ST. LOUIS — Already trying to extricate a puzzling pattern of slow starts, the St. Louis Blues dealt with the familiar problem once again Tuesday while missing three of their top forwards.
The Blues fell behind 3-0, battled back to within a goal and were unable to complete the comeback in a 4-2 loss to the San Jose Sharks.
It was a dreadful start by the Blues (22-7-4), who fell behind 2-0 after one period and now have trailed the Sharks 8-0 after three first periods this season.
They lost all three of those games by a combined 16-7 to the Sharks (21-7-6), who came to Scottrade Center having lost five of their previous six games.
The Blues played without injured forwards David Backes, Vladimir Sobotka and Jaden Schwartz, all out with upper-body injuries. They even dressed seven defenseman and used defenseman Carlo Colaiacovo as the fourth-line left winger.
And though his team was playing its second game on back-to-back nights and the third game in four days, Blues coach Ken Hitchcock never mentioned any of those as a crutch.
"It's really sloppy defensive play," Hitchcock said simply. "We've been guilty of that for a little while. Not near ready to go from a checking standpoint, loose coverage."
Hitchcock is determined to find a quick answer to the slow start dilemma.
"That's just something we're going to have to discuss tomorrow," he said. "We've had too many of these starts like this, not engaged quick enough. Some we got away with, some we didn't. Same start as in Columbus, similar start in Ottawa.
"It's a cooperation from the players and coaches. Obviously there's a preparation problem. We've got to do a better job between coaches and players at preparing to function properly checking-wise early."
Blues goaltender Jaroslav Halak has allowed 14 goals over his last five starts, but 10 of those have come during the first period.
Both first-period goals Tuesday came off the boards, the first with a strange bounce off the partition, and the pucks made their way onto the sticks of Joe Pavelski and Matt Irwin for goals.
It was Pavelski's 13th goal and fourth in the last four games.
"It happened tonight, it didn't happen before," Halak said after allowing four goals on 27 shots before being pulled late for an extra attacker. "I don't know how many games we've played at home and it didn't happen before. Tonight it starts with me and defense and forwards, we've got to do a better job."
Brent Burns lifted a high shot past Halak just two minutes into the second period to give San Jose (21-7-6) a 3-0 lead and the Sharks seemed well on their way to a rout.
That's the pattern they established earlier this season while beating the Blues 6-2 and 6-3 the first two meetings, with Burns collecting a hat trick in the Nov. 29 game. The 6-2 loss was the worst suffered by the Blues at Scottrade Center this season.
But just when things looked extremely dark, the Blues found life late in the second period on goals by defensemen Kevin Shattenkirk and Jay Bouwmeester.
Shattenkirk scored on a shot from the left point that deflected in off of Sharks defenseman Andrew Desjardins with 4:29 remaining in the period.
After a late faceoff in the San Jose zone, Blues center Alexander Steen dug the puck out of the corner and got it to Alex Pietrangelo.
Pietrangelo zipped it back to the middle of the blue line, where Bouwmeester's shot found the back of the net with some help from a good screen in front.
"We had lots of try in the second and third period, but I don't think we were coordinated the way you have to be," Hitchcock said. "I think that was the difference in the game."
The optimistic feeling didn't last long for the Scottrade Center crowd of 16,323 as a goal by Martin Havlat just over eight minutes into the third period restored San Jose's two-goal cushion.
The initial shot by Justin Braun hit the goalpost and Havlat slid the rebound right into the net.
"The fourth one was tough," Shattenkirk said. "It was kind of a dagger because we felt like we were moving in the right direction. We had the belief that we could still come back and tie it."
The Blues had a 5-on-3 power play after pulling Halak for an extra attacker with 2:16 remaining, but goalie Antti Niemi stood his ground.