ST. LOUIS -- Once considered the centerpiece of a February 2011 blockbuster trade with Colorado, winger Chris Stewart will watch Game 2 of the St. Louis Blues' playoff series with the San Jose Sharks in the press box Saturday night.
It’s an eyebrow-raising move but one that’s been a long time coming.
Blues coach Ken Hitchcock announced three lineup changes Saturday morning, with forwards Matt D’Agostini and B.J. Crombeen and blueliner Carlo Colaiacovo checking back into the lineup, but the decision to scratch Stewart was by far the headline grabber.
"We need more from him,” said Hitchcock. "It’s certainly not just based on one hockey game. We just need more. From that position on our hockey club, that third-line role, we need more tenacity, more determination, more second and third effort on the puck -- we need all of that from that position."
Stewart, who had 28-goal seasons in 2009-10 and 2010-11, found out he wasn't playing when he walked into the dressing room Saturday morning.
"My number wasn't on the board," said Stewart. "My play wasn't good enough last game. We're fighting for our lives every day. I had the opportunity to step up and didn't get the job done. At the end of the day, it is what it is. This isn't the time of the year to pout or get down on yourself. We're a team, we've got to stick together and they're going to need me eventually in this series, and when I get the chance again, I'll be ready."
Stewart said the right things, but he was visibly upset. It’s the first time all season Hitchcock has scratched him. Not that the coach hasn’t had countless meetings with the winger to try to communicate his concerns.
While Stewart conceded that he considered it might be a possibility Friday after the Blues lost Game 1 and he was ineffective, it still hit him hard Saturday.
"I understand the game well, so I do get where he's coming from,” said Stewart. "I do hope I get a chance to get back in there and show him that I can play. Now, I'll just wait for the time."
Stewart has spent most of his young NHL career as a top-six forward, so clearly all of this is troubling for him.
"There's obviously more to give,” he said. "Also, you do need the opportunity. I didn't get the most ice time in the world last game, but it's up to me to earn it. I've got to go out there with the ice time I do get and show them that I deserve more. You look at our team and our depth, there's guys that demanded the ice time and I wasn't one of them. That's why I am where I am right now."
So, I asked Hitchcock on Saturday, what’s happened to the star-power winger the Blues thought they were getting 14 months ago in that trade with Colorado?
"Evolution of a career. I’m not sure,” said Hitchcock. "My experience with him is really over the last six months. He’s had an off year. That doesn’t mean he’s going to have an off career. But I think if you consider him to be a second-line player, then maybe you can afford to have patience, which I think we’ve had all year.
"But from that position right now today, we need more. We’re expecting Chris to come back in this series and give us more. But you just can’t keep talking about it. You have to do it. We have other people who are hungry and want to do it, so they’ll get the opportunity."
Stewart doesn’t want to sulk about it.
"It's a pretty bad feeling, but like I said, this is the time of year that it's no time to pout or be down on yourself," he said. "We're all professionals here, and we're all a team."
Scott Nichol’s new linemates on the fourth line are D’Agostini and Crombeen.
"This is a very heavy series and we need our fourth line to give us really good minutes," said Hitchcock. "I expect our fourth line, the way it’s structured right now with Crombeen in it, can play against anyone’s third line in our eyes."
I think this is a reaction to the way San Jose’s bottom six forwards played in Game 1, particularly the fourth line of Andrew Desjardins, Daniel Winnik and Tommy Wingels. The trio tied the game late for the Sharks and was effective all night long. Hitchcock wants to have third and fourth lines that can match up better.
That’s a compliment to San Jose’s bottom six group. Dominic Moore centers the so-called third line between Torrey Mitchell and T.J. Galiardi, but by the end of Game 1, it was hard to know whether it was Moore’s unit or Desjardins’ unit that was really eating up third-line minutes.
"I don’t know that you can put numbers on our third and fourth lines, which is a really good thing," Sharks coach Todd McLellan said Saturday morning. "I can’t remember when we last had that. And the competition between a Moore and a Desjardins line is very competitive, it’s very strong. We have to realize as coaches who should have a few more minutes than others and reward them for that. But we’ve had that going for a little while and the combinations for those lines is pretty good. They have a speed element and they have a bit of a grit element as well."
On defense for St. Louis, Colaiacovo takes Kent Huskins out of the lineup, back alongside star blueliner Alex Pietrangelo as he’s been most of the season. Winger Ryan Reaves was also scratched from Game 2.
"He wasn’t healthy at the end of the year, he’s healthy now,” Hitchcock said of Colaiacovo. "So just get back to the game that he can play. They’re good tandem. They play well together. He’s a good puck-mover. They move the puck with each other well. He’s good on transition, he’s a good outlet player, he passes it well. By getting healthy and getting rested, I think we’ll get a good player."
Overall, three lineup changes might be seen as a bit of an overreaction by some given that the Blues played fairly well in a double-overtime loss. But Hitchcock said it wasn’t good enough.
"When you lose in a hockey game, whether you’ve lost by one goal or whether you’ve lost in overtime or whatever, if you go into the next competition thinking that everything should be the same and expect a different outcome -- I think that’s a huge mistake," he said. "I don’t believe in that statement, just keep doing it over and over again and don’t change anything. I think we’re obligated to change."
No changes were expected in the Sharks' lineup.