Saturday, December 31, 2011

Blues fall yet again in a shootout

Nashville gets lone goal in 2-1 victory; St. Louis blanked on
five attempts, has now lost six straight shootouts dating to last season

ST. LOUIS -- It's getting to be a broken record: the Blues play well during the course of a game, only to leave an extra point on the table because they can't convert breakaways.

When one dissects the shootout, might as well call it breakaway practice, and let's face it, the Blues are not very good at them this season.

Friday night was no exception.
(Getty Images)
The Blues' Patrik Berglund (right) can't beat Nashville goalie Pekka Rinne
during Friday's shootout in St. Louis.

Martin Erat's goal in the fifth shootout, a roof shot past Jaroslav Halak, provided the lone goal as the Nashville Predators edged out the Blues 2-1, winning the shootout 1-0 at Scottrade Center, snapping the Blues' six-game winning streak.

The Blues (21-11-5), are now winless in five shootouts this year and six straight dating back to last season. They've lost four of the five by 1-0 results and Jaroslav Halak has been the victim of all five losses.

The Blues are now 1-for-17 on the season in shootout attempts, which translates to a paltry six percent.

What matters most, the Blues have now left five points on the table for opponents to grab.

"It's frustrating for the whole team, especially for someone like me who takes pride in scoring shootouts," said Blues winger T.J. Oshie, who scored the Blues' goal. "To see the effort that Jaro put forth for us tonight and to not get him that extra point ... it's unacceptable, I think."

Added captain David Backes, one of five shooters who missed his attempt: "Five rounds you expect to get at least one in. We don't do that. Jaro really deserved the win. Jaro kept us in there long enough, but obviously an area you'd like to get better at.

"If we're not going to win them, we might as well win them in regulation or put one in in overtime and skip that whole formality."

Halak, who stopped 33 shots in the loss and fell to 7-7-5 on the season, is beginning to wonder himself what it's going to take to win a shootout.

Personally, he's lost his last nine decisions in the shootout.

"The shootouts, it's just a 50-50 chance," Halak said. "It seems like this season we are having a hard time to win these. These are extra points for us. It can make a big difference at the end of the season."

The Blues sent in Oshie, David Perron, Patrik Berglund, Backes and Kevin Shattenkirk. All were either turned away by Pekka Rinne, who stopped 35 shots in the game, or in Perron's case, hit the post.

Since I've been here, this is the third time we've had a chance to win the shootout outright with the last shooter and not being able to do it is frustrating for the players and frustrating for Jaroslav," said Blues coach Ken Hitchcock, whose team caught a charter plane after the game and headed to play at Detroit Saturday.

When asked what he's seeing from his shooters, Hitchcock said succinctly: "No speed. ... Big goalie, no speed, can't score. Pretty simple."

It's getting to the point for the Blues where maybe players are thinking too much or squeezing sticks. Throw in every cliche one can think of.

"We might be grabbing sticks a little tight," Oshie said. "We've got some guys that have never scored a shootout goal. They're making good moves. It's just not going in for them.

"For me, I decided not to watch video on Rinne today. I think I was kind of thinking too much before. I had a little hole there and I just missed it."
(Getty Images)
Nashville's Martin Erat (left) beats Jaroslav Halak with the lone shootout
goal that gave the Predators a 2-1 victory over St. Louis Friday night.

As for the game itself, the Blues gave up a bad goal to start the game, and Halak blamed himself for not covering up a puck that eventually got to Matt Halischuk, who poked a shot in just 2 minutes 16 seconds in.

"We were a little light," Hitchcock said of the early play. "We looked like a team that had taken a couple days off. But we got going, really going. Especially in the second period."

But the Blues recovered nicely, getting Oshie's 12th of the season after Backes drove hard to the net, and Oshie picked up a loose puck in the slot and beat Rinne high glove side with 6:40 remaining in the opening period.

"Great shift by the line," Oshie said. "It was a good 200-foot shift. Great play by the d-men and obviously Backs driving the net created the whole thing. I just tried to get a whack at it."

The goalies would slam the door shut from there on out, with Rinne really keeping the Blues out of the goal, particularly in the second period.

"He made saves that ... I'm standing on the bench and he made four saves in the second period and I'm thinking the puck's in," Hitchcock said of Rinne. "He's good. Gonna have to find a different way to beat him.

"The second period's the best period we've played for a long time. Better than any period we played in Detroit."

But it wasn't enough to keep the Blues from falling to 0-1-2 on the season against the pesky Preds, who were without all-star defenseman Shea Weber (concussion) for the third consecutive game.

"That's the way the script goes, but we need to find ways," Backes said. "We're doing all the work. We've just got to reap the benefits from it."

Added Hitchcock: "This was a game, especially the way we played in the second and the last half of the first and into the third, we felt we could have taken one today. Too many just-abouts."

* NOTES -- The Blues played without winger Alex Steen, who Hitchcock said Friday morning has concussion-like symptoms from a hit they believe was absorbed in Monday's win over Dallas. Steen will likely not play tonight in Detroit and will be re-evaluated after that. ... Forward Andy McDonald skated again Friday, this time with the team at the morning skate. McDonald said he's not ready but feels he's at around 90-95 percent. ... Scratches for the Blues included wingers Chris Porter and Adam Cracknell.

Friday, December 30, 2011

(12-30-11) Predators-Blues Gameday Lineup

ST. LOUIS -- The word concussion has been bandied around the league for some time now, but for the Blues, he's become like a black plague.

From David Perron to Andy McDonald to Carlo Colaiacovo all dealing with it in the last year and making recoveries, McDonald is in the process of dealing with yet another one. Matt D'Agostini escaped one within the last few weeks.

It's not fully been determined yet but now add Alex Steen's name to the list.

Steen will not play tonight when the Blues (21-11-4) host the Nashville Predators (19-14-1) because of what coach Ken Hitchcock called "concussion-like symptoms" believed to have been suffered Monday when the Blues hosted Dallas.

Steen, who is tied for the team lead in points (with David Backes) with 24, played Tuesday in Detroit and skated Thursday at practice, but Hitchcock said he didn't feel right and the team is holding him out tonight and likely tomorrow night in Detroit before giving a further update.

