Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Blues defenseman Colton Parayko

ST. LOUIS -- Blues rookie defenseman Colton Parayko burst onto the scene and made a lasting impression in the NHL.

Parayko, a third round pick in the 2013 NHL Draft, finished with nine goals and 24 assists in 79 regular season games and followed it up with two goals and five assists in 20 Stanley Cup Playoff games, helping lead the Blues to the Western Conference Final.

Parayko, 23, reflects on his first NHL season, and the consensus is that the sky's the limit for the big 6-foot-6, 226-pound St. Albert, Alberta native:
Blues defenseman Colton Parayko

Reflection on first year in the NHL; how much did you enjoy it?
So much. It was such a great group of guys this year. Just coming in my rookie season and having this group around me was incredible. They helped me out so much day in, day out. I think this was a perfect place to have my rookie season just because of the character and the group that we had in here.

Can you elevate your game going into next year knowing you reached conference final your first year in NHL:
That was a great experience. Obviously my first year, you get the idea of what it's going to take to be successful and what it's going to take to get to the next level. Obviously we want to be successful and eventually get to the (Stanley Cup) Final and eventually win everything. That was a huge steppingstone just based on my rookie season personally. Obviously we'd like to go farther still. That's the plan in future years for sure. Obviously what we learned, it's really tough. We all had to come together as a team and buy in. Overall, it's was a great opportunity for myself and the other two rookies. It was a lot of fun to go to war with these guys.

How were you guys able to bond as a group the way you did?
I just think the guys in the room. They all have attitudes that are open, but no one's holding anything against each other. Everyone worked together well, no one was holding anything against each other. We all obviously make mistakes, but we kind of pick each other up if we have any mistakes or setbacks. I think just the mentality of the group and knowing that we had such a great team and how far we could go, things like that were huge. The buy-in was great. It was a lot of fun to kind of be a part of that and kind of just have a feel for what it's like to get that buy-in feel. It was a great feeling.

On playing for North America at World Cup of Hockey:
It's a huge honor. What a tournament that's going to be. Some really good players. I'm really excited. It's going to be a lot of fun and obviously lots of teammates are going to be on opposing teams. That'll be a little fun, too, a little friendly battle. But overall, it's going to be a great experience just kind of going in and playing with a different set of guys that's all kind of my age. Twenty-three and under is going to be fun. We have a good team and it's going to be fun going to that tournament with them.

On playing under Hitch. Do you embrace him coming back if he returns?
It was great. He knows the game. He's really knowledgeable of everything. He's obviously been around the game for a long time. When you have a guy that's been around it for so long, he knows so much about it that you're new you're trying to learn everything. You're trying to learn as much as possible every single day. Just taking little things from him is huge. He's obviously a great coach and established. It was great. From a defensive point, I didn't overly work with him that much, just based on lines and stuff like that, but just when he's looking at the overall picture at practice and stuff like that, it was great. You could tell he's really knowledgeable.

Did Hitch treat you as a veteran despite being a rookie?
Yeah, I think so. He's a guy that wants success just as much as we do and the other players do. I think he wants us to come in and play with an edge every night and be an impact in the game. Being the rookies and being the followers, we can kind of play and that was pretty cool to have because when he gives us the opportunity to play, we had an opportunity to play in all situations this year. Getting to do that our rookie season was huge obviously. It's a confidence-booster and it's a lot of help for us obviously in the future. We're looking forward to hopefully continuing that.

Can you imagine locker room without Backes?
No. He's got everything. I never forgot that he was the first guy that approached me and told me if I needed anything, he's always there. Being a rookie coming out of college, I went to the University of Alaska-Fairbanks and I'm looking around this locker room, I'm like, 'All these NHLers, wow, this is unbelievable.' Having obviously the team captain and a player you've watched growing up a while, for him to just come up to you and tell you that helps us settle in a little bit and makes you feel more comfortable. That's just the character he has. On the ice, he's a great player obviously. Everyone is able to see that. On and off the ice, he's just an overall great guy. He's great to be around. That's the bottom line, it's a business. 

On Backes' post-Game 6 speech:
A little bit. It's tough, so emotional because he's been here for so long putting everything into this team just from Day 1. Obviously getting so far and working so hard, putting everything in and he's battled through a lot. Not going to where we wanted to is kind of tough, but we have a lot of great team character and a lot of great team members. It was emotional obviously, but that's kind of who he is and exemplifies his character of who he is. He was a great leader for me and I'll never forget it, that's for sure.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Blues head into summer of uncertainty

Roster as it ended in conference final almost certainly 
won't start next next season as is; Hitchcock status uncertain again 

ST. LOUIS -- It's too soon to start thinking about the future just yet, especially in the immediate aftermath of a playoff series loss that stung the Blues like no other in recent memory.

But the facts must be addressed at some point: what will become of the Blues moving forward after a six-game series loss to the San Jose Sharks in the Western Conference Final?
(St. Louis Blues photo)
The Blues will have lots of questions to answer this summer, including if
coach Ken Hitchcock (top) will return for a sixth season.

* Will coach Ken Hitchcock, who at 64 is comfortable with one-year contracts (he signed one for 2015-16), return after arguably his best coaching job in five seasons here? 

* What will become of some of the prominent unrestricted free agents, including captain David Backes, who completed his 10th season with the only NHL team he's ever known? Or how about Troy Brouwer, acquired past summer from Washington for the popular T.J. Oshie? Both Backes and Brouwer had terrific playoffs and their stock only went up with their performances.

* How much money will the Blues invest in restricted free agent Jaden Schwartz?

* Do the Blues try and trade some of their prominent pieces (Kevin Shattenkirk, Patrik Berglund and/or Jay Bouwmeester) to A) free up some money and B) bring in assets this way instead of adding free agents, which will be difficult considering the Blues being pressed up against the salary cap? 

