Friday, October 24, 2014

Listless Blues drop second straight, 4-1 to Canucks

Vancouver scores three times on four third-period 
shots to give St. Louis third regulation loss in six games

By LOU KORAC
ST. LOUIS -- This is a similar script from the recent past when the Blues played poorly, a culmination of a listless 4-1 loss to the Vancouver Canucks on Thursday.

No puck possession, a plethora of turnovers, lack of communication, poor positioning on the ice, giving up odd-man rushes ... and as coach Ken Hitchcock put it, "It's a recipe for disaster."

And the Blues, who dropped to 2-3-1 on the season with their second straight loss, right now are playing like a disaster waiting to happen.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Blues' Alexander Steen (20) and Kevin Shattenkirk celebrate Shattenkirk's
tying goal Thursday against the Vancouver Canucks. The Blues lost 4-1.

It started from the first minute of the game when Alex Pietrangelo mishandled a puck in the neutral zone and Vancouver's Chris Higgins converted a rebound off a 2-on-1 just 41 seconds into the game.

The Blues were down 1-0 and fighting from behind once again, just like Sunday in Anaheim when the Blues fell behind 1 minute, 37 seconds into a 3-0 loss.

"We're not playing the right way," Hitchcock said. "We've made a heck of a run here playing the right way; no odd-man rushes, no forced offense, don't give the puck away and make hope-for plays offensively. We've had a shoot-first mentality that's allowed us to be top-five in the league in scoring goals, but we don't want to play the right way. We want to play a different game right now, so until we buy into that, we're going to have some rough water we're going to have to go through, and that's what we're in right now. We're in rough water."

Which begs the question if the players right now are on the same page.

"We're on the same page," defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk insisted. "It's just we're not playing detailed. We're not playing disciplined and following our structure and doing what makes us good. We always hear 'Hitch' say it, put skill ahead of work and these are the results you get and that's a clear example of what we're doing right now."

The Blues, who have a handful of players dealing with sickness (they weren't using it as an excuse), were listed for four giveaways on the night, but Hitchcock said the coaching staff could count at least 20 turnovers between the blue lines. 

The Blues seemed to play hot potato with the puck. They didn't want it, and they didn't manage it well when they had it.

"We've given up more odd-man rushes in six hockey games than we did in two months last year. You can't win like that," Hitchcock said. "This is a wake-up call. The alarm bell is going off, but you've got to make sure that you can't have half the group buying in and the other half not. It's a real good eye-opener for us.

"When you show healthy respect for the three lines on the ice, good things happen, which is what we did in the second period, until we gave up a 2-on-1 (for the game-winning goal)."

The Blues, who fired 32 shots at former teammate Ryan Miller -- at times making him look like a Vezina trophy candidate, were on the wrong end of 23 shots blocked and another 12 mising the net.

But it wasn't so much the missed opportunities, including Jori Lehtera's effort that could have given the Blues a 2-1 lead in the third and led to the ensuing odd-man rush goal by Vancouver's Nick Bonino. It was the way the Blues defended when they didn't have the puck and the way they had to regroup after giving up pucks so easily.

"When you force offense and you play careless with the puck, you have defensemen that want to play ahead of the forwards, you end up with a recipe for disaster," Hitchcock said. "You look at the last two hockey games, that's a recipe for disaster. Odd-man rushes, breakaways against, forced activity rather than pushing up from behind the play. We're forcing the activity and it's costing us points. 

"The way we have to play for success, it's tough. It's hard playing that way. It's really hard playing that way ... but very successful. So the decision that the coaches have to sell and get the players to buy into is to play the right way. This isn't skill ahead of work. We're guilty of that sometimes. This is an attitude about making the next play, forcing the next play. This is really forcing offense and putting yourself in a very vulnerable position defensively because what happens is you're not on the same page. We need to get onto the same page and value checking. A big part of checking is managing the puck the right way. When we put the value system in that like we did in the second period, we were very good."

The Blues finally solved Miller in the second on their third power play when Shattenkirk wired a wrist shot from above the left faceoff dot high short side on Miller. They got it back to 1-1 and carried play in spurts looking to get the lead that never materialized.

"I don't think we can fool ourselves into thinking that we got it back," Shattenkirk said. "We got a power play goal that made it 1-1. We had some momentum, but we were still making some mistakes that are very uncharacteristic of our team. It's not good right now ... it's not good enough.

"Puck movement, puck support, communication. We have to really harp on these things tomorrow in practice and get it ready for Saturday because we're facing an even scarier opponent on Saturday. We won't be as fortunate to be coming out of that first period 1-0 against the (Chicago) Blackhawks if we play that way."

Lehtera took a terrific feed off a give-and-go with Vladimir Tarasenko, but Miller kicked out his left pad and thwarted the Blues' bid. The Canucks broke back as the Blues got caught out of position. A 2-on-1 ensued and Bonino snapped a wrister past Jake Allen, who stopped 19 shots, at the near post 4:54 into the third period.

The Canucks, who got a power play goal from Linden Vey and an empty-netter from Jannik Hansen later in the third, scored three goals on four shots in the final period.

"To me, the second goal is a perfect example of what we've done in the last two games," Hitchcock said. "To give up a 2-on-1 from that distance, that's not us. We don't give up breakaways. We don't force plays into the middle of the ice. We play a very wide offensive game and it's very effective, but we want to bring the puck into the middle and play flat-footed. You force the issue and become very easy to check. That's what we're doing right now."

It all started from the drop of the puck.

"Any time you have slow starts, it's you're not being prepared for whatever reason," defenseman Jay Bouwmeester said. "Letting things kind of snowball sometimes when something bad happens early. If you don't correct it right away or have a good shift after something, it kind of snowballs. We haven't done a very good job of just regrouping and really just playing the way we can at the start of games.