"Looks like in the Dallas game, there was a hit in the Dallas game," Hitchcock said. "He didn't feel right after practice yesterday. We'll just hold him out ... it's day to day or what it is. Right now, he can't play today."

It would be the first concussion suffered in Steen's career if in fact results come back and clearly identifies it as one.

"We'll let you know in a couple days on Steener how things are going there," Hitchcock said. "... We'll give you an update in a day or two.

"We're erring on the side of caution and we'll see in a day or two. It might be nothing and away we go, but you want to be safe."

- - -

While the Blues will suddenly be subtracting Steen from the lineup, they will be adding T.J. Oshie (wrist), Jamie Langenbrunner (flu) and Vladimir Sobotka (ankle) back into the lineup tonight.

All three skated this morning and were deemed fit to go by Hitchcock, although Langenbrunner was declared fit Thursday after missing two games.

Oshie also missed two games after injuring his left wrist a week ago in Phoenix, while Sobotka has missed seven games after taking a puck off his ankle during a practice Dec. 12.

"Both guys are in, good to go," Hitchcock said of Oshie and Sobotka. "Both feel good enough to play. Both guys felt a lot better today after yesterday's practice. That's a good sign.

"Lags is back to normal. Three guys in and one guy down, so that's good."

Although Hitchcock was unsure of tonight's lineup, it's likely that Adam Cracknell will be the one that goes to the press box as a healthy scratch.

Cracknell was recalled in time for Monday's game against Dallas.

"With those three guys in, that adds to our roster up front for sure," Hitchcock said. "We'll have to get somebody to replace Steen on that big line. I'm not 100 percent sure which way we're going to go yet."

- - -

Speaking of McDonald, he took part in the morning skate today with his teammates for the first time since making his first appearance on the ice (Dec. 23).

McDonald continues to recover from the concussion suffered in the third game of the season at Dallas Oct. 13.

"I'm feeling really good and happy to be back on the ice," said McDonald, who is wearing a red no-contact jersey. "I was feeling good off the ice doing the workouts (and) riding the bike. Just in general, I was feeling good and feeling motivated. This is the next step to be able to get on the ice, to be able to function in practice and do all the things you have to be able to do on the ice. It's one thing to be able to get on the bike and do a workout in the gym, but to be able to perform on the ice is the next step that I have to get to."

This concussion for McDonald, the sixth one suffered during his playing career, nearly put him out of the game for good.

"Probably the first week or two I was out, I thought that I was probably done for good," McDonald said. "With the way I felt, there was just no way that I would ... with my history and with the way I felt at the time, there would be no way that I would come back. But I've had a pretty good turnaround and I'm feeling really good, but also I'm still not 100 percent. That'll be the key. I've had so many of them that I want to be 100 percent when I come back. I just can't put myself at risk for another one and certainly not being 100 percent, I'm going to rely on myself for that."

McDonald said he's at 90-95 percent as far as his health is concerned but has placed no timetable on a return. He's been headache-free but still feels a bit foggy at times.

"There's some certain things and certain levels that I need to get to," McDonald said. "I passed the neuro-psyche (testing), so it's cleared from that regard. I've done the bike and stuff like that. I felt pretty good, so the next level's to get into a regular practice to get this red practice jersey off.

"This one has been different symptoms. I've reacted in a different way. There doesn't seem to be a pattern. I don't really know why that it is, but they're all different."

Hitchcock said he's finally caught up to his veteran winger but is irrelevant until he changes colors of his jersey.

"It's kind of like two ships passing: hello, how are you, fine, I'll see you when you get out of the red sweater," Hitchcock said. "That's the way we're dealing with it.

"There's no point in even having an update. When the color of the sweater changes, boy we can really get into it. But it's not a lot different than David Perron or even B.J. Crombeen. When the sweater's red, there's no point in even having a meeting about it until the color changes. ... It's nice to see him around, nice to see him being a part of it. But as long as you're in a red sweater, you're kind of a non-subject matter with everybody."

- - -

The Predators, who have won both meetings against the Blues this season, are also dealing with the concussion issue with top d-man Shea Weber, who will miss his third straight game tonight with a concussion suffered Dec. 23 at Dallas.

Weber who is among the NHL leaders in ice time per game at 26:20 and the Predators are making due with what they have, trying to patch up Weber's production and not necessarily replace it.

"You can't replace those elite players," Predators coach Barry Trotz said. "You just have to do it as a group. Sometimes, one of the best things that can happen from a team coming together is the fact that top guys are out. It's not that I want Shea out at all.

"Everybody's going to have to pitch in. You can't replace the quality 28, 29 minutes he plays a night."

Guys like Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis and even Jack Hillen hope to fill some of gaps Weber, who has 29 points in 35 games, leaves.

"It's not a cliche ... you just don't go out there and replace a Shea Weber," Hillen said. "Each one of us does something individually and we have to fill that void as a group.

"If I try to be Shea Weber, I might look like an idiot. We just have to stay within ourselves."

- - -

With the uncertainty of the Blues' lineup, here is what tonight's matchup could look like against Nashville:

David Perron-David Backes-T.J. Oshie

Vladimir Sobotka-Patrik Berglund-Chris Stewart

Evgeny Grachev-Jason Arnott-Matt D'Agostini

Jamie Langenbrunner-Scott Nichol-B.J. Crombeen

Carlo Colaiacovo-Alex Pietrangelo

Barret Jackman-Roman Polak

Ian Cole-Kevin Shattenkirk

Jaroslav Halak will get the call in goal looking for his third consecutive win; Brian Elliott serves as the backup.

The Blues are without Steen, McDonald, defensemen Kent Huskins (ankle) and Kris Russell (groin), along with winger Ryan Reaves (hip). The scratches for tonight are Adam Cracknell and Chris Porter.

- - -

The Predators, coming off a 2-1 shootout win over Minnesota Wednesday, will not change their lineup:

Martin Erat-David Legwand-Craig Smith

Sergei Kostitsyn-Mike Fisher-Patric Hornqvist

Colin WIlson-Nick Spaling-Jordin Tootoo

Gabriel Bourque-Jerred Smithson-Matt Halischuk

Ryan Suter-Roman Josi

Francis Bouillon-Jonathon Blum

Jack Hillen-Ryan Ellis

Pekka Rinne gets the start in goal; Anders Lindback is the backup.

