Friday, October 8, 2010

Better start to season, dominance on home ice critical for new season

Blues open 2010-11 tonight against
Eastern Conference champion Flyers

ST. LOUIS -- They've talked the talk. Now it's time to walk the walk.

For the Blues, who open the 2010-11 season today against the Philadelphia Flyers (7 p.m. on FSN, KMOX 1120-AM), they've talked a good game thus far. Camp has gone good, players are focused, anything but the playoffs simply isn't good enough. Those are just words. Now is the time to go out and execute and allow those words to come to fruition.

"I think this is going to be a big year for the St. Louis Blues," said defenseman Erik Johnson, the top overall pick in 2006. "I know everyone's really excited. This is the most buzz I've felt for a season in a long time. I haven't been here very long, but I feel really excited about the team and I think all the guys feel the same as well."

If the Blues want to compete in an always-tough Western Conference, getting off to a good start is crucial to the team's playoff chances. And it all begins here at Scottrade Center, where the Blues, 40-32-10 a season ago which was good for 90 points, must improve upon a paltry 18-18-5 record. They had the second-fewest points (41) on home ice ahead of only lowly Edmonton (40).

"It has to be a very difficult place to play," insists Blues coach Davis Payne. "It has to be where we have an advantage. We have an advantage because of the energy that's in the building, we have an advantage because we have (the) last change and can get better matchups, and we have an advantage because we're protecting something that is personal to us -- and that's our own building and our own fans. To me, that's an attitude. We'll play with that same attitude every single day."

The Blues were able to overcome a slow start two seasons ago and charge into the postseason as the No. 6 seed in the West before being swept by Vancouver but were unable to do so last season despite a 9-1-1 finish. They cannot continue to plod along the early stages of the season when points are precious every night. Parity runs rampant in this league.

"The biggest key has already happened, and that's having a great camp," said forward and alternate captain David Backes. "We've worked through it, we've put our work in. Not that we've scaled back the intensity, but we've scaled back the duration and we're still high quality every time we're on the ice. We seem to get better and more crisp every practice. That's got to translate into the game and we can't have the 10-game start like we did last year, especially at home."

The Blues, minus veterans Keith Tkachuk (retired), Paul Kariya (free agency/concussion), Chris Mason (free agency) and Mike Weaver (free agency), have relatively left their roster alone and brought back the core of the roster. They did make one major acquisition by trading for No. 1 goalie Jaroslav Halak from Montreal. Other than that, Blues management decided to stand pat.

"Your expectations are to always wanting to win the Stanley Cup," general manager Doug Armstrong said. "What we concern ourselves about is not the goal at the end. It's the process to get to the goal at the end. ... I know Davis will coach this team that they don't waste a day, don't waste any opportunity to be better because Chicago is working that hard, Detroit is working that hard. The competition is working that hard. We don't want to waste any opportunity to get better. We understand our goals, but I'm more concerned about the journey than the ultimate goal because if we take care of the journey, if we take care of every day, goals will follow themselves. But once you start looking so far ahead, you start going over your feet and you're not going anywhere.

"We're not afraid of success, we're going to demand success. But talk is cheap. The real successful teams do it by their actions, they do it by their practice habits, they do it by the way they live, the way they prepare. We're more concerned with the journey than the ultimate destination."

That journey begins when the Flyers, who opened with a 3-2 win at Pittsburgh Thursday, come calling with former Blue Chris Pronger. Pronger (knee) did not play Thursday and his status for tonight is uncertain.

"We're awfully excited for tomorrow to get here," Payne said Friday. "I know the guys were real sharp here today and looking forward to tomorrow. The last touches of preparation are done and we go live fire.

"We're going to play 82 (games). We know how important it is to get to a certain level, to get to our game. Our game is fast, it's at people with intensity. It's maintaining an edge in the 1-on-1 battle situations, it's executing structure. We feel we're pretty darn close to our game now."

Defenseman Alex Pietrangelo, the team's No. 1 pick (fourth overall) in 2008, will begin on the Blues' roster after making it out of his third training camp.

Despite playing in 17 games over two seasons, the King City, Ontario native is on board with his teammates in striving for the big picture despite the nervous feelings.

"I think they already have," Pietrangelo said Friday when asked about when do those nervous feelings kick in. "It's the last big practice before that first game and it's a big season here because there are some pretty big expectations. It's going to be pretty exciting here tomorrow night."

The Blues have to avoid being in the bottom third in the league in the standings for the first half of the season, which equivocates to October, November and December. The Blues have ranged anywhere from 20th to 28th in the league during those months, then play catch-up the rest of the way.

They also must get their weapons going in the goal-scoring front. If they can get 20-plus goals from any of the following: Brad Boyes, Andy McDonald, Alex Steen, David Backes, David Perron, T.J. Oshie and even Patrik Berglund, this team could make a big jaunt in the standings.

The Blues' motto this season is 'Every Game Counts.' If they believe that, it all starts here tonight.

"If you ask any guy in here, we absolutely believe we're a playoff team," said defenseman Carlo Colaiacovo. "We believe we're better than a playoff team. It's all got to come from within. We all gotta believe in that and play like our motto says: Every Game Counts. If we do that, we'll find ourselves there. We can't be satisfied with anything less than that."

* NOTE -- Prior to face-off, the Blues will hold a pre-game rally including a ceremony honoring Brett Hull and unveiling his new statue starting at 4 p.m. outside of Scottrade Center. Hull will take the main stage for his statue dedication and unveiling at 6 p.m. just outside the front doors of Scottrade Center. Hull’s statue will join fellow Hall of Famers Bernie Federko and Al MacInnis as the three sculptures erected outside Scottrade Center’s main entrance on Brett Hull Way (Clark Street). Fox Sports Midwest will broadcast the dedication live. Fans are encouraged to arrive early for the rally as well as the Blues pre-game show inside Scottrade Center, scheduled to begin around 6:45 p.m.

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