The Blues’ reunion with goaltender Ryan Miller turned into just a bad night all around.
Miller, once expected to be the Blues’ savior and now playing for Vancouver, played the kind of game that’s made him one of the best goalies in the league, and the Blues made him look even better with a night that sent them and coach Ken Hitchcock into some extensive early season introspection. In a loss that Hitchcock termed “a wakeup call,” the Blues lost 4-1 to Vancouver on Thursday night at Scottrade Center. With a game against Chicago coming up on Saturday, this is one they’ll need to unpack in a hurry.
Though credited with only four giveaways, the Blues had a tough time on the puck and gave Vancouver some prime scoring chances that were tough to miss. (Hitchcock guessed that his team turned the puck over about 20 times between the blue lines.) Blues goalie Jake Allen faced only 23 shots, but most of them were good ones and a lot of them were at the end of odd-man rushes. That the final score was only 4-1 was a credit to how well Allen played. The Blues, meanwhile, continue to struggle offensively in five-on-five situations. In six games, they have six goals at even strength.
“We’re not playing the right way,” Hitchcock said. “We made a heck of a run here playing the right way, no odd-man rushes, don’t force offense, don’t give the puck away and make hope-for plays offensively. We’ve had a shoot-first mentality that allowed us to be top five in the league in scoring goals. But we don’t want to play the right way. We want to play a different game right now. Until we buy into that, we’re going to have some rough water we have to go through.
“When you force offense and you play careless with the puck, when you have defensemen who want to play ahead of the forwards, you end up with a recipe for disaster. … We’ve given up more odd-man rushes in six hockey games than we did in two months last year. You can’t win like that. The alarm bell’s going off.”
The players are certainly hearing it.
“We got a power-play goal that made it 1-1 and had some momentum but we were still making some mistakes that are very uncharacteristic of our team,” defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk said. “It’s not good right now. It’s not good enough. Puck movement, puck support, communication, we have to really harp on these things tomorrow in practice and get it ready for Saturday because we’re facing an even scarier opponent (Chicago) on Saturday. We won’t be as fortunate to be coming out of the first period down 1-0 against the Blackhawks if we play that way.”
“There’s no panic but it’s nothing we’re even close to being pleased with,” center David Backes said. “We’re under .500 now, but we’re a team that has high expectations. We’re a team that’s brought in some personnel that we expect to be better than last year. I think maybe we’re focused too much on the skill element that we think we all of a sudden have.”
The game produced some seldom-seen numbers. Vancouver had just four shots on goal in the third period, and scored on three of them. The Blues took 67 shots; 31 were stopped by Miller, 23 were blocked by Vancouver’s defense and 12 were wide.
The troubles began early. In the first minute, Alex Pietrangelo lost the puck near center ice along the boards, and Alexandre Burrows bore in on Allen. He made the save, but the rebound came off to Chris Higgins on the opposite side and he easily put it in for a goal just 41 seconds into the game. It was the quickest goal the Blues have allowed this season and once again put them in catchup mode.
“We’re letting things snowball,” defenseman Jay Bouwmeester said. “When something bad happens early, we don’t correct it right away. It kind of snowballs. We haven’t done a good job of regrouping. Tonight was a frustrating night. We didn’t give ourselves a chance.”
Indeed, the Blues responded by trying to do more, which was not what was called for. The Blues tied the game on a power-play goal by Shattenkirk and the game was tied in the third period. Then Miller turned it around. He stopped a shot by Jori Lehtera at close range on a two-on-one with Vladimir Tarasenko and the Canucks took the puck to the other end of the ice with Nick Bonino scoring on a two-on-one, beating Allen to the short side 4:54 into the period. Just like that, the game had changed.
“To give up a two-on-one from that distance,” Hitchcock said, “it’s not us.”
“I just kept my weight on the right a little bit longer and luckily (Lehtera) didn’t get it up high enough,” Miller said. “I got my pad on it.”
“Things didn’t work out here,” Shattenkirk said. “He’s still Ryan Miller. He’s still one of the great goalies in this league. He’s a hard guy to beat.”
Vancouver then got a power play goal by Linden Vey and after Hitchcock pulled Allen with 3:32 to play in an effort to tie the game, Vancouver clinched it with an empty-net goal.
And while Miller didn’t have much to celebrate in his time in St. Louis, he could after this game.
“It was interesting,” he said. “I’ve never done that before. I’ve never had a chance to play against a former team like that. … A lot of good guys on the team. It was one that I was actually looking forward to, especially here in St. Louis. It was fun.”
Not for the Blues.