Monday, January 31, 2011

With 33 games left, Blues face a familiar stretch run

Team sits five points out of playoff spot in West,
hope to put January in rear view mirror

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- After falling at Calgary Wednesday, the Blues concluded a month of hockey that ranked among the worst in franchise history.

Let's face it, the All-Star break couldn't have come fast enough for a Blues team that was as physically worn out as it was mentally.

The Blues finished January with a 2-8-2 record, which ties an all-time worst for fewest wins in the month of January (they were 2-5-0-6 in 1982-83). And in those 10 losses, the Blues led in seven of them. They were 0-6-1 in those games and are now 21-10-4 on the season while holding a lead at some point in those games, which ranks among the worst in the NHL.

But after getting the last four days off -- except for All-Star David Backes, who got the day off Monday -- to refresh and recharge the batteries, the Blues (22-20-7) sit five points in back of the eighth and final playoff position in the Western Conference and sit in a tie for 13th place.

"Mentally it was really good, also physically," said forward Alex Steen, who is second behind Backes in goals (15) and points (36). "There's some guys with some bumps that I think it was just nice to give them a rest. Even though you rest from practices and stuff, there's bumps and stuff that happens and it just keeps them going. I think physically, it was really good for this group to have a little break."

The Blues had the exact same record after 49 games last year and finished the stretch run 18-12-3 but only gained one point during the chase.

When they made their incredible run to a playoff berth during the 2008-09 season, the Blues were 20-24-5 when they went on a 21-7-5 tear to climb into the West as a No. 7 seed.

"Obviously, it has to do with the points, but I think the big thing is there's more teams between you and the eight-spot," Steen said. "I think if we can get off to a good start here coming off the break and jump over a couple teams so there's not four or five teams in between us for that eighth spot, it's going to make a huge difference."

It's likely going to take something similar for the Blues to gain entry into the postseason this year, having to climb over a handful of teams to do it. But they are prepared to do what it takes because remember, 'Every Game Counts.'

"It's not just getting the wins, it's also getting the wins against the teams we need to," said defenseman Barret Jackman, who is expected to return to the lineup tonight against the Colorado Avalanche. "You can't be giving points away against teams like Colorado or Calgary. There's going to be points that are maybe more important than others. Might be four-point games. But we've got to go out there and treat every game the same and play desperate the rest of the way."

When the Blues resumed practice Monday at St. Louis Mills, there was no talk of game-segments, doing this and doing that. It was all about preparing for who's next on the slate.

"No, we're looking to be as good as we can be tomorrow," Blues coach Davis Payne said. "I thought we had a spirited practice. I thought there was some execution. I thought that guys came back and had some good energy. It's up to us to be great tomorrow, and that's the first opportunity.

"We've got the Colorado Avalanche in town tomorrow. It's an opportunity for us to play a great game and that's what we're looking for. Five points out with 33 to go seems like a doable situation in our eyes."

Of the remaining 33 games for the Blues, 18 of them are on the road. And the road has not been very kind to this team, as it only has seven wins away from Scottrade Center, which is tied for the fewest in the league and worst in the Western Conference.

And even though there have been a slew of injuries to key players throughout the season, this was a team that started a franchise best 9-1-2.

"You've got to win hockey games. We know that," Payne said. "We know we can be better. We came back knowing that we haven't had the type of results we wanted, but this is where we sit. We've got a very resolved group. We've got a group that trusts each other, a group that's going to fight and make sure that we make the proper adjustments and the proper improvements. We all feel we can better. That's a collective attitude. There’s a belief in there. You ask me why? Because we believe we can."

The Blues have to believe that they can improve in all areas necessary, including getting the stops from Jaroslav Halak and Ty Conklin in goal, blocking shots and killing off penalties, scoring goals on the power play and so forth.

"I always say I think we've got to get back to the pace that we've played at with our physical forecheck," Steen said. "... Just really getting back to feeling confident and comfortable with the system and the way that we're supposed to play the game. I think we're getting away from it too much in-game. It's a lot easier said than done, but that's what we have to do."

Added Payne, whose squad was outscored 17-9 in the second periods of January games, "We all recognize the fact that we can add a little bit, it adds up to a lot. We've got a group that's willing to do that. I don't think there's too much pause for concern. We're in a tough spot. We're not locked in, but right now, 33 to go, nobody's locked in.

"We talked about the mechanisms of our success, the reasons for it. These guys know what they are. We know as much as we'd rather be sitting a little higher, we're not. Just simply understand what our success is driven from and let's get to work. Let's not be afraid of the challenge. We're going to get into some tough battles and we've got to enjoy that part of it."

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