Defenseman Kevin Klein (flu) will miss tonight's game. They will scratch winger Brian McGratton.

Thursday, December 29, 2011


Russell (groin strain) goes on IR, Cole gets
another shot; other injured players close to return

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- Ian Cole doesn't like to see fellow teammates go down, but it's other people's misfortune that keeps creating golden opportunities for the Blues defenseman.

Coach Ken Hitchcock said Thursday that defenseman Kris Russell will miss three weeks with a right groin strain, an injury suffered early in Tuesday's 3-2 loss at Detroit.

"He feels better today, which is a good sign, but he's three weeks ... no surgery," Hitchcock said of Russell.

Enter Cole, who has been a healthy scratch in the last eight games because of a defensive unit that has been strong. It gives the Blues the flexibility that if someone goes down, there's someone else that can step in and not miss a beat.

Cole's competitive and upbeat attitude make him a natural fit.

"All throughout my life, my parents have instilled the idea that if you work hard, it pays off," said Cole, a 2007 first round pick who has four points in 11 games. "I love this team, I love the guys. I want to be a part of this team.

"I look at it like it's a great day. I might not be playing, but all in all, it's a great day, a great team. I love to be on it. Make the most of that and hopefully work hard and get the opportunity to get back in. I'm fortunate that happened and fortunately they took notice that he's not going to sulk and be a baby about it."

Cole will be paired with fellow United States Developmental Program and junior teammate Kevin Shattenkirk.

"Thank God (for) Cole ... that's a nice thing to have," Hitchcock said. "He's a guy that knows how to play. He's been here since day one. It's not like you're calling him up. He's really gotten better. You can see the significant improvement by being up here.

"He's a perfect example of a guy that took advantage of his time up here. He didn't get discouraged. He worked hard and got a lot better. You can see it now at practice. He's more than up to speed. I have no problem putting him out against anybody."

"I'm excited to get back into it," Cole said. "It stinks for 'Russ' to be out. Too bad he's out. Love him to be healthy, but it's just the way it worked out. Fortunately I have an opportunity now and hopefully I can continue to play well ... and make a case for himself."

Barret Jackman will play with Roman Polak and Carlo Colaiacovo will stay with Alex Pietrangelo, as Hitchcock likes Polak and Jackman in matchup situations.

"We have a chance to put (Jackman) and (Polak) together and use it as a matchup pair," Hitchcock said. "That's probably what moving forward we'll look to do, use those two as a matchup pair."

There are no immediate plans to call up an extra defenseman from Peoria, as the Blues have a wealth of home games between now and the end of January, but there are a couple guys Hitchcock has in mind.

"I think we'll go with six and just take it day to day," he said. "The guy that came up (Cade Fairchild) and played, he's a smart player. But there's also a very good player down there, too. I don't know what happens with (Danny Syvret). He's a good player with a lot of experience. There's two guys that can help us."

* Injury update -- When the Blues (21-11-4) go up against Nashville (19-14-4) here tonight, they could get three important players back.

Winger Jamie Langenbrunner (flu) has missed two games and Hitchcock has deemed him good to return after two days of skating. Forward Vladimir Sobotka (ankle) has missed seven games but skated again Thursday in front of a packed house at the Ice Zone inside St. Louis Mills and could go, as could winger T.J. Oshie (wrist), who missed two games after injuring his left wrist in Phoenix.

"Sobe did really well today. We'll take him into tomorrow and make a decision," Hitchcock said after practice. "... No issues right now. We'll see how he feels in the morning. If he feels fine, he'll play.

"Lags is no problem to play. Oshie's about 75 percent, getting better and we'll see how he feels in the morning. We'll take him into the morning, too."

Oshie, who injured his right wrist Nov. 19 in Minnesota but has healed up from that, is a mystery in all this. There's a decision to be made whether to allow things to heal fully or allow him to play through it knowing he likely can't do any more damage to what ails him inside the wrist.

"It's gotten a little bit better. Just working on strength," said Oshie, who was a full participant in practice Thursday. "When I did it to my right one about a month ago, it took a little bit to get the right kind of tape job to make it feel good. It's coming slowly but it's getting better.

"It's kind of a freak thing. I actually asked that question (to team doctors). Is it something I was doing, something I wasn't doing? It was just kind of a weird thing."

Oshie said he didn't feel right away that his wrist was bothersome. But in the third period, he noticed something.

"Right away, it felt like a slash. It's one of those things," he said. "When you get slashed, you just keep playing. I tried to clear the puck on my backhand on the penalty kill and that's when I felt it."

A decision will be made following the morning skate.

"There's just some things I can't do. I'm not going to come back if I can't play and put the team in a bad position because I can't cover a guy or a guy stole a puck from me. Once I feel like I can do everything out there and won't be a liability to the team, that's when I'll be out there."

* Goalie rotation continues -- It will be Jaroslav Halak tonight against Nashville and Brian Elliott Saturday again in Detroit for the Blues, as the Blues' game of goalie pick 'em continues.

Halak, who was strong in a Dec. 17 shoot out loss at Nashville, looks to get over the .500 mark (he's 7-7-4 now) after starting the season 1-6. Elliott was the tough-luck loser Tuesday in Detroit despite stopping 29 shots.

"Now I'm trying to be a coach because Halak played great against Nashville, Elliott played great against Detroit, so now I'm trying to be a coach," Hitchcock joked. "We'll see if this works."

* Splitting up ice time -- If the Blues are able to get all three (Oshie, Langenbrunner and Sobotka) back on the ice, who will sit? Does anyone go to Peoria? How does Hitchcock divide time to make all the skaters happy?

Those are tough questions coaches don't mind answering, because that means those that are filling in are playing well.

Ryan Reaves (hip flexor) is on injured reserve and is out a minimum of a week.