* What becomes of veteran fourth-line forwards, and UFAs, Steve Ott, Kyle Brodziak and Scottie Upshall? Do any of them return? Do the Blues ove on without all of them and retool back there?

* Will Vladimir Sobotka, who's played with Avangard Omsk in the Kontinental Hockey League, return following a two-year hiatus and fulfill the $2.7 million arbitration-awarded one-year contract?

Many other questions, including that of star forward Vladimir Tarasenko, who until Game 6 when he scored two virtually meaningless goals, was held off the scoreboard against the Sharks and had his conditioning level questioned; what will management say to him and how will he embrace and understand what it takes to reach the pinnacle? 

Blues players will clean out their lockers on Saturday morning and head off to their destinations of the summer to refresh, recharge and come back in late August/early September with a new understanding and hunger to strive higher after coming so close. Hitchcock and general manager Doug Armstrong will address the media Tuesday morning.

But in the aftermath of the loss to the Sharks, it was quite evident it will take more than just a few days to recover from the furthest run this franchise has seen since 1986 (the Blues reached the conference final in 2001 but were eliminated in five games by Colorado).

"Yeah, it's really disappointing because it's so hard to win in the league right now," Hitchcock said. "It's so hard to win a series, it's so hard to just get into the playoffs. And when you get this far and you get this close, you think you've got the opportunity, and when you have a team like us, which is very much a team, you want to see them successful. They poured a lot into it and poured a lot into it through a lot of adversity and then came out on top. But they're hurting right now; we're all hurting. You don't want this to be our best opportunity, you want it to be a building block. But in this game, in this era, in this cap world, you don't know where you're going to be a year from now. This was a great opportunity and guys are really, really disappointed."

Judging by the players' reactions after the game at SAP Center, it was evident that this one will sting if not for days, weeks, even months.

"There's nothing you can really say to make anybody feel any better than they do. We all know the feeling, we all have it," Brouwer said. "We're all disappointed. An opportunity missed. It's going to hurt for a while. It does whether you lose in the first round or even if you get closer. It was still that same feeling, but to know that we were two wins away from playing for a Cup, it hurts."

Guys like Alex Pietrangelo, drafted in 2008 and completing his seventh full season, are equally upset and hurt. As is Alexander Steen, who was brought here through trade with Toronto in 2010.

"This is the closest we've ever been, this is the closest a lot of guys have ever been, especially guys who have been here for a long time," Pietrangelo said. "A lot of guys have put in a lot of time here. It's pretty disappointing.

"You can appreciate it. We've come pretty far. There (were) only four teams left, we've accomplished a lot this year, but it (was) pretty quiet in the room."

Steen said: "I'm proud of the group in a sense that right from the goalies to everybody who came in throughout the playoffs, it's not the result we were looking for. It's a tough feeling, but the boys battled and gave everything we had. We lost to a strong opponent. We had some good efforts here. It's a tough feeling. Everybody poured everything into it."

Which is why Hitchcock wasn't going to talk to the team in the immediate aftermath. 

"I'm not going to talk to them for a day or two," Hitchcock said after the game. "They need their space with each other. They've bonded here better than any team I've coached in the last 10 years. They need their time together. They don't need me interrupting anything right now. We'll talk at the appropriate time, but right now, they need to be with each other."

The Blues will be with each other one more time Saturday, then it will be a summer of uncertainty. Armstrong will have his hands full trying to retool this roster while managing the team's finances and complying with the cap numbers. That's what made this loss so tough, since the players bonded together in a way that they wanted to make sure was inseparable.

"I love playing with these guys," Brouwer said. "Everyone in here was a phenomenal guy, everyone in here was a phenomenal teammate. We had a lot of laughs, a lot of good times and it’s disappointing that we’re all going home for the summer without an opportunity to compete for rings.

"I don’t know exactly what the whole situation with signing players and cap issues are nowadays. I think if we can keep this team together, we still have a great opportunity for next year. Our young guys are going to have a year of experience. The guys in here who have made it to the third round for the first time have more experience, knows what it takes. I think all of this is only going to make this team and this franchise better. ... I've really enjoyed my year here. Coming here and not knowing what to expect, it was all good things. Phenomenal franchise from ownership down, great guys in the room, great city. I really, really enjoyed my year here."
(St. Louis Blues photo)
One of the many questions looming for the Blues is whether they will bring
Troy Brouwer (36) back. Brouwer can become a UFA on July 1.

One thing the Blues did accomplish: they brought a city together that had little hope for them when it came to the Stanley Cup Playoffs. They've brought closer that winning feeling and hope that heading into the 50th anniversary of the franchise's birth, that they're closer to breaking through that not.

"I think the city of St. Louis, the fans, the people of St. Louis fell in love with the team because of this never-say-die attitude they have," Hitchcock said. "They're disappointed like we are, but they fell in love with a hockey club that just poured it all in every night, and had to. It wasn't just connected to winning, it was connected to the way we played, the way the players carried themselves, the way they dealt with you (media) folks in a very classy way, this was a special bond that was created by the players and they won the fans over and they won the people of the city over. It's pretty impressive. I'm sure there's people in the city of St. Louis that are just as disappointed as they are right now, but they won them over. They deserved to win them over by the way they acted and behaved."

* NOTE -- The remainder of the World Cup of Hockey rosters were announced on Friday, and to go with Steen (Sweden), Jori Lehtera (Finland), Tarasenko (Russia) and Sobotka (Czech Republic), Backes (USA), Pietrangelo (Canada), Colton Parayko (North America) and Dmitrij Jaskin (Czech Republic) were added to their respective rosters on Friday.

Some of the notable omissions included Shattenkirk (USA) and Robby Fabbri (North America).