"Tonight was a frustrating night in the fact that we really didn't give ourselves a chance, even though we were in the game. Tied in the third period, that's not the way you want to end it at home."

Added Allen: "It's a 60-minute game and every minute counts. We started the game slow and found it a little bit, found it in the second and sort of tailed off again in the third. It's teams like that that can capitalize quick if you don't play a 60-minute game. It's tough to come out on top.

"The start's crucial. The first five minutes of every hockey game is big, big momentum swings. You want to be on the side of momentum. Unfortunately we had a bad break there, they capitalized on it and put us behind the Eight-ball quick."

So with practice Friday and the mighty Blackhawks coming to town Saturday in a foul mood off a 3-2 loss at Nashville Thursday, the Blues need a wake-up fast, or it might be more of the same.

"It's imperative that everyone watches your shifts, look in the mirror, see what they can do to help us have more success," captain David Backes said. "That's how we get better. Everyone needs to do a good self-evaluation, starting with myself for sure and see whatever else we can do to help the team starting with the puck drop on Saturday.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Former Blues goalie Ryan Miller came back to St. Louis to bite the hand
that once fed him with a 31-save performance in a 4-1 victory for the
Vancouver Canucks on Thursday.

"I think we're focused a little bit too much on that skill element that we think we all of the sudden have. We're a Blues hockey team ... we're going to play the way that the Blues play to be successful and that's hard-nosed and simple and hard and let our skill kick in when we get those chances in the hard areas; getting our noses dirty. We haven't found that game yet and the results have been some unsatisfying performances."

The Blues didn't drop their third game in regulation last season until Nov. 17 (19 games) when they started 13-3-3. But this 2014-15 team is not playing nowhere near last year's squad.

"We've been having a lot of meetings, and now it's enough time for talk and just getting to it and just doing it," Shattenkirk said. "It's a matter of taking actions now and going out there and setting examples, especially as leaders. We're not doing it and unfortunately, we have to realize when our top guys are having an off-night, which is going to happen, we all have to stand by them and other guys have to step up. That's something that we need to work on and get better at."

Thursday, October 23, 2014

(10-23-14) Canucks-Blues Gameday Lineup

By LOU KORAC
ST. LOUIS -- A familiar face is expected to face the Blues on Thursday.

Vancouver Canucks goalie Ryan Miller, who was acquired by the Blues from the Buffalo Sabres prior to the NHL Trade Deadline last season, will face his former teammates when the Canucks and Blues battle at Scottrade Center (7 p.m. on FSN, KMOX 1120-AM).

Miller, who was 10-8-1 with a 2.47 goals-against average and .903 save percentage in 19 regular season games for the Blues, was expected to be the missing piece for a deep Stanley Cup Playoff run. But after the Blues went up 2-0 in their first round series against the Chicago Blackhawks, they went on to drop the next four games and lose the series in six.

Miller was 2-4 with a 2.70 GAA and .897 save percentage in the series against the Blackhawks and took a lot of heat from fans in St. Louis for the playoff failure.

The Blues informed Miller, 34, he would not be offered a contract and he went on to sign a three-year, $18 million contract with the Canucks on July 1.

"It's a team game," Blues right wing T.J. Oshie said, citing fan criticism as being unfair. "Maybe there's some pucks that he'd like to stop, but there's a lot of pucks that we would have liked to go in. You can look at our top guys, our core guys and put the blame just as much on us for not putting the puck in the net as much as for him letting them go in."

Miller, who is 3-1-0 in four games with the Canucks with a 3.20 GAA and .884 save percentage, was pulled from the Canucks' 6-3 loss to the Dallas Stars on Tuesday in the second period after allowing five goals on 13 shots.

The Blues are expecting a motivated Miller Thursday night.

"He knows us," Blues center Patrik Berglund said. "It's obviously going to boost him a little extra. We know he's one of the best goaltenders in the world. We need to have a lot of traffic in front of him so he can't see the shots.

"It was nice to just catch up and all that, but tonight we want the two points, they want the two points. It's just 100 percent going for it. Doesn't matter who plays for them or who doesn't." 

The key to beating Miller?

"We've got to take his eyes away as much as we can and just shoot the puck, keep shooting," said Oshie, who also was Miller's Olympic teammate in Sochi, Russia. "I'm sure coming in here tonight, he's going to bring his 'A' game. We have to elevate our game. ... When he sees the puck, he can make some really good saves. He makes it look really easy. Traffic and second and third opportunities are going to get us some goals tonight."

- - -

The Blues are dealing with the flu bug going around the locker room the past few days. Coach Ken Hitchcock called his lineup Thursday "fluid."

"We'll dress 20; we'll let you know who they are," Hitchcock said. "We don't know right now.

"We'll figure it out once we get to the game and see who can play and who can't."

Alexander Steen, who missed practice Wednesday because he was under the weather, briefly skated before players took the ice for the optional skate and then departed.

Jori Lehtera, who missed Sunday's 3-0 loss at Anaheim and did not practice Tuesday, was back on the ice Wednesday and was one of 15 skaters to practice Thursday morning, so he looks like he'll be ready to play tonight.

Hitchcock said Wednesday as many as 5-6 players were affected by the flu, and that number could have increased by Thursday morning.

"It's probably going to be like this throughout the whole year," Berglund said. "People get hurt. They're gone for a few days or a long time, people get sick. It's just something everybody has to deal with."

As for players who are injured, Paul Stastny (shoulder) was not wearing a sling on Wednesday at the team's practice facility. He'd been wearing it the first couple days. Hitchcock said they would reevaluate his status over the weekend.

Defenseman Carl Gunnarsson skated again Thursday and is in line to make his season debut whenever he's ready, according to Hitchcock. 

- - -

It's early, but one area the Blues would like to see improvement on is the team's goal production in the 5-on-5 game.

Coming into Thursday, the Blues are tied for last (with Florida and Carolina) for fewest goals scored 5-on-5 with six.

