Blues Could Have Majority of Lineup Dressed for Game 1 against ‘Hawks

Allergic reaction or not, Blues’ fans can thank Miley Cyrus for an extra day of rest in preparation for the much-anticipated Western Conference First Round series against the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks beginning Thursday night at Scottrade Center.

The Blues benefitted from the extra off-day. When they lost 3-0 to the Detroit Red Wings in the regular-season finale last Sunday, a number of starters were unable to play due to injury.

Now, mere hours before the puck drops, the Blues’ walking wounded are making legitimate progress.

“The cavalry is coming,” forward Brenden Morrow told Jeremy Rutherford of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Morrow, who had been in a walking boot and was thought to have a fractured foot, made a surprise appearance on the ice during Tuesday’s optional practice. T.J. Oshie, who was the recipient of a vicious hit to the head from Minnesota’s Mike Rupp, was also present going through practice drills with his teammates. Vladimir Tarasenko shed his cast shielding his right hand following hand surgery and has been a regular during practice. Other notable injured players that were on the ice Tuesday included defensemen Barret Jackman and Alex Pietrangelo.

Finally, the Blues are getting some positive news as they look to rebound from their six-game losing streak which dealt them a playoff series against the Blackhawks.

Though captain David Backes (foot) and Vladimir Sobotka (lower body) weren’t on the ice Tuesday, they participated during Wednesday’s full team practice, a good sign for a team looking to right the ship.

Oshie did not practice Wednesday, neither did Patrik Berglund, who is unlikely to be available for Game 1 with an upper body injury.

“Obviously it’s up to the coaching staff who is going to play,” forward Steve Ott told Dan O’Neill of the Post-Dispatch. “But the more guys we have in the lineup makes us a stronger team.”

The Blues will need as many of their regulars as possible against the Blackhawks, who will reunited by the off-injured Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews.

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Ken Hitchcock No Stranger to Late-Season ‘Blues’

Not a month ago the St. Louis Blues were top dog in the NHL. The President’s Trophy was in reach, along with the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference and the Central Division crown.

My, oh my how four weeks can alter the entire landscape of a team.

Since going 11-3-1 in March, the Blues went just 2-6 in April and concluded the regular season riding a six-game losing streak – the longest skid the club has encountered in eight years. In a division that saw them go 20-0-2 before losing their first game in regulation, the local six dropped six of their final nine to the same competition. The streak cost the Blues the division, the No. 1 seed in the conference, and assured them a date with the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks in the Western Conference quarterfinals, beginning Thursday night at Scottrade Center.

“We ran out of gas,” Blues coach Ken Hitchcock told reporters following a 3-0 loss vs. Detroit Sunday.

Injuries have depleted the lineup (see: Vladimir Tarasenko, Vladimir Sobotka, David Backes, Patrick Berglund, T.J. Oshie and Brenden Morrow, etc…), the defense has been subpar and goaltender Ryan Miller, who was acquired as the final piece for the Blues to get over the hump, has lost his confidence if not his game.

Fans are on edge, preparing for what could be another disastrous, heartbreaking letdown following a record-setting regular season that saw their hometown team set the franchise record for points, with 111. Players, though remaining calm, seem to have no answers for their lack of focus and attention to detail. The Blues have gone astray from their own game. Instead of punishing the opposition, the Blues are letting their opponents skate uncontested, unchecked.

However, Blues coach Ken Hitchcock isn’t a stranger when it comes to tough times and extended losing streaks, especially late in the season.

“I’ve had it happen and been successful with it, I’ve had it happen and not been successful with it,” Hitchcock said. “I’ve seen it both ways. The times I’ve had success, it was a slow build-up. There was an overtime win in Game 2.”

Hitchcock was most likely referring to his Dallas Stars’ 5-4 overtime win against the Blues in the Western Conference semi-finals in 1998-99, the year he let the Stars to their first Stanley Cup.

With an extended break before gearing up for Chicago, Hitchcock believes his club will benefit from time away from hockey.

“This break will do us a lot of good,” he said. “We can get re-energized, refocused and come back ready to play.”

With the assortment of problems, Hitchcock isn’t sounding the alarm, nor is he raising the white flag. He remains patient, firmly believing that his squad will regroup and build momentum heading into the postseason tournament.

“You look at the big picture, we set a record for points,” Hitchcock told reporters during Sunday’s post-game news conference following the Blues’ 3-0 loss to Detroit. “We had a brutal stretch here at the end. Everybody went through a brutal stretch. Teams that had the Olympians had some period of time when they hit the wall. Chicago’s stretch was right after the [Olympic] break, ours happened now.”