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Emotional Backes takes playoff loss hard

Captain shared emotions of teammates after 
Blues came close to playing for Stanley Cup

ST. LOUIS -- His season just ended, emotions still raw, the freshness and suddenness of a season over still painful, Blues captain David Backes was surrounded by a throng of media one final time.

He wasn't expected to speak after the Blues' season came to an end in Game 6 of the Western Conference Final, 5-2 against the San Jose Sharks at SAP Center, but Backes requested to speak to the media.

That normally doesn't happen. He must have had something important to say.

It wasn't only important. It was powerful. It was heartfelt.

But this epitomizes who the man wearing the 'C' on the Blues sweater since 2011 is. 
Captain David Backes gave an emotional interview after the Blues were
eliminated from the Stanley Cup Playoffs in the Western Conference
Final at San Jose on Wednesday.

Captains are supposed to be impenetrable, immune to emotion, able to be front and center through good and bad. Put on the Superman cape and show the resiliency. 

But Backes, on this night, was human. He wore his emotions on his sleeve and through tears that could not be helped.

Being so close to reaching the Stanley Cup Final hurt Backes and the Blues deeply. He wasn't about to hide his feelings.

"The stop is pretty sudden, and the flood of emotions of obviously disappointment but also a level of pride and how proud we are of the group in there," Backes said long after his teammates vacated the locker room. "There's a few guys held together by tape and a few guys who have sacrificed the time to get to this point. There's a lot to be proud of but when you put all your will and all your being into something and you get so close you can taste and then not get a job done, there's definitely dissatisfaction at the moment that is tough to put into words. 

"There's a group of guys in there that bound together and defeated two really good teams (Chicago and Dallas) and played a third really good team and didn't find a way to win this one. It's just a cornucopia of emotions right now and it's tough to put into a sentence and describe for you. You sit here and say what could be with two more wins and a Stanley Cup final and a group that I think did a heck of a job and put a lot into this and is right there. Damn, two more wins and you're playing for that ultimate prize."

Damn, two more wins ... the perfect description of just how hard it is to win arguably the hardest trophy in sport. But this was a captain in the midst of pouring his heart out in a way he has never done before, a leader of a group that bonded together like no other during his tenure with the Blues.

Then came the perfect example of the Blues' mantra of us against the world.

Backes was physically wounded. He was injured in Game 4 and there was serious question whether he'd be able to play in Game 5. Then came Steve Ott, who made the ultimate sacrifice and displayed the true character of a team player.

Ott was projected to be the player to enter the lineup if Backes was unable to go, but he sacrificed his time and spot in the lineup to do everything possible to get the captain out there.

Here's a guy that overcame an injury like to no other player, a completely torn hamstring that needed Ott to go through the most excruciating rehab when doctors told him he'd be done for the season after reattaching the muscle. But he found the will and a way to get back to give coach Ken Hitchcock an option in the playoffs.

"He'll kill me for telling you this story, but Game 5, I’m not feeling well. Steve Ott brings me something to help me feel better," Backes said as he's breaking down in tears, barely getting the words out. "Knowing that he’s the guy coming out of the lineup if I can play. That’s pretty selfless, and that’s the kind of guys we have in here. Just stories like that with guys blocking shots and sacrificing their bodies, it's tough to swallow, but you know that the heart's in here, the ability’s in there. We just came up short.

"You see a lot of true character of your guys when they’re tested, binding together like we did against a heck of a Chicago team, and it gets to a Game 7 and we come out of there, play a high-flying Dallas team, it goes to a Game 7 and we come out of there."

That something turned out to be a biomat, or an infrared heating mat that Ott has used to help with his injuries. But this is the Blues' captain. Just appreciate the gesture and move on. He's not supposed to cry. 

"First time probably in 12 years? Eleven Years? My last game in college, maybe," Backes said.

There was a sense that the Blues, playing in their first conference final since 2001, could reach their first Cup final since 1970, the third year of the franchise's existence but there would be none.

The Sharks advanced to their first Cup final in franchise history (spanning 25 seasons) and the Blues are left wondering where it went wrong when the final hurdle was so close, they could reach out and grab it.

"I think the suddenness of it and you're in a Game 6 and a building you won your last game in and you know that with the right effort, we can tilt the scales in our favor," Backes said. "For whatever reason, we're not able to do that. We're not taking anything away from that team, that's a heck of a team that's taken their game to a whole other level and played a really good series, but when we play our game the way that we can play it for the full game, it gives anybody fits. We showed our high-water mark in a Game 4. We just didn't get back there for a full 60 minutes in (Games) 5 or 6. We played a heck of a series and they got the job done, we didn't, they're moving on to try for a Cup and we're here."

Backes was only a piece of a team that was embraced by a city on the cusp of euphoria. The Blues hadn't been this close to reaching the Cup final since 1986. But the leader was representing his team, engulfed with the agony of being so close, yet so far away in the end.

"It was fantastic. The people of St. Louis, the fans. ... Everyone that pulled together and the city and the support that we see when we start second round and third round, it stings right now," Backes said. "When you see all those things come together and you say, 'You know what, this is something that ... six more wins and we’re having parades on Market Street and we did what we set out to do.' Right now, we didn't get a job done, but you see the talent and the caliber of guys we have in there. That we can dominate the best teams in the league when we put our game out there. Just not enough.

"Your emotion's on your sleeve. You invest so much in an 82-game season, and 20 games in the playoffs, everything you've worked for those 102 games plus some exhibition before. Had the meetings, learned the lessons, done all the hard stuff. Now you can taste that final series within your reach and you come up a little short. That brings the emotions out in a hurry."
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Captains David Backes of the Blues (42) and Joe Pavelski of the
Sharks shake hands after Game 6 of the Western Conference Final.

