Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Blues begin toughest part of schedule tonight

Game at Blackhawks kicks off stretch of seven games in 11 days

ST. LOUIS -- A rare break in the schedule where the Blues were not playing for three days was a chance for the team to take full advantage of some rest and relaxation.

And while not all three days were used, most all involved took the time to get away, allow the body to refuel and let the mind ease away from the grind that is the NHL.

"It seems like the last three days have been like a week or two off with our schedule," said defenseman Barret Jackman, who leads the team in ice time per game. "It's nice to kind of rest the body for a couple days and jump back at it."

And jump back into they did at practice on Tuesday, as the Blues get set to face the toughest part of the schedule that any team would have to endure upon when they play seven games in 13 days leading into the Olympic break.

"A couple days, you just shut off the mind, but we came in today and we had a good video session and were refreshed," Jackman said. "We tried to correct a few errors in our game and we're right back out there, intense in practice and skating well. I think the guys spent the three days off very well and we're ready for (tonight)."

The Blues will begin the gauntlet of games today when they face the Chicago Blackhawks at 7:30 p.m. (FSN, KMOX 1120-AM) at United Center.

San Jose comes calling at home on Thursday, then the Blackhawks make a return visit to Scottrade Center Saturday, followed by a game at Colorado Monday, Detroit at home Tuesday, Toronto here on Feb. 12 and Washington rounds it out with a visit here on Feb. 13.

"It's an opportunity for us to prove we belong in the group that you can anticipate are heading into the playoffs," Blues coach Davis Payne said. "Chicago and San Jose have obviously had successful years to this point. You can anticipate them being there as one of the top eight. That's who we have this week. If we want to be there, we've got to earn points against them."

But after playing 11 games in 18 days and 15 in the month of January, a break in the schedule came at an opportune time for a team that like all teams, needed some time off to get the body cranked up again for what will be a grind heading into the two-week Olympic lay-off as well as the remainder of the schedule as the Blues (22-24-9) are in crowded terrain competing for one of the eight playoff positions in the Western Conference.

"Physically and mentally, it's one thing to be going through that grind and your body is telling you one thing," Payne said. "You've got to get in that game mode and you get to the rink and you play. Here was a chance for us to take some time off the ice. Rest is as important as the work is. It gave us a chance to do that, it gave them a chance if they needed a day away from the rink -- they've obviously got families -- and get a chance to recharge that situation. We want to be sharp every time we come to the rink, and that was part of the plan."

It's no doubt that the seven games leading into the Olympics will say a lot as to whether the Blues will be in this playoff chase or not and be sellers as trades unfold. A bad stretch of games here could very well determine if the Blues will go down to the end swinging or if they'll bow out quietly and become sellers.

"I don't know if it's make or break, but we definitely have to play well if we want to make that push to the playoffs," Jackman said. "It's very important, but I don't know if it will be make or break until we get done with this set (of games) and see where everyone is in the standings."

The Blues are 4-4-2 against the current stretch of teams they will face and they seem to rise to the occasion as the teams they face are better.

"I think this year, we have played some of our best hockey against some of the better teams," Jackman said. "We do have to have that mental focus where we take every opponent the same and we play our game each and every night. Chicago, San Jose and Chicago again, those are going to be three really big games for us. We have to elevate our play if we want to keep up with those teams."

* Fun on the frozen water -- Even though Tuesday's practice was an all-out, full bore practice, Payne allowed the team to mix business with pleasure during a shootout drill.

While Payne was getting an idea of his shootout personnel, the former NHL'er himself took part himself to see if the 39-year-old still has what it takes.

It's obvious he does, as he was able to get one past goalie Chris Mason.

"I got the one move there where I get the goalie's legs locked in and scored on (Mason) and I got a little ahead of myself trying to go backwards," said Payne, sweat dripping from his brows and glasses fogged. "I always made a rule as a forward the last thing you want to do is to skate backwards. I almost paid for it."

The players were certainly ready to pounce on their leader in case he did take a fall.

"I'm sure when he falls against the wall, he's got 25 sets of eyes that are burning the back of his neck to make fun of him as soon as he turns around," Jackman joked. "I haven't seen him skate too much. ... He gets from Point A to B."

It's been exactly one month since Payne took over as head coach for Andy Murray, and he's seen his team involved in one shootout (against Anaheim Jan. 23).

"I hadn't seen them do one, so obviously I've been going through the process of evaluating who we're going to use and who we need," Payne said. "I just wanted to take a look at what guys had to offer."

* Steen/Crombeen injury updates -- Forwards Alex Steen and B.J. Crombeen took different routes Tuesday in the road to recovery.

Steen was in gear and practiced with lines and was used as an extra defenseman during drills but was going full force from the lower-body injury (believed to be a foot injury) that he suffered while blocking a shot Saturday against Columbus.

But all signs point to a return to the lineup tonight in Chicago

"A very good sign," Payne said after practice. "Obviously, we weren't sure what we were going to get coming into today, but that's a positive sign as we look towards tomorrow. ... We'll make that decision. We'll see how he responded today. Any time you start getting ahead of yourself, those things can bite you. We like what we saw and we'll assess here and determine if he's able to go tomorrow."

Crombeen on the other hand was not on the ice Tuesday, also with a lower-body injury from a check along the corner boards, also suffered Saturday against Columbus.

Crombeen will not play tonight in Chicago but hopes to play either Thursday against San Jose or Saturday against the Blackhawks.

"It's just a little bump, but hopefully, it's nothing too long," Crombeen said. "I'll be back here hopefully in a couple days. ... I don't think (tonight) is a go. It's kind of day-to-day. Nothing serious."

In case Crombeen and Steen both can't play in Chicago, Payne put together a line of Jay McClement centering tough guys Cam Janssen and D.J. King.

"We've talked about a lot of different scenarios," Payne said. "Those are two guys that bring a physical element and we expect this to be that type of game. At this point, it gives us options, but we're not locked into anything."

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