Saturday, February 27, 2010

Battle lines drawn for USA-Canada

Blues will work out in morning, support respective
native countries in afternoon for gold medal game

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- Davis Payne could only quip when a reporter asked him who he's picking in the rematch between the United States and Canada.

First, the Kamloops, British Columbia native laughed it off, then replied, "Far too easy of an answer to even ask the question."

As the Blues return after a day off Saturday in preparation for Tuesday's game in Phoenix, the battle lines between American/Canadian players and coaches have been drawn.

They will be united on the ice at St. Louis Mills this morning, then become opponents as the USA and Canada battle for Olympic gold today at 2:15 p.m. (local time).

"I haven't gotten my dual citizenship yet," Payne joked.

If the rematch is anywhere near last Sunday's 5-3 USA victory over Canada in the preliminary round, it will be quite the treat as the Vancouver Games come to conclusion on this day.

Team USA was a heavy underdog in the preliminary matchup, but despite being outshot 45-23 in the game, the Americans made the best of their opportunities against Marty Brodeur -- who will not play today, as Vancouver Canucks' Roberto Luongo will get the start -- but USA's Ryan Miller was spectacular.

"There's definitely some unbelievable hockey," said Blues goalie Chris Mason, a Red Deer, Alberta native who was on Canada's reserve list.

"That's what happens in these tournaments. You have to give teams credit in these tournaments. ... The US team is playing unbelievable right now. Their goalie (Miller) is hot. That's the way it goes. It's good to watch. It's no fun if you know who's going to win all the time and that's obviously not been the case."

The majority of the Blues' locker room is Canadian-dominated, but they've given credit where credit is due.

"It was exciting," defenseman Barret Jackman said. "The US came out ... I think after the first five minutes when Miller made some big saves, I thought the US team for the most part was a little bit more patient than the Canadians. In the end, they just kind of buried their chances when they had them.

"You have the speed of a playoff game, and then you get the skill of an all-star game. With that combination and with the hits and hard work, it makes for the best hockey in the world right now."

Even the guy running their hockey operations -- Blues President John Davidson -- comes from Ottawa, Ontario. But Davidson said the first matchup and subsequent rematch are good for the game.

"It was like two all-star teams playing a game for keeps," Davidson said of last week's game. "It's not like an all-star game where it's kind of a reward for having a good year and you put an exhibition on. This was an all-star game playing for keeps. And they played hard. ... For people that had a chance to watch it ... for me at least, it was great for the sport."

Davidson also likes the exposure two of his own (USA's David Backes and Erik Johnson) are getting. Even the Czech Republic's Roman Polak, who is expected back on the ice today, earned high grades from Davidson.

"I've loved it. I love the experience all of them are getting," he said. "It's been real good. I don't think from our point of view with the three guys, it's been a disappointment at all. It's been really quite remarkable for young players to get the quality time and experience they're getting.

"Their resumes have an important paragraph that's been now added to it."

Today's game is a gold medal rematch of the 2002 Olympic Games that were played in Salt Lake City, one the Canadians won 5-2.

"The US and Canadians have had such great games," Jackman said. "You look at the World Cup about eight years ago, you look at the Olympics in 2002 ... it could go either way. The Canadians probably have a more high-profiled team, but the Americans still have a lot of skill on their team."

Which should make for a terrific ending today.

"I hope Canada and the US meet up in the finals," Davidson said before Friday's semifinal games. "That'd be great to see for the gold."

No doubt about it.


Tkachuk out after finger surgery; Oshie sports new look

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- When Keith Tkachuk took another puck high near the facial area recently, this time, he used protection.

However, his protection needed fixing on Friday.

Tkachuk, who will be 38 next month, had successful surgery to repair his left pinkie finger on Friday at Barnes-Jewish Hospital that will sideline the Blues' forward for 10 days.

Tkachuk originally suffered the injury in the Blues' win on Feb. 9 against Detroit, when he used his hand to fend off a shot while parked in front of the Detroit bench.

He would miss the next two games leading into the Olympic break.

Tkachuk returned to practice Wednesday and did not appear to show any ill-effects of the injury.

"No way would I have been able to play over the break," Tkachuk said Wednesday. "It was well-needed and hopefully it keeps getting better and better."

Tkachuk and the Blues decided at the time they'd try not to go with surgery, but on Thursday, he left the ice midway through the practice after dislocating the finger again and surgery was the best recourse.

- - -

Who is that?: Ladies and girls of all ages, prepare to have your hearts broken if you were in love with T.J. Oshie's hair.

Why? Because on Thursday, it was there. Friday, gone with the wind.

Oshie took the ice for Friday's practice at St. Louis Mills and the usually-visual locks he sports were cut down and gone.

"I felt like I was aging a little bit, felt like I was getting gray hairs so I figured cut it off and try something new," Oshie joked afterwards. "I had to take them off. It got to be too much. I figured I'd start fresh, start new for the break here. Just something new."

It didn't go unnoticed in the team locker room afterwards, as Oshie was the on the tail end of teammates making fun of the 23-year-old.

Cam Janssen was the most relentless.

"He looks like a girl I used to date in elementary school in 1992," Janssen said, getting a kick out of a handful of teammates. "Looks like a bunch of spiders having a meeting on his head."

Soft-spoken Mike Weaver also chimed in, "He looks cute with his perm on top."

Time will tell if Oshie, a fan favorite with the female population of Blues fans, will go back to what got him his popularity.

"It was something different and I wanted to try it," Oshie said.

- - -

Olympians back in the fold: With Roman Polak (Czech Republic) on his way back to the Blues after his native country bowed out of the Winter Olympics, the Blues still have a contingency of two remaining in the quest for gold.

David Backes and Erik Johnson will represent the United States as it goes up against favorite Canada Sunday at 2:15 p.m. local time (on NBC) in the gold medal game.

But once the competition is over with in Vancouver, it's time to get back to work with the Blues, and coach Davis Payne will expect the duo to pick up where they left off.

"We expect them to pick right back up," Payne said. "Obviously, they've been playing high-level hockey and the intense pressure that comes with that both physically and mentally. We've got to make sure when they come back, they're checked back in quickly because of how important they are to our team, especially Tuesday. ... We'll see where they are mentally, physically and adjust that accordingly."

- - -

Season ticket prices on the rise: The Blues announced Friday they will be raising season ticket prices for the 2010-2011 season by an average of 4 percent.

The Blues informed season ticket holders via renewal notices that an average 4 percent price increase from current season ticket pricing is in store for the 2010-11 season. The 2010-11 season ticket pricing plan also includes a reduction in price of over 1,100 plaza level seats. Overall, the Blues will continue to provide their fans pricing that is among the five most affordable teams in the NHL.

All full- and half-season ticket holders who renew by April 1, 2010, will receive the “Pay As We Play” payment option for the 2009-10 Stanley Cup Playoffs, as well as a one-of-a-kind Brett Hull Replica Statue. In addition, season ticket holders in the club seats will experience a number of new and improved menu items in 2010-2011 while those in the glass seats will have exclusive access to the new Blue Note Lounge North area at Sections 114/115.

The Blues also plan to maintain the club’s tradition of offering full season ticket holders a host of memorable opportunities such as its town hall meeting at FanFest, postgame skate parties, and this year’s first-ever Season ticket holder winter carnival.

“Since 2006, our ownership and management group has vowed to offer St. Louis the best hockey experience possible, on the ice and in the community,” Blues CEO Peter McLoughlin said in a statement. “Part of that pledge is providing our season ticket holders an entertaining and successful team at a very fair price. We thank all fans, and especially season ticket holders, for their support and look forward to strengthening our bond with them as we pursue a Stanley Cup together.”

Colaiacovo wants to remain a Blue

Defenseman has been subject of trade rumors,
can become unrestricted free agent

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- If Carlo Colaiacovo had his way, he'll be a St. Louis Blue for a while longer.

The Blues' defenseman, whose name has been the subject of trade rumors leading into the March 3 trade deadline along with a few of his teammates, can become an unrestricted free agent on July 1.

Colaiacovo's $1.4 million salary makes him an obvious and inexpensive target for teams to inquire about. Plus, he's become a steady defenseman since the Blues acquired him a season ago from Toronto.

But Colaiacovo, 27, likes what he sees with his current teammates and wants to make it a repeat performance of a season ago as the Blues charged into the postseason.

He feels like history can duplicate itself.

"I'm really happy where I am. I really enjoy playing here," Colaiacovo said. "I'm happy playing for this organization. This organization's done a lot for me. It's really put a smile on my face to be here. ... That's all I focus on. I focus on coming to the rink every day, putting a smile on my face, enjoy my surroundings and playing in front of a great fan base and friends and playing on a great team. Other than that, I don't worry about it. Let's just hope nothing happens and we do something that makes our team better. And sometimes making your team better is doing nothing at all."

Colaiacovo has a teammate that would like not only he to stay but everyone.

"I'd definitely rather keep this group in tact," forward T.J. Oshie said. "We're close, a lot of guys in this locker room know what it takes to fight back. The chemistry between teammates is overlooked sometimes, but you fight a lot more if the guy next to you is one of your good buddies."

Colaiacovo, who has four goals and 14 assists in 48 games this season, is immune to the talk but says it's something every athlete deals with.

"It's the business of the game," he said. "You're a player on the team, not the GM so you don't make those decisions.

"When you're around this game for this long, you realize that a lot of people talk. Nothing happens until basically the final decision's made."

