Friday, February 15, 2013
Blues execute plan -- for one period
By Scott Burnside
Scott Burnside is embedded with the St. Louis Blues, traveling on their three-game, five-night road trip to Detroit, Calgary and Vancouver.
CALGARY, Alberta -- You listen to the information imparted to NHL players by their coaches on a daily basis about their opponents' tendencies. You watch the video clips that support the coaching strategy laid out, and you wonder how much sinks in, how much of it is remembered when the puck is sailing through the neutral zone and the sold-out Scotiabank Saddledome crowd is roaring.
And the answer, at least for the St. Louis Blues on this night, is if not all of it, then certainly enough.
The Blues on Friday won their second straight on a three-game road trip, beating the Flames 5-2 on a night that featured strong play from rookie Jaden Schwartz -- whose dad was on hand for the affair -- and an eye-popping save by netminder Jake Allen, who won his second straight start and showed little of the jitters that marked his NHL debut in a 4-3 overtime win Wednesday night in Detroit.
"I know who's playing Sunday," coach Ken Hitchcock said in the coaching room after the game. "What the hell."
It was a performance, at least in the first period, that was more reminiscent of the Blues team that jumped out to a 6-1-0 record at the start of the season than the team that meandered through an 0-4-1 stretch leading up to this critical three-game road trip.
What had to be gratifying for Hitchcock, the coaching staff and the players is that so much of what was covered in the hours leading up to the game became reality on the ice, at least early on, when this game was decided as the Blues exploded for four goals in the first period.
Hitchcock had warned his team that the Flames are a pressure team, sending four skaters into the offensive zone every time.
Defenseman Dennis Wideman is like a forward, Hitchcock said of the Flames' offseason offensive addition. "If we make him defend, he'll give up easy scoring chances," Hitchcock promised.
The coach turned out to be prescient, as Wideman was on the ice for three of four first-period St. Louis goals and was minus-3 on the night.
Hitchcock also had impressed on his players in meetings earlier in the day that Calgary netminder Leland Irving, filling in for the injured Miikka Kiprusoff, was vulnerable.
"Two games in a row he's been outworked," and allowed goals in the crease and from rebounds, Hitchcock said.
Irving lasted all of 4:07, giving up two goals on four shots before giving way to recently acquired Joey MacDonald, who allowed the final three goals.
Here's another moment.
At the end of the St. Louis Blues' power-play meeting, about two hours before the puck would drop, the lights came on in the dressing room-turned-coaches office. But instead of departing, many of the Blues players stayed.
David Perron, T.J. Oshie, David Backes, Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk all gathered around the video screen talking about strategy. Backes took control of the remote, running video that assistant coach Gary Agnew had just run through a few minutes earlier.
It's a moment that, at the time, you have no sense whether it will be pivotal or not, whether it will have greater meaning in the hours ahead.
Again, the answer in this case was "yes," as the Blues went 2-for-4 on the power play, including two man-advantage goals by Perron, the second of which restored a three-goal lead early in the third period when the Blues had gotten away from their game plan.
"They always stay after the meeting," Agnew said. "They're engaged.
"Although sometimes they change it," the assistant joked.
Hitchcock likewise is enthused by what he sees.
"They're taking a vested interest in getting better," the head coach said. "The meeting after the meeting can be really good or it can be really bad, but you can't be afraid to let them have it."
Alexander Steen was among the Blues players at that power-play meeting. He and Backes were questionable earlier in the day with Steen battling illness and Backes nursing a tender groin, but both were in action. And it was Steen who stepped inside the Calgary blue line to intercept a Flames clearing pass and set up Schwartz all alone in front for his first of the season. The 14th overall pick in the 2010 draft has struggled to find his offensive groove, but he shined in the past two games, both Blues wins.
Just 2:39 after opening the scoring, Schwartz set up Patrik Berglund for a 2-0 lead that spelled the end of the night for netminder Irving after just 4:07.
Earlier in the day, Hitchcock had talked about how his team is still learning to play with a target on its back after last season's run to the top of the Central Division and berth in the second round of the playoffs.
"It's been a real eye-opener for a lot of our guys," he said.
After the first period, Hitchcock wondered aloud how his team would handle the early lead.
"We'll see, are we mature enough to play the game or are we going to play the score?" he said.
The answer reflected Hitchcock's concerns, as the Blues were outshot 15-5 in the second and, after taking three straight penalties, allowed the Flames to get on the board with a Wideman power-play goal.
The Flames made it close early in the third on a Curtis Glencross goal before Perron's goal iced it.
The second and third periods weren't the way the team wanted to play, Perron acknowledged, adding, "But we'll take the 5-2 win and move on to Vancouver."
Playing the red-hot Canucks will be a concern for the coaching staff given the lapses of the final two periods.
Between the second and third periods, Hitchcock asked Agnew to talk to Vladimir Tarasenko, the talented rookie who was excellent in Detroit on Wednesday but was a nonfactor Friday, about his compete level.
"Tell him to stop f---ing cheating," Hitchcock said.
The problem is Tarasenko didn't quite get the concept, so Agnew told him instead to skate hard both ways, not just into the offensive zone.
At one point after the game, Hitchcock was going to address his team but then walked away from the dressing room, deciding he would address his concerns later.
Still, it seemed clear his players understood.
The first period was the game plan put into place, Scott Nichol explained.
"But we've got to stick to the game plan for 60 minutes," the forward said. "It's something to be addressed."