The Blackhawks’ ‘brutal stretch’ was from Feb. 27 to March 30, in which they went 7-9-1.

For the Blues to go through a slump of this magnitude isn’t unheard of. A number of teams, including those that will compete for Lord Stanley’s Cup have gone through similar periods of frustration much like the Blues. Colorado had a horrid month of December, going 5-5-4, including dropping four straight from Dec. 21-31.

Putting the Blues’ nightmarish stretch aside, can we really expect (heck, imagine?) a sudden change of course from this downward, depressing spiral? In all honesty, it’s good to hear the positive words from Hitchcock and the players. What’s done is done. But time is of the essence. Hitchcock assured that every player that wasn’t in the lineup against Detroit in the regular season finale, at some point, will be on the ice come playoff time.

It’s expected forwards Backes (foot), Oshie (upper body) and Sobotka (lower body) will be available for Game 1. The statuses of Berglund, Morrow and Tarasenko remain uncertain, although, Tarasenko continues to skate with the team wearing a cast on his surgically repaired hand. Playing without Berglund and Morrow will be challenging for Hitchcock, who has utilized his club’s depth by spreading it across all four lines. Offensive consistency during 5-on-5 play against the Blackhawks could prove questionable.

Despite the ailing bodies, the Blues have a bigger problem: the play of their stopper, Miller. The Blues landed Miller because of his world-class talent and nifty resumé. During his short tenure in St. Louis, Miller has had some spectacular moments between the pipes. Still, he’s had too many moments that have fans scratching their heads as if to say, “Did we get the right guy?”

Miller is 1-6 in last seven starts and has allowed four goals in six of his final 11 regular-season starts. Not exactly spectacular. Over those six games, Miller’s save percentage is a woeful 85.5 percent, while his goals allowed average is nearly four.

Yet, Miller says he feels good, and believes he isn’t too far off his game.

Just how much farther will he need to go in order to carry the Blues? Even when the Blues’ offense is rolling, scoring comes in spurts. Last I checked, the Blackhawks are more than capable of putting (at least) four goals on the board in the blink of an eye. Is Miller capable of stealing a handful of games during the playoffs?

He’ll have to, otherwise the Blues could easily be making reservations for a round of 18 in two weeks if they don’t find their game.

 

 

 

Blues Reeling After 4-2 Loss to Wild

The Blues are in the midst of their worst stretch of hockey this season. In the middle of a four-game skid, the Blues are battling adversity and a cluster of injuries.

Playing without captain David Backes (lower-body injury),  the Blues not only fell 4-2 to the Minnesota Wild at Xcel Energy Center Thursday night, they lost prized forward T.J. Oshie to a vicious hit by Wild enforcer Mike Rupp. To make matters worse, Colorado took over first place in the Central Division by defeating Vancouver. Both the Blues and Avalanche have 111 points on the season, but the Avalanche own the tie breaker.

The Blues trailed 1-0 at the first intermission. Wild forward Nino Niederreiter scored his 14th goal of the season to put the hometown team ahead.

The Blues evened the game in the second period, but paid a hefty price.

With 10 minutes remaining, a delayed penalty was coming against the Wild. Oshie skated around the Wild net and, with his back turned, was blindsided by a vicious shoulder shot to the head by Rupp. The bone-crushing hit left Oshie lying motionless on the ice before being helped to the Blues’ bench. Oshie did not return. Neither did Rupp, who was given a match penalty and a five-minute major for intent to injure.

With 5-on-3 advantage, the Blues rallied with a power-play goal by Kevin Shattenkirk, who fired a wrist-shot past Wild goaltender John Curry to tie the tilt 1-1. However, the Blues got sloppy on their extended power-play, and the Wild answered with a short-handed goal from Kyle Brodziak.

Down by a goal, Blues’ forward Maxim Lapierre was whistled for tripping with less than five minutes remaining in the period. The Wild coughed up the puck in the Blues’ zone, and Alex Steen and Jaden Shwartz skated into the Wild zone on a 2-on-1 break. Gliding inside the offensive zone, Steen fired a pass to Schwartz, who backhanded the puck into the net for his 25th goal of the season.

With the score tied at 2-2, it appeared the Blues had a pulse. However, that pulse lasted less than two minutes. Just one minute, 29 seconds later, the Wild scored. Matt Moulson netted his 23rd goal of the year, which proved to be the game-winner. Brodziak added his second goal of the night to cement the victory for the Wild.

