ST. LOUIS — The St. Louis Blues returned to Scottrade Center this week with an opportunity to make a statement and proclaim their status as a legitimate contender in the Western Conference.
A standing-room only crowd of 19,910 witnessed the visiting Ducks, the top team in the NHL, score the first three goals of the night and then hold off the Blues’ third-period comeback attempt for a 3-2 victory.
"When you get behind, you’re allowing the other team to set the tempo," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said. "You’re on your heels. They’re on their toes. It happened again tonight. On our heels. It’s really just the same movie, different day. We have to figure out a way to fix it."
St. Louis (32-10-5, 60 points) seemed to have figured that out during its recent seven-game win streak, but those problems returned for the Blues with this stretch of three losses in four games.
Hitchcock’s squad fell behind first in all three losses and is now 5-9-2 this season when the opponent scores first. That has left the Blues’ veteran leaders scratching their heads and trying to find a remedy.
It happened again tonight. On our heels. It’s really just the same movie, different day. We have to figure out a way to fix it.
-- Ken Hitchcock
"If I could explain it, I would have fixed it by now and we wouldn’t be talking about it," Blues captain David Backes said. "It’s something that’s been an issue for us for a little while now and we have to find remedies, whatever it may be, to have our foot on the gas when the puck drops."
Defenseman Barret Jackman doesn’t have an answer, either.
"I don’t know," he said. "You can have meetings, you have your video and you see it, but we need more guys at the beginning of games to find a way to get engaged, whether it’s a hit or a pass or just talking on the bench, just getting a little bit more life. I think it will trickle through our lineup. It’s going to have to start with our leaders and go from there."
The Blues played Saturday night with nearly their full roster healthy and available with the return of leading goal scorer Alexander Steen after he missed the previous 11 games. The only player still out of action is Maxim Lapierre, who is on injured reserve with a lower-body injury but has been skating and could be back soon.
Steen was on the ice for 20 minutes and 56 seconds Saturday, second among forwards to only David Backes’ 21:01. He was credited with 11 shot attempts, with four of them going on goal.
Hitchcock said on a couple of occasions while Steen was out that the high-scoring forward would not be asked to be the team’s savior when he returned, that the team needed him to fit into the system.
On Saturday night, the coach said the team needs everybody engaged. That means four lines, six defensemen and both goalies playing well.
"We’re not a team that can have one or two people carrying us," Hitchcock said. "We’re a team that needs everybody engaged, and right now we don’t have everybody engaged. We’ve got too many cracks and holes in our game right now. Maybe against a lesser opponent we could win, but not against significant opponents, and that’s what’s happening. We don’t have enough players playing well and that’s our job, to find a way to get more players to play better hockey. One of the problems we’re having is we have the same players playing really well night in and night out. We all know who they are. They are playing exceptional. But we need way more people playing that way if we’re going to win hockey games."
Maybe they’ll be able to find the answers they seek during their four-game road trip that begins Monday and will take them through Detroit, New Jersey and then two games in New York against the Rangers and Islanders.
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There’s still plenty of hockey to be played this season. And there still is the break next month for the Winter Olympics, where 10 Blues will participate. The Blues won’t see another team from California until a rematch with the Ducks (37-9-5, 79 points) Feb. 28 in Anaheim.
That’s one of the positives coming out of Saturday night, considering St. Louis is now 1-7 against the Ducks, Kings and Sharks this season.
"I think if we bring our full 60-minute game with everyone in this room, it doesn’t matter where the team is from, we’re going to like our chances," Backes said. "We’re concentrating on what we’ve got in here and what we’re bringing to the table, and we’ve seen it before where we’re a force to be reckoned with, but we need that sort of effort from everybody, myself first."