Backes, a pending unrestricted free agent who is free to wheel and deal on July 1, has known the Blue Note his entire 10-year career. But when the emotional scars of this playoff loss heal and he needs to turn his attentions on perhaps one last big contract, Backes will be faced with the ultimate choice: finish a career with the Blues that's included 727 regular season games, 206 career goals, 254 career assists, 49 playoff games, 12 goals, 15 assists including his best playoff yet with seven goals and seven assists in 20 games this season, or begin a new chapter somewhere else.

If it comes to that, Backes' tears after Game 6 could pale in comparison if he were faced with leaving the Gateway City. He was the last of the players to leave the room that once again went silent once he departed, and with it, went an uncertain future. 

"I know that July 1st isn't that far away because we played until May 25th, but that's going to be a little bit before I get to those sorts of thoughts," Backes said. "We're just kind of heartbroken right now in that room and that's the consensus."

Sharks eliminate Blues from playoffs with 5-2 win

San Jose earns first-ever trip to Stanley Cup Final, 
prevents St. Louis from competing in first final since 1970

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Unlike the past four seasons under Ken Hitchcock, the Blues were close to competing for the Stanley Cup, they could taste it.

Unfortunately like the last four seasons, including the past three, a season came to a close in eerily similar fashion. This time, the San Jose Sharks were the culprits, and it's the Sharks, residents of Silicon Valley, who advance to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in franchise history.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Blues center Patrik Berglund (21) battles for a puck with Sharks defenseman
Roman Polak in Game 6 on Wednesday at SAP Center.

And the fact that the Blues were so close, made the locker room afterwards so somber, so disappointing and so numb.

The Sharks finished off the Blues in the Western Conference Final, winning 5-2 in Game 6 to win the series 4-2 on Wedesday at SAP Center.

And thus, it ends the Blues' first quest for a berth in the Stanley Cup Final since 1970 searching for that elusive first title in franchise history.

The Blues were hoping to bring this series back to Scottrade Center, despite their poor 4-6 record there this postseason, for a Game 7 on Friday, but the Sharks, who will face either the Pittsburgh Penguins or Tampa Bay Lightning beginning Monday, had other ideas.

San Jose got a quick goal to lead 1-0 in the first four minutes of the game, they scored again in the second before delivering the knockout blow in the third with two goals in a 5 minute 10-second span to lead 4-0 before Vladimir Tarasenko, who had been invisible throughout this series, scored his first two goals (and points) of the series to make it interesting late. 

"I felt like we had a nervous energy early, but then started to find our way a little bit," left wing Alexander Steen said. "The first one's a tough one to give up and then obviously the third one is tough to give up as well."

The Blues escaped the first period lucky to be down 1-0.

The Sharks were all over the puck, and the top defensive pair of Alex Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester were caught up ice, giving Tomas Hertl a chance to throw a backhand puck through the middle of the ice, and Thornton skated past Pietrangelo, fired wide on the breakaway, but Joe Pavelski collected a puck behind the net and stuffed a backhand past Blues goalie Brian Elliott, who made the first save, at 3:57 of the first period.

"The first period we were fine," Hitchcock said. "We managed the game, knew what we were in for and we did a great job. Managed it well. We knew we were in for a big push. We watched them play in other games when it was closeout time. I thought we managed it well."

The Blues had chances to score in the period, but Steen couldn't beat Jones from the high slot before the Pavelski goal, Steen had a chance in the waning seconds on a backhand that was high and wide, and Tarasenko, with a glorious chance in the slot, fired a wrist shot wide of the net early in the period that could have gotten his confidence going.

The Blues had a bit of a better second period, outshooting the Sharks 11-10 but the home team built a two-goal lead when Joel Ward tipped Brent Burns' right point wrist shot, the first of two goals, past Elliott 5:02 into the period.

"I thought the first period was as expected," Hitchcock said. "When we didn't score on the three or four chances we had in the second when it was 2-0 gave them a little bit of a gap. We had the push at the end of the second, but I thought the third goal allowed them to play with five back and then we had to take some risks. To me, the third goal was the killer."

That killer goal came from Ward, who redirected Logan Couture's centering pass 3:01 into the third and the Sharks could literally smell blood.

"They put pucks in deep on us and they forechecked the hell out of us," right wing Troy Brouwer said of the Sharks. "It was tough for us to get out of our zone clean. It's a tough way to start a game where you need to win, but I thought the guys played hard, hung in there and it's a disappointing end.

"Just disappointment in here right now. We thought we had a team, we do have a team that’s a championship caliber team. We fell short. There’s a lot of guys in our room that have waited a long time to have an opportunity like this. When you don’t finish celebrating with champagne and hoisting a Cup, it’s disappointing."

Joonas Donskoi made it 4-0 8:11 into the third period to make the score 4-0, but Tarasenko broke the shutout with 8:21 remaining on a wrister from the slot and he scored again from below the goal line.; they were his first points of the series.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Blues left wing Alexander Steen (20) looks to move past Sharks left wing
Patrick Marleau in Game 6 on Wednesday.

The loss was the Blues' seventh in a row in Game 6s dating to April 23, 2001,  2-1 in against these San Jose Sharks) and have been outscored 29-13; they're lost Game 6 faced with elimination the past four seasons now by a combined 16-5.

"We had a little bit of a push back," right wing Troy Brouwer, a pending unrestricted free agent on July 1. "We were just playing a really good hockey team. They played the score and the time of the games really well. We tried to get good pushes. I thought guys competed real hard. It’s just frustrating. We feel like we could have had a great opportunity to hoist (a Cup)."

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

(5-25-16) Blues-Sharks Game 6 Gameday Lineup

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- The Blues, facing elimination for the first time trying to extend a series in the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs, will make two lineup changes going against the San Jose Sharks tonight at SAP Center (8 p.m.; NBCSN, KMOX 1120-AM).

