Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Opponents making life tough in West

Despite winning 9 of 13, Blues lose
ground against teams in playoff race

ST. LOUIS -- Last season, while the Blues were ascending up the playoff mountain, their competitors were slowly losing steps.

An improbable finish to the 2008-09 season catapulted the Blues into the postseason for the first time since 2004, and there was no way of stopping the express that was hurling speed bumps in front of every challenge.

A 9-1-1 finish to the season ended with the Blues entering the postseason as the No. 6 seed in the Western Conference.

But as the current season winds down, it's looking more and more as if the Blues will be spectators rather than participants despite winning nine of the last 13 games.

When the Blues finished drubbing Dallas 6-1 on March 4, they were within one point of stepping into the Western Conference's Elite Eight. It was their season-best fifth win in a row, and there were thoughts that deja vu could quickly emerge once again.

But since that stretch, the Blues have gone 4-4-0, and as they face Detroit today at 6:30 p.m., the margin has widened to eight points and only 10 games remain on the docket.

"That's the way it goes," Blues forward Brad Boyes said Tuesday. "That's the way that the league is meant (to be) run. There's three-point games. When you're looking at a couple teams ahead of you, you put on a run, they put on a run. ... It’s tough. You can't control it. We've got to control obviously what we can. We've got to win every game. That's almost the mindset we've got to have.

"We can't do anything about that. We're just looking at whatever we can get. We're playing the team we're battling with (for the last playoff spot) tomorrow night. That's a big game for us."

The players have come to the realization that too many games -- and precious points -- were given away early on in the season.

Last year's team put itself in the same predicament. But they wiggled out of that jam.

It's looking more and more like the current roster will not embark on the same destiny.

"It's real frustrating because it seems like we're playing well, but the teams we're fighting with are playing just as good," said goalie Chris Mason. "They're the hottest teams in the league and it's tough. We have good stretches like this and it feels like you're not gaining anything and it's disappointing. ... We put a really good stretch together, but we put ourselves in this position early in the year. We only have ourselves to blame for that."

Defenseman Erik Johnson, who was not part of last season's magical run because of the knee injury he suffered that caused him to miss all of 2008-09, knows that even though it's one loss, the stinging defeat to Nashville on Sunday and the way the Blues lost cripples a team so severely at this point in the season.

"When you're in a hole like this, you need help from the teams you're chasing to lose a little bit, but that's our own fault for blowing games at the beginning of the season," Johnson said. "All we can do is worry about ourselves right now and win as many hockey games as we can.

"It's frustrating because every game is so important right now. You can't afford to blow away points when other teams are winning. The games that you're playing against the other teams you're trying to catch are the most important ones and that game against Nashville really stings. We just have to keep plugging along, we have to pretty much win out. I think everyone believes they can do it."

It can be a daunting task considering the Blues are winning consistently, but the teams they're fighting with or trying to catch are winning just as much, if not more.

"I suppose, but we knew it was a tall task. We know it still is," coach Davis Payne said Tuesday. "We also know the possibilities and the opportunities for us to play great and do some great things. That's our focus. I don't know how it played out last year when that type of winning, nine out of 13 or whatever it was ... I don't know what kind of gap that would have closed last year, but hey, this is a completely different entity. You've got Calgary, Nashville (and) Detroit all playing extremely well. Those are the teams we're trying to chase. You get yourself into a situation where if they meet that pace, it's tough to catch. But we've got to take care of our business and that starts tomorrow night in Detroit."

The Blues, who play six of their 10 remaining games at home, can take solice in the fact they are 22-11-4 on the road, especially after losing like they did Sunday. And if they want to cling onto those diminishing playoff hopes, winning in Detroit tonight keeps them afloat for the time being.

But many of the players are flummoxed with the whole situation regarding home and away games.

None that spoke Tuesday have ever seen such dismal numbers at home, yet rock-steady results on the road.

"I think when you're in habits ... on the road, we've had great habits and it's been showing," Boyes said. "We haven't had the great habits at home and it's showing. ... Normally, the home record is the stronger one. I think we were a solid road team last year, too, but we had that home record last year and that really helped us. For whatever reason this year, we've struggled a lot."

Which makes it easy for fans to feel like it's been two different teams that take the ice.

"It seems sometimes it's two different teams that are taking the ice," Mason said, agreeing with that assessment. "We just haven't been tough enough and not hard enough on teams at home. It's unexplainable. It's just disappointing to look back on it.

"To have the worst home record in the NHL is embarrassing. We played so well here last year. This has always been a tough building to come in. The leads that we've given up and the way we've played at home, we have nobody but ourselves to blame. We have the team in here that we all think we can do it, but it's really unexplainable at this point to have the road record we have, which is extremely tough to win in other teams buildings and to have the record we have at home, that's the reason."

Johnson summed it up best when he said, "It's really kind of kicked us in the (tail) a little bit."

This past weekend's games are the classic example between winning and losing for the Blues.

They held a 1-0 lead at New Jersey, which is as tough a building to play in, and won that game by that same margin. But Sunday against Nashville at home, a 2-1 lead quickly evaporated late when the Predators scored twice within a 48-second span with under four minutes remaining.

"It's the game plan. It's the execution. ... I'm beyond explanation," Mason said. "I really don't know anymore because we play differently. It seems like when we're on the road, we're executing our game plan, we play it from start to finish. When we get at home, we get away from it, and it costs us. ... That's not our game plan to sit back and defend.

"Last year, we played physical (and) direct. This year, a little too cutesy, just not tough enough."

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