Should we have seen this coming?
In their final skate before the Winter Classic, the Blues looked worse than Monday’s weather forecast. The Predators pounded the Blues 4-0 at Scottrade Center in a lifeless effort by the home team.
With the eyes of the city undoubtedly focused on Busch Stadium and the weekend ahead, Blues players were indignant at the suggestion that theirs were doing the same.
"No, we know the schedule,” Alexander Steen said. “We knew we had these ... they’re tough divisional games. These games against Nashville, Minny and Chicago–even Winnipeg and Dallas–they're always hard-fought games. Tonight they played better than us. Plain and simple."
Blues captain Alex Pietrangelo echoed the sentiment.
"No, we're not going to use that as an excuse,” Pietrangelo declared. “We've been going about our business as normal."
Well then, what is the excuse? How do you explain such a flat performance on home ice? After leading the Predators 3-0 in the second period of a game back on December 13th in Nashville, the Blues have allowed 10 straight goals to the Predators without scoring one of their own.
It’s not just the Predators, either. The Blues haven’t won consecutive games since December 1st when they beat the Lightning to log a three-game winning streak. When it appears they’ve figured things out one night, inexplicably, that momentum vanishes the next.
“That tells you a lot,” Hitchcock said of the lack of consecutive wins over the past month. “Obviously, we’ve got to put a lot more into it. If we expect to win on a regular basis, we’re going to have to put more into it.
“We’re gonna have to have way better five-on-five play than what we’re playing right now. We’re sitting there relying on our power play, relying on our penalty kill to win hockey games. Our five-on-five play has to get way better. We’ve gotta create more and give up less.”
The Blues were successful on special teams in Wednesday’s win over the Flyers, but when that script flipped Friday–the Blues gave up two power play goals and went 0-4 in their own chances–it resulted in a lopsided loss. When the special teams battle goes south, the Blues are finding it hard to keep up.
No one would argue that the Blues weren’t flat outplayed in the loss, but Hitchcock disagreed with his players’ belief that they weren’t affected by the external circumstances.
“I think there are a lot of distractions going on right now and we didn’t handle it as well as we’re going to,” Hitchcock said. “We need to handle it a little bit better.”
Were the Blues looking ahead? Even if unintentional, it’s human nature. That doesn’t mean Paul Stastny was out there thinking about the stylish new sweater he would get to wear Monday–it’s more complex than that. The players can deny that it had anything to do with the Winter Classic–as they probably should–but a lack of focus was obvious. For the team with more home wins than any other in the Western Conference, Friday was a real dud.
“It’s one game,” Hitchcock said. “We’ve played awfully well at home, but we got outplayed today. They were hungry. They were desperate. They played very well last night and lost, and they were hungry.”
Especially hungry was Juuse Saros, Nashville’s rookie goaltender who saved 25 shots for his first NHL shutout. Instead of responding to an early deficit as they typically have this season at home, the Blues folded, perhaps making Saros’ job easier than it otherwise should have been.
“After the second goal, we lost our energy and we lost our focus,” Hitchcock said. “We haven’t done that at home at all. That’s the first time we’ve done it for a long time at home. Disappointing.”
Whatever the reason, the Blues were listless Friday. The players know there’s no time to sulk about it.
"Yeah, it's obviously a big weekend here, we all know that,” Pietrangelo said. “It would have been nice to build some momentum going into Monday, but we'll use the next couple of days to get our game ready for that."
The Winter Classic is a tremendous event for the city of St. Louis, and the anticipation around town appropriately captures the magnitude. For the Blues to go out and lay a similar egg against the rival Blackhawks, it would put a damper on the festivities more than a few thunderstorms ever could.
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