The Blues are in Dallas Friday to round out their 41-game road schedule, and close out the regular season with a matinee against Detroit Sunday.

 

Blues gear up for challenging road ahead

Three days after the closing ceremonies in Sochi took place, the St. Louis Blues were back on the ice in what will surely be a daunting final stretch of the regular season.

The Blues were in Vancouver, British Columbia Wednesday night, pitted against a desperate Canucks club that had lost seven straight before posting a 1-0 win over the Blues at Rogers Arena.

As expected, the Blues weren’t sharp, missing the net 17 times and failing to generate consistent traffic in front of Canucks’ goalie Eddie Lack, who is now 3-0 against the Blues this season. It was a disappointing loss, for sure. Many expected the Blues to kickoff the final 25 games of the regular season in style with a win against an inferior opponent. However, the desperate Canucks dealt the Blues their first shutout of the season.

Despite the loss, there are a lot of positives to take away. Gold medal winners Alex Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester continued to look sharp on the backend, generating three shots and three blocked shots on the evening. The chemistry between the two defensemen continues to trend in the right direction. Blues’ coach Ken Hitchock must be pleased with the way they are playing.

Blues’ goalie Jaroslav Halak, who had an embarrassing outing in Sochi for Slovakia, was stellar against the Canucks. Halak kept the Blues in the game from the opening face-off, stopping 34 of 35 shots. Halak was especially brilliant in the first two periods when the Canucks outshot the Blues 28-17. Sure, Halak would’ve liked to have that lone goal he surrendered to Jannik Hansen back. It was a tough shot, one Halak probably should’ve stopped. However, the game could’ve been over well before Hansen lit the lamp with 8 minutes, 47 seconds left in the third period. The Canucks were all over the Blues in the first period, firing shots from every direction. But Halak stood his ground. He gave his team a chance to win, and that’s all you can ask for.

Halak’s performance is something to build off of from here on out. A big question mark for the Blues has been consistency between the pipes. But Halak proved why he’s the No. 1 guy with his outstanding performance against the Canucks. His confidence will continue to grow.

The Blues must forget about this loss and focus on what lies ahead. Two games remain on this three-game road swing, including tilts against Western Conference-leading Anaheim (87 points) and a hungry Phoenix (64 points) club. The Blues are a combined 1-2-1 against the Ducks and Coyotes this season, and are winless against the former. The Blues have their work cut out for them. They begin the final push with 11 of their first 15 games on the road, six of their first seven. Following the current trip, the Blues return home against Tampa Bay before facing Central Division rivals Nashville, Colorado and Minnesota – three teams looking to make a final push of their own. On a positive note, the Blues are a perfect 7-0-0 against the Predators, Avalanche and Wild on the season.

I’m not concerned with the Blues’ lack of offense against Vancouver. It was their first game back from a 17-day hiatus. Not to mention, nine players flew halfway around the world and are still recalibrating their body clocks. The Blues own the second-best goals per game mark in the league at 3.3. The offense will come. The defense will continue to gel and rediscover its rhythm. Yes, the power-play has been a concern lately, as the Blues have gone 0 for their last 23 on the man-advantage, a season-long mark. However, even with the power play in a funk, the Blues still boast the fifth-best power play unit in the league, scoring over 21 percent of the time.

Moreover, the Blues want it. They want to make an extended playoff run deep into the heat of summer.

“We have a group of guys that has that team-first mentality, Blues’ captain David Backes told Jeremy Rutherford of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “We had a lot of success the first part of the year and we’ll be looking for more in the second part, really gearing up for the playoffs … playing hockey when it’s 100 degrees in St. Louis.”

Pietrangelo said it best following Canada’s gold medal win over Sweden Sunday.

“I saw ‘Hitch’ on the ice after the game, and I said, ‘That’s one championship, one more to go this year,” he said. “It’s special to share that (gold medal) with them. We’ve obviously been through a lot together and now back to reality, to win here in St. Louis.”

 

 

Rams face Rob Ryan and Saints

Last January, St. Louis thought it had a new defensive coordinator.

Rob Ryan “committed” to the Rams and had everybody thinking his next job would be under the Arch in St. Louis. He attended a Blues game, was given a key to the Rams facility in Earth City and was present during an offseason staff meeting, according to Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Suddenly, Ryan had a change of heart. Rather than joining a staff responsible for the NFL’s youngest roster, Ryan bolted for New Orleans.