But compared to the goals for and goals against in 5-on-5, the Blues are tied for fifth with the Ducks at 1.50 because they've only allowed four 5-on-5 goals (behind Minnesota's two and Chicago's three).

"We've played five hockey hockey games; it feels like we've barely started," Hitchcock said. "Some teams are at eight already.

"We've played four great hockey games, and one we were a step behind. They were rested. They were waiting and they were ready (Anaheim) and we were a step behind. It took us half the game to get caught up. It's hard to argue. We haven't given up a lot of goals. I guess our concern is can we get more 5-on-5 goals? We don't want to sit there and rely on the power play like we did for the first half of last year to score all our goals for us. I think we need to be better with the puck 5-on-5, but our play without the puck has been really exceptional." 

- - -

The Blues' probable lineup:

Steve Ott-David Backes-T.J. Oshie

Alexander Steen-Patrik Berglund-Joakim Lindstrom

Jaden Schwartz-Jori Lehtera-Vladimir Tarasenko

Magnus Paajarvi-Maxim Lapierre-Ryan Reaves

Jay Bouwmeester-Alex Pietrangelo

Ian Cole-Kevin Shattenkirk

Barret Jackman-Jordan Leopold

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

Chris Porter will be the healthy scratch. Paul Stastny (shoulder) and Carl Gunnarsson (hip) are out.

- - -

The Canucks' probable lineup:

Daniel Sedin-Henrik Sedin-Radim Vrbata

Chris Higgins-Nick Bonino-Alexandre Burrows

Shawn Matthias-Brad Richardson-Zack Kassian

Derek Dorsett-Linden Vey-Jannik Hansen

Dan Hamhuis-Kevin Bieksa

Alexander Edler-Christopher Tanev

Yannick Weber-Luca Sbisa

Ryan Miller will start in goal. Eddie Lack will be the backup.

Healthy scratches include Frank Corrado and Tom Sestito. Ryan Stanton (lower body) is out.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

(10-23-14) BLUES NOTEBOOK

Allen feeling good about his game; Oshie's slow 
offensive start; Steen sits practice, Lehtera returns

By LOU KORAC
HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- With a 4-2-0 career mark, 1.86 goals-against average and .933 save percentage on Scottrade Center ice, it's only logical that Blues coach Ken Hitchcock gets goalie Jake Allen in a game at home.

That game will come Thursday at 7 p.m. (FSN, KMOX 1120-AM) when the Blues (2-2-1) host Ryan Miller and the Vancouver Canucks (3-2-0).

Allen, who stopped 24 shots Saturday in a 6-1 victory against the Arizona Coyotes, was impressive in his season debut after missing all of 2013-14 while playing for the Chicago Wolves of the American Hockey League, where he was goalie of the year.

"I think it's important that Jake plays at home," Hitchcock said after practice Wednesday. "I think he's got to get a home game in sooner or later. Obviously (Brian Elliott) is going to play against Chicago (Saturday), so then we're going to be waiting even further.

"Jake played really well for us in Phoenix. I don't want to see him wait too long to get his next start, so this is an opportunity."

Allen, who is 10-4-1 with a 2.36 GAA and .908 save percentage in 16 career games, last played a meaningful game on home ice April 5, 2013, a 3-1 victory against the Columbus Blue Jackets.

"It was exciting to get my first game in at Arizona, but to be able to come back in front of our fans and play that first game in a while at Scottrade's going to be fun," Allen said. "I'm looking forward to it.

"That was my goal, to get into it as early as possible. It's been a little while before I played. I tried to touch the puck as much as I can, keep communicating with my D-men and get  a good feel there and feel comfortable. The guys made it easy for me, but it was  a good first game and it was just a building block. Tomorrow's a big test for our team."

With the quirkiness to the Blues' early-season schedule where they had four and three days off, respectively, sandwiched around three games in four nights, it's important to keep both Allen and Elliott fresh and involved in game activities and not just get in practice reps.

"The schedule's going to pick up the pace eventually, but right now, I think that would probably be the mentality of everyone, try to get everyone in the game, get a good feel for it, get confident moving forward," Allen said. "... I try to treat my practices like my games when I wasn't playing the first few. I feel good in practice and I feel ready.  Hopefully those translate into my games."

Allen, 24, said the help he's received from Elliott and veteran goalie coach Jim Corsi is immeasurable to his progress.

"He brings such a good attitude to the rink," Allen said of Corsi. "He makes it fun to get on the ice and fun to work with. He's been great since Day 1 for me and Brian. 

"You can get better every day, but I feel the foundation of my game's pretty solid right now. I feel good about it. There's always things you can improve on. No one's ever perfect but still got a long way to go and I'll just try to give the team a chance tomorrow night."

* Oshie's offense -- If there are any hints that right wing T.J. Oshie was squeezing his stick, Oshie wasn't offering any after practice Wednesday.

Who would have thought that Oshie, who for the first time in his career (seven seasons) has started a season without a point through five games, would have more fights (one) than points at this juncture, even though it's early?

"I'm still getting opportunities," said Oshie, who has taken 13 shots on goal. "My linemates are still getting opportunities. They just haven't quite gone in yet. It's nothing that I'm worried about. It's going to come. Just have to stick with the program."

Hitchcock said it's understandable if Oshie is cognizant of the fact. The veteran coach isn't worried -- yet.

"It's probably weighing on him a little bit," Hitchcock said after practice Tuesday. "He carries the conscience of the team. Points come and go. Sometimes he's going to have a three- or four-point night. 

"I would be concerned if he wasn't playing the game the right way; he's playing the game the right way. The points would be good for him, they'd give him a better feeling so he's not frustrated. He's a guy that can pop every night and say this is how you have to play, which is significant."

