ST. LOUIS — One of the reasons St. Louis Blues coach Ken Hitchcock has been so successful during his career is an ability to quickly understand and adjust to situations and trends.
When recently asked which area of the team would be most affected by the lockout, Hitchcock pointed toward goaltending.
It wasn't just because Blues goalies Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott didn't see much game action during the labor dispute (Halak played in one game and Elliott in none).
Hitchcock said another huge factor was the communication between the goalies and defensemen within the team's overall defensive game plan system.
"Just all the little things that go on to get you out of the zone," Hitchcock said. "You can't talk about that stuff. You have to practice it, so you need hours and hours of practice to get ready for that. That's what training camp's for, but we haven't been able to do that."
NHL teams had less than a week of training camp before beginning the season. And while the Blues are 6-3, there are already some troubling signs --including a 6-1 home loss Tuesday to the Nashville Predators.
On Nashville's previous visit to St. Louis this season, the Predators managed only 13 shots in a 3-0 loss to the Blues. This time they were facing a well-rested Blues team that hadn't played since Friday and chased Blues goalie Brian Elliott with four goals on their first 11 shots.
"I don't think we've played outstanding all year," Blues defenseman Barret Jackman said. "We've found ways to win; we've spotted teams a goal or two and come back. We've played all right and hung on, but if we were having too much confidence after such a good start, then it's definitely a kick in the pants right now."
Three times during the first five wins, they had to come from behind. Then there's the matter of 11 goals allowed during their current two-game losing streak, although one was an empty-netter in Friday's 5-3 loss at Detroit.
A year ago, Halak and Elliott were two of the best goaltenders in the NHL and won the Jennings Trophy for posting the lowest goals-against average.
The Blues' tight defense contributed mightily to their impressive stat totals, which included a franchise record 15 shutouts.
The numbers aren't as good for Blues goalies this season and save percentage has seen the most dramatic decline.
Halak (3-0, 2.10 goals-against average) has dropped from a .926 save percentage last season to .889 this year. Elliott (3-3, 2.95) has dropped even further, going from .940 last season to .874 now.
"It's not going to happen overnight," Hitchcock said. "We can play better in that position. We can defend better, too."
Goaltending was far from the only problem Tuesday for the Blues. Blues captain David Backes said the team's competitive level was nowhere near where it needed to be.
"It's disappointing, no question," Backes said. "I think it's a case of feeling too good about ourselves after eight games, being at home where maybe some of us thought that we play well at home regardless. The preparation wasn't there."
In the midst of a four-game homestand in a 48-game schedule, the Blues cannot afford any prolonged slumps.
"You know it's going to be a playoff(-type) game any time you're playing within the Central," Blues winger Chris Stewart said. "Every game's crucial and it's a four-point game at the end of the day. Those losses definitely sting a little more than the other ones."
The Blues were already pointing to Thursday's return bout against the Detroit Red Wings even before the Nashville game.
They were none too pleased with the phantom match penalty called against Backes that led to Detroit's game-winning power-play goal.
Backes picked up the penalty for what the official felt was a hit by Backes to the head of Red Wings defenseman Kent Huskins. But video replays showed Backes' hard hit actually caught Huskins in the shoulder and chest instead.
The penalty was later rescinded by the NHL, removing the threat of a fine or suspension.
Mix in the 6-1 annihilation at home at the hands of Central Division rival Nashville and the Blues should have more than enough emotion tonight when facing the Red Wings.
"Disappointing but it's not the end of the world," "Backes said of Tuesday's loss. "We've got to learn from it and come back against a Red Wing team that we owe a little bit.
"It's hopefully a lesson learned that there's no nights off. There's no taking it easy."
* Thursday's game with be the 1,000th in the NHL for veteran Blues defenseman Wade Redden.
* In two games against Detroit this season, the Blues are 6-for-10 on the power play. They lead the NHL in power-play percentage at 33.3 percent (12-for-36).