Colaiacovo certainly hopes to be with the Blues when they play in Dallas Thursday. That means the trade deadline has come and gone and then he can focus on two things. 1) helping the Blues make it to the postseason, and 2) entertain the idea of contract talks beyond this season.

"I don't want to look past anywhere but being here," Colaiacovo said. "I don't make those decisions. I just got to worry about my play on the ice and just be a professional when I'm here and let those decisions take care of themselves."

Blues doing hard time

Team continues to prepare vigorously for return against Phoenix

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- While the Ice Hockey competition at the Winter Olympic games is boiling down to a climax, the Blues are just beginning to heat up.

Three days into heavy, intense workouts in preparation for the season's final 20 games saw the Blues perform many season-opening tasks.

As in training camp tasks, which means a lot of cardio work, lots of start-and-stop skating and above all, contact drills.

Yes, play time is over. It's time to get refocused on the task at hand -- getting back into the playoffs.

"It was very high-tempo," Blues coach Davis Payne said. "We covered things with very good intensity and very good pace to it. Obviously we finished with a little bit of a skate there. To me at this time of the year with the break we've had, it's about getting ourselves sharp and getting ourselves back into the pace and the intensity that we're going to need next Tuesday."

If players thought the first day was tough and things would get easier, they need to rethink that process.

"You look at the schedule through the year, have we had this many days of practice in a row," Blues defenseman Carlo Colaiacovo said. "It's really tough to go back and look at it, but it's sort of got that feeling (of training camp), especially Day 1 when you don't skate for almost 10 days and you come back and you're feeling the burn, feeling your lungs. You get better with each skate and it's been good progress."

The Blues (28-25-9), who are four points in back of eighth-place Calgary in the Western Conference, will certainly be tested in the first third of the last leg of the season.

Six straight on the road will see the Blues embark on visits to Phoenix, Dallas and Colorado, then come home for four days before hitting the road again for visits to the New York Islanders, Columbus and Minnesota.

"I don't think we're even looking that far ahead," forward T.J. Oshie said. "I think we have to look at the next two practices before we leave, focus on getting back in shape, getting into game shape.
"It's tough without playing games. There's only one way to tell, and that's when you get into the game next Tuesday."

Which is why the Blues can only look to the Coyotes, who they are 1-1-1 against but haven't faced since Nov. 19.

"People look at it like it's a six-game road trip. We come home in between, but we've got to start Tuesday in Phoenix," Payne said. "You can throw any cliche you want at it ... one game, that's where we start. We know how important every two-point situation is and we've got to be ready for it."

So as he looks back on what the past three days have meant, Payne said it's all been about focus and touching up certain parts of the game.

"We tried to use this week to sharpen up some of the areas that we've been talking about but also expand and improve some of the areas we feel we can make those adjustments in," he said. "... We've covered the ground we've felt we needed to and will continue to do that Sunday and Monday.
"We've added some things, we've made sure we've addressed some things we feel we can better at. That's what it's going to take. We can't just sit back with what we've finished going into the break with. We've got to make sure we're coming out of this break with a better understanding of things we're trying to do but also expanding on some of the areas we know we can get better in."

Such as?

"There's lots of timing issues and conditioning issues, although we feel these guys have kept themselves in pretty good shape," Payne said. "It's still skating, it's still game-conditioning, it's still competing-conditioning that's different. You don't find that (after being) 10 days off.

"We're trying to reacquire a lot of things. Part of that is our skills and our feel for the puck and plays we're able to be making. Part of that is our conditioning. We'll lean on each other and make sure we feel some of that body contact conditioning. We also want to make sure we expand some of the areas we feel we can. We feel we can make some improvements. We don't want to tinker too much. We feel we've played some pretty good hockey heading into the break. We want to make sure we come out of the break playing that good hockey but also add a few dimensions and clean a few things up."

Friday, February 26, 2010

Flight pattern for trades on hold for Blues

Team is in no hurry to cast off assets
as it sits four points out of playoffs

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- Sitting four points out of a playoff spot and teetering on the cusp of another season-ending run, the Blues have many questions to answer heading into the home stretch of the season.

To trade or not to trade?

That is the question.

And the answer is it appears the Blues will go down to the wire and run the gauntlet of whether to be buyers or sellers at this year's trade deadline, which will cut off on March 3 at 2 p.m. (central time).

The Blues have many commodities teams would covet that are firmly entrenched in playoff positions.

There are pending unrestricted free agents (Keith Tkachuk, Paul Kariya and Carlo Colaiacovo to name a few) as well as players teams would be interested in whose salaries fit their budgets.

But as the Blues (28-25-9) reconvened for the final 20 games of the regular season this week at the U.S. Ice Zone, players and coaches have one common ground: standing pat and getting the job done with the cast they already have.

"Of course," Blues captain Eric Brewer said Thursday. "I think we've played a lot better the last little while and it seems like we've got some pairings and some lines that are working. You always want to get better, but sometimes changing things isn't necessarily the answer. It's finding it within and being able to play well for a longer period of time."

Teammate Barret Jackman concurs.

"Keep every guy in this room and go for the playoffs," he said. "I think everybody in this room has the confidence that we can do some good things in the last 20 games and make a push for the playoffs and go a (long) way in the playoffs when we get there."

It all boils down to Blues President John Davidson and the rest of the team management. Which way do they want to go?

It's safe to say that the three-game winning streak the Blues have carried over from the Olympic break is definitely weighing on the minds of management.

"I really like the way we've been progressing as a team," Davidson said. "The big picture is you've got to get points, and we've started to do that. The big picture is we're winning at home. There was a real good week prior to the (Olympic) break. The big picture is the power play has gotten better. ... When you pinpoint it all, a lot of it has to do with the younger players ... if you look at a book, there's a page over here that are freshmen, the page is going like this (moving forward) where it's starting to turn, so you get this sense that these freshmen -- who were freshmen last year -- are now getting to become more the sophomore and junior type of players. It's helping us become a better team.

"We know as an organization we have to develop our players. A lot of them are developing in front of our eyes right here, and we're seeing them get better. You can see it starting to make our team better by winning games."

And winning games has Davidson appreciating not only the dedication the team is putting forth but also the desire to remain in tact.

"I appreciate that," he said. "I think from an organizational standpoint, when you get towards the trade deadline, it's what professional hockey is. You look at every aspect of it and you try and do what's right for your organization. That's the way we'll look at it going into it this time."

Despite an Olympic freeze in order through Sunday, teams still had the luxury of talking and setting up deals during the time off.

Surprisingly, Davidson says things have been pretty low-keyed.

"I get a sense that it's pretty quiet right now because with everybody going away (for the Olympic break), everybody now filtering back to their teams, starting to practice again, everybody reassessing their injury situation, every aspect of your organization ... it'll all start to come to fruition the next few days," Davidson said. "It's a little but early yet to be frank. There haven't been many phone calls in the last week or so. It's pretty quiet."

And have the Blues been quiet?

"We've all taken a little time off together to gather our thoughts," Davidson said. "We've had a lot of discussions and we'll continue it. ... You don't know where it's going to go. What you have to be prepared for could be, what might happen, what might not happen. Somebody might phone up and it could be something that might knock your socks off, so you have to look at it. It could be something that is smart for us to look at for any direction of your franchise."

The Blues embark on a six-game trip that begins Tuesday in Phoenix. Judging by the three previous wins -- all at home -- over Detroit, Toronto and Washington, it's safe to say the team is feeling a sense of deja vu.

They can only hope to make life more difficult on management in regards to selling off pieces to the puzzle.

"I've got good memories of our last three outings," Blues coach Davis Payne said. "The outing prior to that was obviously the Colorado game (a 5-2 loss in Denver) and then you look at the three previous games prior to that -- the two Chicago games and the one San Jose game -- of the seven games, I think we can safely say we liked six performances. The Colorado one was one we needed to respond from, but of those six performances, we got four wins against some good hockey clubs. We feel that you take that momentum, that style of play and with this group, we like where we're at for sure."

If the Blues become buyers, it may tinker with the ever-rising chemistry that is obviously developing.

"If (a trade) fits, but I really like the team we have," Jackman said. "I don't see any problems. I think we have some high-end talent, I think we have some young guys that really work hard. We have the grit, we have some D-men that are playing well and our goaltending is a solid 1-2 punch. I'm the one that sits in the dressing room and gets to go on the ice and play. I really enjoy playing with these guys and I think we have the team to make the run."

One thing is for certain, teams better not inquire about the Blues' young brass, because Davidson is making it clear that he'll have none of it.

"We're trying to win a Stanley Cup here, and it's a process," Davidson said. "And we're in the middle of it."

Thursday, February 25, 2010

NHL issues Janssen five-game suspension

Hit on Washington's Bradley to cost
Blues enforcer $14,000-plus in salary

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- Cam Janssen's Olympic break will have an extension attached to the end of it.

The Blues' enforcer received word Thursday afternoon that the NHL has suspended Janssen five games for a hit delivered early in the first period of the Blues' 4-3 shootout win on Feb. 13 to Washington Capitals' Matt Bradley.

Janssen was assessed a five-minute major penalty for the hit, which occurred along the left boards near the corner of the Blues' zone.

A link to the play is listed here:

The decision, handed down by NHL vice president Colin Campbell, was postponed until Thursday because of the Winter Olympic break.