Hitchcock has in the past called Oshie the "conscience of our team." When the 27-year-old plays with his motor running high and fast and furious, good things tend to happen.

"There's no more eagerness than there was in the first game," Oshie said of the lack of points. "I'm more concerned about playing the right way. It's going to come. This team has always been the kind of team where one month one line is hot and the next month another line is. Obviously, you want to score, but there's a little bit (of a) different role for me this year. Little less ice time, little less opportunity on the power play. So it's going to have to happen 5-on-5."

* (Flu)id lineup -- Alexander Steen missed practice Wednesday, with what Hitchcock is calling "a bacterial ailment," or in other words, players getting sick with flu-like symptoms.

Jori Lehtera, who sat out the 3-0 loss at Anaheim after falling sick following the win Saturday in Arizona, was back at practice Wednesday and is expected to play Thursday.

"He's like five or six guys on the team," Hitchcock said of Lehtera. "They have a bacterial ailment and we're seeing who it pops up with. We are a very fluid situation right now. 

"We're going through an interesting health time right now. We'll just see who pops up tomorrow. Two guys left practice early. It popped up early this morning and got worse, so we'll just manufacture and see what's available for tomorrow."

Steen is expected to play Thursday, but Magnus Paajarvi was skating in his place on the all-Sweden line with Patrik Berglund and Joakim Lindstrom just in case Steen is downgraded.

Lehtera was back in his familiar spot at center between Jaden Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko and said he feels fine.

"I had a little fever and stuff like that," Lehtera said, "but I'm fine now."

* Practice makes perfect -- With the loss of Paul Stastny (shoulder) on a week to week basis and players shuffling in and out of the lineup and practice, the Blues spent the past two days in preparation for the Canucks doing the little things to get, according to Hitchcock, more continuity.

"We needed to get better communication from transition from offense to defense and from defense to offense," Hitchcock said. "We spent two days, had some really good practices getting ready for it. That's number one. Number two is just that five-man continuity where we're five up together five back together. We had a lot of good stuff happen in the first two games (on the recent trip)  and then we got a little bit sloppy in the third game. It's just kind of rebooting all the stuff that involved communication and talk and things like that, and getting a read on our health. Our health is not great right now. Just seeing who can play and who can't play and seeing what we can get out of the next two games."

* Gunnarsson update -- Defenseman Carl Gunnarsson (hip) was a full participant in practice once again Wednesday but not part of the regular rotation of defensemen and it appears he will miss a sixth game to begin the season Thursday night.

"He's not ready yet. Closer, closer, but not yet," Hitchcock said of Gunnarsson, acquired in a draft-day trade from the Toronto Maple Leafs along with a fourth-round pick for Roman Polak. "It's really in his camp. He's got to just decide, 'OK, I'm ready to go.' 

"He feels comfortable and he's getting closer and closer. I would hope that in the not-too-distant future whether it's the weekend or not if we're going to see him."

* Facing Vancouver -- It appears the Blues will face Miller, their teammate from the end of last season, Thursday night.

Miller, who was acquired from the Buffalo Sabres days before the NHL Trade Deadline for a package that included goalie Jaroslav Halak and Chris Stewart, signed a three-year, $18 million contract July 1 after the Blues informed Miller, 33, they would not be bringing him back.

The Blues lost three one-goal decisions (3-2 in a shootout Oct. 25 in St. Louis, 2-1 on Jan. 10 in Vancouver and 1-0 on Feb. 26 in Vancouver, which was the first game after the Sochi Olympics). All were with Eddie Lack in goal.

"I think it was more Vancouver had our number," Hitchcock said. "We played some of our best hockey in Vancouver (and) couldn't score. ... It's the same thing. We've got to keep building good minutes in our game. I think it's more continuity."

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

(10-22-14) BLUES NOTEBOOK

By LOU KORAC
HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- Last season, it was smooth sailing for the Blues. 

Injuries were far and few between during much of the regular season until they hit an avalanche over the final six games.

It didn't take long for the injury bug to derail the Blues' plans for the start of 2014-15 as defenseman Carl Gunnarsson began on the shelf recovering from off-season hip surgery. And now with the addition of center Paul Stastny out week to week after injuring his left shoulder against the Arizona Coyotes and with center Jori Lehtera shut down the past three days with sickness, the Blues are seeing their forward depth tested early this time around.

That's why they stocked the cupboard.

"We'll kind of evaluate it here on the weekend," Hitchcock said of Stastny, who has four points in four games. "It gets better every day. ... If he's week to week, IR's what, seven days? This weekend will probably be the evaluation to see is he going to come back right away or is he going to take another few days. We'll do the evaluation here on the weekend here and see how he's doing.

"It tests (the depth) a lot. It was tough to absorb the loss of really your first and third icemen with no chance to practice. But allowing us a couple days of practice, I think we'll recover nicely. Everybody goes through this stuff, but I think with having time to practice and put your lines in and having that good practice tomorrow; hopefully Lehtera's in and that'll give us a chance to regroup and get ready."

The Blues, who host the Vancouver Canucks on Thursday before getting another crack at the Chicago Blackhawks here Saturday night, must soldier on.

"He's a great player," captain David Backes said of Stastny. "He's a huge addition, huge part of this team. We're going to have injuries this year. Get them out of the way maybe earlier in the year than later in the year and find ways to shed the responsibility of other guys, guys stepping up. We'll be fine. We've just got to keep it all together, make sure we're playing our game, supporting each other, picking each other up and take care of business.

"We're not going to dwell on one injury. We've got new guys, old guys ... it doesn't matter. We're a group of 23 and we've got guys in the minors that can step up and play, too. We're going to have injuries. We're going to have guys that are in and out of the lineup because they're hurt. It's an 82-game season in the best league in the world. Do we want Paul in the lineup? For sure. He'll fix his injury, he'll be back and he's a guy with his smarts and his abilities, he'll be right back in the lineup and won't miss a beat for sure."

