Two weeks ago things were chugging along as usual for the St. Louis Blues. When Barret Jackman championed the Blues' balanced contributions on Jan. 31, it came after a 4-1 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets, improving St. Louis' record to 6-1-0. Rookie Vladimir Tarasenko was finding himself atop early Calder Trophy lists; Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott were again a strong tandem in the crease; Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk were playing Norris Trophy level hockey out of the back. Everything was in alignment. Life was good.
After a disappointing second round sweep at the hands of the No. 8-seeded and eventual Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings, the Blues entered this season with a bitter taste in their mouths. Their 109-point season went to waste and head coach Ken Hitchcock was going to use that as motivation and force his players to prove that their turnaround was no fluke.
But when Halak was injured on Feb. 1 against the Detroit Red Wings, the Blues' equilibrium was thrown off and Elliott was given the reigns with no one next to him to offer a push. He and the Blues have faltered since. Five straight losses was cause enough for Captain Backes to unleash a wakeup call after Monday's 4-1 defeat to the Kings.
From Lou Korac of NHL.com:
"We've got too many guys out there looking at the stat sheet wondering how many goals and assists, cookies they've got rather than taking a hit to make a play and getting run over so we can get a puck out so that your teammates can have a 3-on-2," Backes said. "Or so you can block a shot or kill a penalty when you really need it so we can stay in a game. We just don't have that desperation, that accountability, that responsibility to each other.
"The talking's done. We've said everything that needs to be said, gone over game plans and talked about strategy and ideology. It's time to put the boots on and go do it or else pack your bags and go home because it's slowly slipping, but there's time left where we can right the ship and play our hockey. When we play our hockey, we love our chances against anyone."
That's the complete opposite of how Scott Nichol described the identity of the team before the season began. "[T]here’s no selfishness, nobody cares about individual stats."
The Blues currently have the No. 1 ranked power play in the NHL (34.8 percent), and over this losing stretch have played well, capitalizing at a 39 percent clip. But as that's been their strength, it's also what has carried them. Of St. Louis' 38 goals 15 have come with the man advantage. Just 18 via even strength. Their top five goal scorers -- Patrik Berglund, Chris Stewart, T.J. Oshie and David Perron -- have each tallied just once in five games, while Tarasenko hasn't scored since their win over Columbus.
If Backes is suggesting there are guys in the room who are looking at their stat sheets, many aren't going to find much on them at the moment.
As the Blues prepared to play four of their next five games on the road, starting with a Wednesday matchup against Detroit, they'll likely have to do so with Elliott continuing to handle the load.
Halak was scheduled to return against the Kings on Monday but re-injured his groin during warmups, causing Elliott to fill in on short notice. A 3-0 LA lead by the middle of the second period and just 12 shots on net by the Blues to that point didn't aid in the comeback attempt.
But it wasn't just last night's game that has put the spotlight on the goaltending. Elliott has struggled in Halak's absence, losing all five games of this current skid. Hoping to provide a spark, Hitchcock challenged him by saying he needed to play better after their loss to the Anaheim Ducks on Saturday. Elliott and Halak have the nice contracts through next season; they're the ones who need to help dig out the current mess. Jake Allen's time isn't here yet.
After consecutive loss No. 5 on Monday, Hitchcock stressed that the Blues will only exit this pit that they're in if every one in that room works together to get out, not individually as Backes was mentioning. From Norm Sanders of the Belleville News Democrat:
"There's no cavalry coming," Hitchcock said. "There's no rescue party coming to take of us. We've got to do it ourselves."
Short season. Long season. Whatever. Good teams and bad teams will have these stretches. (Obviously, the good ones find a way to right the ship.) All the Blues need to do is look at early November 2011 when they sat 14th in the Western Conference, fired Davis Payne and brought in Hitchcock. The end result was the second best season in franchise history.
This time the challenge isn't as daunting -- the Blues are eighth in the West with 13 points, nine behind the Central Division and conference-leading Chicago Blackhawks, who have 22 -- but it's how they react to this current funk that will set the tone for the team the rest of the way.
Last year it was Hitchcock's new voice. What will be the spark for the Blues this time?
The boots have to go on now. There's plenty of work to do.
Follow Sean Leahy on Twitter at @Sean_Leahy
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