"The guys that have come up or the guys that have come into the lineup, like (Adam) Cracknell and (Evgeny) Grachev, have really helped us," Hitchcock said. "They haven't hurt us a bit. (B.J.) Crombeen walked into a hornet's nest. He's going to feel more comfortable tomorrow. The game isn't going to seem so fast for him. I'm sure if you talked to him, the game felt like it was 100 miles an hour (in Detroit)."

Hitchcock is trying to guard against looking ahead, because from day to day, player personnel changes in this game, especially with injuries.

"When you get in the injury rotation, you don't get out of it until you get a long time break," Hitchcock said. "... There's a reason guys are banged up now. We play hard. It's the way we have to play to win. I don't want to put my hopes in that we're going to get healthy.

"Do we get dreaming about a nice roster someday? Yeah, but we've got to live in the reality. When you're on this injury rotation, guys aren't going to be 100 percent. Some guys are going to take time to get up to speed. You're just going to have to live with it."

Wednesday, December 28, 2011


Russell has MRI on injured hip; trio of players expected to return by weekend

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- The injury merry-go-round continues for the Blues, who learned the fate of defenseman Kris Russell after Wednesday's MRI.

Russell was injured in Tuesday's 3-2 loss at Detroit with what coach Ken Hitchcock believes is some sort of hip ailment. Russell, acquired by the Blues from Columbus in November for defenseman Nikita Nikitin, played four shifts and 2 minutes 54 seconds of ice time before departing.

Russell was injured after some physical contact with the Wings' Johan Franzen. No announcement was made on Wednesday the extent of the injury.

"It's a hip," Hitchcock said. "(Russell) hit Franzen and then Franzen hit him. We're not sure yet ... hip-pointer, hip flexor. We just need to make sure we know what it is. It could be day to day, it could be time, we don't know right now."

If Russell should miss any period of time, Ian Cole, who has been a healthy scratch the previous eight games, would step in and play.

* Langenbrunner, Oshie, Sobotka ready to return -- The Blues, who had an optional practice Wednesday at the Ice Zone at St. Louis Mills, are expected to get forwards Jamie Langenbrunner (flu), T.J. Oshie (wrist) and Vladimir Sobotka (ankle) back at practice today.

Hitchcock said all or at least two of the three could return to the lineup Friday at home against Nashville.

"Langenbrunner skated lightly today, Oshie went full-out," Hitchcock said. "More hands on deck, so that's a good sign. We'll see if they're ready for full activity. We're assuming that two or maybe all three will be ready to go, but we'll see."

Despite the light workout, Langenbrunner, who missed the last two games, seemed to work up a good sweat. Asked if he was able to sweat out what was ailing him, he said, "I hope so."

Sobotka has missed seven games after taking a puck off the ankle from teammate Alex Steen in practice, while Oshie injured his left wrist last week, an injury Hitchcock said would only see Oshie hopefully miss just the last two games.

The Blues are already without forward Andy McDonald (concussion), who continues to skate and could be in line in the not too distant future to take his baseline test, defenseman Kent Huskins (ankle) and winger Ryan Reaves (hip), who was put on injured reserve Tuesday.

* Crombeen debut -- Winger B.J. Crombeen, who made his season debut in the loss at Detroit after fracturing the left shoulder in an exhibition game Oct. 1 against Dallas, played 6:45 in the game and maybe returned a little sooner than expected. But all went well for Crombeen, who hopes to remain in the lineup and make an impact on the Blues' fourth line and penalty killing unit.

"I felt pretty good in the last week or two in practice," Crombeen said. "I was able to take some contact and stuff like that, so I was just waiting for the medical clearance. I think I pushed it a little bit to try to get it a bit earlier.

"It was something where I felt good, I felt ready. Medically, I was at a point where I wasn't going to get much better. It was at where it was at. It felt good in the game. It was a fast, tough game. Just getting the timing back is something that's probably going to take a few games, but the legs and the shoulder felt good. That was a good sign. It's going to be a work in progress."

* Tuesday aftermath -- Losing a game after holding a two-goal lead and losing for the first time with a lead after two periods were two painful reminders of the Blues' 3-2 loss at Detroit. But what irked Hitchcock most about dropping a game to the Wings was a second period, in which the Blues had 18 shots, that saw St. Louis miss out on multiple odd-man rushes.

"We had our chances to really expand things," Hitchcock said. "But they took it back. ... We just needed to score on all the odd-man rushes we got because we may never get that many odd-man rushes again in that building.

"I think the difference was they dialed up the checking a little bit in the third period, and they had us on our heels a little bit. They came at us with their physical play and got us on our heels. ... It's probably as hard a game as anybody's played in all year for both teams I would think. There was a demand there."

The Blues got power play goals from Matt D'Agostini in the first period and Steen in the second and led 2-0, but the Wings got a Nicklas Lidstrom goal late in the second period that seemed to lift Detroit's spirits. The Wings then got goals from Pavel Datsyuk and Niklas Kronwall 55 seconds apart midway through the third period, a period in which Detroit outshot the Blues 13-3.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Grachev, Cracknell help Blues end skid against Stars

Role players thrive in 5-3 victory; power play efficient going 2-for-2

ST. LOUIS -- Last season, missing key pieces would have been a problem for the Blues. It would have been tough to overcome the losses of T.J. Oshie and Jamie Langenbrunner on the same night.

But these are the are the new Blues, who added organizational depth and that depth proved once again to be a worthy commodity Monday night.

They came in the form of Evgeny Grachev, who was acquired for a third-round pick at last summer's draft and Adam Cracknell, who was recalled from Peoria earlier in the day to replace Oshie, who is out with a wrist ailment.

(Getty Images)
The Blues' Adam Cracknell (79), recalled earlier in the day Monday,
contributed immediately with a goal in the Blues' 5-3 win over Dallas.

Both players scored goals, with Grachev's first NHL goal being the game-winner in a 5-3 win over the Dallas Stars at Scottrade Center, the Blues' sixth straight win at home, giving them a league-leading 14 wins at home.

It was disclosed earlier on Monday that Oshie would be out Monday and tonight in Detroit with an injury to his left wrist, apparently suffered during last week's two-game trip. He was tied with Alex Steen for the team lead in points with 23. And Langenbrunner missed the game with the flu. Along with Andy McDonald (concussion), Vladimir Sobotka (ankle), B.J. Crombeen (shoulder) and Kent Huskins (ankle) all ailing, that meant that guys like Grachev, Cracknell and Ryan Reaves as well as Chris Porter and Ian Cole step in and fill the gaps efficiently until some of these key missing pieces return.

