Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Blues sign Brodeur to be assistant general manager

NHL's all-time winningest goalie gets three-year contract 
after retiring, joining staff as senior advisor to GM Doug Armstrong

By LOU KORAC
ST. LOUIS -- The NHL's winningest goalie has decided to make St. Louis his permanent home for at least the next three seasons.

Martin Brodeur, who retired from the NHL with the most regular season wins (691), shutouts (125), games played (1,266) and minutes played (74,438) and is likely a first ballot Hall of Famer, joined the Blues' front office as a senior advisor to general manager Doug Armstrong in January. On Wednesday, Brodeur signed a three-year contract to be the team's assistant GM.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Martin Brodeur will remain with the Blues organization after signing a
three-year contract to be the assistant general manager,

Brodeur, whose prestigious career ended with the Blues on Jan. 29 after he initially signed a one-year contract on Dec. 2 following the knee sprain to Brian Elliott, immediately joined the Blues' front office.

The 43-year-old Montreal native played 21 seasons with the New Jersey Devils before joining the Blues as a free agent. He played in seven games with St. Louis, which included a 16-save shutout against the Colorado Avalanche on Dec. 29, and was 3-3-0 with a 2.87 goals-against average and .899 save percentage before announcing his retirement.

Brodeur immediately jumped into the hockey operations aspect of the organization, often traveling with the club and taking part in all activities but he was on in a part-time role.

Armstrong said following a first round playoff exit against the Minnesota Wild that the Blues would welcome Brodeur back in a more prominent role if something was available.

Brodeur desired a more prominent role and got it.

"We need him to take a bigger chunk of what we're doing," Armstrong said of Brodeur. "Having a lot of part-time guys around isn't healthy. It worked this year; I don't think it's going to work moving forward, but I'm not saying that if there's a full-time position that we can work out, that I wouldn't want him back here. 

"I worked with Steve Yzerman at Hockey Canada events. Probably the most humble superstar I've ever met until I met Marty Brodeur. He's been great to have around. I'm a better manager for working with him."

There was talk that Brodeur could return and rejoin the Devils organization after this season with the Blues, but with New Jersey's recent hiring of GM Ray Shero to replace Lou Lamoriello, the team's longtime GM who will remain the team's president of hockey operations, there was no guarantee Brodeur would have a job awaiting him in New Jersey.

The Blues did all they can to make Brodeur's stay in St. Louis as smooth as can be.

"I think (Brodeur) really enjoyed the freedom that he had this year with our group, but part-time jobs are only good for so long," Armstrong said.

Brodeur ranks first in starts (204) and shutouts (24) and second in wins (113) in the postseason. He appeared in 10 NHL All-Star Games and led the NHL in wins nine times, shutouts five times and games played six times, including appearing in 70 or more games in 10 consecutive seasons from 1997-98 to 2007-08. Brodeur won the Jennings Trophy five times (1997, 1998, 2003, 2004 and 2010) and Vezina Trophy four times (2003, 2004, 2007 and 2008).

Brodeur was a Stanley Cup champion with the Devils three times (1995, 2000 and 2003) and two-time gold medalist at the Winter Olympics (2002 and 2010) with Canada.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Blues to make Tarasenko top off-season priority

Leading goal scorer set to become restricted free 
agent, prone to offer sheets; Armstrong: "he's the primary guy"

By LOU KORAC
HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- Right wing Vladimir Tarasenko deferred comment on the subject; Blues general manager Doug Armstrong was more than willing to let it be known.

The one point that was made clear: Tarasenko will be a Blue for a very long time, and he will be a well-compensated one.

The 23-year-old Tarasenko, who led the Blues in goals (37) and points (73) in his third season, is set to become a restricted free agent on July 1. The Blues own his rights, of course but that doesn't mean Tarasenko can't be susceptible to an offer sheet from another team.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Vladimir Tarasenko (right) celebrates a goal with teammate Paul Stastny
in Game 5 of the Western Conference First Round vs. the Minnesota Wild.

But Armstrong made his point on that issue sternly.

"We'll match whatever he gets," Armstrong said. "That's easy."

And with that in mind, as the Blues have a number of issues to address during what will be a crucial off-season, from a player personnel perspective, taking care of No. 91 on the roster report will be the top priority.

"We are not going to be active in signing other players until we get him taken care of," Armstrong said of Tarasenko. "Meaning we're going to take care of our restricted free agents, but we're not going to ... he's the primary guy. He knows it, the hockey world knows it. 

"The St. Louis Blues will not be in a spot on July 5th if he's not signed, not to be able to match any offer sheet that's out there. And if it means allowing players to go to free agency, if it means making players sweat it out on what their deal's going to be, he's the priority for us."

Tarasenko, whose three-year entry-level contract paid him a base salary of $900,000 and bonuses of $850,000, could conceivably get anywhere from $4-5 million-plus per season on a new contract on the low end and $6-8 million on the top end. And with commissioner Gary Bettman announcing a projected salary cap of $71.5 million for the 2015-16 season, Armstrong will have to craft what he offers and what Tarasenko's camp feels is proper market value for a player that is four years removed from having unrestricted free agency rights.

But the two sides, including Tarasenko's U.S.-based agent and former Blues goalie Mike Liut, could work out a creative contract that could benefit both sides in the short and long term.

"The caveat on his deal is going to be term and compensation based on the cap," Armstrong said. "You hear maybe a $4 million swing from the different side on what the cap's going to be. That's a lot of money in a cap system. 

"... I haven't had any talks. We talked in training camp, (Tarasenko) wanted to wait. I approached it again midseason; he wanted to wait. ... He's earned the conversations that we're going to have. We might not give him exactly what he wants, but I'm not going into this not respecting what he's accomplished and not respecting what he can accomplish."

Tarasenko was not in the mood to talk contract in the immediate aftermath of the Blues being eliminated by the Minnesota Wild in the Western Conference First Round series.

"Wrong question to me. Not for me," Tarasenko said. "Not general manager, not agent, not me right now.

