Sunday, January 8, 2012

Blues have positioned themselves to be playoff team

At midway point, they're tied for division lead,
tied for second-most points in conference

ST. LOUIS -- In their 44th year of existence, the Blues concluded the midway point to the 2011-12 season Saturday night with a resounding victory.

They also finished it with the fifth-best point total in team history.

The previous four teams all made the playoffs, which bodes well for this version of Blues hockey.

What makes the Blues' 24-12-5 record impressive is that they've been able to accomplish it with 1) a coaching change and 2) a less than 100 percent lineup.

Ken Hitchcock, who replaced Davis Payne on Nov. 6 after the Blues labored out of the gates with a 6-7-0 record, has gotten the most out of a lineup that he felt needed some tweaking in order to play up to its strengths.

But after Saturday's 4-0 thorough beatdown of a red-hot Colorado Avalanche team that had gone 9-1 in its last 10 games, the Blues let it be known that they have arrived.

Imagine how much better they can be when they get some key missing pieces back to the lineup.

"Yeah. Excited ... really excited," Hitchcock said. "You don't want to cross your fingers, but I've seen this lineup for three or four practices.

"When Andy (McDonald's) here and when Steener (Alex Steen) was in, we could really tromp. But we've got to be careful because, who knows. They come back, somebody goes out. But I've seen two or three practices where these guys were in and man, we could really tromp it. If we ever get close to health, it will be really interesting to see what we can do."

The Blues have played much of this season without McDonald, who has been dealing with a concussion and now have seen Steen out the last five games with concussion symptoms. Others to miss extended time because of injury include B.J. Crombeen, Kent Huskins, Carlo Colaiacovo, Vladimir Sobotka and Kris Russell. They did get David Perron back from a concussion after missing 13 months and while they continue to build towards that full-proof lineup, the Blues won't be content with what they've accomplished so far.

"I still think there's definitely some growth there," said defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, one of the promising young players the Blues have high hopes for who has six goals and 22 points. "We still have some work to do as far as when teams are pressing and when we get a little adversity our way; kind of handling it and sticking to our game plan.

"We're a young team and I think these older guys that have come in this year (Jason Arnott, Jamie Langenbrunner and Scott Nichol) have really helped us to kind of talk through those situations. We're only going upwards from here."

The 2000-01 Blues had 61 points halfway through the season (28-8-4-1) and finished with 103 and a date in the Western Conference final, where it lost to the Avalanche in five games. The 1980-81 team had 58 points (26-9-6), the 1999-2000 team had 54 points (25-12-4) and won a Presidents' Trophy with 114 and 1994-95 team also had 54 points (24-11-6).

But this brand of Blues hockey is beginning to put its stamp on this season. Some may be surprised they are doing this except ... well, the Blues.

"I don't even think like that. I'm grinding like they are," Hitchcock said. "My job is to get every ounce out of every player. I'm relentless in that.

"I think the thing that I'm happiest about is that the buy-in has started. I don't think the buy-in's finished, but the buy-in has started. I think the players see a reward for doing the things we do at practice. The same things we're doing at games, we're doing at practice. There were times there were rewards for it and there were times there weren't. But when you see games like (Saturday night) or the last three games and you see the reward of all the work we're putting in practice, it becomes easy for me to sell that."

When the 60-year-old Hitchcock took over for someone 20 years his younger, it caught not only the players' ears but their eyes as well. A coach that has a Stanley Cup and 500-plus wins to his resume.

"(Hitchcock's) ability to convince us to pay attention to details and he really wants us just to play the game right for a full 60 minutes," said goalie Brian Elliott, the surprise of not only the team but the NHL with his 15-5-0 record, 1.62 goals-against average and .940 save percentage. "Coming in and having his hockey knowledge, I think we trust in it. I think it shows out there."

The Blues have gotten the most of not only Elliott but Jaroslav Halak, who is 6-0-3 in his last nine starts after an inauspicious 1-6 beginning to his season. Their defensive unit is among the stingiest in the league (allowing a Western Conference-least 89) and the team's 5-on-5 play is fourth in the league and plus-20 on the season.

The Blues believe they are among the elite teams in the league. The goal is to stay there now.

"We had some ups and downs, but right now, we're trying to make that next step to being an elite team," said winger T.J. Oshie, having a career year with 13 goals and 28 points and is on pace for career-high numbers. "You see those teams that are at the top every year, they know how to finish teams. They know how to take that next step and elevate their game."

David Backes leads the team with 29 points, but that's one area the Blues would like to improve upon is goal production. They're averaging 2.61 goals per game but in its last three games -- all wins -- they've potted four goals. The special teams continues to climb (they were 30th in both categories), as the power play has risen to a season-best 22nd after spending much of the season in last place, and the penalty killing unit is 18th. The team has the most home wins (17) in the NHL (the Blues are 17-3-2 at Scottrade Center) but can use a boost on that 7-9-3 road mark.

"I'm starting to see players start to elevate their game where individually I thought we could go there," Hitchcock said. "I think we have a long ways to go as a team. I think there's more potential here, a lot more. I think maturity ... and I said to the players competitive composure's going to be a challenge against good teams and on the road. We've got to show that if we want to be a top team."

One thing is for certain though: in Hitchcock the Blues believe.

"Under Hitch, we know what we have," Shattenkirk said. "If we stick to it, we'll be fine."

1 comment:

  1. Thank you ;-)) Awesome article ;-)) We are in HITCHMODE lolll ;-) And like all those free BigMacs, I'm LOVING IT! lol