But as Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said, there's no debating playing these kinds of players.

"Not to the point where you're not afraid to play them," Hitchcock said. "... I think here, the players that come up are trustworthy, whether it's Cracknell or Porter or Grachev or whoever ... Cole. These are trustworthy players. They know how to play the game without the puck, so they can go right in the lineup and fit in.

"Long-term, they're not going to fill the net for you, but over a short term, they're accomplished players. All you need to do is watch them play two or three shifts and you really trust them."

The Blues trusted Grachev, moving him into a top-six role with Patrik Berglund and David Perron, who had two assists giving him 10 points in 10 games since returning from a 13-month absence due to a concussion. Hitchcock trusted Cracknell, the Rivermen's captain, by throwing him into the game immediately and playing important minutes on the fourth line with Scott Nichol and Reaves, who was being the agitator effectively.

"We had some guys that needed to step up, and I think we did a good job of that," said Perron. "Grach was one of them that stepped up and got a big goal for us.

"We've just got to keep going. It's only one game for us. It's another win and we've got to keep it going."

The Blues trusted their role players in another game that came down to the end even after the Blues (21-10-4) built up a lead that seemed insurmountable.

It didn't end in a one-goal win for the Blues, but after a third-period hiccup that nearly saw a three-goal lead evaporate, the Blues had to find another gear to hold off the surging Stars.

"We keep talking about one-goal games. We have a way of making it a one-goal game," said Hitchcock, whose team is 16-0-0 this season when scoring three goals or more. "We played really hard tonight. We did a lot of really good things amd probably got a litle too revved up towards the end there ... When it's 4-1, we're trying to make it 5-1 or when it's 4-2, we're trying to make it 5-2."

The NHL's 30th-ranked power play also helped keep the Blues tough to beat on home ice.

They got a pair of power-play goals from Chris Stewart and Jason Arnott. Stewart scored twice, while Jaroslav Halak stopped 20 shots to improve to 6-1-4 in his past 11 starts.

Halak also beat the Stars for the first time in his career. He was 0-4 with a 3.05 goals-against average and .875 save percentage in four previous starts.

The Blues improved to 15-3-4 under Hitchcock and remained in fourth place in the Western Conference while also snapping a five-game winless skid (0-4-1) against the Stars (20-14-1). The Blues' previous win against Dallas was a 2-1 win here on April 3, 2010.

"We were playing well," said defenseman Barret Jackman, who got into a scuffle with the Stars' Steve Ott late in the game. "We were moving the puck, we were keeping things simple, especially coming off a two-day break. We wanted to get the puck in deep and make their d-men make mistakes."

The Stars got goals from Mike Ribeiro, Eric Nystrom and Michael Ryder.

Richard Bachman stopped 22 shots after starting in goal. Bachman was replaced to start the third period by veteran Andrew Raycroft, who fell to 2-8 on the season after stopping 11 shots.

"There's no question a couple of those goals, he wishes he had back," Stars rookie coach Glen Gulutzan said of Bachman. "We don't want to let anyone off the hook. Everybody's got a job to do."

Stewart, who may have caught Bachman by surprise with his sharp-angle shot speeding in from the bottom of the right circle. Stewart got a pass from David Backes and snapped a shot as he caught Bachman off the near post at 8:24 of the first for a 1-0 Blues lead.

It was the Blues' first power-play goal in four games, breaking an 0-for-8 stretch.

"Shooting the puck is something we talked aboue before the game," Perron said. "Some games we maybe try to get too fancy trying to get the seams and stuff like that. Tonight, we just shot at the net and we got some chances. I wouldn't count them as greatour night tonight."

St. Louis' forecheck in the Stars' zone during the first period was relentless against a team that didn't get into St. Louis until Monday afternoon because of a League-mandated travel moratorium on Christmas Day.

Ribeiro got the Stars even 1-1 4:22 into the second period, beating Halak from the half wall by using Brenden Morrow as a screen, but Cracknell quickly restored the Blues' lead to 2-1 by snapping a shot that Bachman would also like to have had back just 1:47 after Ribeiro's goal.

"(Bachman) might have been screened a little bit," said Cracknell, who got the call on Christmas Eve that he was coming up to the NHL. "I was moving my feet and trying to catch him off-guard. It worked. I'm happy with it.

"To come out here, step in and play some good minutes tonight ... our line played well. We just stuck to the game plan and we had a couple good chances."

Arnott gave the Blues a 3-1 lead when he beat the clock and threw a one-timer into an open side of the goal on a scramble play with 2.1 seconds left in the second period. It was the veteran center's fourth goal in five games after scoring just four goals in 29 games.
(Getty Images)
The Blues' Chris Stewart (middle) celebrates with teammates David
Perron (left) and Carlo Colaiacovo after scoring in the third period of a
5-3 win over Dallas Monday night.

Grachev beat Raycroft after following up Perron's shot 6:45 into the third period for a 4-1 lead. Raycroft made a pad stop on Perron's shot and Grachev fired home the rebound into an empty side.

"I was just driving to the net," said Grachev, acquired by the Blues from the New York Rangers for a third-round pick at last summer's draft. "Momentum brought me there and I got the bounce. ... It's a great feeling."

Nystrom's goal came at 7:57 on a shot from between the circles that appeared to also catch Halak by surprise, dipping into the lower part of the net. Ryder's team-leading 14th of the season came after a center-ice turnover that led to a 2-on-1. Ryder wristed a shot into the near corner with 5:13 to play to cut the Blues' lead to 4-3 and make things interesting.

"We were coming back," said Nystrom, who scored his 12th goal this season in 30 games after 23 goals in 286 career games coming into the season. "We just fell short.

"The Blues played hard. They had that extra edge to them."

Stewart, who has three goals in three games after scoring four in 29, added his second of the game with an empty-netter with 50.6 seconds remaining. It was Stewart's first two-goal effort in the last 37 games. The last came on March 29, 2011.