"... Tough to say goodbye for like another six months. Next game is October. Every day you feel more worse because the day after you feel OK. But I keep watching highlights and news about hockey and I was like, 'We can be there.' ... I think we feel so bad right now, everybody. Our season is over a little bit earlier than we want to. I don't have words right now. I need time to figure out what's going on. I'm just frustrated right now."

Tarasenko gives the Blues an elite finisher not seen around these parts since Brett Hull was busy lighting the lamp 527 times. Tarasenko shows the qualities of a 40- and perhaps one that can be a 50-goal scorer.

"'Vladi' had a big year," teammate Alexander Steen said. "Just kept evolving; not just the goal-scoring stuff, but the little stuff. I think he stuff guys talk about that get unnoticed, the little stuff. He's really focused a lot on those details and has grown as a player and I think off the ice as a person as well.

"He has that talent. He's an extremely talented player. I've said so many times if we're just able to give him that one chance, eight out of 10 are in the net. He's an extremely lethal sniper and a very important piece of our team."

Teammate Kevin Shattenkirk agreed.

"We kind of all had a pretty good idea how special he is as a player," Shattenkirk said. "I think the thing that really allowed him to take the next step this year was the confidence and having this be his third year, that's when you start to feel comfortable. You're learning the ropes the first two years. He made big strides this year. He still has some room to go. That's a pretty fortunate thing for us."

Tarasenko, who had departed to join Russia for the World Championships in Prague, Czech Republic, knows his game can get better, especially being a more complete two-way player but he's more known as a team player. His bottom line is what the team can accomplish.

"I think you always can improve your game," Tarasenko said. "This is the part I don't want to talk about right now. Like I tell you before, I didn't care about skill level in your goals. I just wanted team to keep playing. We need to find out and improve on our mistakes and try next year.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Vladimir Tarasenko is set to become a restricted free agent on July 1. He's
in line for a big pay raise and could become the team's highest-paid player.

"It's not really good when you lose to somebody, especially in the first round when you have a great year. We won our division. I don't know what else I can say."

Tarasenko will have plenty to say when he dots the 'I's' and 'T's' on a new contract. And this is one Armstrong and the Blues want to make sure it gets done properly before anything unforeseen is allowed to happen. 

Armstrong, who left town to take in the Chicago Wolves' playoff series in the American Hockey League, then off to the World Championships to engage in talks with Vladimir Sobotka, will open dialogue with Liut in the very near future.

"The elite paid players are on their third contracts or fourth contracts," Armstrong said. "They're not on their second contracts. He's going to be very well-compensated on a second contract. But you make more money when you have more rights. He doesn't have unrestricted free agency rights and that's just the nature of the beast. 

"You look at the two guys we just played, (Ryan) Suter and (Zach) Parise. As a restricted free agent, they weren't getting $100 million. They became unrestricted, they got their money. That's the business. He gets it, Mike gets it, I get it."

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Familiar story for Blues, who fall to Wild 4-1 to end season

Questions will abound in uncertain off-season after another early playoff ouster

By LOU KORAC
ST. PAUL, Minn. -- A familiar script played out for the Blues here Sunday at Xcel Energy Center.

And it was a script from an ending to a bad novel that never seems to go away for this franchise.

Another promising regular season in which the Blues build up so many hopes and dreams got washed away with the disappointment of yet another underachieving Stanley Cup Playoff run.

Or better termed, lack of a playoff run.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Blues players (left to right) Ryan Reaves, Brian Elliott, Jori Lehtera, Carl
Gunnarsson and Jake Allen watch as the season ends on Sunday.

The Blues' season came to an end in a 4-1 loss against the Minnesota Wild in Game 6 of the Western Conference First Round series.

The Wild, which advances to the Western Conference Second Round against the Chicago Blackhawks, won the best-of-7 series 4-2.

It marks the third straight season the Blues bowed out in the first round, on the road and only scoring one goal in an elimination game. And in the coach Ken Hitchcock era, the Blues are 10-17 in the postseason the past four seasons and have scored one goal in each game the Blues faced elimination.

It was another painful reminder of how this constructed roster doesn't seem to be able to rise to the occasion when the temperature rises during the time of season when it matters most: the playoffs.

The Blues finished the series with 14 goals, the same amount they scored last season against the Chicago Blackhawks, and 10 of those came in their two victories; which means four goals came in the four losses.

It was an area Blues management felt like they fixed last off-season but the same results came to light. The Blues scored 14 goals  but one was an empty-netter and got little to no production from their "core" group outside of Vladimir Tarasenko, who scored six goals in the series.

In the end, it will go down as another "squandered opportunity" as general manager Doug Armstrong put it after last season's postseason loss.

"To tell you the truth, I haven't fully digested everything," said captain David Backes, who finished with one goal and one assist (both in Game 4). "But my off the cuff remarks is we outshot them in both games, five and six. Quality of chances, maybe we just need to have a little more traffic and find some spots through them. He made good saves, they played a good game. It's the Western Conference, the Central Division. There's a lot of good teams but we won the division playing a certain way and we had success playing a certain way. We got away from that in critical times of playoffs and now we've got to have these -- no offense -- terrible interviews right now that I'm sick of doing quite frankly.

"It sucks. There's no other summary of it than it sucks. We put a lot into the regular season to get into the playoffs and then we seem to rather than go up a notch to beat a team, we're feeling them out or whatever and we're on our heels too much and they take it to us. You give Zach Parise too much room, he makes you pay. They're playing hard on our guys. We've got to return that and up the ante even more. Not enough. It's myself, it's everybody in this room. Together as a group, we didn't bring enough. Now we've got to answer way too many questions."

So for a third straight year, the Blues fail to win and bring a Game 7 to home ice, and they lost their ninth straight game in franchise history when facing elimination. The last win came in Game 6 against San Jose on April 23, 2000, a series in which they lost in seven games.

"It's the worst (feeling)," forward Steve Ott said. "You put in a lot of months, a lot of effort. You never know when you get a special group like we had in here. You've got to translate regular season to playoffs. It's a completely different beast. I know this series was a telling tale of what can go wrong at times and what does go wrong."

