Thursday, March 27, 2014

(3-27-14) Wild-Blues Gameday Lineup

By LOU KORAC
ST. LOUIS -- It was after a 4-1 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers that Blues coach Ken Hitchcock felt like his defensive pairings needed some tweaking.

Barret Jackman and Kevin Shattenkirk have been a staple on the blue line, in the mold of Jay Bouwmeester and Alex Pietrangelo. It's been the back pair, anchored by Roman Polak, that have seen guys come and go.

Polak has had to make the biggest adjustments, playing with three different partners at various times throughout the season. He'd go from Jordan Leopold to Ian Cole to most recently, Carlo Colaiacovo.

But after the game in Philadelphia, Hitchcock made the change and went with a familiar, reliable pair.

When the Blues faced the Pittsburgh Penguins on Sunday, Polak was paired with Jackman, a group the Blues have used often the past two seasons. And making up the final group: Shattenkirk and Colaiacovo, who saw limited ice time together when Shattenkirk arrived in a trade from the Colorado Avalanche in 2011.

The Blues have won games against the Penguins (1-0) and the Toronto Maple Leafs (5-3) since the change and the pairs will remain the same today when the Blues (49-16-7) host the Minnesota Wild (37-25-11) at 7 p.m. (FSN, KMOX 1120-AM).

Hitchcock has been most impressed with Colaiacovo and Shattenkirk, both puck-moving defensemen with not a lot of size but guys who can maintain offensive zone time with their ability to hang onto and move the puck.

"It frees up the pair of Shattenkirk and Carlo to really take some risks offensively, which is helping us because they're smart players," Hitchcock said. "They know when to get in and get out. I think by the way it gets matched up, those guys are able to maybe do some things in the offensive zone that really help; join the rush, the tempo and the way they transition the puck, the way they pass the puck as a pair. It makes it a pretty dynamic pair. I think allowing that pair to hang on offense longer without risk is helping us a lot. 

"I think both Polak and Jackman, we've used the pair before, but they weren't great on transition last year at times in the playoffs but this year they've been a lot better. For whatever the reason, they've both been able to move the puck crisp, they've been able to transition it quickly up front. Whether it's the sum of parts, two guys working together, the way the six have gone, it's made us faster on the back-end, especially on the puck movement. It's helped us a lot."

Hitchcock noted that Shattenkirk had five pinch opportunities in the game against the Maple Leafs, and all five had scoring chances.

"The easy thing about playing with Carlo is he loves talking, he loves communicating," Shattenkirk said. "For anyone, that makes things a breeze to play with. We've just taken a lot of pride every time we go out there and proving ourselves and making sure that we are as strong defensively as the groups in front of us. 

"It's always an adjustment, but so far it's been good that we've been able to ... it worked well in Pittsburgh. We were able to get things going there and I think having that early success allowed it to be a little more seamless than we though. ... As a team, we've been forechecking and backchecking well lately. Our gaps have been great as a pair. I think that's allowed us to 1) to stay out of our zone, and 2) to be able to have more time with the puck. We've been transitioning the puck quickly and that's where the two of us feel most comfortable when the puck's on our stick."

Polak and Jackman are back on familar ground, creating havoc with their physicality.

"I love playing with Roman," Jackman said. "You know what you get with him. He's going to be 100 percent on every play, he's physical, he can skate when he gets those big tree trunks going, he's a beast. ... He's a very defensive-minded player."

All the changes haven't seemed to affect Polak's play for the most part. There have been a few ups and downs, but playing with Jackman will only highlight the ups.

"It is what it is. I don't really mind," Polak said. "... You have to make a little adjustment. Everybody has a little different style, but I think I know the guys for a long time and I've almost played with everyone. I don't think it's a big deal.

"Me and Jacks are like a shutdown pair. Both guys are staying at home. It's a different style of hockey, but I like it with Jacks. We know each other."

So who takes the initiative when jumping into the offensive plays? Jackman has a simple solution.

"Looks like we play rock, paper, sissors for who has to go," Jackman joked. "Roman the last 10-15 games has really been jumping and making some unbelievable reads. He's been playing great offensively. I'll let him go when he's got the gas. Seems like he's always got the gas."

The group has left both Jordan Leopold and Ian Cole on the outside looking in at the moment, but that doesn't mean both will stay there.

"I wouldn't go crazy and say we're going to start Game 1 of the playoffs like this, but through necessity, we were forced to look at this, and it worked," Hitchcock said. "So we want to continue down this path. We're not opposed to change in-game or based on competition. I don't think you want to cast it, but I think the one thing that has happened is the pair of Colaiacovo and Shattenkirk have been able to do a lot of things against the different opposition that have really helped us keep a much stronger offensive game going."

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* The Blues are 10-2-1 in the past 13 games overall and 7-0-2 on home ice, earning points in nine straight at Scottrade Center.

* The Blues will enter tonight's game killing off 53 of 58 penalties. They're third in the NHL with an 85.6 percent efficiency mark.

* Blues captain David Backes has four goals in the past two games and six in five. In what should be a Selke Trophy nomination, Backes is four goals off his career-high mark of 31.

* The Blues are on an eight-game winning streak against the Wild with three shutouts. St. Louis is 4-0-1 in the past five home meetings against the Wild. 

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The Blues' probable lineup:

Alexander Steen-David Backes-T.J. Oshie

Patrik Berglund-Vladimir Sobotka-Jaden Schwartz

Brenden Morrow-Derek Roy-Steve Ott

Magnus Paajarvi-Maxim Lapierre-Ryan Reaves

Jay Bouwmeester-Alex Pietrangelo

Barret Jackman-Roman Polak

Carlo Colaiacovo-Kevin Shattenkirk

Ryan Miller will get the start in goal; Brian Elliott is the backup.

Healthy scratches include Chris Porter, Dmitrij Jaskin, Jordan Leopold and Ian Cole. Vladimir Tarasenko (thumb) is out.

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The Wild's probable lineup:

Zach Parise-Mikael Granlund-Jason Pominville

Matt Moulson-Mikko Koivu-Charlie Coyle

Matt Cooke-Kyle Brodziak-Nino Niederreiter

Dany Heatley-Erik Haula-Cody McCormick

Ryan Suter-Jared Spurgeon

Jonas Brodin-Nate Prosser

Marco Scandella-Jonathan Blum

Darcy Kuemper will get the start in goal; Ilya Bryzgalov is the backup.

Healthy scratches include Mike Rupp, Justin Fontaine and Stephane VeilleuxJason Zucker (quad), Keith Ballard (groin), Clayton Stoner (knee), Josh Harding (illness) and Niklas Backstrom (abdomen).

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