"I was surprised by the five," Janssen said. "We had a great hearing and everybody said what they had to say and they still gave me five games. It is what it is and I'm going to have to accept it. I respect Colin Campbell's decision and what he says, but it's not going to change my style whatsoever."

Blues President John Davidson said Thursday morning at St. Louis Mills prior to the decision being handed down that he expected some sort of punishment.

"I think Cam's gonna have an extended vacation," Davidson said. "... I respect what Cam does for a living. He plays hard, (but) he did hit the other player late; we have to admit that. So the league has to take care of it. Cam's an up-front guy, he's a stand-up guy. He battles for his teammates and we'll take whatever the league gives us and move forward."

Janssen will miss the first five games of the Blues' upcoming trip, which means he will miss games at Phoenix, Dallas, Colorado, N.Y. Islanders and Columbus. Janssen is eligible to return March 14 at Minnesota.

"The style that I play, I respect my opponent, but I have to have a physical edge," Janssen said. "I hit with force and sometimes that happens. I don't want to see anyone get hurt, but you have to be intimidating.

"... I wasn't mad at Matt Bradley. It wasn't personal. He had his head down and I was doing my job."

Janssen will forfeit $14,428 based on his annual salary and the money will go to Players' Emergency Assistance Fund, based on the terms of the NHL's Collective Bargaining Agreement.

Janssen was issued five games because he's a repeat offender.

"When you watch it in regular speed, you can see he had no idea I was coming," Janssen said. "But it shows in slow motion that it was a little late. I was committed to the hit, though, and I drove through him as hard as I could. But hey, they've got to do what they've got to do."

Blues return to ice after Olympic layoff

Team hopes to pick up where it left off
following three-game winning streak

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- The heavy breathing bellowing from St. Louis Mills did not come from those eager to join Jenny Craig, nor did they come from anyone looking to work on their New Year's resolution with Weight Watchers.

The huffing and puffing came from the Ice Zone, where Blues players hit the ice after an 11-day hiatus because of the Winter Olympic break.

NHL players were allowed to return to the ice on Wednesday, and the Blues were no exception.

The last time the Blues were engaging and taking part in a hard, rigorous battle was on Feb. 13, when they were putting the finishing touches on a 4-3 shootout victory over the Washington Capitals, who are the best team -- points-wise. It also capped off a scintillating three-game winning streak that has the Blues (28-25-9) four points in back of eighth place in the Western Conference.

But that was 12 days ago, and after twp groups of players took the ice Wednesday, it was like taking the ice for the first day of training camp.

Players were keeled over, winded, gassed, trying to catch their collective breath at any opportunity they could get.

"It's definitely a training camp feel," defenseman Barret Jackman said.

Veteran Keith Tkachuk, who was nursing an upper-body injury (believed to be a finger/hand) concurred afterwards when asked how he felt.

"Like it would after you took 12 days off, 14 days off or whatever it was, but it's good to get that one out of the way," the grizzled and bearded Tkachuk said. "They (the coaches) went at us pretty hard. It's typical. After you take a break, we're a little bit rusty."

"It was tough," goalie Chris Mason said. "It's funny how it's only seven or eight days and your wind ... I'm sure it will feel a lot better tomorrow, but it was a pretty tough practice today."

For the 20 skaters at practice today -- minus Olympians David Backes and Erik Johnson (USA) and Roman Polak (Czech Republic) -- it was all about ascending back to the form that has the Blues on the cusp of reaching the postseason once again.

The final 20 games begin on Tuesday when the Blues embark on a six-game trip, opening in Phoenix.

"We know what we're up against," Tkachuk said. "There's a bunch of teams in front of us. It's going to be a grind, but emotionally and physically, we'll be ready. You've got to find a way to get that first win over Phoenix on the road and build from there. There's no taking a break for a game or two. We have to win hockey games and we know that we can go out and keep this thing going like we did before the break."

Most of the players used the 11-day layoff to get away from the rink and allow the body to heal both mentally and physically that the grind of the schedule this season has placed on them.

They've seemed to come back refreshed and reenergized despite the rigorous workouts coach Davis Payne and the rest placed on them immediately upon their return.

"It was nice to get away, get away from the rink for a little while," forward T.J. Oshie said. "... We left the break with guys feeling good, we got a little bit of a win streak going, so we just have to pick up where we left off when we come back.

"If anyone watched that practice today knows we're right back at it, we're going harder than we were before the break to get back in shape and do it quickly so we can get back to work on what we need to work on."

"It's definitely refreshing," Jackman said. "As you can see on the ice, everybody is ready to work and we have five more days of prep before 20 games left."

It was drills galore for practice Wednesday, with players obviously getting in their sprints, speed skating, starts and stops among other timing drills. Shots were a priority as well, with a heavy emphasis on precision shooting.

"I think for the players, they were trying to get in some skill work, some starts and stops and work on changing the angle of pucks," Mason said. "For a goalie, it was getting a lot of shots, get your wind back and try to stay in as good a shape and stay as disciplined as you can.

"Today is a tough day to judge. ... I know my body feels a lot better than it did at the end (of the pre-Olympic schedule)."

So how do the Blues regain the mental edge and sharpness to their game that encompassed them in wins over Detroit, Toronto and Washington? Some say it's tough to get back after an extended layoff. The players say it's up to them.

"Hard work and mental focus in this next five days, six days," Jackman said. "We have the mentality in here that we know we have to work harder than other teams to win. That's what we're going to have to do."

Tkachuk agreed.

"Get by the next four days, and then you have to refocus because you have to keep gradually getting better," he said. "Everybody's rusty today, everybody had a good break, you get back and you keep getting better each day. It's a must-win situation when we play Phoenix.

"Obviously, we ended it on a great note, and yeah, you want to keep playing, but it's been a tough schedule for everybody here. It gives guys time to rest and refocus and get back at (it). It's going to be a push here at the end."

Just like last season.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

2010 Olympic Ice Hockey Pairings

Tuesday, Feb. 23
Game 1: Switzerland 3, Belarus 2, SO
Game 2: Canada 8, Germany 2
Game 3: Czech Republic 3, Latvia 2, OT
Game 4: Slovakia 4, Norway 3
Wednesday, Feb. 24 (quarterfinals)
Game 5: United States 2, Switzerland 0
Game 6: Canada 7, Russia 3
Game 7: Finland 2, Czech Republic 0
Game 8: Slovakia 4, Sweden 3
Friday, Feb. 26 (semifinals)
Game 9: United States 6, Finland 1
Game 10: Canada 3, Slovakia 2
Saturday, Feb. 27 (bronze medal game)
Game 11: Finland vs. Slovakia, 9 p.m.
Sunday, Feb. 28 (gold medal game)
Game 12: United States vs. Canada, 2:15 p.m.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Backes draws inspiration from 1980 Olympic squad

Blues power forward to represent USA for first time as Olympian

ST. LOUIS -- A kid who grew up in the state of Minnesota -- like fellow Blues teammate Erik Johnson -- David Backes certainly knows a thing or two about the 1980 'Miracle on Ice' USA Olympic squad.

After all, it's one of the greatest -- if not the greatest -- upsets in modern sports history when the United States downed the Soviet Union 4-3 before going on to knock off Finland in the gold medal game.

Hailing from Minneapolis, Backes was probably too young to remember the lifelong choice his father Steve had to make when he was just in the sixth grade.

Steve and David's mother Karen were faced with the life-changing decision. Steve Backes was working for a railroad company, had tremendous longevity there -- 25-plus years -- and was faced with the decision of uprooting his family and transferring to Dallas.

But instead, Steve Backes chose not to uproot, kept his family in Minnesota for the sake of his kids (along with David's sister Melanie) and live in a comfortable and familiar environment.

"The sacrifices my parents made for me are ones you never forget," said David Backes, who will fulfill a lifelong dream of representing the USA today when ice hockey competition begins in the XXI Winter Olympic Games. "My folks made the ultimate sacrifice."

Indeed they did, and today, Steve and Karen Backes will be in GM Place when the US takes on Switzerland (2 p.m.) along with Backes' childhood sweetheart and wife Kelly.

But David Backes, whose road took him from Spring Lake Park -- where his No. 5 jersey is retired and hangs in the rafters at Fogerty Arena -- to a two-year stint in Junior A hockey with the Lincoln Stars. After being selected by the Blues with the 62nd pick in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft, he played at Minnesota State University-Mankato for three years before going to the Blues' minor league affiliate in Peoria. He would play in his first NHL game on Dec. 19, 2006 in Pittsburgh.

He's represented the USA at the IIHF World Championships from 2007-2009, helping the Americans to a fourth-place finish a year ago in Switzerland -- ironically, USA's opponent today.
And now for the first time, David Backes can call himself an Olympian.

"Every time I leave this country for even Canada or Europe, I love coming back," Backes explains. "I love the freedoms we have, the luxuries we have ... just the way everything is done here. You make what you are and you have that freedom and ability of a free market to come from nothing and make yourself something and really prosper. To have that, to see that, to see the hope of people's faces and the standard of living that we have, it's an honor to represent the red, white and blue in international competition."

Backes draws his inspiration from the 1980 squad, like many Americans that don the USA sweater do.

