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Payne wants Blues to get back to defense

by Brian Hedger
DETROIT -- If the St. Louis Blues were writing their own season story, they'd probably be holding down the power button on the laptop right now, trying to reboot.

In their first 12 games, they set a franchise record for a season start by recording 20 points with an impressive 9-1-2 record. That included three shutouts in the first nine games by goalie Jaroslav Halak.

Then several key injuries happened, including the loss of center T.J. Oshie to a broken ankle that likely will keep him out for three months. Also going down with injuries were defensemen Barret Jackman and Roman Polak. Just like that, the stingy Blues (9-4-3) started coming apart at the seams.

They've gone 0-3-1 in their last four games and allowed 21 goals in regulation, including an 8-1 loss at Columbus on Nov. 10 -- the game Oshie went down. It's time to reboot, and what better time than St. Louis' first meeting with Central Division rival Detroit on Wednesday at Joe Louis Arena?

"I don't think the attention to detail on the defensive side of things has been the way it was prior to all these injuries," Blues coach Davis Payne said after Wednesday's morning practice. "We've got key guys out of the lineup. There's no hiding from that, but we've got to make sure that the formula stays the same and we get ourselves re-directed the (next) couple games."

In his estimation, the poor play can't just be lumped on any one area. It's the whole team that needs to step back, take a breath and get back to the kind of defensive-oriented hockey that led to St. Louis allowing just 17 goals in its first 12 games.

"Our goalies would admit that they weren't part of the solution, either, the past couple nights," Payne said, referring to Ty Conklin and Halak allowing four and six goals, respectively, in losses to Phoenix and Colorado. "We've just got to hit the reset button and get ourselves back to exactly the formula that we know, and that's five guys creating a 200-foot game. We played with a lot of pace and a lot of pressure because we knew where pucks were going at the right time. We've kind of strayed from that a little bit, and now we've just kind of got to get back in line and keep on marching."

Payne emphasized that message during a long practice Tuesday and expects his team to play a cleaner game against the red-hot Red Wings, who are 7-1-1 at home this season and are undefeated in their last three games.

The key for the Blues, as it was during their hot start, is to limit scoring chances and capitalize on their own opportunities.

"We can't rely on individual skill to get the job done," St. Louis defenseman Erik Johnson said. "We have to play a tighter defensive game. Our first eight games or so, we didn't give up very many goals or chances, and we've given up a lot of goals the last few games. We were winning games by not giving up a lot of chances early and scoring a couple of timely goals. Now we're giving up a lot of goals and that's certainly not going to help with the way we were not scoring a ton of goals in the first place."

Johnson frustrated -- One of the Blues who has been trying to do too much on his own this season is Johnson, who has just 1 goal and 4 points through 16 games.

He also has a minus-1 rating and has been forced to play against some top forward lines because of the injuries to Polak and Jackman. The struggle to provide offense while also remaining a top defender hasn't been an easy process to go through.

"It's just kind of the first time in my career where I've lacked offense and haven't been producing as much as I've liked,” said Johnson, now in his third season. "That's got to stop. I need to turn that around. I'm counted on to do that and help the team score some goals. It's been frustrating."

It's also been a learning experience.

"I've never really had this sort of slump, but you learn through adversity and you get better for it," Johnson said. "You can't force offense. You've got to be simple and it will come to you. But if it's not coming, I have to help out defensively and do my job."

Payne said Johnson isn't being asked to limit his offense because of the extra defensive responsibilities, but said he needs to pick his opportunities better.

"When you try to extend the play beyond what is available to you, it really compounds the problem," Payne said. "He's done a little bit of that just trying to force the issue. It's just like a baseball player getting up to bat -- he's got to get good pitches. He's got to recognize good pitches and take his swings accordingly."

Wings look to boost PP -- It's hard to find areas of concern right now for the Red Wings.

However, one area they'd like to improve is the power play, which isn't terrible at 17.9 percent (12-for-67), but also isn't at the level they want it. The Wings' power play is ranked 14th in the League and seventh in the Western Conference.

Detroit coach Mike Babcock said he might tinker with the first power-play unit Wednesday to get the results he's looking for.

"Our power play's got to be better. It's got to be dangerous. I'm not necessarily talking goals, I'm talking work ethic and commitment and net-front presence and retrievals and battle level and momentum in the game. If you get that, the goals will follow." -- Mike Babcock

"We need some production," he said after Wednesday's morning practice. "Our power play's got to be better. It's got to be dangerous. I'm not necessarily talking goals, I'm talking work ethic and commitment and net-front presence and retrievals and battle level and momentum in the game. If you get that, the goals will follow."

Ericsson deals with mom's illness -- Detroit defenseman Jonathan Ericsson missed the first eight games of the season with a bulging disc in his back, but it was news from home in Sweden that bothered him more.

His mother, Suzanne, was diagnosed with throat cancer and was hospitalized for chemotherapy treatments -- which have been completed successfully. Ericsson said the cancer is gone now, but he considered taking a leave of absence to be with her during the treatments. Instead he stayed in touch with her by phone daily while she was in the hospital.

"That was in the back of my mind," he said. "It doesn't take much to get you out of balance. She's better now. It never came to the stage where it was, like, life-threatening. I had my hockey here and I just tried to focus on that and get (her cancer) out of my mind as much as possible."
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