Sunday, October 24, 2010

Have the Blues arrived? They're gaining believers

Team is taking low-keyed approach
after wins over Chicago, Pittsburgh

By LOUIE KORAC
ST. LOUIS -- First round picks Erik Johnson and Alex Pietrangelo are playing big, important minutes. Veterans Barret Jackman and Eric Brewer, along with Carlo Colaiacovo were thrust into more prominent roles and increased time with the loss of Roman Polak. Yes, the Blues' defensive unit was put to the test this past weekend.

Needless to say, they -- along with their teammates -- came out of it with flying colors.

Huge wins over the last two Stanley Cup champs, 4-2 over defending champion Chicago Friday night and 1-0 in overtime Saturday over the Pittsburgh Penguins have the Blues feeling good.

It was a key weekend of hockey.

So ... should these wins be a big deal for the Blues?

"I think we've just got to stay even-keeled and realize how we played, how long it took us to play our game for us to get a couple wins in this building and also realize that we just came off a three-game losing streak," said forward T.J. Oshie, who assisted on Johnson's game-winner against the Penguins and has a six-game point streak. "We're not in first place by any means and we're still not where we want to be. But we're getting better each day and that's our goal."

The Blues (4-1-2) have earned points in six of the seven games played this season, games against some very stiff competition.

It was a hard-earned win over the Blackhawks, then with the high-flying Penguins in town, led by Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, there were the Blues' prized draft picks Johnson and Pietrangelo, the No. 1 overall pick in 2006 and No. 4 overall pick in 2008, respectively, playing with the game on the line.

Johnson provided the winning margin Saturday, scoring 50 seconds into overtime and played some of his best hockey of the season in the late stages of that game. And Pietrangelo, who had to battle for a spot on this defensive unit in training camp, led all skaters in ice time, a career-best 23 minutes 12 seconds.

Yes, the kids have arrived.

"You feel good the more you play," Pietrangelo said. "Obviously minutes went up with Roman being out. But at the same time, you're feeling pretty confident with what we've been able to accomplish so far. We've been playing our game and the big thing is to continue to do it and play the whole season like that."

Added Johnson, "You want to make a difference. No better time to do it, I guess. The opportunity was there. You can't really create something out of nothing. I got the puck at the right time and created something and just used my instincts. ... You have to trust your hockey sense. That's what I did and fortunately turned into some good plays for our team.

"Guys stepped up. Petro's played really well and stepped up really well. It kind of makes everyone come together as a cohesive unit. Roman's a big key to that, but we had guys step up and play really well in his absence."

Polak, who has played with Brewer on the Blues' top defensive pairing, was lost in the second quarter when he was inadvertently cut on the right wrist by the skate of Crosby. Blues coach Davis Payne will know more about Polak's status today.

The Blues were down to five defensemen trying to contain Pittsburgh's big guns.

Not only did they stop them, they kept them scoreless.

"It goes to show we can play with anybody," Pietrangelo said. "Two pretty good hockey teams ... I think everybody knows that. We played some real good hockey."

It was gut-check time for the Blues' d-men when Polak went down.

"He's a big-minute guy who plays hard and plays a really good game," Brewer said of Polak. "You deal with it and carry on. But you do notice it."

"Our guys are growing and learning by fire. This is exactly what we need," Payne said. "We need these tests passed by our hockey club, and these guys are capable of doing that. ... It's a step and we take another one, and we keep going. I think these guys are feeling good about their abilities to play against top players and top teams. That should be our expectation if we play that way."

Jaroslav Halak, who stymied the Penguins in the playoffs a season ago when Montreal shocked Pittsburgh in seven games during the Eastern Conference semifinals, did his part as well. He stopped all 31 shots faced Saturday and kicked out 23 shots against Chicago Friday.

"We did a great job all night long," said Halak, who improved to 4-1-1 on the season while lowering his goals-against average to 1.81. "The first period, we gave them only three shots. Even though they got way more shots in the second, we were still in the game. ... I've got to give our guys credit even when Poli went down. We were battling and the five guys in the back were great tonight."

But Johnson capped off the weekend in grand fashion. He, Oshie and David Backes got the cycle going right off the faceoff to begin overtime. Once the puck made its way into the Penguins' zone, it never came back out.

"There's so much more room 4-on-4," Johnson said. "It suits my game for sure being able to skate and use my skills.

"It's fun to be out there. You want to make a difference. You want to be the difference-maker and hopefully win it for your team."

Which Johnson most certainly did.

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