And in a game in which the Blues -- time and time again they seemed to have said all the right things after a loss in this series -- knew what needed to be done, failed to execute in the most critical areas.

Instead of taking the initiative, the Blues fell back into more bad habits: on their heels, mis-managing the puck and leaky goals allowed by Jake Allen, which was the last thing they needed.

Zach Parise scored twice, including the opening shorthanded goal to put Minnesota up 1-0.

Parise beat Allen with a shorthanded goal on a terrible angle after Kevin Shattenkirk lost handle of the puck following Matt Cooke's attempted poke-check at the blue line that created a 1-on-3 opportunity -- yes, 1-on-3. 

Shattenkirk did enough to push Parise wide of the goal, but the Wild left wing beat Allen from near the goal line 7:14 into the period.

The Blues escaped the period being outshot 10-4 despite having two power plays.

The Blues fell behind 2-0 after Justin Fontaine beat Allen with a soft, five-hole goal on what looked like a harmless play 11:19 into the second period. The Blues made the switch in goal, lifting Allen in favor of Brian Elliott after Allen allowed t1o goals on 13 shots.

"Two terrible goals again," Allen said. "I just let the boys down.

"I was more focused today than I ever was all year. Just two bad goals that can’t go in at this time of year."

The Blues finally found life with four seconds left in the second when T.J. Oshie scored his first of the series off a faceoff win, a shot from Shattenkirk that was deflected through Backes' legs to Oshie, who beat Devan Dubnyk from a sharp angle short side to make it 2-1.

Instead of building off that momentum, the Blues allowed the back-breaker to Parise off a rebound in front of Elliott 1:01 into the third.

Niederreiter added an empty-netter with 1:52 to play that sealed the Blues' fate that will headline a very uncertain future.

"Our best games were the last three," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said. "Probably if you look at one (defining moment) was, we probably got into our 'A' game a little bit late, I suppose. We didn't play very well in Game 1 and 3 and we played awful well after that. 

"We win as a team, we lose as a team. We played hard the last three games. So ... we lost. But we lose as one, we win as one. We've done that all the time. I don't want to get into resiliency and all that stuff. Resiliency is an overused word. The biggest thing for us is the timely part of scoring, and the timely part of saves. That's playoff hockey."

The Blues got neither in the past two games. 

Allen, who was making his postseason debut, played very well to brilliant in the first four games of this series, but in the past two games, allowed six goals on 32 shots the past two games.

He was -- to noone's surprise afterwards -- hard on himself and stood tall in light of what happened on the ice.

"Right now it’s going to sit with me in a terrible way for a while," said Allen, who finished with a 2.20 goals against average and .904 save percentage. "It's going to be a while before I can start to let go and focus on next year.

"It was my job to keep the team in it (Sunday). I let in a soft one and another bad goal. ... It’s (a) terrible (feeling) right now. To get a chance to win the Stanley Cup, it doesn’t happen too often in your career. Especially with a team like this. This isn’t acceptable for any of us, I don’t think. This isn’t going to sit well for a while and it’s going to be tough to watch the rest of the playoffs knowing we’re not in it."

Hitchcock stood up for his 24-year-old rookie goalie.

"He's a young guy," Hitchcock said of Allen. "He's going to gain a lot of knowledge from this. I don't think it's time to pile on the goalie or anything like that. He's a young guy learning a lot. He's going to figure it out. He'll be a good goalie."

But the underlying problem once again was the lack of goal scoring. Aside from Tarasenko, the Blues got five goals (one each) from Alexander Steen, Backes, Oshie, Paul Stastny and Jaden Schwartz, guys who led the team in all scoring categories this season or were expected to lead.

Dubnyk, who allowed six goals on 17 shots in a Game 4 loss, came back and stopped 66 of 68 in Games 5 and 6.

"It was either feast or famine," Hitchcock said. "They made us work for our chances. We had a lot of chances in Game 5, but they made us work for them. We didn't score. So you can look at all the chances when the game's on the line. It's us and the goalie three times and the goalie and us and the goalie three times in period three  when it's on the line and we didn't finish it. You can dissect that all you want. The biggest thing for me is it's hard to win when you're chasing games all the time. We were chasing too many games here at the end of the third period."

"I don't know. I guess if you watched the game and you don't just look at the stat sheet, the core group has been playing some pretty good games since playoffs and doing a lot of things that Hitch has been asking us to do," Oshie said. "For whatever reason, we haven't gotten the goals or we haven't gotten everyone on the same page."

And that begs the question of why can't the Blues raise the barometer when the temperature rises?

"If I had answers to these questions, I'd have fixed it after Game 1 and we would have won 4-1 and be going on to play Chicago," Backes said. "The fact of the matter is it's our 20 in war against their 20 and they got the better of us. 

"It sucks. If I had answers, I would have solved this a long time ago and we'd be going on to the second round smiling and telling you how we won the series. The fact of the matter is we didn't do enough from the first guy down to the last guy and now we go to the summer again way to early."

But it's almost certain that heads will roll at some point, and defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, who for the second straight postseason led the Blues in points with eight (he had five last season against Chicago), said to expect them.

"I would assume so," he said. "Army's not a guy who's going to sit back and let this happen year after year. That's the hardest thing for us right now is having to worry about that."

As for Hitchcock, who's in the final year of his contract, Shattenkirk said bring him back.

"Absolutely," he said. "Hitch has been the reason why we've been here for four years. He's hard on us, but he does it because he knows the right way and how to get to this position. You can never take that away from the way he coaches. He coaches fundamentals. It's something we needed and we were able to get here because of him."

But the Blues must take the blame for another postseason failure.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
The Wild's Zach Parise (11) scores a third-period goal against the Blues
and Brian Elliott (top) and Jori Lehtera (12) in a 4-1 Minnesota win.

"Every time it's on us," Shattenkirk said. "It's on the players first. It was a tough series to swallow. It's hard to fully think about it now. It's hard. You're almost in shock that this just happened. It's really hard to talk and evaluate it, but we have to look in the mirror first always.

