Blues impressive in 4-1 homestand; Halak's turn to shine
By LOUIE KORAC
HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- As they play a road game Saturday night in Nashville, the Blues are coming off their second five-game homestand of the season.
And after going 4-0-1 in the first set that saw them win games over Chicago and Detroit, the Blues can look back on another impressive run. This time, going 4-1 against the likes of the Red Wings again, San Jose and Thursday's 4-1 win over the New York Rangers, one of the hottest teams in the Eastern Conference.
"We got better and better as the homestand went on," said Blues coach Ken Hitchcock, who's team is 7-0-1 against Eastern Conference foes this season. "When you're beating teams with good records, it builds confidence.
"I thought yesterday taking four days off (prior to facing the Rangers), where all of us were a little bit nervous how long it would take us to get into the game, after the first three minutes, we started to really play. ... I thought we just did a good job (the entire homestand). We do enough to set the tempo and then keep the tempo."
It was a homestand in which the Blues played against many players with high-end skill. The Rangers boast the likes of Marian Gaborik, who has tormented the Blues in the past while with the Minnesota Wild, along with Brad Richards and Ryan Callahan among others.
"When we play against any guys with that kind of skill level, you've got to be ready for a big up-tempo game," winger David Perron said. "We've done a good job of taking that challenge and making the best out of it."
The homestand culminated with what Hitchcock called the best shift of the entire five-game stretch that saw Patrik Berglund give the Blues a 1-0 lead Thursday.
The Blues had the line of David Backes, Alex Steen and T.J. Oshie get things started in the Rangers' zone before the Berglund line finished off the play with Berglund's power move off the right half-wall.
"We were a minute-40 (seconds) in the zone," Hitchcock said. "That's the part that was impressive. We kept the puck, made changes, the line that started the shift was off, the other line was out there. Of the whole homestand, that's the most impressive two shifts we had. That minute-40 was really a good sign."
Hitchcock's 200-foot game is a hard one to play, the coach said, but the team is buying into it with each win. The Blues (18-9-3) will have another challenge when they face the Predators (16-11-3), who are coming off a 4-3 come-from-behind win over Detroit Thursday.
"It's not an easy way to play," Hitchcock said. "It's hard, it's very difficult but rewarding. I think the team right now is seeing the reward for the hard work. It's kind of become the staple of what we are."
* Balanced minutes for d-men -- On Thursday, the Blues' defensemen were so balanced and arguably had their best game of the season, Hitchcock balanced the minutes out between all three units.
Instead of playing Alex Pietrangelo, who averages over 24 minutes a game, near his average ice time, Hitchcock was able to balance all three sets of defensemen to around 20 minutes each.
"What we found out is the combination of (Kris) Russell and (Roman) Polak can play against top players," Hitchcock said. "It makes it a lot better for us right now knowing that Russ and Roman can play against anybody's top players, gives us flexibility and we can play more people more minutes and not be afraid to put anybody out on the ice against good players. Those two guys being able to match up against other teams' top players has really given us a confidence back there that we've got six that can play against anybody."
There are times when Hitchcock, who will celebrate his 60th birthday Saturday, will mix Polak and Russell with Barret Jackman and Kevin Shattenkirk based on opponents' strengths.
"It depends on the tempo and the matchup," Hitchcock said. "If it's a speed tempo, then I think Russell with Shatty works well, and if there's a size issue where you're coming at (us) with real beef, then Polak and Jackman will have to go play that group. We can flip two groups around and feel good about it.
"One thing that we found out is Russell isn't a big guy, but he's very competitive. He's a smart defender. Him and Roman have played well against top lines and that's worked out good for us."
* Halak to start -- The Blues will go with Jaroslav Halak tonight against the Predators and very likely Sunday when the Blues return home to face Columbus.
Hitchcock said Halak, who will go nine days between starts but has posted a 1.66 goals-against average and .936 save percentage over his last nine starts with one shutout, will be tested to see how he reacts to teams that like to get to the net hard. The plan is to split the four games, including Thursday's win and next Wednesday's game at Colorado between Halak and Brian Elliott.
"The plan is to play (Halak) tomorrow and then we wanted to see him play again quickly, so whether it's Sunday or right back in against Colorado ... the formula was by the 26th, we wanted the guys almost playing an equal venue," Hitchcock said. "We're not opposed to seeing how he reacts back-to-back either.
"We want to keep them going. ... I don't know how to describe it, but this is a test for (Halak). We want to see how he handles a lot of activity at the net. Both of these teams go to the net hard, whether it's Nashville or Columbus, both of these teams go to the net hard. Handling the traffic's going to be a challenge for him."
Also expect to see winger Evgeny Grachev in the lineup at some point soon, possibly as early as Sunday against the Blue Jackets.
"Grachev's going to play here quick," said Hitchcock. "We liked the lineup from last night, probably stay with it (against Nashville), but Grach is going to get in here quick."
* Holding the lead -- When the Blues have a lead after two periods, you might as well chalk up a win.
At least that's how it's gone so far this season.
After Thursday's win, the Blues are now 14-0-1 when leading after two periods. The only blemish was a 3-2 shootout loss at Colorado Dec. 2.
What's the key?
"Good goaltending, to start," winger Alex Steen said. "Goaltending's been great. Both Ells and Jaro have made key stops at key times in the game. You're going to go through times in a game that they push you back a little bit and you need that save to get you back out of it. They always come through. It's been a calming feeling back there.
"After that, I think our forwards and our D have done a good job moving the puck and not just chipping it out and chasing it down every time but moving it, helping each other out, supporting each other to get it out. Once we do that, we push them down a bit before we get our change. That helps a lot."