ST. LOUIS - After a lackluster 4-1 loss on home ice to the Calgary Flames on Tuesday, Blues coach Ken Hitchcock finally expressed a concern that has been an underlying issue through the early stages of this season and for a good part of last.
When Hitchcock took over in 2011, one area the Blues began to excel at quickly was home ice dominance. Opponents dreaded coming to Scottrade Center in recent seasons, and in Hitchcock's first season, the Blues held the best home record in the league at 30-6-5, then were 28-9-4 after the strikeout-shortened season of 2013-14. Even in 2014-15, they were a very respectable 27-12-2.
But last season, the Blues slipped to 24-13-4, and the only reason they continued to be among one of the top teams and competed for the Central Division title is because of their second-best road record (25-11-5) in the Western Conference (behind San Jose) and third in the NHL (Washington).
The Blues are 2-1-0 through three home games, but the two wins haven't exactly been convincing (3-2 over the Minnesota Wild and New York Rangers) and after last night's loss, they're being outscored 8-7.
"To win at home, I don't want to say it's easier to win on the road, but it's easier to get your 'A' game on the road, to be honest with you, in the league," Hitchcock said. "I think a lot of it is the white noise. I think you've got to really eliminate the white noise. I think that when you get a condensed schedule like there is this year, having gone through this with an Olympic schedule, one of the things when you get back home is you get really busy. You get really busy away from the rink because you're playing catch-up all the time. I think you've got to eliminate that white noise and the things that go on in your life to try and maintain a focus that quite frankly is easy on the road because everybody's together. You're going from building to building together, you're going from a hotel to hotel together, but it changes at home. Everybody's on their own. I think getting that central focus is really important at home and finding a way to make sure that everybody stays in that framework is a challenge."
Winning consistently on home ice gives a team a swagger, and the Blues need to recapture it quickly.
"That's a good term for it," said goalie Jake Allen, who will be back in net tomorrow when the Blues host the Detroit Red Wings. "We talked about that this morning, having confidence in our own building, making it a rough place to play, tough place to be. If you're a visiting team, you're going to be in for a tough night and a long night coming into our rink. I think we need to get that back on the map that when Detroit comes in here, they're going to have a tough go from every aspect.
"We'll get it back. I'm not worried about it at all. We all love playing in this building. It's comfortable, it's a fun rink to play in. It's loud, it's bright and it's enjoyable. Just had a rough couple periods and I don't think we're too worried about it."
It started with the rough third against the Rangers, albeit the Blues were down three players for the entire 20 minutes because of injury. But nevertheless, it shouldn't have carried over to Tuesday.
"We used to be one of the best teams," defenseman Alex Pietrangelo said. "We were almost unbeatable at home a few years ago. We've got to find a way to reverse that trend, we've got to use that home ice advantage. You want to come home knowing you have a real good chance to win. Hasn't been that the last few years and I think we've just got to stick to our game plan, simplify and play the same simple game that we play on the road.
"I wouldn't say comfortable. Maybe we try and expose some matchups and sometimes we think it's going to come easier than it should. But that's no excuse. We've got to find a way to play the same way at home as on the road, which is using everybody in every situation and playing simple hockey."
With the red-hot Red Wings (winners of five in a row after an 0-2-0 start) and Los Angeles Kings coming to town Thursday and Saturday, respectively, it could make for a good start to the home schedule and set the Blues up moving forward.
"In your own rink in the NHL, you need to be consistently a winning team with a winning percentage especially," Allen said. "I think we just need to bring the game more at home. The last four periods at home haven't really been our best.
"We haven't had some of the juice we've had on the road. We need to jell together at home a little bit more. We've got two games at home this week and we're trying to focus in on the details. We started off on the right foot and we dropped off a little bit and we're trying to gain that step back."
Center Jori Lehtera was on the ice with teammates practicing for the first time since leaving the 3-2 win against the Rangers on Oct. 15 with concussion-like symptoms.
Lehtera — who has missed the past four games after getting a puck caught between his skates halfway through the second period before being checked by the Rangers' Jimmy Vesey — began skating on his own Monday and gradually worked his way up to where he could practice with teammates. He was wearing the powder blue practice jersey with Magnus Paajarvi and Ty Rattie and wasn't among the regular lines but could return as soon as Thursday against Detroit.
"I feel OK," Lehtera said. "It's been so boring (being out) more than one week. It feels like one month, but it's good to be back with the boys.
"I was skating yesterday with Ray (Barile, athletic trainer,) and it felt good today with the team. Hopefully I can play with the team tomorrow or Saturday.
"I think it's all about Hitch and me. I have to (clear) through the doctors, too. There's three people I have to ask."
Hitchcock said more details will be known Thursday morning.
"I think it's all that protocol stuff that goes on," Hitchcock said. "I think he's into that. We'll get the word first thing in the morning though. He looked really good though.
"... He looked really good, so this is full participation. We're just awaiting the word on what's next on the agenda, whether he's a player or whatever. We'll know that probably tomorrow morning for sure."
As for where Lehtera will fit, Hitchcock wasn't certain.
"I don't know. We were talking about that," Hitchcock said. "(Jaden) Schwartz has played great at center and he's really enjoyed playing center and he's been really effective for us. 'Lehts' has played a lot of left wing, he's played a lot of international left wing. He's very good there, too. It's a nice option to have to be honest with you."
Paajarvi could rejoin lineup
Paajarvi has been a healthy scratch the past three games and four of seven this season, but it wouldn't be a shock to see him back in the lineup against the Red Wings in place of Dmitrij Jaskin.
"The other guy that's starting to jump up is Paajarvi," Hitchcock said. "Paajarvi's really starting to get confidence and skating well. This is three practices in a row that he's really been one of the best players at practice. I think there's got to be some consideration there, too."
Paajarvi has one goal in three games, a game-winner against the Wild on Oct. 13.
After former Blues Brian Elliott and Troy Brouwer along with hometown boy Matthew Tkachuk breezed through town Tuesday for the Flames, Steve Ott gets his welcome home Thursday with the Red Wings.
Ott, who played the past two-plus seasons in St. Louis after being acquired along with goalie Ryan Miller from the Buffalo Sabres days before the NHL Trade Deadline in the 2013-14 season, signed a one-year, $800,000 contract with the Red Wings as an unrestricted free agent this past summer.
So it'll be another challenge of facing a former teammate and friend for the first time.
"It's the name of the game," Hitchcock said. "You've got friends on every team. You've just got to have more friends on your own team. That's the name of the game. We talked about that. It's a tough business. You've got close friends that you went to war with and battled with and really fought for each other and then all of the sudden, they're in another sweater and you've got to figure out which one's more important to you and it's a tough business to do that in. First time through it, it's tough. Next time, you move forward. First time through's tough and we've got another one tomorrow."
Gearing up for the Winter Classic
A representative from the NHL was in St. Louis on Wednesday to prep players and coaches for the behind-the-scenes documentary leading up to the Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic between the Blues and Chicago Blackhawks, which will be played at Busch Stadium on Jan. 2.
More information will become available at a later time regarding network and when taping will begin, but it will be an all-access account of practices and games leading up to the game.
"I'm going to ask what the fine is first and then figure it out from there," Hitchcock joked. "I'll be good; you might even find out I'm funny. You never know. Might be a real shock for you.
"I might swear less, but that is an 'if' too. I'm not sure about that even, but no, I'm not going to change."