By LOUIE KORAC
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."
"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.