Coach Ken Hitchcock already announced on Tuesday that goalie Brian Elliott will re-enter the lineup after missing Games 3 and 4 in favor of Jake Allen, and Scottie Upshall, who also missed Games 3 and 4 with injury, will re-enter the lineup tonight in place of Magnus Paajarvi.

"If he didn't get hurt, he's an effective player for us," Hitchcock said of Upshall. "He's healthy now. He's got speed, he's got tenacity, he's great on PK, I can play him up the lineup end of periods, game's on the line, I can play him anywhere. 

"He's an invaluable player for us. He's had an excellent year for us. He's a guy that we can really use. This time off has afforded him the time to get ready to get ready to play."

Upshall has a goal and two assists in 16 games in the playoffs.

"I’ll be ready to go if I’m called upon," Upshall said. "I think we’re all ready. We’re excited for this one.

"We’ve found ourselves up against the wall twice this postseason and have been able to find our game, find it deep within what it takes to win these games and what it’s like and the pressure that goes with it. I think our team is pretty confident. We found ourselves elevating our game when we need to. This is another case. Treat this like two Game 7s and see where it goes."

- - -

The Blues have been backed into a corner countless times throughout the regular season and the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Another elimination game falls in line with many obstacles they've had to overcome.

Thursday is a little bit of a different animal since they will have to win on the road, where they're 6-3, to force another Game 7 on home ice Friday, but it's something they're accustomed to and one they're not frazzled by.

"We’re 2-for-2 in elimination games, so we’ve got to treat it basically as two Game 7s, like we’ve won the previous two series," defenseman Alex Pietrangelo said. "So obviously you wish you were up 3-2 right now, having a chance to close out the series, but we feel confident in these elimination games, especially on the road. So we’ve got a good mindset going into tonight.

"We like the big stage. I think we’re resilient. I think the camaraderie we have in this dressing room, guys playing for each other, is something that goes a long way. I think we look beside us, at the guy next to us. We don’t want to let him down. That’s the mindset we’ve had all year. That’s the mindset we’ve had in the playoffs. I could feel that in the dressing room this morning. It’ll carry over to tonight."

The Blues were among the League leaders in man-games lost this season, so the players had no choice but to "look at the guy next us" because it could have been somebody different with as many injuries as they had to go through. And then when the playoffs came and they were put to the test, the Blues stared adversity down and won each time. 

Thursday will pose another challenge.

"We’ve had two Game 7s in the past month that have been games where we’ve lost the previous Game 6 and have had to rally without the momentum in our court," Upshall said. "I believe we’re a confident group when pushed against the wall. We’re at a point in our season where everything is so huge, so magnified. We’ve been there, we know how hard it is. I think we’re up to the challenge.

"We’ve all been in big games. We’ve all dreamed of being in moments like this. It’s a chance to look across the dressing room and see guys you’ve battled with all year, see the look in their face, the determination to be at their best knowing you’re going to be at your best. You trust each other."

The past three seasons when faced with a 3-2 series deficit, the Blues went on and lost all three by a combined 11-3; they've lost six straight Game 6s, outscored 24-11, and last won a Game 6 was here in San Jose, 2-1 on April 21, 2001.

The Blues may not want to look at history, however. But knowing this team, they never look back.

"The other two elimination games we played, we came out with a lot of bite and hunger," left wing Alexander Steen said. "We’ll be looking to do the same thing tonight.

- - -

The Blues may want to take a page out of the Pittsburgh Penguins' textbook on how to win a Game 6 elimination game on the road.

The Penguins went into Tampa and defeated the Lightning 5-2 on Tuesday and did so, in Hitchcock's terms, by having their best players be their best players.

"Sense of urgency's an overused word in sports," Hitchcock said. "To me, it's execution and your best players just have to be your best players. That to me stood out more than anything. You need someone to follow or you just wander around in the desert. Pittsburgh set the tone with the people that they needed to lead. They were the best players early in the game and then you have no choice but to follow. You need to execute at a high level. I said this before, we expect nothing but the best from San Jose and we're going to have to answer the bell back but it's going to have to be with execution and staying ahead of their pressure just like they're trying to stay ahead of our pressure. Both teams are built a certain way and there's a lot of similarities between both teams, but whatever team establishes their game on the other one usually wins the hockey game. We've gotten better as this series has gone on and we want to continue to improve and keep playing."

The Penguins, who will host Game 7 in Pittsburgh on Thursday, got the lead and imposed their will in Tampa's building, something the Blues will look to do here tonight.

"I think it's just from our game, focused on what we do well, play similar to what we did in Game 4 when we were here," Steen said.

The Blues won 6-3 in Game 4 here.

- - -

Elliott, who started 17 straight games (20 going back to the regular season) in a span of 37 days, may have simply needed a mental breather.

He's now had five days since his last start, which is the most time he's had off since March 19.

"I think it's not just the playoffs that Brian had to play, it was everything leading into the playoffs, he had to play a lot at the end of the year a lot," Hitchcock said. "I think the break gave him a freshness and a focus that's strong. He's such a competitive guy. He's such a battler, but in order to play the way he plays, he's athletic in the net, he's acrobatic at times. You need to have a certain level of energy to play that way. We leaned on him hard at the end of the year and then it continued all the way into the playoffs. 

"I felt when I put Jake in that we were doing a lot of watching in our own zone and were relying on Brian to make too many big saves. I thought it was really wearing on him and we needed to change it, we got the change. Unfortunately, we lost the next game, but we got the necessary change and now it's his series to win."

"Oh, I’m sure. Reset him a bit," Pietrangelo said of Elliott. "He’s played a lot of hockey, made some important saves for us throughout this entire playoffs. He’s played great. He’s stood on his head. Takes a lot of energy. So the opportunity for him to kind of regain that is going to benefit him."