"From Minnesota, I think about half the guys on the 1980 team are from Minnesota," Backes said. "Herb Brooks (the 1980 USA head coach) has got a lot of roots in Minnesota, he's got a statue outside the Xcel Energy Center. And then the movie 'Miracle,' (was) really inspiring to see the story and the opportunity and the way that those guys seized the opportunity at the 1980 Olympics. It's inspiring, it's something that I've watched growing up, been able to draw a little bit from that. Those guys had a little bit of a different scenario where they had a six- or eight-month exhibition schedule that they can come together and get in a little practice before they played their first game. ... We've tried to talk to those guys, get a little bit of knowledge from them and get some experience of what to expect when we're at the games."

Backes, 25, has been the poster child for USA hockey this year. He showcased Team USA's sweater on NBC's Today Show, which meant he was a virtual lock to make the 23-man roster.
Team USA General Manager all but confirmed it.

"I'll tell you a story about David Backes ... when we were at Switzerland at the World Championships last year, we were in Berne and it's an hour train ride from Zurich where the players all flew in," Burke recalled. "The players all fly in at night, they land in Zurich at 10 in the morning, we're skating at noon. Most of the players took the train and just waited in the training room for the players to come off. David Backes and (the Blues') T.J. Oshie dressed and went out on the bench and made the last half of practice.

"To me, David Backes is a self-made hockey player. He's worked his tail off to get to where he is. And he does lots of things well. So yeah, he was a lock. We went to David ... David won't admit this, but we went to David well in advance of the team being named and told him we were counting on him."

Blues coach Davis Payne, a Canadian, sees Backes on a daily basis and said he won't hold any grudges if Backes nets the game-winner against Canada.

"I won't hold it against him ... for very long," Payne joked.

And as David Backes makes his first leap into Olympic competition with the USA, he'll do it with a grateful heart, one where a lot of the credit goes to his caring and dedicated parents. Just think if Steve Backes made the decision to leave Minnesota 15 years ago?

"If you had something to do with representing your country so proudly, to get that gold medal, to hear that anthem, be on the top of the podium ... you want to sing, but the emotions would probably overtake you," Backes said. "March 1st ... Olympic gold, June 1st ... Stanley Cup. It's tough to chose between the two, but obviously, they're both something I'd like to have one of each in my medal case before I'm done playing."

If Backes puts his mind and talents to use, Backes will likely see both goals come to fruition.

Monday, February 15, 2010

From tennis balls in Minnesota to Olympics in Vancouver, Johnson fulfills dream

Blues defenseman will don USA's
red, white and blue for first time at Winter Olympics

ST. LOUIS -- When Erik Johnson lays down every night to conclude what likely was another day revolving around the game of hockey, he can thank a tennis ball for his ascension towards greatness.

Thousands upon thousands of tennis balls could be heard thumping the walls of Bruce and Peggy Johnson's garage as young son Erik was busy honing in on his hockey skills, not attempting to be the next Pete Sampras or Roger Federer.

But instead of consistently harping on young Erik to go do his homework or get chores done, Mom and Dad allowed Erik to continue his practices. After all, practice makes perfect.

"I always liked it," the 21-year-old Johnson said. "I always knew that's what I wanted to do ever since I was seven or eight years old. My parents would say, 'Go do your homework,' and I'd want to go play outside in the garage and shoot tennis balls and stuff like that."

Erik Johnson's career path towards hockey has had nothing but positive and upward turns. From playing in the hockey hotbed of Minnesota -- he hails from Bloomington, a town of 80,000-plus south, southwest of the Twin Cities -- where Johnson got started at the Academy of Holy Angels in Richfield, Minn. to Ann Arbor, Mich. to play for the United States National Team Developmental Program, playing for two Under-18 World Junior Championships and a U-20 World Championship. Then it was on to the University of Minnesota and then one of the greatest attributes, being the top overall selection of the 2006 NHL Entry Draft by the Blues -- one of five American-born players to accomplish such a feat (Mike Modano, Brian Lawton, Rick DiPietro and Patrick Kane).

Life couldn't be better for Erik Johnson. But the pinnacle of his young career may have occurred in recent months -- United States Olympian.

Johnson and teammate David Backes will don the USA sweaters today when the United States battles Switzerland at 2 p.m.

Dreams were meant to be achieved, and needless to say at such a young age, Johnson continues to fulfill each and every one of them.

"I always had that drive and desire to be in the NHL and eventually being an Olympian," said Johnson, whose uncle Ken Yackel helped the Americans capture the silver medal at the 1952 Olympics in Oslo, Norway. "That was what I was always wanting to do in my head and nothing else mattered except making it in the NHL and making an impact. That's just what I was geared toward and how my mind was growing up. I stopped at nothing to get there."

And right there to see every shot, every shear of the skate blades, every fist-pumping moment will be his Bruce and Peggy Johnson and younger sister Christina along with a few other family members.

And to think, Mom and Dad were there for practices, games, meetings, sacrificing time and money to see their son fulfill a lifelong dream.

"I wouldn't be here without them," Johnson said of his parents. I remember when I was five or six years old as a mite, my dad would get my equipment put on for me and tie my skates. He would never carry my bag, because you always hate to see parents doing that, but my parents were so inspirational and so supportive. Whenever I had a good game, they'd always say I played great. Whenever I had a bad game, I wouldn't hear anything. They'd still say I played well. They were so supportive and never got down on me, never forced the issue to play hockey. It was all up to me. They let me follow my dream."

His dream has taken him to Vancouver.

"It's such a great honor and something I'm really proud of," Johnson said. "It's probably the biggest honor you can get, is being an Olympian. I'm extremely fortunate and really lucky to be a part of the team."

USA General manager Brian Burke, also the GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs, said the choice of Johnson was a no-brainer.

"What do I like about him? That's easy -- everything," Burke said. "I think that the sky's the limit for this young man. I think people in St. Louis are aware of what a complete player he is, but I think the hockey world's going to see that now. He's big, he can skate, he's a great kid. He's got a hard shot."

Johnson has had plenty of mentoring here in St. Louis, none other than that of NHL Hall of Famer and former Canadian Olympian Al MacInnis, the Blues' Vice President of Hockey Operations.

"I was older when I played in the Olympics," MacInnis said. "My comparison would be the Stanley Cup playoffs of 1986. I was 24 years old, it was my fourth year in the league and you go to the Stanley Cup finals. But it's just amazing how you take off. You're just at another level. Instead of just jumping those little increments, you feel like you add three more years to your experience.

"You get to play in those high-pressure situations and it just elevates your play. Obviously it puts expectations on you ... you're considered an elite player, and you've got to respond to the expectations. Hopefully this is a shot in the arm for him, but it's definitely going to help his development."

Johnson's interest in the Olympics is that like many of the young Olympians that occupy Team USA's roster this season. They grew up following the greats of recent past. And for Johnson, that includes current Blues teammate Keith Tkachuk.

"Probably just that great generation and that great era of (Brian) Leetch, (Mike) Richter, Tkachuk, (Bill) Guerin and then (Doug) Weight and all those Americans who started the whole wave of a lot of kids starting to play hockey and following them," Johnson said. "I remember the years where I remember watching all those guys play. They had such a great team for so many years that they were still talking about making the team this year. Following those guys and watching their careers is what probably stuck out most for me."

And how could one not mention the Miracle on Ice squad of 1980, one that shocked the world when the USA pulled the greatest upset of all-time in defeating the mighty Soviet Union and eventually win the gold medal in Lake Placid, N.Y.?

"I know when they won the 1980 gold medal, I don't think to this day they'd still think it would be such a big deal," Johnson said. "It's the No. 1 sporting moment in the history of sports. It's the 30th anniversary and if we could do something like that, your name would go up in history of American hockey and Olympic hockey. You'd make your country proud and you'd make everyone proud who was affiliated with you. It would be a really monumental occasion and something people will remember forever."

Johnson said there are many role models of past USA hockey teams, but he considers himself one of the underdogs, when he used to play street hockey and pretend to be one of the former greats.

"I had a lot of favorite players. Most of them were forwards and goalies for some reason, but I really just kind of gravitated towards kind of the underdogs a little bit and guys that didn't get as much appreciation," Johnson said. "I kind of think of a guy like Derian Hatcher, who's a shutdown guy (and) a good defenseman. I kind of looked (up) to guys like that who played the unheralded role. Whenever I'd play street hockey, I'd always play goalie or forward and be Mike Richter or be Tkachuk or be Weight. Whenever I was a kid, I'd have fun with it like that."

Just like he had fun with all those tennis balls, which ultimately led to Vancouver.

"There's nothing higher than the Olympics," Johnson said. "There's no stage higher than the Olympics on the international setting. It can't get any better than this."

From watching Nagano Games to playing in Vancouver, Roman Polak living a dream

Blues defenseman will represent Czech Republic
at ice hockey's grandest stage

ST. LOUIS -- The challenges for Petr and Tana Polak were that of most parents willing to do whatever it takes for their children.

But for the Polaks, living in a blue-color country then known as Czechoslovakia in the town of Ostrava was even more of a challenge, simply because money was much more difficult to earn.

And items were much more expensive.

First, it was skates, then various other equipment such as sticks, pads and other necessary hockey gear.

But the Polaks, like parents often do, somehow managed to do whatever it takes for their children. Even in the Czech Republic.

"It's kind of a different situation in the Czech Republic than here because everything is so expensive there," Blues defenseman Roman Polak, son of Petr and Tana. "Sometimes, they had to borrow money to buy me skates. It's kind of a different world there."

A different world but same conclusion for a story that is often told.

Petr and Tana Polak's hardships certainly did not go unnoticed, nor did they go unrewarded.