"... We had a great team this year; there's no doubt about it. Did we fall short, absolutely. We're not thrilled with that. I know people are frustrated about that, but we care. We really care a lot about that. For the effort that we put in all regular season for it to end up this way, it sucks. It really does.

"It's really hard to put into words right now," Oshie said. "It's so early and so fresh. Everyone's just a little disappointed that we weren't able to give a little more to get this to St. Louis for Game 7."

Saturday, April 25, 2015

(4-26-15) BLUES NOTEBOOK

Blues' lone goal to bring series back to St. Louis; Lehtera skates, status 
for Sunday undetermined; wide margin results; series goes back and forth

By LOU KORAC
HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- As the Blues head to Minnesota in a survive-and-stay-alive mindset, the objective becomes quite clear.

"That's our goal; just bring it home," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said. "That's the whole focus for us. Just bring this thing home, we get a nice rest and that's the focus."

Anything else, and the Blues' season will come to another disappointing end after a regular season that filled hopes for the Stanley Cup Playoffs with much promise.

But the Blues, who trail the Minnesota Wild in the Western Conference First Round best-of-7 series 3-2, have been in this position before.

Last season.

And in 2013.

Those circumstances against the Los Angeles Kings and Chicago Blackhawks, respectively, were different because the Blues led each of those series 2-0 before losing four in a row. But the one common theme was the Blues lost Game 5 on home ice, then went on the road and lost 2-1 at LA in 2013 and 5-1 at Chicago last season before having the opportunity to bring it home to a decisive Game 7.

They would love to alter the course this time around.

The puck drops at 2 p.m. (NBC, KYKY 98.1-FM).

"The last thing Minnesota wants to do is have this thing come back to our building," Hitchcock said. "That's the last thing they want. We've got to make sure they get to look that in the eye.

"This is a real quick turnaround for both teams. We'll see who has energy going tomorrow. They had to absorb a lot in the third period. We played the third period the right way in their end; they had to absorb a lot and hopefully, we can take advantage by playing on our toes again, but we're going to get a major league push from them at the start of the game. We're probably going to have to do more absorbing than we wanted to and then we're going to have to really push back. But our goal right now is bring this thing home because it's going to be great for us and it is the absolute last thing they want to have happen."

And despite a 4-1 loss on Friday that saw the Blues come out and pick up where they left off in Game 4 where they blasted the Wild 6-1 at Xcel Energy Center, the Blues won't lack any confidence.

"Yeah, absolutely," left wing Alexander Steen said. "We had a really good Game 4. First period last game was just the type of game that we want to play and we just have to get back to that and we'll bring the series back here.

"... We knew it was going to be a tight series. This is playoffs, playoff hockey. Things aren't just going to go easy. Right now we're down 3-2, but we're heading into Minny and we want to bring this series back. That's our focus. We just focus on the next game."

There should be a different kind of mindset. Confidence is one thing, but the Blues have their backs against the wall. It'll be a different circumstance when the puck drops.

"Well, certainly tomorrow's game is going to have to be our best," left wing Jaden Schwartz said. "Our season's on the line, really, plain and simple. We have to do everything we can to bring it back here and that's going to be our mentality and leave everything out there and have no excuses at the end of the game."

A good place to start would be getting some more scoring from someone other than Vladimir Tarasenko, who has six of the Blues' 13 goals in the series.  Minnesota also has 13 goals in the series, but they have 10 different goal scorers.

"That's going to be critical for us," Hitchcock said. "(Tarasenko's) not going to get the matchup on the road that he got. He's going to have a tougher matchup and it's going to be hard for him to get loose. Other guys are going to have to just contribute. Bottom line is guys are going to have to take responsibility and ownership to help us out there. 

"You look at the quality chances that two or three of our key guys got last night, they were great chances and they don't go in. So they're leaving the game feeling bad about themselves; they could have made a difference. We're going to have to just finish those off. It's either been feast or famine for us. We've been locked down in three of these games and got loose on two of them. It's been one thing or the other offensively. From our standpoint, when you get the chance against this goalie, you've got to bury it because you're not going to get a lot."

If all goes accordingly, the Blues will bring a winner-take-all game back home to be played on Wednesday. But the Blues have not won an elimination game since April 23, 2000 in Game 6 at San Jose. They've lost eight in a row since.

"That's what we've been playing all year for, to win a series and go all the way to the end," defenseman Barret Jackman said. "You can't stress the importance because if you lose you go home and that's something that will not sit well with this group. So we're going to come out, we're going to play our best game and bring it back to St. Louis."

* Back and forth -- It seems that whoever wins a game, the team that loses is the one that responds the best the following encounter.

This trend bodes well for the Blues, who have lost Games 1, 3 and 5. They've won Games 2 and 4. 

It makes one ask is it what the teams are doing to each other or more what they're doing to themselves?

"I think it's a little bit of both," Jackman said. "I thought they played a pretty strong game, they responded from the game in Minnesota and were a lot harder to play against and we fed into that. They were playing well. It's a little of both, a little of Jekyll and Hyde with us right now. We have to clean that up.

"I think both teams are playing a lot better when they're playing desperate, and when you feel that loss you feel like you have to step up your game. Now are backs are against the wall. There's no excuses for us. We have to play our best game of the series tomorrow afternoon and bring it back to St. Louis."

"Looks like that the way the games have gone," Schwartz said. "The reasoning for that, I'm not sure. But definitely, it's been back and forth. We have to do the same thing in their building that we did last game."

Steen, who has a goal and four points in the series, said a good place to start would be better 5-on-5 goals.

"Yeah, that's -- generate more 5-on-5. We had our fair share of chances, I thought," Steen said. "Myself, I had two and didn't bury (in Game 5) and obviously they get one on the other end a few minutes later. So, that's playoffs, those pucks have to get in.

"... It's playoffs. There's tight margins. The chances aren't as wide open and you need to find ways to bury them and when you do get grade-A chances, they have to end up in the net."