"We loved our effort tonight, loved our compete," Hitchcock said. "It's little things that we can pick up as we move forward, it'll really help us down the line."

The Blues left town after the game for a key Central Division game at Detroit Wednesday.

(12-26-11) Stars-Blues Gameday Lineup

ST. LOUIS -- Just when the Blues were on the cusp of getting close to a full roster, if not at a full roster, they take another hit.

Winger T.J. Oshie will miss tonight's game against Dallas (6:30 p.m. on Versus, KMOX 1120-AM) and tomorrow night's game at Detroit with a left wrist injury.

Oshie, who is tied for the team lead in points (23) with Alex Steen, came into the ice late for today's morning skate but did minor stick work and not much else.

The injury is the opposite to the wrist Oshie jammed in a game at Minnesota on Nov. 19.

"Osh has a sore wrist and we've opted to get him to as close as to 100 percent as we can," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said. "We've opted to keep him out for these two games and put him in against Nashville (Friday). Rather than just keep monitoring it and getting it half way decent. This way, we get it close to 100 percent."

The injury will not require surgery, according to Hitchcock, and the team is hopeful rest will do the trick.

"It's a ligament issue, but it's significant enough where we're getting to where it's just 80 percent," Hitchcock said. "We have a chance now with days off before and then the days off now, we have a chance to get it close to 95 or 100 (percent) and that will allow him to stay in the lineup long-term. We've opted to do that and take the bullet right now.

"It's on the other wrist now, but it's the exact same injury. It's hard to play when you don't have two hands. The other one's fine and this one's aggravated. Rather than go through what we did on the other one, we've opted to take these two games and sit him."

Winger Evgeny Grachev will move up into Oshie's role and play with Patrik Berglund and David Perron tonight.

"This allows a guy like Grachev to move up in the lineup, where he played in exhibition, and we want to see how that looks," Hitchcock said. "From a team standpoint, we feel like we've got enough forwards we can recover nicely. ... We've got lots of options open. We're going to miss him. It's not like you're talking two weeks, three weeks, four weeks or anything like that. You're talking two games and we can survive two games."

The team has recalled Peoria captain Adam Cracknell and he will also be in the lineup tonight as well.

"We brought him in knowing where we were with Oshie and he's playing tonight," Hitchcock said of Cracknell. "We're going to have some obvious options because we're sitting on another two guys (B.J. Crombeen and Vladimir Sobotka). They're not far away either.

"We're going to have a lot of forwards here and within the next week, we're going to have a lot of forwards to pick from. This gives us a chance to look at Adam and see what he's got, too."

Added Cracknell: "A lot more nerves last year. I know what's expected of me. Having a good season, so far, working hard. I know my role up here. I just have got to come in here, help the team win, and keep it going."

Another skater not on the ice this morning was veteran Jamie Langenbrunner, who Hitchcock said has the flu. But Langenbrunner, who has 12 points in 34 games, is probable for the game.

"Langs has the flu. He's probable for tonight. We think he'll be OK," Hitchcock said.

- - -

After being a healthy scratch for the seventh straight game tonight, Hitchcock was asked about defenseman Ian Cole, who has played well during his time in the lineup but will sit for the eighth time in nine games.

"He needs to start playing, whether it’s here or a few games down (in Peoria)," Hitchcock said. "I think we’re at that stage right now. We’ve got to look at that."

Hitchcock said Cole continues to practice well but it’s hard to get one of the top six guys out of the lineup when the team’s playing so well

"When you’re playing well, who do you take out right now," the coach said. "It’s hard to take a guy out right now.

"(Cole) was playing good and you don’t want to get him too far away from the competition. You can only do so many good things in practice."

- - -

While many of the Blues players went home or came back to St. Louis to spend some time resting and relaxing over the holiday break, Matt D’Agostini had a whirlwind couple days.

After the game Friday in Phoenix, D’Agostini caught a red-eye flight to New York to see see his favorite football team (the New York Jets) play the New York Giants. He met up with friends there.

D’Agostini got into NYC at 6 a.m. local time, slept for a couple hours and it was off to Met Life Stadium for the game.

"I got some sleep from about 7 a.m. til about 10," D’Agostini said. "... I had a nice first-class seat on the flight, so I caught some zzz’s on the way."

It was a disappointing end result for D’Agostini, whose Jets fell 29-14 to the Giants and left Rex Ryan’s team in a tough spot for a playoff berth.

"It was disappointing," D’Agostini said. "It puts us in tough shape for a playoff position now. But we had a good time going to the game. It was a good experience. ... To see New York-New York go at it like that, it was a great atmosphere."

One player happy with the result is defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, a New York native and a lifelong Giants fan.

He didn’t rub it into D’Agostini’s face too much.

"I’m trying to eat a piece of humble pie, because (the Giants) have a big game against the (Dallas) Cowboys next weekend," Shattenkirk said, sporting a big smile. "... Without a doubt, we have the New York bragging rights at least for another year.

"It would have been nice to be at the game, but luckily I let Dags freeze his butt off and watch a losing team. I think he might have taken off his Jets jersey halfway through the fourth quarter."

- - -

The lineup for the Blues (20-10-4) tonight against the Stars (20-13-1):

Alex Steen-David Backes-Chris Stewart

Evgeny Grachev-Patrik Berglund-David Perron

Chris Porter-Jason Arnott-Matt D'Agostini

Adam Cracknell-Scott Nichol-Jamie Langenbrunner

Carlo Colaiacovo-Alex Pietrangelo

Barret Jackman-Kevin Shattenkirk

Kris Russell-Roman Polak

Jaroslav Halak gets the start in goal; Brian Elliott will serve as the backup.

Scratches include Cole and RW Ryan Reaves but Reaves has a bit of an issue with his ribs. Players on injured reserve include LW Andy McDonald (concussion), D Kent Huskins (ankle), RW B.J. Crombeen (shoulder) and C Vladimir Sobotka (ankle).