Teammate Jordan Leopold, who also played with Stastny with the Colorado Avalanche, doesn't expect Stastny to be out very long.

"I've played with Paul in the past. I've known him for a long time," Leopold said. "He's going to bounce back from this just fine. We've got guys who are stepping in and doing the job for us. Who that's going to be night in and night out, we don't know. We have to stick to our game plan now and what we've done in the past. We have to get points. It's as simple as that. We've got a light month and we have to take advantage of it and come out on top here by the end of this month.

"It sucks for him, especially when you come to a new team. You want to make an impact, you want to be able to stay in the room and see how things work and learn what's going on.When you're injured on the outside looking in, it's really hard. He'll be at every meeting, he'll be around. It's unfortunate, but he'll be there when we need him."

But with Stastny out and Lehtera fighting the flu bug, the Blues were forced into mixing and matching lines at practice Tuesday.

"It really blew up three lines," Hitchcock said. "When you lose a winger, it's one thing, but I think when you lose a couple (of) center icemen, it blows up your lineup. 

"Today was a really good day to recover on the ice and get some continuity back in our lines and get some role definition back again, so you make the adjustments. I look at Tampa, they've got four guys down, three in the last two games. Those are the adjustments you've got to make. I think any coach knows if you just get a day or two to catch your breath, you can regroup your group and other guys will step up and make account of themselves."

The lines included an all-Swede combination of Alexander Steen, Patrik Berglund and Joakim Lindstrom.

"They were told to speak English today, which is something they were challenged with and they did a good job of it," Hitchcock joked. "... I don't know. They looked good at practice today. If you can move that onto the games ... if they look like they did today, that's a significant move for us. That really makes us dangerous when Lehtera comes back. That can really make us look dangerous right now."

Versatile Steve Ott was back on the top line with Backes and T.J. Oshie.

"Our hope is that in some period of time during the competition, we'll flip him and Magnus (Paajarvi) and see how both sides look," Hitchcock said of Ott. "We'll have Magnus practice there again tomorrow, but we'll see during the game depending on what the opponent is. I would look for him and Magnus to flip positions during the game. He's going to play in both spots."

* Back to familiar ground -- It didn't take long for Hitchcock to reunite defensemen Alex Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester, the team's top defensive pairing the past season and a half.

After spending much of training camp trying to figure out a way to balance the D-pairs out by splitting up Pietrangelo and Bouwmeester, Hitchcock went back to them during the 3-0 loss against the Anaheim Ducks Sunday.

Why?

"Continuity, plus Gunnarsson's getting closer and closer to (being) ready," Hitchcock said. "Looking at the opponents coming up, we're going to need one pair that carries yeoman work 5-on-5. They're the pair that does it, so we're going to use them."

Pietrangelo's been playing with Ian Cole, and Bouwmeester has skated with Kevin Shattenkirk, who's thrived in the role. On Tuesday, Shattenkirk was skating with Cole and Barret Jackman and Leopold were on the third unit with Gunnarsson filtering in.

"That's the coach's decision. Whatever they want to do ... we played together a little bit there at the end of the Anaheim game," Pietrangelo said. "They're going to do whatever they think is right. 

"Inside and out is an understatement. I think when you play a year and a half together, go to the Olympics together ... you can go on and on about on the ice, off the ice. You come to know each other. When we get back together, it seems natural. Anybody that goes with Bouw, it's an easy transition. He's a world class player."

As for Gunnarsson, who was cleared for contact a week ago Monday, Hitchcock said, "He's getting better and better. We'll kind of have a real firm evaluation after tomorrow's practice. He did fitness again today. He passed it with flying colors, so let's see where the next step's at. A lot of it's in his hands now."

* Assessing a 1-1-1 trip -- The Blues dominated play against the defending champion Los Angeles Kings but were thwarted of a point by nemesis Jonathan Quick in a 1-0 shootout loss, then blitzed the Coyotes 6-1 Saturday as Jaden Schwartz recorded his first-ever hat trick and four-point game before the team's flattest game of the season Sunday against the Ducks.

"Three in four after a long break early in the season," Backes said. "It's not an ideal schedule, but no excuses. We played a good game in L.A. We won a game pretty handily in (Arizona) and then we came out and played pretty flat in Anaheim. Whether that's back to back or whatever happened there, that's where we needed another 60 minutes to make that a great road trip."

"I think we definitely would have liked to get that last one," said Leopold, who was a healthy scratch Sunday in favor of Petteri Lindbohm, who Hitchcock raved about. "Maybe short on gas or whatever it may be, but we look to regroup this week. We've got two good days of practice, a day off here and here comes Vancouver rolling into town and here we go again. It's been a light month for us and hopefully we can take advantage of that."

* Special teams start -- The Blues come home to play four of the next five (Jake Allen will start in goal Thursday against the Canucks). They do so tied for second in power play efficiency (6 of 20, good for 30 percent) but needing some fixing on the penalty kill, where the Blues gave up two goals in the loss Sunday.

The Blues enter Thursday tied for 17th in penalty kill efficiency at 80 percent, allowing four goals on 20 opportunities that included 2 of 3 to the Ducks.

"Our power play's been great," Hitchcock said. "Our power play, even when we don't score, I don't know ... what do we've got, six or seven goals already in the season? That's pretty significant. It's our penalty killing we're probably concerned about. We're letting too many goals go in, we're making too many errors, and we've got to get that cleaned up quick because when you let in goals on the penalty kill, that's what loses you hockey games. Power plays can help you win games, but you don't need them every night. But when you don't have your penalty killing going, you're going to be in trouble. We need to get that cleaned up."

Monday, October 13, 2014

Bonding Blues look to grow in California

Team departed after Saturday game for Palm Springs 
ahead of three-game trip to Los Angeles, Arizona and Anaheim

By LOU KORAC
ST. LOUIS -- It was a lengthy flight of four hours to begin with for the Blues, but the travel became pleasant one instead of a longer journey following a victory.