* Large margins -- For all the pundits that claimed that this would be the tightest series in the first round, each game has been decided by two goals or more, and the tightest margin was Game 1, a 4-2 Wild victory.

And to think, every series but the Blues-Wild and Vancouver-Calgary (prior to Game 6 between Canucks-Flames) have had at least one game go to overtime.

So why the larger margins?

"I'm not sure," Schwartz said. "Usually, series in the past it's been one-goal games and it's just not the case, whether it's empty-net goals or late goals that kind of separate it, but that's the way they've been ending up and I don't really have an answer for it.

"... I was talking about that the other day, we thought there would be a little more one-goal games or overtime even, but like I said, it hasn't been, but we knew coming into this series that it wasn't going to end early."

Which is why Hitchcock said not to look too closely into the notion.

"I think you've got to be careful how you evaluate that because I think it takes so much to score in this series that it is a little bit like swimming upstream to try and get scoring chances," Hitchcock said. "Once a team gets locked down on a lead, it's pretty difficult. I think the thing that's been pretty evident is that there isn't this wild swinging of lead chances and everything. Once a team gets it in and gets it locked down, it's difficult. We had a lot of zone time yesterday in the third period, but not a lot of second and third opportunities. They got five guys packed in front of their goalie and they're letting him take the original shot. I think both teams are so committed in that area. 

"It's hard to describe this series, but I said this before, the checking is so close and the players are so committed to it. If you make one mistakes, they're going to take advantage of it. When you get the numbers above the puck like both teams play with, when you make a mistake, it seems like it sets up a snowball affect of mistakes. You take a look at the second goal that we got scored on, it started with a neutral zone turnover that we didn't get deep, that we ended up icing the puck, ended up taking the faceoff and then get scored on. Those are the little mistakes that in a regular season game wouldn't have mattered, but those are the big errors that one side or the other's making right now."

* Lehtera skates -- Center Jori Lehtera, who sat out Game 5 with a lower-body injury after being plunked with a shot off the stick of Jay Bouwmeester in the third period of Game 4, skated on his own prior to a team optional skate at the Ice Zone on Saturday.

Hitchcock, who listed Lehtera as 50-50 for Game 5, was more hopeful of a return Sunday.

"He skated full today," Hitchcock said of Lehtera, who has two assists in the series. "Skated before everybody else. We'll see. He had a good day today."

Lehtera's absence scrambled the line combinations for Game 5 and it showed.

"He's a big part of our team," Schwartz said of Lehtera. "He does a lot of little things right, very reliable in all three zones. Like I said, he's a big part of our hockey club, so hopefully we can get him back in the lineup next game and kind of help us in that depth area."

* Special teams -- The Blues felt that the momentum of what they did during the regular season on both the power play and penalty kill (they finished fourth on the power play and eighth on the penalty kill) would give them an edge in the playoffs.

And since Minnesota finished 27th on the power play, one would have felt it was a big advantage for the Blues.

But the Wild have converted 4 of 11 opportunities against the Blues' PK in the series, while the Blues have converted 2 of 9 power play opportunities against the NHL's regular season's top-rated PK.

"We haven't generated as many power play opportunities as we maybe had hoped, but when we've had them, we've looked pretty good, I think," Steen said. "Penalty killing wise, I think we've been pretty good. Obviously they get one, one last game on an unlucky bounce, but for the most part it's been pretty decent."

Hitchcock agreed.

"It's hard because there isn't a lot of them," Hitchcock said of the penalty kills. "They've had a couple flukies go in. I think the one thing that I've noticed is that when you don't kill a lot of penalties, it's hard to get into a rhythm. We're not in a rhythm right now. I don't know that it's been a factor in the series yet. I know the percentages aren't great; I don't think it's been a factor in this series mostly because there just hasn't been that many on both sides. I think the series has been played 5-on-5 and there's been cases here where both teams have completely dominated the other team 5-on-5. I think that's more the case, but like yesterday's (Wild power play) goal was a fluke goal. We got a lucky one two games ago. That's a hard go when you're only killing one or two penalties."

Blues on brink of elimination after 4-1 loss to Wild

Minnesota scores four unanswered to take Game 5, lead best-of-7 series 3-2

By LOU KORAC
ST. LOUIS -- After giving their fans reason for hope with a convincing Game 4 victory in Minnesota, the Blues had that opportunity for a third straight season on home ice to gain the upper hand in a best-of-7 series.

And with 19,653 loyal fans packed into Scottrade Center finally waiting for the Blues to assert themselves in a series, there was a dejected feeling from the faithful for a third consecutive season in this very scenario.

The Blues came out with plenty of fire and appeared to pick up where they left off in Game 4 against the Minnesota Wild, but once again, a failure to sustain quality pressure and proper execution eventually led to a disappointing 4-1 loss to the Wild in Game 5 of the Western Conference First Round series.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
The Blues' Jaden Schwartz (middle) battles with former teammate and the
Wild's Jordan Leopold (left) for a loose puck Friday.

The Blues, who lost Game 5 at home to Los Angeles in 2013 and Chicago last season with the series tied 2-2, head on the road in a must-win situation in Game 6, where they will look to stave off elimination Sunday at 2 p.m.

It didn't go so well the past two seasons. 

On Friday, the Blues got a goal from Vladimir Tarasenko, his NHL playoff-leading sixth early in the game and instead of riding the wave of emotions and extending their lead, they gave up a clunker goal to Marco Scandella on the Wild's first shot of the game (they were outshot 8-0 to that point) 11 minutes, 6 seconds into the game. From there, it was downhill.

Nino Niederreiter and Mikko Koivu scored goals 1:26 apart late in the second period to break a 1-1 tie, and Charlie Coyle added a third-period goal to seal the Blues' fate.

But the goal by Scandella, a slap shot from just inside the left circle, caromed off Jake Allen's glove and popped in. The bubble burst inside the building, and the Blues could not solve Wild goalie Devan Dubnyk moving forward.