- - -

The Stars, who won the lone meeting between the two teams (3-2) on Oct. 13, did not arrive into St. Louis until early this afternoon, will likely play their lineup they used Friday against Nashville:

Loui Eriksson-Jamie Benn-Michael Ryder

Brenden Morrow-Mike Ribeiro-Steve Ott

Eric Nystrom-Vernon Fiddler-Radek Dvorak

Philip Larsen-Tom Wandell-Adam Burish

Sheldon Souray-Adam Pardy

Nicklas Grossman-Trevor Daley

Alex Goligoski-Mark Fistric

Richard Bachman is expected to start in goal; Andrew Raycroft will serve as the backup.

Scratches include C Toby Pederson and C Jake Dowell. Injured players include D Stephane Robidas (foot), G Kari Lehtonen (groin), RW Tomas Vincour (MCL). Lehtonen, who's been out since late November with a groin injury, is expected to return to the lineup Thursday

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Polak one of the game's toughest to play against

Blues defenseman "can wear people out" according to coach

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- When Roman Polak heard a question about his experience and sharing that wisdom with some of the younger Blues defensemen, the Ostrava, Czech Republic native was quick to point out the obvious:

"Yeah, but I think I'm still young, so I'm learning, too," Polak said.

Yes, Polak is still young at 25, but with 259 NHL games under his belt and in his sixth season with the Blues, there is plenty of experience. Polak has more than enough knowledge to share his expertise with the younger 20-somethings like Alex Pietrangelo, Kevin Shattenkirk, Ian Cole and even 24-year-old partner Kris Russell.
(Getty Images)
Detroit's Johan Franzen takes a heavy hit from Blues d-man Roman
Polak (46) in a recent game.

A lot of the credit that comes from the Blues' d-unit comes from rising stars like Pietrangelo and Shattenkirk. And rightfully so. But each team has a set of defensemen with their own unique abilities.

For Polak, his job is to shut the opponent down. And shut them down is his mission. If he can walk away night in and night out with the knowledge that he was able to do that, his job was complete.

"My focus is on the d-zone. I'm not a big offensive guy," said Polak, who has seven assists in 32 games this season and eight goals and 56 points for his career after being drafted in the sixth round (180th overall) in 2004 by the Blues. "If I jump into the rush a couple times, it's just a plus. When I'm good in the d-zone, for me it's a good game. If we win, it's a great game. I have to focus on the physical game and be strong."

Simple formula right? Not if you're the opposition.

"He's pretty powerful," Pietrangelo said. "If I was on the other team, he's not a guy I'd want to go one-on-one against.

"He's a tough guy to play against. He's real good at what he does. Everybody knows what he's here for. He's one of the best shutdown guys. He sees the ice well, too. You can go on and on about how valuable he is. .. And he's a great teammate as well."

When Blues coach Ken Hitchcock came onto the scene here in early November, he admitted not knowing much about Polak or his hockey background. But in one month's time, the 60-year-old's learned that he's got himself a reliable shutdown defenseman that he can utilize in multiple situations.

"Polak for me is the biggest surprise," Hitchcock said. "I didn't know much about him, but he's a very very strong player. He plays a very physical game that can really wear people out.

"I didn't know he was as accomplished as he was from not coaching him here before. I'm very impressed. I'm really impressed with the way he handles himself on the ice, how much he's improved in the last month that I've seen him play. ... I didn't know about the toughness side of things, but he's a strong, tough guy."

Polak's ability to shut the opposition down as well as drop the gloves when needed (just ask Columbus' Dane Byers after Sunday night's game) and the ability to join the rush with his quick-paced skating ability is impressive for a guy that's 6-foot-1 and weighs in at 225 pounds.

"He can really throw his body weight around and punish guys," said Russell, whose brother Ryan was Polak's teammate for the Kootenay Ice of the WHL. "When he can do that, it makes more space for guys around him.

"He is a guy that's responsible. He takes pride in his own end, and it shows. He plays hard, he blocks a lot of shots, he's a guy this team leans on every night."

There are guys with speed in their own end, but one wouldn't predict it would come from Polak, but his closing speed on an opposing skater is second to none. It all comes from his off-season conditioning and he's among the best when the Blues open camp and go through the dreaded VO2 testing. Polak is always at the top of the charts. He averages 19:08 of ice time her game this season.

"A guy on a breakaway and he skates back as hard as he can and he's got him by three steps," Pietrangelo said of Polak. "He's certainly a powerful skater."

As powerful as Polak is on the ice, he's a guy his teammates love off the ice. Just his playful demeanor and joking mood makes him one of the locker room's favorites.

"You're not going to find a better guy that Roman," Pietrangelo said. "You guys know how he is and he's a lot of fun to be around."

But on the ice, Polak, who represented his country at the 2010 Winter Olympics, is all business.
(Getty Images)
Blues defenseman Roman Polak (right) goes up against the Flyers' Scott
Hartnell earlier this season.

Hitchcock said if the Blues get in a seven-game playoff series, this is the type of player the Blues will heavily rely on.

"In a seven-game series, guys like (Barret) Jackman and Polak have a huge impact," Hitchcock said. "I think also in a division series, they get the other teams' attention. I think even before you get to the playoffs, when you play inter-division games, you're playing a team six times, you can really get their attention.

"His whole game's underrated. He's a really competitive guy. He's ultra-competitive, and he's got the size to go along with it. When he pins you against the boards, you stay pinned. You don't get off the boards when he pins you there.

"Him and (T.J.) Oshie, those two guys on the team have surprised me the most."

Blues management has been equally as impressed with Polak's play. They rewarded him with a new five-year, $13.75 million deal in June after he proved himself worthy at the completion of a two-year contract last season.

The Blues have Polak locked up during the prime years of his career, and he feels like there's more to come. The Blues are banking on it.

"There's always something. Every day, you have to get better," said Polak, who's part of the No. 2 team in the NHL in goals-against average per game (2.03). "If you want to be a better hockey player, you have to be better every day and working on stuff."

When a team has a guy whose main concern is winning, it can't ask for much more.

"... I'm just trying my hardest," Polak said. "But right now, we're just focused on winning. Everything else is not important."

Tuesday, December 20, 2011


Blues look to halt skid in Colorado; Elliott gets nod;

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- If the Blues want to stay hot -- they're 9-1-2 in their last 12 games -- then they will need to conquer the Mile High Altitude.

