After what was the team’s most embarrassing loss of the 2014-15 season, a 5-0 defeat at the hands of the Colorado Avalanche, the St. Louis Blues entered the holiday break with an 0-2-1 record in its last three contests. The road trip was over, thankfully, and the Blues players could return to their homes to celebrate the Christmas holiday with family before beginning a two-game homestand on Saturday. First, the team would battle the Dallas Stars, who were in last place of the Central Division, before receiving a rematch against the Avalanche on Monday.
The Blues entered the contest with Dallas as the Western Conference’s fourth-best home team, posting an impressive 12-3-1 mark through the holiday break. A disastrous road trip (which saw the Blues cough up the lead on three separate occasions), a solid home record and a few days to recharge the batteries seemed to add up to a top NHL team refinding its form and coming out strong to drive into the new calendar year.
This was not the case Saturday night at Scottrade Center.
Just over two minutes into the opening period, Stars forward Travis Moen received a late Christmas present from Blues goaltender Jake Allen, as the puck rolled off the netminder’s stick behind the net and allowed Moen a clear shot of the net.
Although the woes struck early, the Blues battled back and, thanks to goals from Alex Pietrangelo and Vladimir Tarasenko, ended the first period in a 2-2 tie with their Division rivals. The second period would be a different story.
At 6:06, Tarasenko hauled down Alex Goligoski with a hook and the Stars entered their first power play of the game. With just 25 seconds remaining in Tarasenko’s penalty, Stars defenseman Trevor Daley danced through the slot and fired a wrist shot past a diving Pietrangelo and a sprawled Allen to give his team a 3-2 lead.
Tarasenko’s penalty began a parade to the penalty box, as the Blues received the next three penalties. It wasn’t until a too-many-men-on-the-ice penalty was called against the St. Louis bench at 17:28 that Dallas capitalized again. Defenseman Jason Demers snuck in under the Blues’ radar to one-time the puck past Allen for a 4-2 Stars lead with just 48 seconds remaining in the middle stanza.
Head coach Ken Hitchcock credited the team’s lackluster second period to a string of ill-advised penalties.
“I think the biggest change in that is that (the penalties) aren’t spread out,” he said. “They’re four in a row, five in a row (or) three in a row. That ends up tiring out people or keeps people out of the game who should be in the game. We’re not getting the job done.”
The Blues received a third period surge of offense with David Backes scoring early, but still fell to the Stars, 4-3.
The second period has been a problem for the Blues all season, as they have been outscored by opponents, 31-29. However, the penalty trouble seems to be a recent trend that is plaguing the roster.
The Blues have been forced to kill six power plays just five times in 35 games this season; four of those have come in the past six games.
Penalties can often be the product of a player taking a good penalty. This can be hooking a guy’s hands when a perfect pass hits his stick in the slot or tripping a speedster who worked his way to a breakaway chance. However, the Blues’ coach feels that the penalty troubles have mostly been due to his players taking their collective foot off the gas pedal.
“It’s not moving your feet to check,” said Hitchcock. “That’s usually when you get a stick foul. (The Stars) took penalties too, today; same types of penalties. When you don’t move your feet to check, you end up reaching. That’s what we’ve done. We’ve taken a lot of reaching penalties in the last two games.”
When a top team does find itself taking too many penalties, they can often take solace in the fact that the above-average penalty kill will bail them out. The Blues, who boasted an NHL second-best 85.7 kill percentage last season, has killed off just 77.5 percent of opposing power plays this season, which ranks 25th in the NHL. Since the team’s 6-4 loss to the Los Angeles Kings on the road four games ago, they have killed just 11 of 19 opportunities (57.9 percent).
“We’re taking a lot of penalties right now – penalties that don’t need to be taken,” Pietrangelo said. “Those penalties that are being taken, we’ve got to find a way to start killing (them). It’s losing games for us when, usually, it’s winning games for us.”
Penalties can kill momentum for teams. Once it is killed, though, usually the club that didn’t allow a goal moves to the offensive and gains opportunities to rectify the previous situation. Clumps of penalties don’t allow clubs to reclaim any lost momentum.
“Once you get a couple of good shifts and then you take three or four penalties in a row, guys get cold, guys sit,” said Allen, who received his fifth loss of the season. “It’s a tough thing to do. They have a hot power play and they made the most of their chances. We can’t be taking four or five penalties in one period. That’s too many penalties to kill and that’s probably enough for one game.”
The three-day holiday break didn’t seem to lift the Blues out of the recent funk. A rough return to the home arena with little time to dwell on it will, hopefully, be what this team needed to regain it’s cream-of-the-crop form.