Blues must change mentality to survive

May 1, 2012

ST. LOUIS — Mike Richards, Anze Kopitar and Jeff
Carter did more than give the Los Angeles Kings a commanding lead by scoring
four goals in the first period Monday night. They made the St. Louis Blues — a
team that has built its identity on elite defense and goaltending all season —
question their direction in what has become a lopsided series.

The Kings' early surge on their way to a 5-2 victory and a 2-0 lead in this
Western Conference semifinal left Scottrade Center silent, it made Blues goalie
Brian Elliott slam his stick against a goal post, and it caused a stunned crowd
to let out a sarcastic cheer when the public-address announcer declared there
was one minute left in the Blues' most embarrassing period to date.

It all happened at the worst possible time. After mental gaffes led to a Game 1
loss on Saturday, the Blues were a mess of loose defense and undisciplined play
in the first 20 minutes of Game 2.

Consider some of the carnage: Kings winger Dustin Penner knocked defenseman
Kevin Shattenkirk off the puck, causing it to slide near the net before
Richards scored 31 seconds into the game; Kings winger Dustin Brown stole a
clearing pass from defenseman Carlo Colaiacovo and set up Kopitar for the
Kings' second short-handed goal of this series — his first of two scores before
the first intermission; the Blues failed to register a single shot on goalie
Jonathan Quick before 9:21 had elapsed; by the end, the Kings had scored at
least four goals in a period during the playoffs for the first time since doing
so against the Vancouver Canucks in 1993.

"Their emotional investment in the first period was greater than
ours," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said. "We've got to invest a lot
more early in the game. That's the nice part about playoffs — it's one game.
It's one loss, and we move on."

Yes, it's just one loss. Yes, the Kings must win two more. And yes, the Blues
could recover with an effort that's more befitting of their No. 2 seed during
Game 3 on Thursday at the Staples Center.

But the Kings' dominance in the first period Monday showed why they are the
clear favorite to advance as this series stands. They are more physical. They
are more aggressive. And they have a history of beating Elliott — their latest
victory was their fourth consecutive this season over St. Louis in games he has

The Blues need fire to stem the Kings' momentum. Afterward, players like winger
T.J. Oshie and defenseman Ian Cole used words such as "embarrassing"
and "irritating" when describing their team's effort. Center David
Backes said he and others have "some looking in the mirror to do." Hitchcock
called the effort "careless."

Those assessments are true. But the bad news for the Blues is that their
listless play can't be fixed in practice or by studying film in the coming
days. No, a comeback in this series will require a mental adjustment. It will
require more heart. The Blues played without passion in the first period
Monday, and they gave the Kings reason to believe this series can end on the
West Coast.


"We need to make some changes so that we're better," Backes said.
"But X’s and O’s on film — we've done that to death. It's about intestinal
fortitude and coming together as a group and going to the hard areas and
showing that you have some cojones."

The Blues did not show much of that in the first period. Los Angeles has become
a machine on the road in the postseason, chewing up St. Louis and the Vancouver
Canucks for five consecutive victories away from Staples Center. The Kings
entered the game Monday with an obvious edge to their execution: By the end of
the first period, they had four goals to the Blues' five total shots. The
domination followed their mastery Saturday night, when they controlled the last
two periods.

Consequently, the trend represents the Blues' regression. Despite an overall
lack of postseason experience, they grew in routing the San Jose Sharks in the
last round. They weren't overwhelmed in the moment: They beat the Sharks on the
ice and in their heads, and they embraced the role of an aggressor on their way
to claiming the franchise's first playoffs series victory since 2002.

However, they have become submissive against Los Angeles. Sure, the Kings are
quicker and more skilled than their previous opponent, but the Blues have
failed to match the challenge. Their current play brings to mind the slide they
experienced to end the regular season when they dropped four of five games.
They are fighting to find their identity that allowed a turnaround under
Hitchcock to happen.

The search continues. The Blues knew this would be a physical series. Aside
from a strong first period in Game 1, though, they have deferred to the Kings.
The first period Monday was the most obvious display of Los Angeles'
superiority, but it has been consistent throughout.

"We need to react better," Cole said. "We need to bounce back
after goals and bad plays and unfortunate bounces — whatever the case may be.
We didn't do that. We need to be more mature, and we need to be a better team
throughout the whole game from the first shift."

Being more mature from the start would be a good place to begin. There's still
time to recover, but patience is wearing thin.