The Blues (1-1-0) took off for Palm Springs, Calif. following their 4-1 victory against the Calgary Flames on Saturday night.

The Blues left for California to spend a few days away together ahead of the first away games that will take them to Los Angeles on Thursday, Arizona on Saturday and Anaheim on Sunday.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Brian Elliott (1) gets congratulations from Ryan Reaves and Kevin
Shattenkirk (right) after the Blues' first win of the season Saturday night.

It's a chance to grow as a team, just like they did last season during a week-long trip to Charleston, S.C. when the Blues had an unusual week off between games in October. But according to coach Ken Hitchcock, it's a few days that will be spent growing together and prepare for an early-season tough test.

"To be honest with you, we've had no time together as a team," Hitchcock said after the victory Saturday. "We're not a team yet, and we've had no social time together. We've had no fun together. It's just been training camp, exhibition games, start of the season. There's been no building and bonding that's gone on. Everybody goes home, there's no quality time together. 

"This is a terrific opportunity if we take advantage of it. We've got lots of time with each other, we've got lots of practices planned. The players have a lot of stuff that they can do. It's a great place to relax and enjoy yourself. Quite frankly, we need to do that. We need to start having a little fun here so we can build a little bit better bond than we've got right now. We're an OK team right now, but we're not near as tight and cohesive as we need to be. Hopefully this can do it. ... We've got to take another big step here. Win lose or draw, we've got to take steps. We're playing three really good teams, and we've got to show that we can play with them. I think we will."

It's a time for those familiar to get re-acquainted as teammates, and it's a chance for those who are new to get familiarized with their new teammates.

"The wife's sick right now, so I get away from her and try to get the flu bug out of me," center Paul Stastny, who leads the Blues with four points through two games,  joked. "When you go on the road, you hang out with the guys, get to know them a little better. 

"That's one of the fun parts of playing hockey, doing those road trips. Going out west, we get to go out a couple days early to do a little team bonding, so it should be fun."

Defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, who had three assists against the Flames on Saturday, agreed.

"We've had time here in the locker room, but we haven't really had real time on the road together," Shattenkirk said. "It's going to be fun to get to know some of these guys, allow them to get comfortable and feel comfortable in this locker room with the team. 

":It's really just a great time to get out of St. Louis and just get ready for the season. This is what you kind of get used to as the season goes along; be able to do this with a little more of a casual manner. Getting on the road early and get ready for L.A.'s going to be nice."

The Blues were able to connect with the hockey fans in Charleston last season and hope to do so in California, although they're close to enemy territory with fans of the Kings and Ducks so close.

"I'm sure there will be some youth hockey kids that come out like we (had) in Charleston (S.C.) last time," captain David Backes said. "It's fun. You connect with the community a little bit. They're hosting us, they're always treating us really well."

But it's important to put in the practice time as well, as the Blues -- who lost 3-2 to the New York Rangers to open the season -- get geared up for some big-bodied Western Conference foes on the docket.

"We've played the Eastern Conference champs, now we're going to play the Stanley Cup champs two out of our first three games," Backes said of the Kings. "It's going to be another measuring  stick, but we've got to show that we're up to that level and that we can play that hard, heavy game and let that skill element that we definitely have kick in when we get our chances rather than try to make that carry the game.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
David Backes is looking for the Blues to bond with the hockey
fans of south California as the team spends a few days out west.

"I'm sure Hitch will have some things we'll pick apart and we'll focus on getting pucks to the net, finding rebounds, finding that heavy game."

It's early in the season, but these are the types of opponents the Blues will have to measure up against when it's all said and done at the end of the season.

"Just trying to get better every day and not really wasting those days," goalie Brian Elliott said. "It's an opportunity to get together and get your stories and go out to a couple dinners. Those are always good for the team  morale. But you're wanting to make sure you're not wasting those days. You want to get on the ice, work hard and get off and enjoy yourself after.

"They're going to be measuring sticks. You want to come out hard and show teams what you're made of. Build your momentum for the rest of the year."

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Blues start fast, top Flames 4-1

Stastny, Shattenkirk each collect three assists in 
the victory; Lindstrom scores in NHL first since 2011

By LOU KORAC
ST. LOUIS -- The St. Louis Blues were looking for a quicker start Saturday night after coming out of the gates slow in their home opener Thursday against the New York Rangers.

Players and coach Ken Hitchcock made it a point of emphasis to come out of the chute much quicker, to set the tempo, get off more shots and for the Blues to get their game going in the right direction.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Blues players (from left) Kevin Shattenkirk, Jay Bouwmeester, Vladimir
Tarasenko and Jori Lehtera celebrate a Blues goal against Calgary.

Scoring in the first minute of the game doesn't hurt, and the Blues were relentless the rest of the way.

Joakim Lindstrom scored his first NHL goal since 2011, and David Backes scored a first-period power play goal to stake the Blues to an early two-goal lead, en route to a 4-1 victory against the Calgary Flames before 17,120 at Scottrade Center.

"We had a lot more participants," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said. "... We managed the puck well, we really did a lot of things. We played on our toes. I thought we did a whale of a job. Still in saying that, we needed Brian (Elliott) today. Brian was really good today."

Paul Stastny continued his mastery of the Flames with three assists, giving him 49 points in 41 career games against the Flames. Kevin Shattenkirk had three assists, and Elliott stopped 23 shots as the Blues evened their record at 1-1.

"I think we just got more comfortable out there," Stastny said. "The first game, we were kind of getting the jitters out of the way. We knew the ice wasn't going to be the best this early in the season. I think we just kept it a little more simple and kind of created chances through turnovers.

