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.

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.