Elliott has a 1.50 goals-against average and .954 save percentage in two Game 7 wins, stopping 62 of 65 shots. It bodes well for the Blues when he's played the elimination games.

"I’ve said it all along, it doesn’t matter who’s playing," Pietrangelo said. "'Moose' has obviously been fantastic. Tried a little bit of a change in pace there, putting Jake in. he played great. It’s up to the coaches who they want to play, but either guy, they’ve been solid all year."

"Our goaltending has been great, been solid all year," Steen said. "They've both been our most solid player all year. It's going to be good to get 'Moose' back in there."

- - -

Center Kyle Brodziak is celebrating his 32nd birthday today, and the best present of all will be a victory tonight.

But the ultimate would be to play for a Stanley Cup, which would require the Blues win Games 6 and 7 this series and take their chances in the Final.

"You live your whole life, and you dream of the possibility just having the opportunity," Brodziak said. "To be here, to be this close, it’s exciting. It’s a little scary. It’s every emotion you can imagine."

- - -

Hitchcock talked about the Blues' defense and how "overanxious" they were in a Game 5 loss. Calmness is the key to perhaps allow the Sharks to be overzealous and make mistakes.

But the Blues will shorten the bench tonight if need be for survival.

"We had a good video session yesterday, we showed them what we were doing right and what we needed to correct," Hitchcock said. "I think the guys are in sync and in tune there. I think the defense are like the forwards; there's a short leash. 

"For us, we can't wait and hope. If we've got to shorten the bench, we've got to shorten the bench and do whatever it takes to make sure we've got the right people on the ice and we're not hoping that a guy's a worker or a guy's going to play well and execute. We're going to hope that everybody does it, but if it happens that there's somebody that isn't, we're not going to wait on it, and that goes for defense, that goes for forwards, that goes for everybody. This is the time for us that we've got to go with the guys that are going at this time. We can't waste any energy on past reputation or regular season or what you did a week ago. It's what you're going to go tonight, and that's got to be our attitude."

That might be a sign that Pietrangelo and D-partner Jay Bouwmeester will play half the game tonight.

Are the Blues nervous?

"I think a little bit of everything. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous, but excited at the same time," Pietrangelo said. "This is an opportunity and I’ve said that in the other Game 7s, where this is what you play for. This is the opportunity that you want to have, on the big stage. The other guys in the locker room are feeling the same way."

- - -

The Blues' projected lineup:

Robby Fabbri-Jori Lehtera-Vladimir Tarasenko

Alexander Steen-Paul Stastny-Troy Brouwer

Jaden Schwartz-Patrik Berglund-David Backes

Scottie Upshall-Kyle Brodziak-Dmitrij Jaskin

Jay Bouwmeester-Alex Pietrangelo

Joel Edmundson-Kevin Shattenkirk

Carl Gunnarsson-Colton Parayko

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

Healthy scratches are Robert Bortuzzo, Ryan Reaves, Steve Ott, Magnus Paajarvi, Petteri Lindbohm, Chris Butler, Peter Harrold, Ty Rattie and Anders Nilsson.

- - -

The Sharks' projected lineup:

Tomas Hertl-Joe Thornton-Joe Pavelski

Patrick Marleau-Logan Couture-Joonas Donskoi

Melker Karlsson-Chris Tierney-Joel Ward

Dainius Zubrus-Nick Spaling-Tommy Wingels

Marc-Edouard Vlasic-Justin Braun

Paul Martin-Brent Burns

Brenden Dillon-Roman Polak

Martin Jones will start in goal. James Reimer will be the backup. 

Healthy scratches include Matt Tennyson, Dylan DeMelo and Micheal Haley. Matt Nieto (undisclosed injury) is out.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Sharks double up Blues 6-3, grab 3-2 series lead

St. Louis comes up empty again on home ice, on cusp of elimination

ST. LOUIS -- Not often does a team get the opportunity to redeem itself in a Game 5 of a Stanley Cup Playoff series in what amounts to being a best-of-3.

The Blues failed the previous three tries and were given a fourth chance in the Western Conference Final on Monday against the San Jose Sharks.

There were 19,372 on hand to witness it, to finally see the Blues override past heartaches against the Los Angeles Kings in 2013, Chicago Blackhawks in 2014 and Minnesota Wild last season, all games in which ended in disappointment for the Blues and their fans before the season ended in Game 6 on each occasion.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Blues goalie Jake Allen can't come up with Marc-Edouard Vlasic's shot
that gave the Sharks a 1-0 lead in Game 5 on Monday night.

Seeing it once was bad, twice was not-so-nice, thrice was torture, but a fourth time? Yes, history could repeat itself for incredibly a fourth time after the Blues once again succumbed on home ice, this time to the San Jose Sharks 6-3 at Scottrade Center.

Instead of building off the momentum grabbed from a Game 4 win at SAP Center, also known as 'The Shark Tank,' the Blues now will have to go back there Wednesday to try and save their season.

And for two teams that exorcised previous playoff demons, it's the Sharks on the cusp of advancing to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in franchise history.

Joe Pavelski scored twice, including the go-ahead goal 16 seconds into the third period, Joel Ward scored twice, Joe Thornton had three assists and Marc-Edouard Vlasic had a goal and an assist for the Sharks. Chris Tierney had an empty-net goal and Martin Jones made 18 saves. 

Jaden Schwartz, Troy Brouwer and Robby Fabbri scored for St. Louis. Jake Allen made 21 saves, but coach Ken HItchcock, who called Allen's play "fine," did not commit to him for Game 6. 

Even worse, the Blues fell to 4-6 at home in the playoffs. They're the only team remaining in the final four with a below-.500 record on home ice in the playoffs.