"I don't know that it fell apart. I think they were opportunistic," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said. "First period until they scored their goal, that was the best we've played in the whole series. Played great. We kind of flattened out a little bit when they scored the goal and had all those chances in the second and missed those four chances there.

"... We were playing so well. We just looked like it was a continuation of the last game, but I thought the air went out of the bag a little bit when they scored their first goal and we've got to probably look to respond a little bit different than that. We could have probably picked up Jake a little bit on that one. I thought we got a little bit flat."

Center Steve Ott said there was a chance to extend the lead.

"There is," he said. "We have to stay with the process. We cracked at times, gave up, obviously a goal that we probably, collectively, we could have been better with and when you do that, those are the lulls we gotta clean up and we do so, we keep pushing pucks further ahead, keep a north, hard, grind game that we play and that's the way we have success."

Allen, who allowed four goals on 19 shots, said the momentum didn't change too much following the Scandella goal, but as far as allowing it?

"That should never go in," he said.

The Blues then got somewhat complacent and gave up 13 of Minnesota's 19 shots in the second period.

But the Blues' biggest missed opportunities came off chances to beat Wild goalie Devan Dubnyk, who rebounded to stop 36 shots after allowing six goals on 17 shots in Game 4.

Alexander Steen had the two best chances. Dubnyk stopped Steen with his right pad on one early in the period, then again midway through while sprawled on the ice.

"The first one, I feel like I picked my spot pretty good, but he gets a little piece on the blocker and then it hits his pad," Steen said. "The second one, coming around the net like that, it's a tough angle," Steen said. "He kind of slid over, so I wanted to make sure I got it up. Desperation play, got a little piece of that one too."

And when the Wild began to gain traction because of the Blues playing too passive in the second period, Niederreiter scored with 5:04 left after former Blue Chris Stewart thrwarted off Zbynek Michalek and found Niederreiter in the slot for a quick one-timer after the Blues were whistled for an icing and lost the faceoff.

"We made a mistake on the second goal; we didn't get the puck deep," Hitchcock said. "They got a faceoff and the d-man lost his stick. Jake didn't pick it up. That was kind of the turning point a little bit."

Then with Kevin Shattenkirk off for interference, Koivu scored what Hitchcock called a "fluke" goal when Koivu's centering feed glanced off the skate of Jay Bouwmeester and off Allen's paddle with 3:38 remaining in the second.

"The third goal's a fluke goal; what are you going to do," Hitchcock said.

Allen appeared to be the one being screened Friday.

"It doesn’t matter," Allen said. "I should have stopped them. Not good enough on my part."

And predictably, the Wild clogged the middle of the ice, didn't give the Blues too many interior scoring opportunities despite being outshot 19-3. However, Charlie Coyle scored with 5:10 remaining to make it 4-1.

"We kept coming," Hitchcock said. "I don't know, what'd we have 19, 20 shots on goal? We get one early when we have all the chances, who knows. Game on, but it's natural to sit back a little bit. We were in their zone for most of the period.

"But so many good things. We did so many good things today. We had a little bit of a lull. I didn't think we responded as hard as we could have maybe when they scored the first goal. That gave them a little bit of wind, but just did so many good things. You're disappointed for the guys. We'll rebound and get ready for the next game. If we bring a lot of the good things we did today into the next game, we've got a third game in a row to build on."

Ott added: "I think we had some lulls in our game, obviously, that took over. Our second period probably wasn't our best, but overall, first period we gave up three shots and that third period we gave up three shots. Moving forward, I think that's the way we have to play and if we play that way we're going to be hard to play against, but we have to find a way to score goals as well."

When teams are tied 2-2 in a best-of-7 Stanley Cup Playoffs series, the winner of Game 5 holds an all-time series record of 185-50, or 78.7 percent.

The Blues don't have history on their side, but they have trailed a series 3-2 20 times and have brought it to a Game 7 nine times.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Vladimir Tarasenko scores against Wild goalie Devan Dubnyk (middle) 
that gave the Blues a 1-0 lead. Minnesota came back to win 4-1.

"I feel like we've played two games pretty well," Hitchcock said. "We've got to play a third game to get it back here. We want to really bring it back for Game 7. We're going to have to play a really good game, but we've got two good games now we can build on. ... Look, we've got to score more. We've got to finish on these chances that we get. You can't three, four chances in the second period in a series where their goalie's playing really well; you can't get those chances and not finish them and expect to win and you're not going to win a lot of games scoring one goal. You're going to have to find ways to finish off those great opportunities because it was just us and the goalie three or four times there in the second period. Gotta find a way to finish those."

"Win the next game," defenseman Alex Pietrangelo said. "We've still got two hockey games to play. We're not going to hang our heads here, we know we've got to play better. We'll take a hard look at ourselves tomorrow and get ready for Game 6."

Friday, April 24, 2015

(4-24-15) Wild-Blues Game 5 Gameday Lineup

By LOU KORAC
ST. LOUIS -- Louis Blues would like to be the first team in the Stanley Cup Playoff series with the Minnesota Wild to sustain momentum build off the previous game after a victory.

Both the Blues and Wild, who will play a pivotal Game 5 of the Western Conference First Round series (8:30 p.m.; FS-MW, NBCSN, KYKY 98.1-FM) have alternated victories in the series through four games.

The Blues won 6-1 in Game 4 to reclaim home ice advantage and would love nothing more than to take control of the series with a home ice victory Friday. But they know it won't be easy.

And the Blues had to do it without center Jori Lehtera, who did not play in Game 5 nor did he participate in the morning skate with a lower-body injury that he sustained midway through the third period of Game 4 after being hit with a shot on the power play by teammate Jay Bouwmeester.

Marcel Goc took Lehtera's spot in the lineup and played after being a healthy scratch Wednesday. Paul Stastny moved up and centered a line with Jaden Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko and Goc slotted between Dmitrij Jaskin and Patrik Berglund.

"He took the shot; everybody saw it," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said of Lehtera, who has two assists in the series. "We felt it was best to have him stay off the ice. We're thinking that he's 50-50 to play but leaning more towards playing than not playing right now. We'll see how it goes. 