“He made a commitment to us, but he didn’t sign a contract or anything,” Rams coach Jeff Fisher said, according to the Post-Dispatch. “But he made a commitment to us.”

Ryan’s vow was nothing more than word of mouth.

With the Saints, Ryan has resurrected the league’s worst defense from a year ago into one of the most rugged units this season.

In 2012, the Saints defense ranked last in total yards allowed per game, rushing yards allowed, was 31st in points allowed per game and passing yards allowed per game, and were in the bottom tier with just 30 sacks.

This season, the Saints (10-3) rank in the top echelon of virtually every defensive category.

“He has done a great job,” Fisher said, according to the Post-Dispatch. “He is an outstanding coach. He has them playing well, and he has the pieces now. There are no holes in the defense. Everyone is playing well together.”

If such a hole existed, statistic point to the Saints run defense, which ranks 17th in the league, allowing over 114 yards per contest.

However, statistics are often misleading. On Nov. 10 against Dallas, the Saints held the Cowboys to just 89 yards rushing. A week later, they held San Francisco to just 81 yards on the ground.

Lacking physicality and edge a year ago, the Saints no longer need a boost in that department. They flock to the ball and wreak havoc on opposing offensive lines and quarterbacks.

Defensive end Jordan Cameron heads the Saints defense with 11.5 sacks on the year, second in the NFC behind the Rams’ Robert Quinn.

On the other hand, the Rams have regressed from a year ago. They rank 19th in yards allowed per game, 23rd in pass defense and 14th in run defense this season.

To say the Saints will be an easy matchup come Sunday afternoon would be a drastic understatement.

“They’re talented everywhere,” quarterback Kellen Clemens said, according to the Post-Dispatch. “They get after the quarterback. Rob does a nice job of mixing coverages and pressures, and he does a really good job of making them look the same.

“So, sometimes it looks like they’re pressuring and they bail into coverage. Or it looks like they’re going to cover and they bring a lot of pressure. … They’re talented across the board. It’s going to be a great matchup for us.”

 

 

 

 

 

Long ejected after long melee in third quarter

Rams’ defensive end Chris Long was ejected with 9 minutes, 59 seconds remaining in the third quarter following a lengthy scrum with myriad Panthers. Following Greg Olson’s 11-yard reception, there was pushing and shoving from both sides. Long came to the aide of his teammate when he was flagged for a personal foul and disqualified for throwing a punch.

The Panthers capitalized on the penalty with a 31-yard field goal from Gano to make the score 20-5, Panthers.

***

The Panthers capitalized with a field goal on another Rams turnover to begin the second quarter.

After Rams’ rookie receiver Tavon Austin coughed up the ball, Graham Gano connected from 37 yards to make the score 10-2.

On the Rams next possession, it appeared the visitors were going to narrow the deficit to one point. Bradford connected with Austin for what would’ve been a 63-yard touchdown pass, but left tackle Jake Long was flagged for tripping to nullify the play. The Rams settled for a 28-yard field goal from Greg “The Leg” Zuerlein to make it a 10-5 game.

While the Rams were within a score of the Panthers, Cam Newton and his offense suddenly awoke and found their rhythm. Newton dumped a short pass to Greg Olsen, who rumbled his way to the Rams’ 36-yard line. Later in the drive, Newton fired a bullet to a wide open Ted Ginn, who was tackled at the 1-yard line before Tolbert bruised his way into the end zone for a touchdown. The score extended the Panthers lead to 17-5.

Turnovers plagued the Rams in the first half. Bradford threw his fourth interception of the season and his second pick six.

***

A critical contest for both St. Louis and Carolina featured little offense and explosive defense in the first quarter.

The Rams ran a play-action fake on their first play from scrimmage, and quarterback Sam Bradford was hit as he threw the ball, which hung in the air before falling into the hands of Panthers’ defensive back Captain Munnerlyn, who ran 45 yards for the pick six.

7-0 Carolina.

Rams head coach Jeff Fisher opted to go for it on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line, but Bradford was flushed from the pocket and threw the ball away, turning it over on downs.

But the Rams defense answered. Defensive end Eugene Sims stuffed Panthers’ running back Mike Tolbert in the end zone for the safety to make it a five-point deficit.

Halftime: Rams trail Panthers, 17-5

The Panthers capitalized with a field goal on another Rams turnover to begin the second quarter.

After Rams’ rookie receiver Tavon Austin coughed up the ball, Graham Gano connected from 37 yards to make the score 10-2.