Roman Polak wanted to be a hockey player, and today, the 23-year-old is an Olympian.

Roman Polak is in Vancouver representing his native Czech Republic for the first time in the Winter Olympics.

"They were proud and happy," Polak said when his parents got the news.

Polak took an interest in the sport and the games when he was a youngster, looking up to Czech Republic legends Dominik Hasek and Jaromir Jagr among others.

He couldn't help but watch as those legends carried the flag of his country all the way to a gold medal at the 1998 Winter Olympic Games in Nagano, Japan.

"I was like 12 years old, so I don't remember much but I was watching every game," Polak said. "We still have a tape of all those games. It was pretty exciting at that time, because we have a small country. We have 10 million people and we won the Olympics and that was unbelievable for our country. We want to do it again."

Given the chance to play hockey or go to school and become something else, the choice was all Roman Polak's. His parents did not push him in one direction or the other.

"I just started playing hockey because I loved it," Polak said. "I was like 14, 15. I was going to school, but I wanted to make sure because you never know what's going to happen. It was when I was 17 that I chose to go to the WHL (Western Hockey League) to play, so it was probably the big thing. I had to stop school. I had to decide if I wanted to go to school and stay home or if I wanted to go and play hockey and go to Canada. I chose to go and play hockey."

It's turning out to be a great choice, as Polak's stock is rising not only with the Blues but around the league as well. And he was justly rewarded with a spot on the Czech Republic team this year for the very first time.

In a country where soccer is known to reign supremacy, hockey has certainly gained its ground, and Polak chose the ladder despite the cost.

"It's probably the same thing like soccer," Polak said of hockey's popularity. "Those are two big sports. They're sharing first place ... maybe soccer is most popular because it's cheaper (laughing)."

His stock around the NHL may be on the rise, but he is definitely a known commodity.

"I know he's a great defenseman.," Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman and fellow countryman Tomas Kaberle said of Polak. "He's a big kid, strong kid. He's good defensively and he doesn't let people go by him. That's a key. (He's) mostly a stay-at-home defenseman, but he's got a good shot also so he can contribute offensively at the same time.

"He's a big kid and he doesn't mind throwing (his weight) around. It's hard, especially when the opposition knows he can hit so they have to be cautious. He's going to hit you."

Polak, who played for his country at the most recent IIHF World Championships, got his chance with the Blues a couple years ago and made the decision easy for them to keep the 6-foot-1, 225-pound defenseman.

Injuries to fellow teammates Eric Brewer and Erik Johnson at the time gave him his chance, and he's made it stick -- all the way to Vancouver.

"I was good in Peoria, too, but it was just the numbers," Polak said of his sticking with the Blues two and three years ago. "There were lots of defensemen here and I got my opportunity last year because of a couple injuries. Erik Johnson and Eric Brewer were injured so I got an opportunity to play and I play lots of games. I took that opportunity. Maybe that's a big reason because I was playing a lot in Peoria. ... I was waiting for the big chance and I got the big chance last year and I took it."

Now he'll showcase his talents at the world's grandest stage, where he hopes his country will sneak up on the favorites. And he'll get to do it with one of the players he fondly looked up to.

"Jagr always said we would be playing together, and I played with him in the World Championship last year," Polak said. "Back home, everyone called it the Jagr team. He's a big star, so it's an honor to play with him."

Polak isn't there for all fun and no play. He will he an integral part of this team.

"He's going to be a big part of the team," Kaberle said.

Polak hopes so.

"It's always a dream for every professional athlete to play in the Olympics and play for your country," Polak said.

Polak's dream will come true when the Czech Republic opens round robin play Wednesday against rival Slovakia.

Blues take a break with winning streak in hand

Three wins in a row has team feeling good heading into Olympic hiatus

ST. LOUIS -- David Backes sat slumped in his stall, tired and exhausted after Saturday's thrilling shootout win over Washington that ended another chapter of Blues games compressed in time.

The 4-3 victory was the Blues' seventh game in 11 days, something not all that uncommon in this 2009-10 season.

Welcome to the National Hockey League schedule Olympic Edition.

With the XXI Winter Olympics commencing in Vancouver, NHL players knew such challenges were forthcoming: lots of games over a short period of time to take a two-week hiatus for the Olympics.
The Blues have momentum now, after having won their last three games heading into the break -- all at home, where they're now 12-16-5, including 6-2-2 in the last 10.

Is it a good thing to get away now after sustaining this kind of urgency?

"We need the rest here," said goalie Chris Mason, who backstopped all three wins after a sub-par game last Monday in Denver. "It's been a pretty grueling schedule with all the travel and the condensed schedule here. I'd love to keep playing, but that's not going to happen."

No, it isn't, but one wonders what could happen if they did.

"You wonder if you're glad there's a break for us or you're not glad because you seem to be picking up steam," Backes said. "We can't forget what got us these wins, how we're playing and keep that up when we get back."

Backes, Erik Johnson and Roman Polak will not have the luxury that most of their teammates will have spending time on lavish beaches or taking time off doing whatever it is they're doing. These three have packed their things, grabbed the families and jetted off to Vancouver to represent their respective countries in the ice hockey competition.

"After seven games in 11 nights or whatever it was, even though we play Tuesday or so in the Olympics, it's going to be nice to have a travel day with my wife (Sunday) and a late practice on Monday, which I'm sure will be flow drills and get-to-know-each-other type of deal and get to it on Tuesday," Backes said Saturday. "(Blues owner) Dave Checketts said, 'Good luck, but I want you to rest a little bit, too.' Our off-time will be spent resting and enjoying a little time away and enjoying the festivities and hopefully win gold and come back here and get back on the streak we're on."

Forward T.J. Oshie, who was a Team USA snub, has taken the high road regarding Vancouver. The rest suits him just as well.

"I think we're excited to take a couple weeks off," said Oshie, who has 17 points in 22 games since the roster for Team USA was unveiled. "There's always bumps and bruises in the game of hockey. Everyone has a little thing here or a little thing there. It's tough to get through a couple games without having something bothering you. ... I think when we get back, there'll be that jump, that excitement. We'll try and pick up where we left off."

The Blues were beginning to fade fast after beginning their pre-Olympic stretch of seven games by losing three of four. In racing terms, the Blues were falling fast around the turn.

But as they head into the stretch run of 20 games, they sit four points in back of eighth place and fully entrenched in the battle for a postseason berth.

"It just shows our resilience. We're committed here," Mason said. "We still believe in our team and we still believe we're going to make the playoffs. I think that just proves the belief in the room."

The Blues will begin the post-Olympic schedule with another grueling stretch -- six straight away from Scottrade Center, but hey, the road has been kind to this team the entire season. They just need to keep that taste of beating Washington as they move forward.

"It leaves us with a positive feeling, leaves us with a belief in the process, leaves us with work to do," Blues coach Davis Payne said. "We've got to make sure we take this break, recharge mentally, recharge physically and make sure we understand that these last 20 games are going to be an all-out sprint for us and we've got to be ready for that."

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Blues head into Olympic break with momentum

Team caps seven-game stretch with three
straight wins after 4-3 shootout victory over Capitals

ST. LOUIS -- It looked bleak there for the Blues when the week began.

They began a grueling seven-game stretch by dropping three of four, and they were rapidly sliding down the playoff mountain and fading fast.

But then there were three home games to round out the stretch that would take the Blues into the Olympic break.

But wait, wasn't home ice what the Blues didn't need? After all, they had one of the worst home records in the NHL this season.

What a difference a week makes.

The Blues, facing Detroit, Toronto and league-leader Washington, ended things with a bang. Faced with the notion that they would need all of them to stay in the Western Conference race, the Blues got that highlight win of the season Saturday night, downing the Capitals 4-3 in a shootout before 19,150 happy Scottrade Center faithful.

The Blues (28-25-9) stood toe-to-toe with the explosive Capitals (41-13-8), who now are winless in three straight (0-2-1) after winning 14 in a row.

David Perron scored the lone shootout goal in the first round of sudden death after both the Blues' Chris Mason and Washington's Jose Theodore slammed the door shut in the best-of-3.

"It was a big win for our hockey team obviously against a quality opponent with a lot of offensive pressure, but I thought we defended pretty well as a group of five," said Blues coach Davis Payne, whose team is four points in back of eighth-place Calgary. "Mason was great and we found a way to get it done in the shootout."

The Blues got goals from Patrik Berglund, T.J. Oshie and Erik Johnson and took one-goal leads on each occasion, but the Capitals were able to counter with two Mike Knuble goals and one from Alexander Semin.

But instead of being awe-struck, the Blues stuck with their game plan and would earn the second point.

"We couldn't change our approach from shift to shift," Payne said. "Even if we built a big lead going into the third period, we talked about making sure we stayed the course and stayed the game plan. They've come back on a lot of teams over recent history here in the last month. Two, three, four goals is not out of reach for this hockey club."

Perron, who was 0 for 3 in shootouts this season, went to the backhand and lifted the puck off the post, but the puck caromed off Theodore's shoulder and into the net. Mason would then make the clinching save on Brendan Morrison.

"It feels good because we ended up winning the game on that," Perron said. "I was kind of lucky, too. It hit the back of the post and his back and it went in, but I'll take it. We'll build on that hopefully."

Perron did not know immediately that the puck went in.

"When the referee pointed at the net," he said when asked when he knew. "I never saw the puck go in the net. It was a good feeling, but let's keep building on that."

