posted on January 23, 2014 14:50
The Blues are coming from a different place this season. The scrappy franchise with a knack for knocking off unsuspecting opponents as it lurked in Detroit’s shadow has been exposed as one of the top contenders in the Western Conference.
It’s certainly an enviable position to be in, but it requires a particular attitude—an understanding that there will be a target on your back every time you take the ice. It’s not an approach that’s given to a team immediately. Instead, it must be learned. The mental toughness that drove them as an underdog must continue to develop as a guard against complacency.
Unfortunately, St. Louis is finding this out the hard way.
Goaltending continues to be the primary scapegoat, but four of the Blues’ last five games have been characterized by slow starts, poor puck-handling (especially in the neutral zone) and sloppy play in their own end. As a result, they’ve lost three of their last four games, leaving them five points behind first place Chicago (with three games in hand) and just four points ahead of third place Colorado.
It’s a counterintuitive regression by a team that’s getting healthier as it enters one of the softest stretches on its schedule.
The Blues are playing like a team that’s expecting to win with little resistance from the opposition—it’s borderline complacency.
“It’s gut-check time,” forward Chris Stewart said following Tuesday’s 7-1 loss to New Jersey. “You can sit here and make excuses, but...myself included...the effort tonight was borderline embarrassing. You can definitely live with losing hockey games, but I think it’s the way we’ve been losing hockey games lately. We’ve been coming out and playing like a team that’s not our identity.”
It was manifested in different ways, but there was one common thread across the first four months of the season: a rally point—something that brought the team together and gave them an extra bit of motivation.
At the start of the season, they played with a chip on their shoulder, hellbent on keeping pace with the Blackhawks atop the Central division standings. Then, they were ravaged by injuries. But instead of folding, they took it as an opportunity to showcase their depth with different players stepping up to help sustain the team’s momentum.
However, they are now back at full-strength entering the “dog days” of the season and that thread is at the end of its reel. This team has to find a way to stay mentally sharp. It seems simple enough, but no one is going to be taking a night off when the St. Louis Blues roll into town. In fact, they’re more likely to step up their game with the hopes of burying one of the league’s top Stanley Cup contenders.
St. Louis has to get back to matching that intensity.
“We’re a team right now that needs everybody engaged,” coach Ken Hitchcock said following last Saturday’s 3-2 loss to Anaheim. “We need four lines, six defensemen playing to their potential and we need our goalies playing well. We’re not a team that can have one or two players carry us. We need everybody and right now we don’t have everybody engaged.”
Opponents are beginning to take advantage of the Blues when they start to sag—especially early in games. They’re converting neutral zone turnovers into odd-man rushes and capitalizing on St. Louis’ sloppy play inside the defensive end to sustain their forecheck.
Halak was able to bail St. Louis out against Phoenix, but Los Angeles, Anaheim and New Jersey all managed to cash in with early goals. In each of those three games, the Blues’ attempts at a counter-attack fell flat. The Ducks led by three entering the third period, the Kings iced their victory with a short-handed goal in the third period and the Devils opened the floodgates with a power play goal that gave them a 4-1 lead early in the second period.
“We need more guys to find a way to get engaged at the beginning off the game, whether it’s a hit, or a pass, or just talking on the bench,” defenseman Barrett Jackman said. “We need a little more life... It’s going to have to start with our leaders and go from there.”
The process of righting the ship for St. Louis starts on offense. It has 10 goals in its last five games, four of which came Monday night in Detroit. It started the month by scattering 21 goals over the first four games, but has tallied multiple goals only twice in the six games since. Obviously, the torrid pace the Blues got off to in 2014 was not sustainable, but they have to do a better job of forcing the puck in deep and avoiding neutral zone turnovers. Once inside the zone, they have to continue generating traffic in front of the net and hurling pucks on net. It takes a lot of effort from all four lines, but a big component to the team’s early season success was its willingness to battle for positioning in the “dirty areas” of the offensive zone.
On the other end of the ice, there needs to be more refinement. The Blues boast one of (if not) the best defensive corps in the NHL, but that doesn’t matter when players are slow to pounce on loose pucks and lazy with their clearing attempts. Yes, Halak and Elliot need to be better, but it certainly does not help when they’re left on an island by their defensemen.
"I think that we've lost our focus," GM Doug Armstrong told Jeremy Rutherford of the Post-Dispatch. "We're a team that is the sum of all of our parts and we need the collective 'buy-in' as [Hitchcock] likes to call it. We haven't been as sharp as we have been in the past… You never like to go through stretches like this, but they do happen in a season.
“Hopefully we're going to learn from it and come out stronger and better at the end because we're going to play some very difficult teams from now till the end of the season and obviously in the playoffs. We have to be able to overcome adversity maybe a little bit better than we have in this stretch.”
This recent rough patch has been a rude and unwelcome wakeup call, but the Blues should be better because of it.
In addition to writing weekly Blues columns for InsideSTL, Brian Haenchen also covers SLU basketball for The University News. Follow him on Twitter @Brian_Haenchen.