"Going back (to familiarity), we're very familiar with playing these lines together. 'Stas' has played with these guys a lot, so there's not a big drop-off. We're going to miss (Lehtera) on power play; that's going to be a little bit of an adjustment, but it's a big hole if he's not in. If we would have played yesterday, he would have not played, but he's looking pretty good right now. We're assuming that he's going to play."

No matter what, Berglund said the Blues can adjust accordingly.

"We're just going to try and go out and build on what we did last game," said Berglund, who has two goals and two assists in the series. "There's always going to be ups and downs with people, whatever, but we're just going to focus on the first 20 (minutes), the next 20 and the 20 after that.

"We'll see what happens. I can't say much at all now, but you've just got to adjust and move forward, and that's exactly what we're doing."

- - -

The level of consistency has been tough from game to game for both teams in this series. 

The Wild won Game 1, then the Blues  responded accordingly in Game 2, only to see Minnesota play angry and repond in Game 3, and then the Blues took their turn in Game 4.

"I don't think it's consistent. I think it's what it takes to win a game in this series," Hitchcock said. "It takes a lot, a lot of emotional and physical input and I think you let your foot off the gas a little bit because you have to put so much into it and the other team gets angry and they dial up their focus for the pushback. The series is where it should be at based on play. Both games should have been 6-1. We were outplayed, put so much into Game 2. We looked like a little bit of a tired team and they were angry and they pushed back hard. We did the same thijng to them (in Game 4). Both teams ... I've never seen shift lengths so short in my life since I've been coaching the NHL. From the opening buzzer to the end of the game, your shift lengths are in the 30's, I've never seen that before. Usually you get it down there in the third period, but this opens the game; that's how much has been put into each shift by each player.

"We've talked about (momentum) for two days now so we'll see. Winning is a relief when you have to put so much into it and we've got to get past the relief back into the hunger part of it. I liked the disposition of our team this morning. I know you don't play this morning, but I liked the disposition of our team yesterday and today we seemed more grounded, ready to compete again, ready to go at it again, so we'll see. I think this has the potential to be the best game of the series because both teams look pretty grounded, look pretty focused. Should be a helluva hockey game."

Defenseman Carl Gunnarsson said the Blues will have to keep their aggressive play moving forward.

"Every game is important," Gunnarsson said. "We had a good feel going into the last game and we had a good feel coming off the last game and played well. What we did, we did well, but we know they're going to come hard and push back. It's not going to be the same story; it's going to be a tight game tonight."

Defenseman Barret Jackman said the strong start is key.

"Whoever has the strong start's going to have the momentum," Jackman said. "I dont think the last game really matters. I think it's all about who gets to their game the quickest and who puts pucks in deep and puts pressure on the defenseman to make mistakes. That's our game and that's what we've got to start with."

Jackman said he's anxious to see the St. Louis crowd tonight.

"Playing in St. Louis is a lot of fun and the fans are hungry," Jackman said. "They want to see some good hockey. That's what we're planning on giving them."

- - -

It's no secret that the team that scores first dictates how the game typically finishes. 

In this series, the team that scores first is 4-0, and there's a reason behind it.

"Because the value of both sides put into checking," Hitchcock said. "Both teams strive or get their offense from their checking and you look at us, everything's connected. Everything's connected. We get so much of our offense from our checking and they get it the same way. They check different; we use more 1-on-1; they use more numbers but we both are very effective in what we do. It's just so hard to play against teams that are so committed to the details of the game. That's why both teams are so good because there's a strong commitment by both sides to the details."

Does that mean the series is coming down to emotion?

"Yeah. It's two things," Hitchcock said. "It's the two teams that got their butts kicked. We lost (Game 3) 2-0, empty-netter but it felt like 6-0. We were mad. They let their foot off the accellerator a little bit, tried to take a breath; no chance, no chance. We're hoping we don't do the same thing because if you just take your foot off a little bit, because that's all it is, it looks bad, but all it is is just a little bit and the other team is ready to pounce and go at it. It also happens when you have so many players that are so similar. Mike uses four lines, we use four lines so there's no breathing room, there's no space, there's no three-line game where there's maneuvering going on. It's just all-out short shifts, get off the ice. All-out, short shifts, get off the ice. When you're in your mid-30's in the first period, a lot of energy going on."

- - -

Defenseman Alex Pietrangelo has been a workhorse for the Blues most of the season. He's leading the team in minutes once again in the postseason, but HItchcock has likened the complete package.

"He's been our best player. Played unbelievable," Hitchcock said. "All the little things that you love in his game have been there since ... started with about four games left in the regular season, carried through the playoffs; he's been outstanding. Every game. The better he plays, the more risk he plays with and then he gets away with it. Even with some of the risky stuff he's done, he's flaged down pucks, he's got back in; he's been outstanding for us."

Berglund can be classified as a player playing his best hockey as well.

"I think it started in the regular season with 10 games left," Hitchcock said. "He's just having more fun playing hockey. No pressure on himself, not stressing about what he's not doing; it's just coming and competing and playing. He's really playing well right now. He's playing very effective, but it started with 10 games left in the regular season."

- - -

Steve Ott, who moved from left wing to center in Game 4 after Chris Porter was inserted into the lineup in place of Goc, seems to have found a niche.

Playing down the middle of the ice gives him more flexibility to make plays with the puck, something he wasn't able to do along the boards playing wing.

"He doesn't get enough credit for how smart he is," Hitchcock said of Ott. "He's really smart, composed with the puck in tight spaces. 

"When he plays center, he plays with more control. He plays a little bit of like a wingnut on the wing; I don't know if you can say that, but he plays a little bit like a wingnut on the wing and this way when he's had to play in control, he kind of calms down and plays a positional game where you need him with some structure and he's very effective there."

