Blues get back to basics hoping to reverse slow-start trend

News-DemocratDecember 9, 2013 

— With losses in three of their last four games -- and being outscored 9-1 in the first period of those games -- there's not far to look for what ails the St. Louis Blues.

"We've come out slow and other teams have made us pay, that's the bottom line," Blues winger Alexander Steen said Monday. "We've just got to change it. There's no secret to it and there's nothing we're trying to sugar coat or something we're not aware of.

"It has to change for us to be successful. We know it, you guys know it."

The Blues will try to regain the form they displayed during an 18-3-3 start Tuesday in Winnipeg with Brian Elliott the starter in goal.

Hopefully they've packed some warm clothes with Tuesday's "high" temperature in Winnipeg predicted to hit minus-2 and the low at minus-17.

Blues coach Ken Hitchcock took a level-headed approach to the team's slow start conundrum, including breaking down practice to a more basic form.

The Blues began Monday with one-on-one drills, then progressed through 2-on-2 and 3-on-3 scenarios before finally hitting 5-on-5 play.

"Today was checking," Hitchcock, a true believer in his coaching system that accents defense to produce offense. "A lot of checking drills; an element of our game that's got to get better so we're going to work on it."

Hitchcock has also challenged the team's leadership core and the top line of David Backes, T.J. Oshie and Steen to begin leading by example.

"Everything was tailored toward battling and working together," Blues defenseman Barret Jackman said. "You go from one end of the ice to the other staying connected as a forecheck, regrouping and everything and playing with speed too. That's something we've kind of gotten away from --and something we've got to get back to."

It's easy for the Blues to talk about it. They need to show results on the ice after falling behind 4-0 to San Jose and 3-0 against Los Angeles and Anaheim.

"You've got to follow it up," Jackman said. "It's not just a flip of the switch and go. It's going to be a process."

"This period of time is the dark time," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said. "There's no light at the start, so you're in the tunnel and there's no light at the end. You've got to figure out a way to get points.

"There's 10 or 11 teams in the same tunnel right now and who comes out of this tunnel by the Olympic break is usually going to be a team that's got a good run for the playoffs going on. You don't want to give up points or play poor hockey when you're in the tunnel."

With the push for points in the Western Conference at a premium with so many strong clubs, Hitchcock said it's time for the Blues to start pushing a lot harder.

"Now you're into the grind and how you operate in the grind tells a lot about your team," he said. "I want us playing better in the grind here. I want us checking harder, competing harder, I want our best players playing better."

Winnipeg could be a good place to start. The Blues are 9-0-1 vs. the Central Division this season and Steen, who grew up in Winnipeg, has 13 of his team-leading 20 goals in those 10 divisional games.

"This is something that crept into our game and we're just going to get rid of it," Steen said of the slow starts. "We've talked about it, we're going to adjust it. We'll come out stronger."

Earlier this season, the Blues were following the lead of the red-hot Backes, Steen and Oshie line. The trio remains a major factor with a combined 37 goals and 83 points in 28 games.

"Your best players have to be your best players and when they are, they're someone to follow," Hitchcock said. "When they're playing the game the right way, I don't think you have any choice but to follow."

Jackman said there is plenty of incentive to turn things around quickly and not let the slow starts develop into a nasty trend.

"Our leaders and our best players, we need to step up and play better...and play hard right from the drop of the puck," he said. "Don't wait."

In short, better decisions, better focus and a lot more explosive aggression.

"Were halfway in on the battles (and) if you play with any hesitation, teams are going to burn you," Jackman said.

Hitchcock downplayed any attempt to say the Blues were only having problems against top teams like the Sharks, Kings and Ducks.

"It isn't based on the opponent, heck we were doing the same thing against the Islanders," he said. "It's based on us. It's not allowing the ebb and flow of the game to dictate how we play, we dictate how we play.

"I don't care who the opponent is. Every point is big and I want us treating it that way."

Contact reporter Norm Sanders at 239-2454, or on Twitter @NormSanders

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