Toronto playing much better since trades
that brought them Phaneuf, Giguere
By LOUIE KORAC
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."
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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."
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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."
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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.