St. Louis Blues

Blues improving, but coach is setting the bar a little higher

St. Louis Blues defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, left, is congratulated by Vladimir Tarasenko, of Russia, after scoring during the second period Thursday against the Tampa Bay Lightning. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)
St. Louis Blues defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, left, is congratulated by Vladimir Tarasenko, of Russia, after scoring during the second period Thursday against the Tampa Bay Lightning. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson) AP

The St. Louis Blues are one of the hottest teams in the NHL right now, winners of seven of their last eight games overall and six straight on home ice.

They have at least a point in 11 straight home games for the first time since 2012 and are 11-1-2 at Scottrade Center. Goaltender Jake Allen has won seven straight starts and is 9-0-2 at home this season, where he has a 1.78 goals-against average and .932 save percentage.

Vladimir Tarasenko netted his third career hat trick Thursday in a 5-4 win over Tampa Bay and both Tarasenko and defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk (two goals, two assists) put up four points in the victory.

So with so many things going right for his club, why did Blues coach Ken Hitchcock seem to be using such an ominous tone during his postgame remarks to the media?

That’s easy.

The veteran coach knows that despite all these wins, there is plenty of room for improvement — especially on the defensive side of the ice.

There’s the matter of struggling to hold leads and letting teams back in games the Blues seem to be dominating early. The Blues close out a five-game home stand with a 6 p.m. game Saturday against the Winnipeg Jets.

“We need to fix it,” Hitchcock told reporters following the victory over the Lightning. “Right now we’re just better off riding the horse and seeing when it needs a drink of water. Sometimes you’ve just got to ride out these types of games.

We knew we had the capability of doing it and I think that’s why when we were going through that rough patch there, we were all so disappointed because we felt like we were letting some games slipping away.

Blues defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk

“We’re doing a lot of great things from the red line in, we’re pressuring people and doing a lot of great things but we’re struggling in our own zone. We’re struggling with communication, we’re struggling with tenacity, we’re struggling with the details that have been here for a long time. We got away from them, but we’re not paying the price.”

Consider that a warning even as the Blues (14-7-3, 31 points) began Friday with the second-best record in the Western Conference behind Chicago (16-6-3, 35 points). The Blues’ 35 points also tied them for fourth overall in the NHL.

Even before the game Thursday, Hitchcock inserted Alexander Steen at center, moved struggling center Jori Lehtera to the third line and moved Patrik Berglund from center to wing.

Shattenkirk feels the Blues are beginning to turn the corner after a slow start, particularly on the road (3-6-1).

The Blues have scored four or more goals in their last three games and have three or more goals in their previous nine.

“We knew we had the capability of doing it and I think that’s why when we were going through that rough patch there, we were all so disappointed because we felt like we were letting some games slipping away,” he said. “We knew we were a lot better than the way we were playing. For us to go though that and experience it, it’s going to be huge for us in the long run.

“We’ve had a couple games in the last week or so where we’ve kind of seen some of those old tendencies come back, but now we know how to correct them.”

Not always.

On Thursday the Blues got two early goals from Tarasenko and led 4-1 early in the second period on the second goal by Shattenkirk. After that, defensive lapses and mistakes allowed the Lightning to creep back into the game to the point where they had a 6-on-4 chance on a faceoff with 2.2 seconds remaining trailing by only a goal.

“The score wasn’t indicative of the play, but the score was indicative at the end of the way we were playing,” Hitchcock said. “I just know where it’s going to take us in a week or so. It’s not going to be comfortable, but you just take the two points and probably move on. It’s not going to be comfortable in a couple weeks.”

The Blues seem to sense they are doing more things right than wrong, but still have room for improvement. Their confidence level is rising with each game.

“It’s very high and I think we all know it’s there because we’ve been playing the right way,” Shattenkirk said. “When we were going off script, that’s when we started to look like a pretty bad hockey team.”

Norm Sanders: 618-239-2454, @NormSanders

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