If you score one and still win or get points, it's great. You'd like to score a lot more, but to me, with (29) games left in the season, it's all about winning hockey games. I don't really care what the score is, as long as we're winning games."

Perhaps the Blues' scoring woes correlate with that of right wing Vladimir Tarasenko, who has one goal the past 10 games and three the past 16.

Tarasenko, who took part in the All-Star Game and didn't register a shot on goal Tuesday for the first time since Dec. 11, 2014 (98 games), stayed on the ice longer than usual Thursday with the healthy scratches and Jaden Schwartz, who could return Saturday and would slot on a line with Tarasenko and Paul Stastny.

"I think he's just got to get his energy back," Hitchcock said of Tarasenko. "I think we've leaned on him awful hard. He's come through every time. I think we've got to allow him to get his energy back. He looked a little bit fresher yesterday, a little bit fresher today. That's a good sign, but we've leaned on him awful hard. There's scoring goals and then there's scoring important goals. He's done his share. If we get better play from people around him, it will open up space for him. That's the focus for him. He's still going to get his looks, he's going to get his licks in, he's going to score at important times. He's going to score big goals for us, but I think if the other guys keep moving it forward and that's what we like so much about Stastny's game now, he's starting to play well. I think it's got a chance to open up more space for Vlad."

DeBoer calls this game a challenge and isn't looking at the Blues' lack of scoring.

"Typical Ken Hitchcock-coached team, they're going to be detailed, they're going to be tight, you're going to have to earn your ice," DeBoer said. "It's that time of year. I think whenever you do into some of the better teams' conference's buildings, I think everybody's battle level and compete level is very high right now. That's our expectation that ours is going to be there every night like that. Games are going to come down to who plays the cleanest game, who makes the fewest mistakes. It's that push to the playoffs. That's the kind of hockey you're looking at."

- - -

It will be the second game of the newly formulated line with Alexander Steen at center, Patrik Berglund on left wing and David Backes back at his natural right wing.

The trio got better as the game went along Tuesday, according to Hitchcock, and will get a stern test against San Jose tonight.

"It was fine," Berglund said. "There's always things you can do better, but for the first game back together, we played a solid game. We've got to build from here. ... It's going to take time to get to know each other again. I think we haven't really been a line before. It's going to take some time, but hopefully we can do it sooner than later."

Steen, who said Tuesday perhaps he can have an advantage winning faceoffs because the opposition doesn't know what he's going to do or what he's doing, won four of 12 on Tuesday, prompting Berglund to joke when asked if he can help him on draws: "I guess I have to. 

"He's really good and strong on the dot," Berglund added. "I don't think that's an issue. He's been taking a lot of faceoffs throughout the years, especially on the left wide when he's been playing with 'Backs.' He knows how to work the dot for sure."

It's been quite the adjustment for Bergund as well, who has been a natural center his entire playing career. 

"I always enjoy playing center," Berglund said. "I played center my whole life. That's something I would never say no to, but right now, I'm a left wing and that's where I'm at.

"It's been a big (adjustment) because it's a different way to play when you're a winger in my opinion. I really like to keep my speed up and be a little bit more on the move. When you're a winger, you have to be on your left wing there. I think I'm trying to get better and better at it every day and find ways to keep my speed and tempo up more. It's getting better and better. ... I adapted. I think for me being a center my whole life, that is a big change. But just trying to adjust and do whatever you can to be in this position."

- - -

The Blues' power play was 0-for-3 at Nashville and is now in a 0-for-21 slide going back to Jan. 12 when Berglund scored twice against New Jersey.

"I would say we're feeling the heat right now there," Hitchcock said. "We're pressing a little too much and we're forcing the issue. We're trying to score too early. We talked about that yesterday. I think yesterday's practice was a good wakeup call. Sometimes when you have a practice like yesterday, we're forcing really competitive situations on the ice and then ou go through that frustration phase, you usually come out on the right side of things. Yesterday we went through the frustration phase. The communication by both units by the end of practice was excellent. I expect it to be better today."

- - -

The Blues' projected lineup:

Magnus Paajarvi-Paul Stastny-Vladimir Tarasenko

Patrik Berglund-Alexander Steen-David Backes

Robby Fabbri-Jori Lehtera-Troy Brouwer

Scottie Upshall-Kyle Brodziak-Dmitrij Jaskin

Jay Bouwmeester-Alex Pietrangelo

Joel Edmundson-Kevin Shattenkirk

Carl Gunnarsson-Colton Parayko

Brian Elliott will start in goal. Pheonix Copley will be the backup.

Ryan Reaves and Robert Bortuzzo are healthy scratches. Jaden Schwartz (ankle), Jake Allen (lower body) and Steve Ott (hamstring) are on injured reserve.

- - -

The Sharks' projected lineup:

Tomas Hertl-Joe Thornton-Joe Pavelski  

Joonas Donskoi-Logan Couture-Tommy Wingels  

Matt Nieto-Patrick Marleau-Joel Ward  

Dainius Zubrus-Chris Tierney-Melker Karlsson 

Marc-Edouard Vlasic-Justin Braun  

Paul Martin-Brent Burns  

Brenden Dillon-Dylan DeMelo  

Martin Jones will start in goal. Alex Stalock ill be the backup.  