- - -

The Blues' probable lineup:

Alexander Steen-David Backes-T.J. Oshie

Jaden Schwartz-Paul Stastny-Vladimir Tarasenko

Dmitrij Jaskin-Marcel Goc-Patrik Berglund

Chris Porter-Steve Ott-Ryan Reaves

Jay Bouwmeester-Alex Pietrangelo

Carl Gunnarsson-Kevin Shattenkirk

Barret Jackman-Zbynek Michalek

Jake Allen will start in goal. Brian Elliott will be the backup.

Healthy scratches include Olli Jokinen, Chris Butler, Robert Bortuzzo, Ty Rattie and Niklas Lundstrom. Jori Lehtera (lower body) did not play.

- - -

The Wild's probable lineup:

Jason Zucker-Mikko Koivu-Chris Stewart

Zach Parise-Mikael Granlund-Jason Pominville

Thomas Vanek-Charlie Coyle-Nino Niederreiter

Matt Cooke-Kyle Brodziak-Justin Fontaine

Ryan Suter-Jonas Brodin

Marco Scandella-Jared Spurgeon

Jordan Leopold-Matt Dumba

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

Healthy scratches include Ryan Carter, Erik Haula, Jordan Schroeder, Christian Folin, Nate Prosser, Sean Bergenheim and Niklas Backstrom. Keith Ballard (concussion) is out.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Blues want to keep momentum going in pivotal Game 5

St. Louis wants to build off 6-1 thrashing of 
Minnesota in Game 4 to even best-of-7 series 2-2

By LOU KORAC
ST. LOUIS -- As dominating as they were in Game 4, all the Blues did was even things up.

Yes, for one night, the Blues were the far more superior team on the ice than the Minnesota Wild, but heading into Friday's all-important Game 5 (8:30 p.m.; FS-MW, NBCSN, KYKY 98.1-FM), the Blues feel they need follow up what they were able to accomplish at Xcel Energy Center.

"Both teams' concern is the reaction to winning," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said Thursday. "We played a good game in Game 2 and came back with a poor performance in Game 3, which was our concern. They won Game 3; they played great in Game 3 and they probably would have liked to have Game 4 back. It's more the reaction.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Blues players (from left to right) Patrik Lerglund, Dmitrij Jaskin, Jay
Bouwmeester and Paul Stastny celebrate a goal scored in Game 4.

"You're putting so much into these games ... you get a win, it's almost like a relief emotionally and then to get your team cranked up and play again, it's a challenge for both coaches."

The foot on the gas mentality worked to perfection for the Blues in Game 4, and now they need to apply it with a follow-up effort in Game 5, where the Scottrade Center crowd will be boisterous and awaiting for the Blues to put together multiple, consecutive solid results in this series.

"I think we have to realize that desperation is kind of what forced us to play our best game," said defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, whose three assists in Game 4 gave him seven in the series, tied for the playoff points lead with Anaheim's Corey Perry. "We have to kind of keep that in our minds and try to keep that desperation and find it in different games. It's obviously nice because we did the job we had to do last night to get home tied and it's going to be a huge game tomorrow.

"Well it's tough. There's a team in that locker room, too. If we were playing against ourselves out there, we'd be fine. They want to win this series just as much as we do. When they're playing well, they're a hard team to push out of the game. So, I think that Game 3 especially they got on top of us early. We didn't give ourselves the best chance to push back and get back on top of them. That's why we didn't really feel great about our effort in Game 3. Last night we came out with the right mindset. We have to realize that tomorrow might not be as easy for us, there's going to be some ebbs and flows and some momentum changes and we have to be ready for it. We have to realize that we have a good memory in Game 4 that we can use to get us back to how we need to play."

And that means the Blues have to check, they have to check and they have to check some more. Because the result of the checking meant the Blues possessed the puck, didn't allow the Wild to gain momentum with their transition speed and most importantly, it meant the Blues were punishing the Wild physically.

"Higher speed through the neutral zone. I thought our 'D' did a good job of finding lanes to create speed for us so we weren't coming in flat-footed," left wing Alexander Steen said. "When we did have to chip it in and get pucks behind them, it just seemed like we were hungry to try and check it back. We did a good job of either getting it back or, if they did get it out into the neutral zone or into our zone, it was still our puck to be had. 

"Prepare and do the same things again. I think the biggest change was in our checking, felt like we took away their time and space and made it really difficult for them to get in and generate anything."

And getting quick shots towards the net and net-front presence was crucial. The Blues chased goalie Devan Dubnyk after he allowed six goals on 17 shots, and the direct result was crashing the net, deflecting pucks, and the occasional Vladimir Tarasenko highlight reel goal.

"That was a pretty good effort, I thought, but you can always get better," center Paul Stastny said. "I think overall, even when we had that first two-goal lead, we kept going. I think when they scored, we didn't sit back, we kept on going and never sat back when they started picking up momentum, which was important, especially in an environment like that. We played throughout the whole 60 minutes. We could have kind of sat back in the third period, but you're playing a best-of-7 series, you want to keep that momentum and not let them gain any confidence at all."

The Blues would love a repeat performance in Game 5, but they know the Wild will respond accordingly. The Blues have to elevate their game.

"I don't know what they're going to do. They're going to play well, I don't really care. I care about us," Hitchcock said. "I want to see our structure in place again, so that's the goal, put the structure in place, put our work boots on and let's play.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
The Blues' Alexander Steen (right) defends against the Wild's Jared
Spurgeon during the Blues' 6-1 victory in Game 4 on Wednesday. 

"The advantage we have is we've got two home games and they've got one home game. That's all we've got. Both teams are so evenly matched, both teams have so many good players, and their good players are so significant to the success of their franchise ... I just look at it as a helluva competition and the one little advantage we got back was home ice. We've got to take advantage of that. Two games at home ... fans in the building, the whole atmosphere in the area is a pretty big deal. It's something that you want to take advantage of it can really help you momentum-wise if you get on a roll. That's what we need to do. We need to give them something to cheer about tomorrow."

The Blues are 8-12 all-time in series where they are tied 2-2 but just 1-9 in the past 10. They've lost in back-to-back seasons against Los Angeles and Chicago on home ice in Game 5 and went on to lose each series in six games.