Blues still trying to figure out teams from California
ST. LOUIS — There’s no California love for the St. Louis Blues.
The Blues (32-9-5, 69 points) go into Saturday night’s game against the blistering-hot Anaheim Ducks (36-8-5, 77 points) at Scottrade Center with a 1-6 record against the three teams from the Golden State this season.
That means St. Louis is a robust 31-3-5 against everybody else.
So … what gives?
"They are all really good," Blues captain David Backes said on Thursday morning, before his team lost a 4-1 game against the Kings. "LA won a Cup … two years ago. Anaheim has the best record in the league right now. San Jose’s maybe got the deepest team that they’ve had in a long time. (They are) teams that have given us struggles, and we have to find ways to ramp our game up against these good teams that play that style that is physical and hard. That’s the way we need to play and it’s exciting for fans to watch, too, I think."
St. Louis is 1-2 against the Kings, 0-1 against the Ducks and 0-3 against the Sharks. Last season, the Blues went 2-1 against the Sharks, 1-1-1 against the Ducks and 0-3 against the Kings, a composite record for 3-5-1. During the 2011-12 season, St. Louis was 7-4-1.
Of course, the Kings have also knocked the Blues out of the Western Conference playoffs the past two seasons, winning eight of 10.
None of this is good news for a Blues team that has ambitions of winning the first Stanley Cup in franchise history in a few months. To make that a reality, St. Louis will first have to conquer California.
So far, those three teams have been an unsolved mystery, especially the Ducks. Anaheim is 4-1 in its last five meetings against St. Louis, dating back to the final matchup of the 2011-12 season, and handed the Blues a thorough 5-2 defeat on Dec. 7.
The Ducks go into their matchup in Chicago on Friday night having won eight consecutive games and a ridiculous 18 of their last 19.
Blues coach Ken Hitchcock believes that the Ducks’ speed without the puck is what makes them so difficult to play against.
"When you look at Anaheim, all their players look the same," Hitchcock said. "They all hunt the puck. They all forecheck. They all play physical. They all have great puck support when you have the puck. They hound you. You get no space, no time. You’ve got to be really sharp. And if you are lazy or slow moving the puck, they jump all over you and create turnovers. To me, they come at you in waves. Their offense is a direct result of how many turnovers they create."
Hitchcock said there are times when you watch the Ducks that you can turn off the television halfway through because you already know the outcome — whether they are up a goal or tied — will be in their favor because of how they are playing.
"They’re relentless in their pursuit and they’re relentless in their game, and it’s hard to play against," he said. "They are going to be a challenge for everybody for the rest of the year if they keep playing this way. When you have the depth they have and you’re able to sit out the players they are able to sit out, I don’t see this changing."
The challenge for the Blues, going forward, is to show they can compete with the best teams in the Western Conference. That means stepping up to the task against the Central-leading Blackhawks and faring better against the top teams in the Pacific — the Ducks, Sharks and Kings.
"They are significant opponents," Blues winger Alexander Steen said of the Kings and the Ducks. "They’ve obviously played very well in their division and I think thus far in the season, we haven’t played up to par when we’ve played against those California teams."
Steen said Anaheim and Los Angeles are very different teams. Though both have good size, he said the Kings use that size more to their advantage while the Ducks come at you with more speed.
"We have to play the way that we are structured to play," Steen said.
Steen’s expected return to the lineup Saturday night should help, with the Blues getting their leading goal scorer back from injured reserve after missing 11 games.
Hitchcock wasn’t happy with the loss on Thursday night. He said Friday his anger stemmed from his team’s mistakes and not playing its best hockey in third period, which turned a 1-1 game into a 4-1 loss.
"I just want us to play really well and I want to see our principles out there," he said. "I want to see a semblance of our team game, and what I didn’t see in the third period was a semblance of our team game. I didn’t like that. Even when we got down 3-1, we had some chances. When you play good teams, what good teams do is they check really well. So can you maintain your competitive focus when you’re being checked well? … We wanted to see a better response at fighting through their checking, and what we did was we got off the page. And we paid for it."
That’s been a familiar refrain against the best of the Pacific Division, but the Blues have a chance against the Ducks to show that they’ve learned from their previous mistakes.
You can follow Nate Latsch on Twitter (@natelatsch) or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.