The Blues were thwarted by Theodore on shootout attempts by Berglund, Oshie and Brad Boyes, but Mason -- who was in goal when the Blues beat Detroit earlier this week in a shootout -- was equally up to the task when faced with the talented Semin, Alex Ovechkin, who was held to a rare pointless game and Nicklas Backstrom.

"Those guys can hurt you sometimes," Mason said of the Capitals. "I'm just thankful of the way it went.

"It's tough when you don't play teams often. Obviously you know their skill level and the guys they have on their team. You see the highlights and things like that, but we've had a few shootouts lately and it helps. ... You just have to be patient and you have to stand your ground."

It was a game when the Blues' young guns are at their best, results usually tend to lean towards victories.

Berglund arguably played his best game Saturday. Oshie was all over the ice with a goal and an assist and Johnson played 25 minutes, 36 seconds and was part of a defensive unit that shut down the one of the game's dynamic players in Ovechkin.

"They're a great team, but I think we're proving to each other in this locker room that we're a good team as well," Oshie said. "When we play within ourselves, we win hockey games."

Ovechkin did lead the Caps with eight shots for the game, but the key to success, according to Payne, was limiting his space.

"You saw him a couple times there in the third period and overtime wind those jets up," Payne said. "Not a very comfortable feeling. You've got to make sure you angle, you've got to make sure you've got people coming back on him. When he doesn't have possession, there becomes the battle away from him and you have to be aware of the areas he's finding on the ice. You don't do it individually, you do it with all five guys on the ice and then sometimes have to rely on the goaltender as well."

Maybe the Blues don't need a two-week layoff. Why mess with momentum?

"Regardless of who it's against, those points are huge for us," Mason said. "We've been up and down so far all throughout the season and these wins at home are absolutely huge.

"That's a huge win, especially the situation with the standings and all that and the opponent we had tonight. Going into a break, it's tough sometimes. Your mind wanders beyond the game. Guys did a great job."

* NOTES -- The Blues used the same lineup from Friday night, as Keith Tkachuk (upper-body) was out for the second consecutive game, as were D.J. King and Darryl Sydor (healthy scratches). ... Blues forward Cam Janssen received a five-minute interference penalty and a game-misconduct after a hard check on the Capitals' Matt Bradley, who could not get off the ice on his own power. "I was just coming back and (Bradley) had the puck," Janssen said. "He cycled it back, and he was looking back like he felt the puck was still on his skates. I finish my hits. I thought it was a good opportunity. His head was down and I was just trying to get the boys into it. I hope (there's) no suspension, but we'll see what happens. If it happens, it happens and that's the way it is." ... The Capitals have now dropped eight straight games here, with their last win coming on Oct. 26, 1996. ... The Blues are now 12-16-5 on home ice, including 6-2-2 in the last 10. ... Since being snubbed for a spot on the US Olympic team, Oshie has six goals and 17 points in 22 games. ... Since allowing five goals on 15 shots in Monday's loss at Colorado, Mason went 3-0 with one shutout and allowed six goals on 106 shots.

(2-13-10) Capitals-Blues Gameday Lineup

ST. LOUIS -- Talk about a whirlwind of opponents in a 24-hour span. That's what the Blues face here tonight.

After facing the Eastern Conference's worst in the Toronto Maple Leafs here on Friday, the Blues (27-25-9) will entertain the East's -- and the NHL's -- top squad when the Washington Capitals (41-13-7) and arguably the game's best player in Alex Ovechkin come calling on Scottrade Center. The drop of the puck is 7 p.m.

But as the Blues went through an optional skate in which only a handful or two participated in and then went through player meetings, the message was the same: whether it's Toronto or Washington, two crucial points are up for grabs.

"That's our focus," Blues coach Davis Payne said. "We know we've got a different animal in here tonight. Obviously they've been playing some great hockey and are on top of the league for a reason. We've got some particular players we've got to pay attention to."

A guy wearing No. 8 might be a focal point.

"I've seen enough of him," Payne said of Ovechkin, who leads the league in goals (42), points (89) and plus-minus (43) in 53 games. "I'll get to see him up close and personal tonight. Let's not forget that that list starts with him and it moves down pretty deep. You can go 19 (Nicklas Backstrom), you can go 28 (Alexander Semin), you can go 52 (Mike Green), you can go on and on about this hockey club."

The Blues would love nothing more than to head into the Olympic break on a three-game winning streak. Friday night's 4-0 win over Toronto provided plenty of positives, but one area of concern is the amount of penalties the Blues took.

With Washington holding the top-ranked power play unit in the league, converting on 25.4 percent of its chances, the Blues would be far-pressed to ask themselves to kill off eight opportunities like they did against Toronto Friday.

"We've talked about the penalties that we've had to kill and our killers have done a great job, but there's no reason we have to put ourselves under that kind of pressure and the type of pressure we've put ourselves in the last four or five games," Payne said. "We've got to decrease that for sure."

* * *

Tonight's lineup will remain the same, and that means Keith Tkachuk (upper-body), D.J. King (healthy scratch) and Darryl Sydor (healthy scratch) are out.

Paul Kariya-David Backes-T.J. Oshie

Andy McDonald-Patrik Berglund-David Perron

Alex Steen-Jay McClement-B.J. Crombeen

Brad Winchester-Brad Boyes-Cam Janssen

The D-pairings will also stay the same:

Barret Jackman-Roman Polak

Eric Brewer-Erik Johnson

Carlo Colaiacovo-Mike Weaver

Chris Mason, who earned his second shutout of the season and 20th of his career, stopped 30 shots in Friday's win. He'll start again tonight.

"I thought he was extremely solid," Payne said of Mason, who is on call as a reserve for the Canadian Olympic team. "Not just the saves he made but the saves he didn't have to make based on his control of the puck. It certainly looked like a performance we can take into tonight."

- - -

The Capitals are enjoying a banner season thus far under head coach Bruce Boudreau, who took a similar route to get behind an NHL bench as Blues coach Davis Payne.

Both are products of the American Hockey League, and Boudreau endorses the Blues' choice of bringing up one of their own to replace Andy Murray.

"I was saying last night that I think it's a really good thing that the coaches that have been with the minor league affiliate get a chance," Boudreau said. "They know the players better than anybody coming in. I'm not sure a reputation as a coach is a real good one in the middle of the season. The people that know the players the best are the guys on the farm because they hear all the stories on whether it's good or bad going on. They can come in and usually you have a different relationship if you're the minor league coach as an NHL coach.

"I think it's a good thing that he came in here and he's done a great job. Andy Murray's a tremendous friend of mine and I hate to see him gone. It's a good thing to hire from within."

The stop in St. Louis is Boudreau's last of the NHL venues as a head coach. He was last here as a player with the Chicago Blackhawks when the Blues played at The Arena.

"I used to love playing here," Boudreau said. "I played in the old building. It's the first time I've ever been here and it's beautiful. The other building always had a good atmosphere and they had great teams.

"I remember the one time I played for Chicago and got on for one shift, and Denis Savard pulled me off after four seconds of my shift and that was it for the game. That was a memory, I don't know why I always thought of that one."

The Capitals coach took in Friday's Blues victory over Toronto and was impressed.

"They're very good," he said. "I was impressed with Chris Mason. He looked square to the puck all the time. He was in total control. Their young players that you read a lot about are really good as well. They play with a lot of energy. We played them last year one time and I was really impressed by their work ethic. I think they had eight players out of their lineup at one time, so I think we wore them down at the end, but I don't think that'll be a situation that would happen today."

Washington has dropped two in a row (0-1-1) after winning an amazing 14 games in a row and 17 of 18.

It was a fun ride but one the Caps knew would end sometime.

"It was good. It was the result of all-around good play and a lot of things coming together," Capitals forward Mike Knuble said. "Great goaltending, penalty killing was great, power play was clicking, all that stuff.

"We're still scoring the goals, but we're giving up too many right now. It's stuff you can focus on. It was a good run, but we knew it had to end at some point."

The Caps will throw out a line resembling this:

Alex Ovechkin-Nicklas Backstrom-Mike Knuble

Brooks Laich-Brendan Morrison-Alexander Semin

Tomas Fleischmann-Dave Steckel-Eric Fehr

Quintin Laing-Boyd Gordon-Matt Bradley

John Carlson was recalled from AHL Hershey and will play tonight.

The D-pairings will feature:

Jeff Schultz-Mike Green

Karl Alzner-Brian Pothier

Shaone Morrisonn-John Carlson

Jose Theodore will get the start in goal.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Pair of shorthanded goals fuel Blues' 4-0 win over Leafs

Mason earns 20th career shutout; Blues
move within four points of eighth place in west

ST. LOUIS -- On paper, the Blues had a decisive advantage on the Toronto Maple Leafs on Friday night.

The Leafs came into Scottrade Center last in the Eastern Conference with 49 points and 11 games under .500. But as Blues goalie Chris Mason put it after a 4-0 victory over Toronto, "We have no right to underestimate anybody."

The Blues, who moved within four points of eighth-place Calgary for the final playoff berth in the Western Conference, did not underestimate an opponent that has played drastically well since making a pair of major trades within the last two weeks.

The Blues got two shorthanded goals in a game for the first time since Jan. 16, 2007 from T.J. Oshie and Alex Steen -- a former Leaf, Mason stopped 30 shots for his second shutout of the season and 20th of his career and the team's penalty killing unit was a perfect 8 for 8 in the game.

