Blues look to halt skid in Colorado; Elliott gets nod;
By LOUIE KORAC
HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- If the Blues want to stay hot -- they're 9-1-2 in their last 12 games -- then they will need to conquer the Mile High Altitude.
The Blues (19-9-4) will once again try to slay the Colorado Avalanche (16-17-1) at the Pepsi Center, where they are 3-7-1 in their last 11 games and winless in the last five (0-4-1).
The last Blues victory in Denver came on the final day of the regular season on April 12, 2009, a 1-0 victory that propelled them into their only playoff berth in the post-lockout era.
"I think it's a mindset," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said about playing in Colorado. "I think that sometimes when you go there, you get worried about things you can't control, like altitude and things like that. I also think that in the one game that I coached (with the Blues), it was a very quick hockey game."
It marks the second and final visit for the Blues in Denver and second in 19 days. Colorado rallied in the third period and took a 3-2 shootout victory on Dec. 2, the only time the Blues have failed to hold onto a lead -- they led 2-1 -- heading into the third period. They are 14-0-1 in those situations.
"They did the same things yesterday," Hitchcock said of the Avalanche's 3-2 shootout win over Philadelphia Monday. "Philly went in there and played their game the first period; Philly played well and then Philly came off the game and Colorado really went at it.
"Colorado has a lot of youthful speed on their side, and if you let them get in transition, with what they've changed on the back-end with all the speed they've got back there now too, they're very dynamic. And that's what happened yesterday. Philly came off the game a little bit and there they go again."
Sounds a lot like what happened when the Avs got a Ryan O'Reilly goal to tie it in the third and O'Reilly won it with the lone shootout goal over the Blues earlier in the month.
"I think that's the same thing that happened to us in the third period," Hitchcock said. "We were really good for two periods. We came off it for a little bit in the third and they were dialing it up and coming at us in waves.
"We talked about that today. We have our game, they have their game and we've got to make sure we dictate it. The minute you stop dictating against them, you're going to be in trouble."
* Avs taking home ice back -- The Avalanche, which was 4-8-1 on home ice at one point, have reeled off six straight wins at Pepsi Center and will be looking for No. 7 tonight (8:30 p.m. on FSN, KMOX 1120-AM).
"They're finding ways to win," Hitchcock said of the Avs. "It's so close. It's a one-goal league.
"You look at Detroit, every game is one goal (and) Detroit wins. We've won a lot of one-goal games. Now they're on the right side of one-goal games. Also, (goalie Jean-Sebastien) Giguere has really calmed things down in goal. There's no second and third opportunities and he's played very well. But I also think that you just can't win in the league playing run-and-gun. It works for a little while, but you just can't win in the league run-and-gun. I think they're starting to figure it out. They've got a lot of really good offensive players, but they're playing with good structure right now, good discipline."
* Central tough -- If the playoffs began today, of the Western Conference's top eight teams, half of those playoff positions would be occupied by Central Division squads (the Blues, Chicago, Detroit and Nashville).
So, is the Central Division the toughest in the NHL?
"Unfortunately, yeah," Hitchcock said. "No easy games.
"Look at the game against Columbus (Sunday), and they're in last place in the division. They gave us everything we could handle (a 6-4 win). And then you've got everybody else is a playoff team. You've got Chicago (and) Detroit at the top of the heap. Nashville's a playoff team, we're a playoff team ... four in the division making it in the playoffs at Christmas ... that's a strong, strong division."
The Blues, 13-2-4 since Hitchcock arrived, have escalated from 14th in the conference to fifth entering Tuesday night's play but they've not made it past the Blackhawks and Red Wings and the Predators are right on the Blues' heels.
"We've been on a pretty big roll here," Hitchcock said. "We've just moved the ball a little bit. We've moved the pack a little bit. If you were to run into another division, you'd be leading it. We're not doing that. As well as we've played, the other three teams are right alongside of us. They've got the same record as we do. There's no difference between any of the three teams that we're trying to catch or stay ahead of. It's going to be tough."
* Elliott to start -- The goalie merry-go-round for Hitchcock and the Blues continues, as Brian Elliott (13-2, 1.43 goals-against average and .948 save percentage) gets the call against the team he last played for after Jaroslav Halak was in goal for back-to-back games over the weekend, going 1-0-1.
Elliott, who leads the NHL in GAA and save percentage and is tied with two others for the league lead with four shutouts, left the Avalanche as a free agent to sign a one-year, two-way contract with the Blues in the summer.
"We're just going to go with Brian and see how he does in Colorado," Hitchcock said. "I'm kind of excited to see how he does there.
"Both guys have played well. It was a bizarre game the last game when Jaro played. Pucks were bouncing everywhere and ... the game's 4-3 and he makes those three saves in a row with 10 minutes to go, those are winning saves. They allow us to get to 5-3 rather than get nervous and get tied 4-4. They give us a chance every night to win, and that's what I want to see."
After the game against Colorado, Hitchcock wouldn't commit to who would go in the forthcoming games. But the Blues will come back from Christmas with two sets of back-to-back games (Monday at home against Dallas and Tuesday in Detroit, followed by a home game Friday, Dec. 30 vs. Nashville and New Year's Eve in Detroit again).
Hitchcock said Halak showed him enough to go with him again in back-to-back games if he needs to go there, but likely both will see action.
"I went with him knowing full well that off of back-to-back, getting back late, it was going to be a loose game (Sunday)," Hitchcock said of Halak. "Two teams that were tired. It was a loose, emotional game. Lots of good stuff, but lots of stuff that you'd go, "What the ... ," and we prevailed.
"The way he played in the third and the way we played in the third was really impressive."
* Sobotka, Crombeen travel -- A pair of injured forwards (Vladimir Sobotka and B.J. Crombeen) were on the team's chartered flight and traveled to Denver Tuesday.
Sobotka, who has an injured left ankle after blocking an Alex Steen shot in practice Dec. 12, was at the team's practice facility at St. Louis Mills Tuesday without the walking boot and crutches that he possessed since the injury. Sobotka's timetable originally was two weeks, which would put him at Tuesday in Detroit at the earliest.
Crombeen, who fractured his left shoulder blade (scapula) in a preseason game on Oct. 1, continues to wear the red no-contact jersey in practice but traveled with the team for the first time. His timeline for a return has always been around the first of the year. He'll need at least a couple weeks of contact drills to get the shoulder up to par.