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Blues need to return to work, structure in Game 3

St. Louis aims to recapture identity lost in first two games against San Jose

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / NHL.com Columnist

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- St. Louis Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said he has learned to go from "furious to curious."

He was furious Tuesday after a 4-0 loss to the San Jose Sharks in Game 2 of the Western Conference Final.

But by Wednesday morning he was curious. What happened? Why?

And most importantly, how can the Blues fix their problems entering Game 3 at SAP Center in San Jose on Thursday (9 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports)?

The best-of-7 series is tied 1-1.

Hitchcock woke up and read text messages with tips and observations from three of his coaching colleagues. He came to the Blues practice facility and broke down video with the players. He didn't call out anyone individually, but did not mince words. Let's just say he went from curious to serious.

"If you're worried about future relationships, you're in the wrong business at this time of year," Hitchcock said. "So direct coaching, eye-to-eye coaching, works. … It's helping them understand what took place so they get rid of the emotion, get into the tactics of it."

Video: SJS@STL, Gm2: Brouwer wrists one off the post

First, understand what the Blues are supposed to be: A hard, heavy, grinding, structured team. They want to put the puck deep in your zone, keep it there, go to the net and wear you down. Though they have high-end talents like forward Vladimir Tarasenko, they rely on depth and teamwork far more than individual skill. Hitchcock often says they have three second lines instead of a first line, second line and third line.

"Our game is work," Blues forward Kyle Brodziak said. "I don't think it's a secret we play physical and we play hard and we try to get pucks on net and create chances in front. It's really as simple as that. Move your feet. Shoot pucks. Be hard in the right areas. That's the Hitchcock style of hockey."

Said Blues defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, "[Hitchcock's] system is all team-based and we have to trust the structure. I think when we do that, and we have done that in this playoffs, it's worked."

The Blues style can be hard to play against, but it also can be hard to play. Two reasons: It's physically demanding and it requires five skaters to be in sync. If one part isn't working, the machine breaks down and it can look worse than it should.

Now, understand what took place in the first two games of the series and get into at least the basic tactics: The Blues were outplayed for much of Game 1 but won 2-1 largely because of goaltender Brian Elliott. They got worse in Game 2, spending too much time in their zone and too little in the San Jose zone, playing on their heels instead of their toes, letting the Sharks do to them what they wanted to do to the Sharks.

The Blues looked slower than the Sharks but not necessarily because they were slower than the Sharks.

"When you rely on your structure and your team discipline, when you look slow it's not based on your skating," Hitchcock said. "It's based on your spatial relationships with each other on the ice. When we look slow, it's our spatial relationships aren't in sync. Sometimes the opposition has stuff to do with that. But a lot of times it's on us.

"We look a lot faster than we are [when playing well] because of our ability to work together on the ice as a group of five. And when get out of sync just a little, then we do look really slow. We don't have the type of players who can go coast to coast with the puck, but we have a way of bringing it up the ice collectively, and together that makes us look quick. And when we do get spread out we don't look as fast."

The Blues cleared a major hurdle when they defeated the Chicago Blackhawks in the Western Conference First Round. Then they defeated the Dallas Stars in the second round and made the conference final for the first time since 2001, long before any of the current coaches or players were part of the organization. The Blackhawks and Stars are speedy teams. The Blues weren't slow then, were they? They won by playing the right way.

But they have slipped a bit since, and now they're facing the Sharks, who can grind like the Blues can, and that's all it takes.

Video: SJS@STL, Gm2: Jones blanks the Blues in Gm2 of WCF

"The way we have to play to win is demanding," Hitchcock said. "It's very successful and it's very demanding. Sometimes when you have success, you want to lower the demands. So when the demands get lowered, it doesn't take very long. At this time of year it usually takes a period before it starts to go the wrong way."

Hitchcock said he could make lineup changes for Game 3, but while those might make a difference, they probably won't make the difference. The Blues have to get back in sync, play as a five-man unit, exit the defensive zone quicker, support the puck better, grind in the offensive zone more. If they do that, they'll look faster and have a better chance to win.

"We need all five guys working together if we're going to be successful," Blues center Paul Stastny said. "There were too many times we got caught watching a little bit."

Said Blues forward Robby Fabbri, "We're at our best when we're playing Blues hockey and playing simple. And playing hard and playing fast is part of that."

If they don't do that, well, Hitchcock won't need to be curious, just furious.

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