"It was a pretty good night by that crew," Blues coach Davis Payne said of his PK unit. "Jay McClement, (B.J.) Crombeen, Weaves (Mike Weaver), Jax (Barret Jackman) obviously and Mase obviously -- the main crew. They did a pretty good job as far as executing. (Assistant coach) Brad Shaw's got them under that direction, obviously did a fantastic job not only got through the eight but scoring two shorthanded goals."

Andy McDonald also got his team-leading 19th goal of the season as the Blues jumped into 12th place in the conference and improved to 27-25-9, good for 63 points.

And it was two shorthanded goals that fueled a critical game where anything but two points was not good enough.

Oshie and Steen scored shorthanded goals 4 minutes, 40 seconds apart in the second period to give the Blues a 3-0 lead that all but deflated a Toronto team that has had a hard time winning games throughout the season.

"You try and not to focus on exactly what that's done to the other team," Payne said "You expect a response, and we expected them to come out sharp. We wanted to make sure we got through the rest of the kill. It's always the focus coming off the bench. It's great we scored a shorty, but we still have some time to work on here."

Oshie converted a good forecheck by David Backes, who picked off an errant pass from Toronto's John Mitchell along the right boards, skated in and wrapped a shot around the goal that Leafs goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere got a piece of but Oshie was on the doorstep for an open side at 9:07 of the second.

"That was all (Backes) there," said Oshie, who scored his 12th of the season. "I was just kind of the guy standing there."

Steen was also able to win a battle from Toronto's Luke Schenn and beat Giguere, one of the Leafs' acquisitions on Jan. 31 along with defenseman Dion Phaneuf. Steen, traded to the Blues along with Carlo Colaiacovo on Nov. 24, 2008 for Lee Stempniak, wrapped a shot through the pads of Giguere at 13:47 as the Blues were on their fifth penalty kill.

"We certainly got to be careful with (the penalties) tomorrow night," said Oshie, referring to facing the high-flying Washington Capitals. "We were lucky our penalty kill was playing pretty well tonight, and we were playing in their end a little bit. We were fortunate to get those two goals, two hard-working goals."

Mason did the rest, and he was particularly good in the third period when he stopped half of the 30 shots he faced.

"For the most part, we did a pretty good job of clearing the shooting lanes," Mason said. "Just seeing the puck pretty good.

"Our penalty killers did a great job tonight. Every chance they had to get it down and clear the zone, they did. That's so important. It's a lot harder than it looks. ... Power play players will tell you how frustrating that is to go back and forth the whole time and that's what we made them do."

Payne said Mason is at his best when he's able to come out and challenge shooters.

"I think that's his most effective style of play," the Blues' coach said. "He knows he has to be in those areas, he knows he has to get to those spots in order to challenge people. We can talk about when a certain part of a guy's game goes, we certainly have some keys to look forward to with Chris and that's one of them."

The Leafs (19-31-11) came out flying in the third despite trailing 3-0, but the Blues put the game on ice when Crombeen was able to convert Jay McClement's backhand feed at 13:47.

"I think we were getting a little giddy in between periods, and Jax had to sit us down and say, 'Hey, we still have 20 minutes to go here. Let's focus and do what we talk about,'" Oshie said.

"You saw the first five minutes (of the third period)," Backes said. "They stepped their game up to another level and we needed to respond. It took us a second to kind of get slapped in the face that they're going to come out, they're not going to quit and we need to respond and keep playing our game. I think we finished well."

The Blues had to kill off two penalties in the game's final four minutes, but just like the previous six, the Leafs were stuck on zero.

"If we weren't sharp on the PK that game, it's ugly in a hurry," Backes said. "I don't have the numbers, but I'd say seven or eight minors we had to kill off. We were out there long enough that we were bound to have a few chances shorthanded. Obviously Osh capitalized on one and Alex Steen did a great job on winning one on two or three behind the net and comes around and stuffs one in their net."

The Blues will go from playing the East's worst to the East's best when Alexander Ovechkin and Capitals come calling at 7 p.m. Then the team convenes for the Winter Olympics.

"Ovechkin, (Alexander) Semin and (Nicklas) Backstrom ... it goes all the way down the list," Backes said of tonight's opponent. "They're a team with a ton of firepower, a ton of speed. It's going to be a great test for all 20 guys in the lineup tomorrow night to get a job done and have a good streak and have a good reason to celebrate during this break."

* NOTES -- Blues forward Keith Tkachuk missed the game because of an upper-body injury suffered in Tuesday's shootout win over Detroit. He's listed as day-to-day but will likely miss tonight's game as well. ... Tkachuk was replaced in the lineup by Cam Janssen, who had an eventful night with Toronto tough guy Colton Orr. The two scrapped twice and accumulated 54 of the game's 76 penalty minutes. ... Forward D.J. King and defenseman Darryl Sydor were healthy scratches. ... Jamal Mayers and Dallas Drake were the last two to score shorthanded goals in the same game for the Blues when they won 6-2 at Anaheim.

(2-12-10) Maple Leafs-Blues Gameday Lineup

ST. LOUIS -- It was Nov. 24, 2008, a day that changed the lives of three young hockey players.

Lee Stempniak had just finished practice for the day with the Blues when general manager Larry Pleau called Stempniak into his office to deliver the news that he had been traded to Toronto.

Coming to the Blues was a young but promising forward named Alex Steen and another young defenseman who had the talent but developed the reputation of someone who was injury-prone and could never stay on the ice in Carlo Colaiacovo.

Fifteen months later, the three will face their former squads tonight when the Blues entertain the Leafs at Scottrade Center, but for all intents and purposes, the luster has worn off for Steen and Colaiacovo.

Most of the teammates they played with on the roster have either moved on via trade or free agency or in Mats Sundin's case, retired.

"Yeah, there's not a lot of guys there," Steen, 25, said Friday morning. "Obviously the organization went through a lot of changes. I, myself, was a part of it. It's going to be fun. Kabby (Thomas Kaberle) and Poni (Alexei Ponikarovsky) are still there, I played a long time with them. I spent a brief time with some of the other guys, so it's going to be fun though."

For Colaiacovo, a native Toronto son, who has since thrived mostly during his time in St. Louis minus a few minor ailments, made it academic that this is just another game after the Leafs dealt away two of his best friends recently (Matt Stajan and Ian White) to Calgary in the Dion Phaneuf trade.

"Somebody asked me (Thursday) if I was going to be nervous playing this game, and I said, 'Why would I be? I really don't recognize three-quarters of that team over there,'" Colaiacovo said. "It's an organization that I previously played with, so there is going to be that extra motivation.

"They're going through some serious changes over there. Obviously, we read about it and pay attention to it through the TV and stuff, but at the end of the day, it doesn't really matter to me anymore. I'm here and I couldn't be more happy."

Colaiacovo, 27, admitted that when the date got closer and closer, he was looking forward to playing against his two close friends.

"I was really looking forward to this date to play against those guys and have a night with them last night, but obviously they've moved on, too," Colaiacovo said. "Tonight's just another game for is, and it's obviously a huge game for us considering where we sit in the standings and with Calgary losing last night. They're playing real well and we can't overlook them.

"It is a former team of mine, and I'd like to get the win a little more, but at the end of the day, it's all about the team inside here. We need this win for us in here."

* * *

As for Stempniak, 27, things have also changed for him since the last time he walked through the Scottrade Center doors, but much is still the same.

"Obviously where you get started, it's really special," Stempniak said. "I made a lot of friends away from the rink and a lot of good teammates. There are a lot of guys I still keep in touch with and it's definitely going to be a fun night tonight.

"I talked to big Walt (Keith Tkachuk) a little bit yesterday just over the phone. I keep in touch with Jay McClement. Other than that, it's sort of tough. I didn't want to make it a big deal coming back here. I just went to dinner last night with a few of the guys from the Leafs. I just try and look at it as another game. Obviously, it's a little different being back in here on the other side being in Scottrade Center. But at the same time, you've just got to approach it as another game."

The trade was quite a shock to Stempniak, who has 14 goals and 29 points in 60 games for the Leafs this season. But looking back on it now, it may have been best for everyone. Stempniak has a few more responsibilities since the switch to the Eastern Conference.

"I spend three and a half years here," Stempniak said. (Former Blues coach) Mike Kitchen gave me an opportunity to play. When Andy (Murray) came in, he really gave me an opportunity to grow in my role, play the point on the power play and things like that. I grew a lot as a player.

"I think I've become a more complete player. I play a lot on the penalty kill now, I've played the point on the power play at times throughout the year, even a little defense late in games, which is something new for me. I've played in a lot of different situations. That's what you want as a player. The coach has faith in you, your teammates have faith in you to be out there whether you need a big goal on the power play or whether you're killing a penalty late or protecting a lead late in the game. It's been great so far."

* * *

Tkachuk (upper-body) will not play tonight and Blues coach Davis Payne said his gritty veteran is day-to-day.

Tkachuk, 37, took a puck up high against Detroit Tuesday. He didn't skate Thursday and was not on the ice Friday morning.

Cam Janssen will return to the lineup, while forward D.J. King and defenseman Darryl Sydor will be healthy scratches.

Payne said to expect Brad Boyes to "see some time at center" tonight.