On the Rams next possession, it appeared the visitors were going to narrow the deficit to one point. Bradford connected with Austin for what would’ve been a 63-yard touchdown pass, but left tackle Jake Long was flagged for tripping to nullify the play. The Rams settled for a 28-yard field goal from Greg “The Leg” Zuerlein to make it a 10-5 game.

While the Rams were within a score of the Panthers, Cam Newton and his offense suddenly awoke and found their rhythm. Newton dumped a short pass to Greg Olsen, who rumbled his way to the Rams’ 36-yard line. Later in the drive, Newton fired a bullet to a wide open Ted Ginn, who was tackled at the 1-yard line before Tolbert bruised his way into the end zone for a touchdown. The score extended the Panthers lead to 17-5.

Turnovers plagued the Rams in the first half. Bradford threw his fourth interception of the season and his second pick six.

 

***

A critical contest for both St. Louis and Carolina featured little offense and explosive defense in the first quarter.

The Rams ran a play-action fake on their first play from scrimmage, and quarterback Sam Bradford was hit as he threw the ball, which hung in the air before falling into the hands of Panthers’ defensive back Captain Munnerlyn, who ran 45 yards for the pick six.

7-0 Carolina.

Rams head coach Jeff Fisher opted to go for it on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line, but Bradford was flushed from the pocket and threw the ball away, turning it over on downs.

But the Rams defense answered. Defensive end Eugene Sims stuffed Panthers’ running back Mike Tolbert in the end zone for the safety to make it a five-point deficit.

Panthers lead Rams 7-2 after first quarter

A critical contest for both St. Louis and Carolina featured little offense and explosive defense in the first quarter.

The Rams ran a play-action fake on their first play from scrimmage, and quarterback Sam Bradford was hit as he threw the ball, which hung in the air before falling into the hands of Panthers’ defensive back Captain Munnerlyn, who ran 45 yards for the pick six.

7-0 Carolina.

Rams head coach Jeff Fisher opted to go for it on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line, but Bradford was flushed from the pocket and threw the ball away, turning it over on downs.

But the Rams defense answered.

Defensive end Eugene Sims stuffed Panthers’ running back Mike Tolbert in the end zone for the safety to make it a five-point deficit.

 

Rams steamrolling Texans 38-6 after three quarters

St. Louis took a 17-6 lead over Houston into halftime and opened the second half in thrilling fashion.

Up by 11 points, the Rams went for the jugular on their first possession of the second half by marching 80 yards. The drive was capped with a Sam Bradford 4-yard touchdown pass to Brian Quick to make the score 24-6 in favor of the visitors. The connection was Bradford’s third touchdown throw of the game.

Mere seconds later, the Rams struck again. This time via special teams.

Houston’s Keshawn Martin returned the ensuing kickoff up the middle but was hit by Rodney McLeod, who knocked the ball loose and Daren Bates scooped it up and dashed 11 yards for the touchdown to make it a 31-6 Rams lead.

Texans’ quarterback Matt Schaub suffered a leg injury late in the quarter, and backup T.J. Yates took over. The Texans were threatening inside the Rams’ 5-yard line when Yates was intercepted by rookie linebacker Alec Ogletree, who sprinted 98 yards for the pick six.

The Rams lead the Texans 38-6 at the end of the third quarter.

Rams Lead Texans 17-6 at Halftime

A pair of touchdown passes and a field goal gave St. Louis a 17-6 lead over Houston at halftime.

Rams quarterback Sam Bradford tossed a 2-yard strike to reserve tight end Cory Harkey for an early 7-0 lead.

Greg Zuerlein added a 42-yard field goal to give the visitors a 10-0 advantage.

It appeared as if the Texans were going to trim the deficit on its ensuing possession, which featured a heavy dose of running back Arian Foster. Runs of 23 and 22 yards helped the Texans get inside the the Rams’ 5-yard line. But the Rams defense stood tall and held the Texans to a 20-yard field goal to make it a 10-3 game.

The Rams answered with rookie running back Zac Stacy, who darted 18 yards to the Texans’ 8-yard line before Bradford threw his second touchdown pass of the half, this time a 2-yard bullet to tight end Lance Kendricks. The score gave the Rams a 17-3 lead.

Another strong drive headed by Foster had the Rams on their heels once more. But the Rams didn’t fold, holding the Texans to their second field goal of the afternoon.

 

***

Houston was penalized seven times for 95 yards in the first half.