"When you play a team that many times, you're going to get points against them. My first couple years, I played them eight times a year. If it happens to be like that, it happens to be like that. I can't really control it."

Vladimir Tarasenko and Alex Pietrangelo scored for the Blues, who improved to 7-1-1 in the past nine games against Calgary and have defeated the Flames five straight times on home ice, outscoring them 18-6.

"We weren't really waiting for the game to come to us and taking it to them," Elliott, who made an acrobatic save on the Flames' Paul Byron in the second period, said of the Flames. "I think we executed for the most part the whole game. It's fun watching those guys working hard for you in front of you."

Added Shattenkirk: "We played simple early, we played hard and we did the things that make us successful. We chipped pucks in, played a physical game and we were able to be successful on the power play and 5-on-5 as well."

The Flames, who played their third game in four nights to begin the season, got a late goal in the third period from Curtis Glencross. Jonas Hiller stopped 35 shots in defeat.

"We were chasing the puck all night and we weren’t winning the battles," Glencross said. "It makes for a long night."

Flames coach Bob Hartley agreed.

"I think the game was in the image of their first goal," Hartley said. "A couple of our guys get tangled up and they get a 3-on1 out of it. Playing a team with so much talent, so much depth, you don’t want to give them early momentum  and they got this.

"They basically took the wind out of our sails." 

Lindstrom got the Blues on the board 48 seconds into the game with his first goal since Oct. 13, 2011 as a member of the Colorado Avalanche when he finished off a tic-tac-toe play in front after getting a clever little pass from Stastny in tight. Lindstrom redirected the puck past Hiller into the open side.

He even remembered the last time he scored in the NHL.

"Yeah, I think I do. I think it was against Ottawa," Lindstrom said. "But it's been a few years, so it was nice to put one in today. It was a nice play by my linemates there. I was holding my stick down and it was an empty net. It was nice.

"We all wanted some redemption from our first game of the year. We didn't play as well as we can. It was important to come our strong. I think we did that tonight. ... I think today we put work ahead of skill. It paid off for us."

With Calgary's Matt Stajan off for tripping, Backes redirected Shattenkirk's shot from the blue line past a screened Hiller 8:44 into the first for a 2-0 Blues lead.

The Blues were aggressive, assertive and they played the puck in Calgary's zone for much of the first 10 minutes, setting the tempo for their first win of the season.

Pietrangelo's first of the season gave the Blues two power play goals in two tries, after he collected a shot from Shattenkirk off the back boards around to the right circle. Pietrangelo wasted little time in blasting a one-timer past Hiller 3:12 into the second period to make it 3-0.

The power play finished 2 of 5 but was much sharper than the opener, when the Blues were 0-for-5 against the Rangers.

"We just got back to our identity," Hitchcock said. "Until the two weeks of the season, we were second place in the national Hockey League last year with a certain identity, and then we lost those players and we stopped scoring on it and it led into the playoffs. ... We just got back to it. That last power play in Game 1, led us into what we did today. We just followed that script and were very effective. We had quality chances on every power play with lots of traffic and lots of second and third opportunities because of it."

Shattenkirk quarterbacked the power play to perfection with Alexander Steen and led by example on the blue line.

"He was really good tonight," Hitchcock said of Shattenkirk. "He didn't lose his energy, he skated, he was mobile the whole night, he was a threat the whole night. He was a real good player in the game today.

"Shatty's been our best defenseman first two games. He's been excellent. If this is the type of quality play, he pretty much can play with anybody and help them."

Tarasenko made it 4-0, when he one-timed a shot from the low slot after Jaden Schwartz dug a puck out from behind the net and flipped it in front, and Tarasenko made no mistake at 7:10 of the second.

Hiller, who allowed four goals on the first 15 St. Louis shots, kept the game at 4-0 with several strong saves as the second period progressed. He faced 19 Blues shots in the period.

"Today, I thought the second part of the second period was the way we needed to play to win," Hitchcock said. "... There was a lot of penetration on the attacks and some good o-zone play. Things that we need to do to score goals. I thought as the game went on, our exits were better and better and more defined when we got better puck support."
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Paul Stastny had three assists in a 4-1 victory Saturday night against the 
Calgary Flames, giving him 49 points in 41 career games against the Flames.

The Flames spoiled Elliott's shutout bid when Glencross redirected Mark Giordano's shot from the blue line with 4:13 remaining, but it didn't matter. The Blues were in complete control and got back on the horse after what they felt was a less-than-stellar game against the Rangers.

"You get in those summer hockey habits and you're playing a good team and you're trying to make it a little too cute at home for the home opener," center David Backes said. "... I think tonight we came out with a much better game, much concerted effort to get pucks deep, play our hard-nosed, heavy body type of game. Two power play goals never hurt the cause at all."

The Blues immediately chartered a flight to Palm Springs, Calif. for a team bonding trip ahead of their upcoming three road games on the West Coast. They will play at Los Angeles on Thursday, Arizona on Oct. 18 and Anaheim on Oct. 19. 

* NOTE -- Forward Patrik Berglund was a late scratch from the lineup after participating in the morning skate.

Berglund, who was injured from a slash against the Rangers, sat out with an upper-body injury and was replaced in the lineup by Maxim Lapierre, who initially was scratched in favor of Chris Porter.

(10-11-14) Flames-Blues Gameday Lineup

By LOU KORAC
ST. LOUIS -- Not looking to sugarcoat underachieving, the Blues will make one change to their lineup when they host the Calgary Flames today.

Chris Porter, a healthy scratch  for the opener against the New York Rangers, will replace Maxim Lapierre on the Blues' fourth line when they drop the puck at 6 p.m. (FSN, KYKY 98.1-FM).

The Blues, who dropped a 3-2 decision against the Rangers, are expected to use Porter as the center on a line with Steve Ott and Ryan Reaves.