Line combinations today at practice looked like this:

Paul Kariya-David Backes-T.J. Oshie

Andy McDonald-Patrik Berglund-David Perron

Alex Steen-Jay McClement-B.J. Crombeen

Brad Winchester-Brad Boyes-Cam Janssen

The D-pairings remained the same:

Barret Jackman-Roman Polak

Eric Brewer-Erik Johnson

Carlo Colaiacovo-Mike Weaver

Chris Mason will get the nod in goal.

- - -

The Maple Leafs (19-30-11) come in 11 games under .500 but since acquiring Phaneuf and goaltender Jean-Sebastien Giguere, they have gone 2-2 and both losses were by one goal against New Jersey and San Jose.

"We talked this morning about how big a mistake it would be if we were just looking solely at the record," Payne said. "We go back and look at the kind of games they've put up there the last three or four games. They've had some success and they've played some pretty good teams. We have to make sure that our opponent isn't adjusting our level. We make sure we bring our level and it's ready to go, because we know how crucial points are."

The Leafs sported the following lines at the skate this morning:

Alexei Ponikarovsky-Tyler Bozak-Phil Kessel

Viktor Stalberg-Christian Hanson-Lee Stempniak

Fredrik Sjostrom-Rickard Wallin-Nikolai Kulemin

Wayne Primeau-John Mitchell-Colton Orr

Their defensive pairings will feature:

Thomas Kaberle-Dion Phaneuf

Francois Beauchemin-Carl Gunnarsson

Garnet Exelby-Luke Schenn

Giguere will get the start in goal, Toronto's final game before the Winter Olympics.

Blues set to tango with new, improved Leafs

Toronto playing much better since trades
that brought them Phaneuf, Giguere

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- When the Blues were faced with a seven-game stretch of games that would lead them into the Olympic break, the Toronto Maple Leafs was one of those games that one would classify as a must-win.

With teams like Chicago, Washington, San Jose, Colorado and Detroit all bearing down on the Blues with above .500 records, the Leafs were sticking out like a sore thumb.

But that was before Leafs general manager Brian Burke pulled off a pair of blockbuster deals that brought defenseman Dion Phaneuf from Calgary and goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere from Anaheim to bolster a team searching for an identity.

Giguere, who led the Ducks to a Stanley Cup in 2007, has earned shutouts in each of his first two starts with his new team.

"It certainly looks that way as far as how they're playing and the energy they're playing with," Blues coach Davis Payne said of the Leafs, who face the Blues tonight at 7 p.m. "They've had some pretty good hockey games at New Jersey and home against San Jose."

The Leafs are 19-30-11 on the season, but they are 2-2 since the trades but both losses have been by one goal against New Jersey (4-3) and San Jose (3-2).

"We have to be worried about how high a level we need to bring," Payne said. "Our opponent shouldn't necessarily dictate that. We have standards, we know they're playing well, we know they've added pieces, so with their good results lately, we should understand we've got a tough game coming up and those two points are crucial to us."

* * *

Searching for their own identity -- The Blues, who come into tonight's game with a 26-25-9 mark, are six points out of the eighth and final Western Conference playoff berth. But as they get set to face the Leafs in Game No. 61 on the season, it's a team that is also in search of its identity.

"It seems this year, we've come out on different nights and been completely different teams, which you can't win without a constant identity and that's something that we definitely haven't completely established," Blues goalie Chris Mason said. "I think we're in the process of doing that. I think we've been a lot more consistent lately, but we still have some consistency issues.

"I thought it was something we established last year, but you get a couple guys and new guys and the team changes and ice time is allocated differently. It just changes and we've been struggling what our identity is missing."

Mason, who was instrumental in fueling the Blues' second-half charge that vaulted them all the way from 15th to 6th in the Western Conference, doesn't feel like it's from a lack of effort but rather just being out of sync.

"It's not the effort, because guys work hard but just the structure hasn't always been there," Mason said. "We're just not in sync as much as we've needed to be this year. Sometimes, it seems like we get running around or we get caught out of position. Last year, we were solid, we were grinding games out and we understood that we're going to be in a lot of one-goal games. That's been the case this year, but last year, we found ways through our structure and our grit and things like that to get those wins and get those points. This year, we've given way too many away."

Games earlier in the season the Blues feel like they gave away is a big reason why they are still on the outside of the playoff picture and looking in.

"If you look back, there's probably at least 10 games or so where we just gave away points or we lost leads and things like that, but you can't do that," Mason said. "It's over now. If it takes us to the end of the year to learn it, that's what it's going to have to take. We won't be in the playoffs if that's the case. We just have to get the points when they're there and not give any away."

* * *

Olympic banter -- With an array of players that are American- and Canadian-heavy, it would be easy to understand why players would kid each other regarding who will win the upcoming Olympic ice hockey gold medal.

But in the Blues' locker room ...

"That's been pretty quiet around here," said forward Brad Boyes. "A lot of Americans, a lot of Canadians here, so that's pretty much the split."

Asked whether he'll watch the Olympic games, Boyes said, "If it's around, I'll see it. Most are for bragging rights I think right now. Go against Americans and Swedes ... a little Czech, too. But I want them to do well."

* * *

The Olympic trading freeze kicks in today and lasts through Feb. 28, so many teams will likely make deals in order to have new pieces in place once the Olympics are done.

The Blues, who are expected to be quiet today, made a minor move Thursday, sending minor-league defenseman Steve Wagner to Pittsburgh in exchange for minor-league defenseman Nate Guenin.

Guenin, 27, played in 41 games this year for the Penguins' American Hockey League affiliate in Scranton for Wilkes-Barre and he recorded three goals and two assists.

He was originally drafted by the New York Rangers in 2002 and will report to Peoria immediately.

Blues players looking forward to Olympic break

Team faces Toronto tonight, Washington Saturday,
will take time off aside from three Olympians

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- With a condensed schedule that is all too familiar in Major League Baseball, the Blues and the rest of their National Hockey League peers are more than looking forward to a two-week break.

With the 2010 Winter Olympics about to unveil its glory on Sunday -- ice hockey competition begins Tuesday -- there is a plethora of NHLers that will leave the grind and gruel of what is the 2009-10 season to allow the mind and body to heal, retool and reenergize.

The Blues, who conducted a lengthy practice Thursday at St. Louis Mills in preparation for home games Friday against Toronto and Saturday against Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals, will send three Olympians (David Backes and Erik Johnson for Team USA) and Roman Polak (Czech Republic) to Vancouver but for the rest, it will be time to rest.

Some players will partake in some sun and fun at exotic resorts, some will just go home (wherever home is) and get away from the frozen water and get themselves refocused for the stretch run.

For the Blues, that means 20 more games of battling for a berth in the Western Conference playoffs, but for the time being, once the clock strikes midnight on Saturday night, hockey will be the furthest thing for most of these guys.

"With the way our schedule's been and the travel, it's kind of welcomed," said goalie Chris Mason, a Red Deer, Alberta native who will grab his wife Courtney and daughter Avery and head down to Cancun. "It's been a pretty tough month-and-a-half with the schedule, but I think we're planning on going down to Cancun for a few days. It'll be weird not doing anything in the middle of the season."

Brad Boyes is also among those that wants to enjoy the sun in Mexico, but the Mississauga, Ontario native will also spread his time between Mexico and Canada.

"I'm going down to (Riviera Maya) Mexico," Boyes said. "And then my girlfriend and I are going back to Toronto for a couple days.

"A little warmth, (then) the freezing and back down here."

Then, there's T.J. Oshie, who wants nothing to do with sunburns and sandy beaches. He's going home to North Dakota.

"Just go back home -- just relax," Oshie said when asked what his two weeks will consist of. "No beaches, no Florida, no Mexico. Just hang out.

"I think everyone's looking forward to it. Kind of a win-win. You get a good break and you get to relax and come back strong in a couple weeks or you play in the Olympics."

Count Blues coach Davis Payne among the those looking for a little R&R. He'll go back to Peoria to spend time with wife Jane and two daughters. They've all been shuffling back and forth between St. Louis and Peoria since the 39-year-old was named to replace Andy Murray as coach on Jan. 2.

"I'm going to apply that theory as well. I've got some reconnect with the family," Payne said. "It's been six weeks I haven't been home. We've had our visits back and forth and lots of phone conversations, but that reconnect and family time is what I'm looking forward to."

Payne doesn't necessarily think that the Blues (26-25-9) will benefit from having so much time off. He feels this is the time all teams grin and bear the grind of the season as teams jockey for postseason position or fight for their playoff lives.

"I don't know if you can look at that as good, bad or indifferent," Payne said regarding the time off. "I always think that the grind of the season is what forges your mental toughness. Everybody has to go through games 50-65 and get into the 70s, that positioning that starts to kind of boost up your awareness going down the stretch. The teams that are able to grind through that part of the schedule and have success usually set themselves up for a pretty good positioning and obviously a pretty good spot mentally for the last 10-, 15-, 20-games."

Payne added, "I think everybody will be in the same boat. Everybody should come back refreshed (and) recharged. It won't be something that you have to deal with. It'll be everybody hitting the ground full speed, recharged. It should make for some pretty good tempo. To me, that mental challenge of grinding through that part of the season is something you want to take some pride in, you want to face head-on, you want to deal with it, you want to consider it to be something your team gets stronger with."

The Blues can only hope they have positive results moving forward from this weekend, then they'll worry about the home stretch.

"Our season's on the line. That's it for us," Mason said. "We've got to get our eggs in our basket. ... We've got to put efforts on the line every single night because we can't afford to give any more points away."