Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Battle for first place

With win over Canucks tonight, Blues can grab top spot in Western Conference

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- It would have been hard to predict in October what January would bring, but suffice to say that nobody could have predicted when the Blues and Vancouver Canucks would clash, the top slot in the Western Conference would be up for grabs.

Obviously there's still a long way to go, as both teams are beginning the second half of their respective seasons, but when the Blues (25-12-5) play host to the Canucks (27-14-3) today at 7 p.m. (FSN, KMOX 1120-AM), it's a chance for the home team to grab the top spot in the West with a regulation win.

For the Canucks, the defending Western Conference champions, this is no surprise that they are in the upper echelon. But for the Blues, who have one playoff appearance under their belts since the 2004-05 lockout, this is even a bigger surprise considering the fact that they have changed coaches and were 6-7-0 at one point and languishing in 14th place.

Now is a chance to prove they belong against a team that is 9-3-1 in its last 13 games.

(Getty Images)
The Blues have been trending up since Ken Hitchcock (top) took over as
head coach, going 19-5-5 in that stretch.

"From our standpoint, you play good teams, you want to be evaluated," said Blues coach Ken Hitchcock, whose team is 19-5-5 since taking over for Davis Payne Nov. 6. "You want to see your own team play against good teams. Those big four in the West (Vancouver, Chicago, Detroit and San Jose), any time we play against them, we want to know how we measure up. What areas are we good at? What areas do we need to work at? So for me, for a team trying to climb up the ladder ... I don't look at the points where a team's at. I look where you want to be at the end of the day.

"Any of these teams that have had histories of long runs in the playoffs, they know how to win. So we want to measure ourselves and see where we are against them. That's what gets me excited. The players are the same way. Any time a Detroit or San Jose, Vancouver, any of those division leaders from before, Chicago ... you want to see how you play."

Against the 'Big Four,' as Hitchcock likes to dub them, the Blues are 7-3-0 against those teams, including 2-0 against the Canucks this season, winning 3-0 in Vancouver Oct. 26 and 3-2 in St. Louis on Nov. 4.

"It was 30 games ago, so it's hard to evaluate because the Canucks are really dialed in now," Hitchcock said. "They're a different team than they were after 15 games. They're playing like they did all last year.

"For me, they know how to play and it will be a good test for us. It'll be a good test from an individual compete standpoint. It'll also be a good test for the details of your game because Vancouver makes you pay if you don't have good details of your game."

"They've climbed the standings pretty quickly," defenseman Alex Pietrangelo said of the Canucks. "They're playing pretty good hockey right now. Another win last night. We know it's going to be a challenge, but we like to rise to those challenges."

Added winger T.J. Oshie:
"I didn't even know we played them until I got to the rink today. So, obviously it's going to be a big challenge. We've had success against them in the past. I think if we get away from the way we played them before, they'll eat us up."

The success the Blues have had against Vancouver in recent seasons, a large part of it is containing twins Henrik and Daniel Sedin. Henrik leads the Canucks in scoring with 50 points (39 assists) and Daniel is second in scoring with 47 points (18 goals), but in four games against St. Louis last season, they netted just two points each and have none in the two meetings this season, while Ryan Kesler (12 goals, 19 assists this season) was held to one goal in four games against the Blues and has one goal in two games this season.

"I think we just play them hard," Pietrangelo said. "We've got Backs (David Backes) and that line is shutting down pretty much every team that we're playing right now. I think our D are doing a pretty good job. It's just one of those things where we play them hard and we're able to shut them down. That's what we're going to have to do tomorrow."

Added Hitchcock: "For us, you look at who has the potential to beat you. The attitude of any team when you're playing against good teams who are really good teams, you just don't want their top players having big nights against you, so there's a better focus on that area. ... Even when you have a good night, they're still going to get lots of chances, they're still going to get lots of scoring opportunities. The biggest thing for us is don't let them on the power play. Don't be careless and don't let them on the power play. If you can negate that, I think against any good team, you have a fighting chance."

The Blues, winners of four straight, will put a 9-0-1 mark in the last 10 home games against Vancouver. They own an NHL-best 17 wins (17-3-2) on home ice.

There's also that four-game sweep at the hands of the Canucks, who beat the Blues in their only playoff appearance since the lockout when they beat the Blues 4-0 in 2008-09.

"I think that's why it's going to be such a good matchup because we've ramped it up a lot since we've played them as well," said Oshie, second on the Blues behind Backes (31) with 28 points. "It's always a battle. I think, for me, ever since that first year in the playoffs, when we went four and out, there's always been a little sense of rivalry, a little sense of payback. It doesn't really go away if it's the only playoff berth you've ever had. We're going to play them hard, but we've got to play them smart."

The Canucks know what they are up against, and that the Blues are to be taken seriously.

"I was a little surprised because after our playoff series with them, I thought they would be a powerhouse," Henrik Sedin said of the Blues. "But they were never able to take that jump and I think it came from having a lot of young guys coming up at same time. It's tough to get the guys playing night in and night out and knowing what it takes. That's what they have right now.

"I absolutely think for sure they're going to make the playoffs (this season). They're a tough team to play and I can't see them missing the playoffs. They're playing extremely well, as well as anyone in the league. It looks like 'Hitch' is getting the best out of that group."

(Getty Images)
Brian Elliott (center) will look to go 3-0 against Vancouver when he gets
the start tonight in a battle for the top spot in the Western Conference.

Brian Elliott (15-5-0, 1.62 goals-against average and .940 save percentage), who is coming off a 4-0 shutout win over Colorado Saturday, will get back in goal after Jaroslav Halak blanked Montreal Tuesday. Elliott was in goal for the two previous meetings between the team this season.

A sellout and crowd is expected tonight at Scottrade Center, and Blues fans are expected to be boisterous for a game with such meaning because let's face it, there haven't been a lot of meaningful games here since the lockout.

"There's something added on the line there," Pietrangelo said. "Certainly we want to be first and they want to hold that spot. But it's just another game for us. We've got to worry about ourselves and play hard.

"We have two wins against them this year, but it's a different team. It's a team that's playing really well and so are we, so it's going to be an interesting game."

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