"We've played together before, last year a bit in the playoffs," Porter said. "So I think we all kind of have a good familiarity there -- play a pretty simple game, do a good job of creating energy and good in our own zone.

"They probably would rather have me on the left side, but I've definitely played up the middle. Wherever they need it is fine by me."

Porter is glad to be playing, period.

"I'm going to bring energy, physicality to the game," Porter said. "I thought the guys the second half of the game (Thursday) really picked that up, so I'll try and just step in and make it as seamless as possible."

Forwards Paul Stastny (quad contusion) and Patrik Berglund (upper body) were both part of the morning skate after sitting out Friday's practice. Stastny is back in the lineup, but Berglund was not on the ice for the pregame skate and was a late scratch.

"I wouldn't read our lineup into anything right now," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said after the morning skate. "We're kind of moment to moment with a few guys here."

Stastny comes into the matchup Saturday with impressive numbers against the Flames. In 40 career games, Stastny has 19 goals and 27 assists.

- - -

It's not considered a must-win, but with the Blues heading out on a three-game trip on the West Coast (to Los Angeles, Arizona and Anaheim) after the game tonight, a win on home ice would be well-timed. The Blues will leave for a team bonding trip to Palm Springs, Calif. for three days before settling into Los Angeles, where they'll play the Kings on Thursday night.

"It's pretty early. We want to play well. We want to play well for 60 minutes," Hitchcock said. "We put 40 great minutes in (the) last game and we'd like to put 60 in. I think we let New York dictate period one. We don't want to let Calgary dictate. They've got too many tenacious, high-energy guys so we can't let them dictate. We've got to do that ourselves.

"You want to win because it's a good feeling. For us, you don't want to be grabbing the game in the second period all the time trying to get to play the right way. We really played well in the second and third and we want to try to out that out there for 60 minutes so we get ourselves into a rhythm. To me when you keep trying to grab the game, you're playing catch-up all the time. It was a heck of a hockey game and as some of our players and some of the Ranger players said, it was a Game 7. You expect that when you've got two great teams going at it early in the year, you expect to be acting and behaving like it was a sudden death game."

Nipping losses in the bud, especially for consecutive games at home, is what the Blues will hope to accomplish.

"You try to limit that as many times as you can," defenseman Jordan Leopold, a former Flame, said. "We did some good things later in the game. I think we found our game late. They got a fortunate bounce on the last one, but if we come out with that kind of start, we should have a better outcome than we had last game."

"Hopefully we get away on a high note. That's a goal, feel good about yourself, have a little confidence, have a little bit of enjoyment and get some down time. Of course, maybe I'll catch up on some speed I haven't had due to watching my kids."

By getting into their game, the Blues will look for an early north-south game.

"It happens with adversity. I think it happens with people looking and saying, 'OK, this is how we had success in the game and this is how we didn't and lets get more guys on that page,'" Hitchcock said. "I think it's been typical of our exhibition games. We incorporated more puck skill into our groups, but it's not losing our principals that made us so successful here f or the last three years. Sometimes you have to engage in games that matter for two points before it really hits home. I think it's starting to hit home and hopefully we can start to improve on it.

"Calgary plays the best territorial game I've seen so far. We've got to take them out of their territorial game. We've got to make them defend more than they want to. I think that when they're allowed to dictate and put pressure on people, they come at you. They're very aggressive on the forecheck. They're very aggressive in the neutral zone. We've got to make them defend more than they want to, because once they get a beat on you, they've got foot speed and tenacity that can take the game over like they did in the third period against Edmonton. We've got to find a way to make sure that we make them defend more than they want to."

- - -

The Flames, who are 1-1, will be without forwards Jiri Hudler (sick) and David Jones (lower body) but will get former Blue Dennis Wideman, who was a healthy scratch in their 5-2 win against Edmonton on Thursday, back into the lineup.

Hudler, who is tied for fourth in the NHL with three points (two goals), became sick overnight according to coach Bob Hartley, who said Hudler is "very, very doubtful" for the game.

Along with Devin Setoguchi making his Flames debut, enforcer Brian McGrattan will step into the Flames lineup, and paired with former Chicago Blackhawk and St. Charles native Brandon Bollig, Reaves may have his hands full.

"I think you've kind of seen me in the last couple years not really do something until something's needed," Reaves said. "You know I always will so, if something happens in the game where we need a spark or something doesn't go our way and I need to go out and do something, I absolutely will. I'm not just going out looking for something for no reason.

"That's always my role and I embrace it. I love that part about hockey and that's the one thing I bring to the team better than anything else I do. If we need a little extra physicality, I'm always there to do it."

- - -

The Blues' lineup:

Steve Ott-David Backes-T.J. Oshie

Alexander Steen-Paul Stastny-Joakim Lindstrom

Jaden Schwartz-Jori Lehtera-Vladimir Tarasenko

Chris Porter-Maxim Lapierre-Ryan Reaves

Ian Cole-Alex Pietrangelo

Jay Bouwmeester-Kevin Shattenkirk

Barret Jackman-Jordan Leopold

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

Carl Gunnarsson (hip) hopes to get clearance when he visits a specialist in Nashville on Monday. Patrik Berglund (upper body) was a late injury scratch. Magnus Paajarvi is the lone healthy scratch.

- - -

The Flames' lineup:

Curtis Glencross-Mikael Backlund-Lance Bouma

Johnny Gaudreau-Joe Colborne-Mason Raymond

Paul Byron-Sean Monahan-Devin Setoguchi

Brandon Bollig-Matt Stajan-Brian McGrattan

Mark Giordano-TJ Brodie

Kris Russell-Deryk Engelland

Ladislav Smid-Dennis Wideman

Jonas Hiller will start in goal. Karri Ramo is the backup.

Jiri Hudler and Raphael Diaz will be scratched. Corey Potter (shoulder), Sam Bennett (shoulder) and David Jones (lower body) are out with injuries.