There’s still time for Blues to kick funk — but they better hurry
ST. LOUIS — Alexander Steen tried his best to search for positives.
The Blues’ leading goal scorer was one himself Tuesday with his return after three games out of the lineup because of a mysterious upper-body ailment. But Steen also considered himself one of the reasons St. Louis lost again, 4-1 to the Washington Capitals at Scottrade Center, because he failed to capitalize when he had scoring chances.
In the aftermath of the team’s third consecutive loss — its first three-game losing streak of this remarkable season — it was the volume of scoring opportunities that Steen pointed to as one of the positives.
But Steen also said he’s not concerned with the team’s poor play down the stretch during this final week of the regular season.
"Obviously, we have three games left," he said. "Last few we haven’t been scoring, but we have guys that have been scoring all year. Our power play is among the top of the league, our penalty kill is among the top of the league. And when we’re on our game with our five-on-five play, we’re a really heavy team. For us, tonight, we had to bear down and we didn’t on our chances, and it cost us the game."
It’s not that simple, of course.
At a time when the Blues (52-20-7, 111 points in 79 games) have been talking about ramping up and gaining momentum going into the playoffs, they are doing the exact opposite.
They have lost three straight, four of their last six and six of their last 11. They also allowed four goals in each of those six defeats, not a flattering statistic for a team that prides itself on its defense and recently traded for a new goaltender.
Anaheim (110 points in 79 games) could retake the top spot in the Western Conference with a win Wednesday against visiting San Jose. Colorado (109 points in 79 games) plays at reeling Vancouver, losers of four of five, on Thursday with a chance to cut into St. Louis’ Central Division advantage.
"We want to be at our high level to start the playoffs, and we’ve got three games left of hard hockey to make this happen," Steve Ott said. "There’s nothing like winning. You win your next game and, obviously, you forget about these last three in a hurry.
"That’s the best thing about this league is we’ve got a back-to-back coming up and we finish against a strong team in Detroit before starting the playoffs. We have three heavy games left to go. It’s time to right the ship and continue to push forward and get ready."
The lack of scoring is an obvious concern — the Blues have been outscored 12-3 during the losing skid and have scored two goals or less in nine of their past 11 games — especially with Vladimir Tarasenko still out for an undetermined amount of time with his hand injury and now David Backes leaving Tuesday’s game with an injury in the second period and not returning.
"He’s got a lower-body injury," coach Ken Hitchcock said. "He’s day to day."
The goaltending has also been an issue. Ryan Miller got off to a hot start after the trade, going 7-0-1 in his first eight starts. But since, he has struggled and is now 3-5 in his last eight starts with 23 goals allowed.
But there are plenty of other concerns, and the coach pointed at several of them in his postgame press conference.
Hitchcock said the team needs to shoot more and execute better when it gets behind, and its best players must play like the best players.
He said he’s concerned with the drop-off in recent games after St. Louis has given up a goal. He cited the Colorado, Chicago and Washington games as examples of the team playing well but then giving up a goal or two and then just fading away.
Hitchcock said his biggest concern is special teams play.
"That’s the part that is really hurting us right now," he said. "We’re giving up power-play goals and we’re not doing the job on the power play. To me, that’s the major concern right now. Our special teams are not helping us right now and we’re losing that part of the game.
"We lost it against Colorado. We lost it against Chicago. We lost it tonight. The game within the game is the part that’s really concerning me right now. That’s the No. 1 concern."
The Blues couldn’t convert on four power-play opportunities Tuesday and are now 1 for their last 16 over the past five games. The penalty kill unit surrendered two more goals and has now allowed five power-play goals in the past four games.
Of course, if the calendar said "January" and not "April," these issues wouldn’t be so pressing.
But there is still time to fix it. That’s one of the positives for this struggling squad. The Blues can make things right on Thursday in Minnesota, Friday in Dallas and on Sunday back home against Detroit in the regular-season finale.
"It’s a real bad time of the year, but we still have a couple three games here to straighten it out and get some momentum, ’cause it’s not something you can turn on," Brenden Morrow said. "You want to have confidence and momentum going into that first game of the playoffs, and it looks like Colorado is at our heels right now, too. So we need to sharpen up."
Morrow said the team has been talking about and hearing about the upcoming playoffs for a long time. That time is almost upon us.
"It’s been pretty smooth sailing for us throughout the year," Morrow said, "and now we’re finding some adversity and we’re going to find out what we’re made of."