But it comes back to the day-old -- or in the Blues' case, years-old -- question: why can't this team win in the playoffs on home ice? The typical answers from players and coach Ken Hitchcock tend to be they play cuter at home, wanting to please the home fans and they play a simpler game on the road.

"I said we're a little cuter at home than we are on the road," Backes said. "We've just got to stay simple and stay on the page and get a task done. I don't know if that's a trend in Game 5s; I don't keep track of that." 

"We get on the road, we play that simple game and it seems to be the most effective for us," defenseman Alex Pietrangelo said. "If I had the magic answer, I'd give it to you. I'm not too sure. It's something that we really need to take a hard look at and figure out why we're doing that. That's on us players."

Ding. Ding. Ding. We have a winner.

But it still doesn't seem to resonate.

Hitchcock didn't think cuteness was the reason tonight.

"I don't think we were too cute," he said. "I don't think that was it at all. We made some puck errors under pressure. They get to play, too. Both teams played really hard today. We were the ones that made the defending mistakes that ended up in our net. I think we made a few more defending mistakes than they did, and that hurt us tonight.

"From an effort standpoint and from a cute standpoint, it's not really cute, it's wanting to do the extra to make the next play. I don't think we were guilty of that today. If we're guilty of anything, we made puck errors at the wrong time."

And the biggest puck error came at the beginning of the third period, tie game 3-3, and what does veteran defenseman Jay Bouwmeester do? After a clean faceoff win by Patrik Berglund, he tries to force a pass towards Jaden Schwartz off the boards, ices the puck instead, the Sharks get an offensive zone draw, Pavelski wins it, gets to the net and scores what turned out to be the game-winner 16 seconds in.

Pavelski, who has a six-game point streak (four goals,  five assists), tipped a right point shot past Brent Burns to break the tie.

Pietrangelo said the goal didn't deflate the Blues, although they went from competing in a tie game to down a goal in relatively short fashion.

"We've come back too, in the third," Pietrangelo said. "I still think there's a feeling on the bench that we've got an opportunity to come back and score a goal and win the hockey game. It's obviously frustrating to give that one up that early, but at the same time it's on us to do what we've done all playoffs. That's be resilient and come back, now we're going to have to do that next game."

Hitchcock also said the fourth goal wasn't the one that deflated the Blues but rather Pavelski's power play goal with 1 minute 27 seconds left in the second period that tied the game 3-3.

"I thought the killer goal was the third one," Hitchcock said. "We had the lead, we built some good shifts. They caught us on a little bit of a change, took a penalty and we were really doing well killing the penalty, but we made two mistakes. We got stuck behind the net, and I thought the energy on our bench, which was excellent, really dropped a little bit after the third goal, not the fourth one to me. That was the difference."

The Blues had the early pressure, but the Sharks grabbed a 1-0 lead after winning a faceoff in the Blues zone, and Marc-Edouard Vlasic's first goal of the postseason, a shot from the left point got past a screened Allen 3:51 into the game. 

St. Louis responded fairly quickly when Schwartz scored his first in 14 games on a rebound. Defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk took the initial shot that Jones saved, then Berglund threw the puck into the slot, it caromed off Backes and Schwartz was there to collect the loose puck at 7:04 to tie the game. 

Brouwer's baseball-style goal, his eighth in 19 playoff games with the Blues after having seven in his first 78 playoff games, came off a rebound of a Paul Stastny shot at 15:08 of the first to give St. Louis a 2-1 lead. 

The Sharks got their power play going in the second period, and Ward tied it at 4:37 after Vlasic's initial shot from the left circle hit the near post, caromed off Allen's back in the crease and Ward batted the puck in. 

Fabbri put the Blues ahead 3-2 after he scored when his slap shot from the point beat a screened Jones near side at 11:58 of the period, but Pavelski tied it with the Sharks' second power-play goal in as many opportunities when he converted from the slot with 1:27 remaining in the second.

But then the Blues lost the lead, and are on the cusp of losing the series and ending their season.

And it's worth mentioning that the Blues' most impactful player and leading scorer throughout the regular season, Vladimir Tarasenko, continues to be a non-factor in this series. 

Tarasenko, who came in without a point in four games, was held off the scoresheet again. He had one shot on goal and three attempts blocked and was a minus-2.

Tierney scored an empty-net goal with 53.9 seconds remaining and Ward scored another one with 31.6 seconds left to give the Sharks their franchise-best fifth road victory of the playoffs. 
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Blues rookie Robby Fabbri (right) passes the puck with Sharks forward
Joel Ward trying to defend in Game 5 on Monday.

The Blues entered Monday uncertain whether Backes and Fabbri, each injured in Game 4, would be available, but they were able to play.

"There's a reason I don't play in the second and third (periods in Game 4), but this is the Western Conference Final and if you're humanly possible to play, you're in the lineup trying to help your team out," Backes said. "That's what we tried to do tonight."

Added Fabbri: "I felt fine. I had a day and a bit there to rest and I felt good."

(5-23-16) Sharks-Blues Game 5 Gameday Lineup

ST. LOUIS -- What is known is that Blues forwards David Backes and Robby Fabbri will dress during the pregame warmup leading up to Game 5 of the Western Conference Final against the San Jose Sharks (7 p.m.; NBCSN, KYKY 98.1-FM).

What isn't known is if either will play.

The Blues held an optional skate on Monday morning and neither Backes or Fabbri were part of a heavily-populated skate.

Both were injured in a 6-3 victory in Game 4 on Saturday, in which coach Ken Hitchcock said afterwards that both should be good to go moving forward.

Hitchcock was not as forthcoming Monday.