The Blues (19-9-4) will once again try to slay the Colorado Avalanche (16-17-1) at the Pepsi Center, where they are 3-7-1 in their last 11 games and winless in the last five (0-4-1).

The last Blues victory in Denver came on the final day of the regular season on April 12, 2009, a 1-0 victory that propelled them  into their only playoff berth in the post-lockout era.

"I think it's a mindset," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said about playing in Colorado. "I think that sometimes when you go there, you get worried about things you can't control, like altitude and things like that. I also think that in the one game that I coached (with the Blues), it was a very quick hockey game."

It marks the second and final visit for the Blues in Denver and second in 19 days. Colorado rallied in the third period and took a 3-2 shootout victory on Dec. 2, the only time the Blues have failed to hold onto a lead -- they led 2-1 -- heading into the third period. They are 14-0-1 in those situations.

"They did the same things yesterday," Hitchcock said of the Avalanche's 3-2 shootout win over Philadelphia Monday. "Philly went in there and played their game the first period; Philly played well and then Philly came off the game and Colorado really went at it.

"Colorado has a lot of youthful speed on their side, and if you let them get in transition, with what they've changed on the back-end with all the speed they've got back there now too, they're very dynamic. And that's what happened yesterday. Philly came off the game a little bit and there they go again."

Sounds a lot like what happened when the Avs got a Ryan O'Reilly goal to tie it in the third and O'Reilly won it with the lone shootout goal over the Blues earlier in the month.

"I think that's the same thing that happened to us in the third period," Hitchcock said. "We were really good for two periods. We came off it for a little bit in the third and they were dialing it up and coming at us in waves.

"We talked about that today. We have our game, they have their game and we've got to make sure we dictate it. The minute you stop dictating against them, you're going to be in trouble."

* Avs taking home ice back -- The Avalanche, which was 4-8-1 on home ice at one point, have reeled off six straight wins at Pepsi Center and will be looking for No. 7 tonight (8:30 p.m. on FSN, KMOX 1120-AM).

"They're finding ways to win," Hitchcock said of the Avs. "It's so close. It's a one-goal league.

"You look at Detroit, every game is one goal (and) Detroit wins. We've won a lot of one-goal games. Now they're on the right side of one-goal games. Also, (goalie Jean-Sebastien) Giguere has really calmed things down in goal. There's no second and third opportunities and he's played very well. But I also think that you just can't win in the league playing run-and-gun. It works for a little while, but you just can't win in the league run-and-gun. I think they're starting to figure it out. They've got a lot of really good offensive players, but they're playing with good structure right now, good discipline."

* Central tough -- If the playoffs began today, of the Western Conference's top eight teams, half of those playoff positions would be occupied by Central Division squads (the Blues, Chicago, Detroit and Nashville).

So, is the Central Division the toughest in the NHL?

"Unfortunately, yeah," Hitchcock said. "No easy games.

"Look at the game against Columbus (Sunday), and they're in last place in the division. They gave us everything we could handle (a 6-4 win). And then you've got everybody else is a playoff team. You've got Chicago (and) Detroit at the top of the heap. Nashville's a playoff team, we're a playoff team ... four in the division making it in the playoffs at Christmas ... that's a strong, strong division."

The Blues, 13-2-4 since Hitchcock arrived, have escalated from 14th in the conference to fifth entering Tuesday night's play but they've not made it past the Blackhawks and Red Wings and the Predators are right on the Blues' heels.

"We've been on a pretty big roll here," Hitchcock said. "We've just moved the ball a little bit. We've moved the pack a little bit. If you were to run into another division, you'd be leading it. We're not doing that. As well as we've played, the other three teams are right alongside of us. They've got the same record as we do. There's no difference between any of the three teams that we're trying to catch or stay ahead of. It's going to be tough."

* Elliott to start -- The goalie merry-go-round for Hitchcock and the Blues continues, as Brian Elliott (13-2, 1.43 goals-against average and .948 save percentage) gets the call against the team he last played for after Jaroslav Halak was in goal for back-to-back games over the weekend, going 1-0-1.

Elliott, who leads the NHL in GAA and save percentage and is tied with two others for the league lead with four shutouts, left the Avalanche as a free agent to sign a one-year, two-way contract with the Blues in the summer.

"We're just going to go with Brian and see how he does in Colorado," Hitchcock said. "I'm kind of excited to see how he does there.

"Both guys have played well. It was a bizarre game the last game when Jaro played. Pucks were bouncing everywhere and ... the game's 4-3 and he makes those three saves in a row with 10 minutes to go, those are winning saves. They allow us to get to 5-3 rather than get nervous and get tied 4-4. They give us a chance every night to win, and that's what I want to see."

After the game against Colorado, Hitchcock wouldn't commit to who would go in the forthcoming games. But the Blues will come back from Christmas with two sets of back-to-back games (Monday at home against Dallas and Tuesday in Detroit, followed by a home game Friday, Dec. 30 vs. Nashville and New Year's Eve in Detroit again).

Hitchcock said Halak showed him enough to go with him again in back-to-back games if he needs to go there, but likely both will see action.

"I went with him knowing full well that off of back-to-back, getting back late, it was going to be a loose game (Sunday)," Hitchcock said of Halak. "Two teams that were tired. It was a loose, emotional game. Lots of good stuff, but lots of stuff that you'd go, "What the ... ," and we prevailed.

"The way he played in the third and the way we played in the third was really impressive."

* Sobotka, Crombeen travel -- A pair of injured forwards (Vladimir Sobotka and B.J. Crombeen) were on the team's chartered flight and traveled to Denver Tuesday.

Sobotka, who has an injured left ankle after blocking an Alex Steen shot in practice Dec. 12, was at the team's practice facility at St. Louis Mills Tuesday without the walking boot and crutches that he possessed since the injury. Sobotka's timetable originally was two weeks, which would put him at Tuesday in Detroit at the earliest.

Crombeen, who fractured his left shoulder blade (scapula) in a preseason game on Oct. 1, continues to wear the red no-contact jersey in practice but traveled with the team for the first time. His timeline for a return has always been around the first of the year. He'll need at least a couple weeks of contact drills to get the shoulder up to par.