Mike Brown and Matt Tennyson will be healthy scratches. The Sharks report no injuries. 

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

(2-4-16) BLUES NOTEBOOK

Schwartz won't play Thursday, continues to progress; 
Gunnarsson staring down death; Rinne's save on Paajarvi

By LOU KORAC
ST. LOUIS -- Jaden Schwartz took another step towards his long-awaited return to the lineup for the Blues.

It won't happen just yet, but the horizon is visible.

Schwartz, out since Oct. 23 with a fractured left ankle, won't be in the lineup when the Blues (29-16-8) begin a three-game homestand against the San Jose Sharks on Thursday but could return Saturday against the Minnesota Wild.

Schwartz has missed the past 46 games. He skated with the extra forwards during drills but participated in all functions, something that pleased coach Ken Hitchcock.

"He looked really competitive today," Hitchcock said of Schwartz. "He looked like he was up to speed with a lot of things. I don't know what he's feeling physically; I haven't talked to him yet, but today he looked like some quickness was back in his game. There was less thinking and more read and react. That's a real good sign for where he was say, three days ago. That's a good sign.

"... I've got to talk to him. I've got to see how he feels. I'd still like to see him in another practice and see how he looks. Today was the first time 5-on-5, 3-on-3, 5-on-4, had to kill penalties. Lots of game-like situations today in quick order. It's a good sign."

Schwartz will impact the lineup in a number of areas when he returns. From penalty kill to power play, even-strength play ... you name it.

When asked about his impact, Hitchcock wasn't hesitant to disclose what line Schwartz will play on.

"He fits in with (Nos.) 26 and 91," Hitchcock said, referring to Paul Stastny and Vladimir Tarasenko. "That's where he fits, right there ... boom."

To make room for Schwartz when they do activate him off injured reserve because they'll need a roster spot, the Blues assigned right wing Ty Rattie to the Chicago Wolves of the American Hockey League.

* Blocking machine -- Defenseman Carl Gunnarsson had half (seven) of the Blues' blocked shots Tuesday in a 1-0 victory at the Nashville Predators.

But the one block Gunnarsson stood out for was getting in front of Predators defenseman Shea Weber in the first period.

Gunnarsson grimaced in some pain for a moment but caught a break when the shot hit the padding of his shin pad and took the brunt of Weber's shot. Weber is the two-time reigning winner of the hardest shot competition. 

"It happened pretty quick and I got close enough. I got hit in a good spot," Gunnarsson said. "It's either that or let a one-timer for Shea Weber to step into right at the net. If that's a goal, that's on me. It happened quick. It's down, you try to block and not really think about who's shooting. Just go down and hopefully getting it on the right spot.

"They fluttered it over on the cross-ice. When I looked over and stepped up, I saw it was him. There's not much to do."

Hitchcock had a suggestion: pray.

"Blowing up his legs. He had an oh-my-God moment. I'm going to heaven because (No.) 6 has the puck. Say goodbye to my family," Hitchcock joked. "Was he blocking or he couldn't get out of the way. What scared me was when he turned. Getting the puck on the wrong side is not fun."

Teammates credited Gunnarsson after the game, and Hitchcock followed suit Wednesday.

"A lot of credit," he said. "Helped the goalie, too."

The Blues allowed a season-low 16 shots on goal in the victory.

"We must have done something good, play in their face a little bit because we know they like to shoot from everywhere basically," Gunnarsson said. "That's good, keep them on the outside, don't let any shots in. But that guy (Brian Elliott) was good over there, too. It looks easy for him."

* Paajarvi battling -- Magnus Paajarvi returned to the lineup after missing seven games with an upper-body injury. 

Paajarvi, who skated with Stastny and Tarasenko, played 12 minutes, 49 seconds and tied with Kevin Shattenkirk and Colton Parayko with three shots on goal, including one early in the third when Pekka Rinne robbed him of what would have given the Blues a 1-0 lead at the time.

"He made a helluva save. I did all I could," Paajarvi said of Rinne. "Sure, I could look back and say, 'I should have backed up or I should have tried to get it higher up.' I did all I could. Those were two nice saves. I could have had the rebound, too. Great save, tip the hat.

"I tried to do a one-timer. Most goalies won't come over there. Rinne's one of them. Nice job."

Paajarvi has two goals and five points in 33 games but isn't getting down on himself. He's finding himself in scoring areas.

"I can't look at it any other way. I can't be frustrated," Paajarvi said. "I'm playing well. I'm creating a lot of chances. 

"They'll go in ... eventually. If it doesn't, it's not like I'm not trying to score. It's a cliche, but that's what I'm going for."

Hitchcock would like to see Paajarvi finish just to give him the boost of confidence.

"You hope that with all the scoring chances that he gets, that he's going to get an opportunity," Hitchcock said. "That line's not going to be productive unless they finish. They have to finish their scoring chances. Magnus had those three in the third period that you'd like to see ... for his own confidence, get those and get them nailed down."

Paajarvi said it took a bit to settle into the game because of the extended time off but once he did, it was fine.

"It wasn't a problem. I wasn't gone that long," Paajarvi said. "Tempo wasn't a problem. Positioning in the first period, I wasn't good in the first period. I was struggling, I felt like, and then the second and third, I was way better."