"We're going to dress the same lineup for warmup that we did the last game," Hitchcock said with a grin. "We had two extra forwards in there, one extra 'D.' No changes. All those players are there. They'll dress for warmup and then we'll run a further evaluation for warmup. The same 23 guys are dressing."

Backes was injured in the first period and played 5:34. He did come out each time for the second and third periods and sat on the bench with the team, as did Fabbri, who played 9:21 but only 52 seconds after the second period.

It's nothing new for the Blues, who dealt with a plethora of injuries throughout the season, and if they have to adjust, they'll do so accordingly.

"We know where we stand in the dressing room already," right wing Troy Brouwer said. "You guys can speculate until gametime. 

"We've had injuries, guys come in and out of the lineup throughout the season. It's shown a lot about a lot of different players in here. To see something extra out of the guys that you thought they might not have had. We've had a lot of guys step in to fill key roles at times. If something is out of place tonight, then we have all the confidence in the world in the guys that can step in."

Added left wing Jaden Schwartz: "It's a good sign of character in our locker room. Guys are hungry and ready to go. It's not a good thing to have a lot of injuries throughout the year, but guys got to play more, play in different opportunities and play in situations so I think that helped out everybody. At one point, we were probably missing three or four forwards at a time and a couple, so that helps. Guys are working hard on their off-days and making that they're getting ready if their names are getting called. ... We've got that trust in everybody. I don't think it matters who's going. We know that guys are ready and they're going to play our systems and play to our strengths."

One line the Blues want to keep together is the fourth -- or as Hitch calls it, the third -- line of Kyle Brodziak, Magnus Paajarvi and Dmitrij Jaskin, who have played well the past two games.

Yep. If we can keep it together, we would," Hitchcock said. "If we've got to make changes, we'll make changes; that's why we're dressing 23. We've got to take this to the end of the day before we can throw it in, put the blender in, but that line's been good. We'd like to call it a third line if we ca get cooperation from the media. We're going to keep our third line together."

- - -

Held without a point in four games in the series, right wing Vladimir Tarasenko isn't too worried about personal accomplishments.

"It's that time of year when you trade your goals to reach a goal and win a Cup," Tarasenko said. "It's not the time to think about your goals."

Tarasenko is second on the Blues in points (13) behind Fabbri (14) and tied with Backes and Brouwer in goals with seven. 

The Sharks have made a point to key on him and whatever line he's playing on, but playing in the playoffs and playing late into May is new and rewarding.

"How to play hockey in May, late May," Tarasenko said when asked what he's learned. "It has been pretty fun and I think we’re doing really good right now. You know this is our coach, so if he said it, he’s right.

"I think all teams is difficult. The main part is to stay on your game and just work hard. Goals and points will come but if our team wins, it means we’re all on the same page and we’re all doing good right now.

"It’s 2-2 right now. We had a tough road trip to San Jose, we won an important game so I think we feel pretty well. (I feel) well too. It’s a tight series and it all starts from the beginning (in a tie series)."

- - -

Hitchcock was asked about the gamesmanship and his verbal (and playful) jabs he has with Sharks coach Peter DeBoer.

"The answer do I enjoy it is yes because what you guys report, it's really boring and we've got to have some fun, too," Hitchcock said. "So I find it fun. Pete and I know each other real well. We were together in Slovakia. We survived Bratislava together. We know each other, but sending you folks on a wild goose chase is fun sometimes. We've got to enjoy it, too. You can't just be stress and pressure 24 hours a day. There's got to be some fun in it for us. I like it. I like the atmosphere. I like the focal point of it, and quite frankly I like anything that takes away from the focus on the players so that they can just play hockey. I think sometimes when there's so much discussion back and forth and there's so many elements that need stories, it can become overwhelming to the players so any time I can get people chasing down a different path, I try and do it. It's fun."

- - -

When teams are tied 2-2 in a best-of-7 series, the winner of Game 5 holds an all-time series record of 192-53 (78.3%).

- - - 

The Sharks have had a penchant for bouncing back after losses throughout the Stanley Cup Playoffs. They did so when they lost to the Los Angeles Kings in Game 3 of the first round and after losing Games 3 and 4 and 6 against the Nashville Predators in the second round.

"It's an opportunity for us individually and as a team to go out and play the way we expect ourselves to play," Sharks center Logan Couture said. "... We're going to need to be better and I'm sure they're going to want to bring the same game they had in Game 4. It's up to us to match it and be better than them."

- - -

The Blues' projected lineup (will be updated during pregame warmups):

Robby Fabbri-Jori Lehtera-Vladimir Tarasenko

Alexander Steen-Paul Stastny-Troy Brouwer

Jaden Schwartz-Patrik Berglund-David Backes

Magnus Paajarvi-Kyle Brodziak-Dmitrij Jaskin

Jay Bouwmeester-Alex Pietrangelo

Joel Edmundson-Kevin Shattenkirk

Carl Gunnarsson-Colton Parayko

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

Healthy scratches are projected to be Robert Bortuzzo, Ryan Reaves, Steve Ott, Petteri Lindbohm, Chris Butler, Peter Harrold, Ty Rattie and Anders Nilsson. Scottie Upshall has an undisclosed upper-body injury.

- - -

The Sharks' projected lineup:

Tomas Hertl-Joe Thornton-Joe Pavelski

Patrick Marleau-Logan Couture-Joonas Donskoi

Melker Karlsson-Chris Tierney-Joel Ward

Dainius Zubrus-Nick Spaling-Tommy Wingels

Marc-Edouard Vlasic-Justin Braun

Paul Martin-Brent Burns

Brenden Dillon-Roman Polak

Martin Jones will start in goal. James Reimer will be the backup. 

Healthy scratches include Matt Tennyson, Dylan DeMelo and Micheal Haley. Matt Nieto (undisclosed injury) is out.