Nine of January's 11 games will be played at Scottrade Center
By LOUIE KORAC
HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- On the whiteboard inside the Blues' locker room at their practice facility Monday, Blues coach Ken Hitchcock had simple, yet challenging words awaiting his players:
The harder we check, the more we score.
It's a simple philosophy yet challenging over an extended period of games.
With the Blues in the midst of their first three-game winless streak entering tonight's home game against Phoenix, it begins a stretch of 11 games in the month of January. Nine of them are played in the friendly confines of Scottrade Center.
Blues coach Ken Hitchcock is looking for his team to get back to a hard
checking style as the team enters January with nine of 11 home games.
"We've gotten off our checking game," he said. "That's No. 1. No. 2 is we now have a lot of teams' attention, so now they're dialing their game up. We're not catching anybody by surprise anymore. It's more dealing with that. It's not being surprised because we're getting played really hard, which is happening now ... much harder than before. And getting back to where we're prepared to check to score goals. I always find that the harder you check, the more goals and opportunities you get. That's the mindset we want to get back to."
The Blues entered January a season ago still in the mix for a playoff berth, but a 2-8-2 month buried them and they found themselves playing catch-up with the rest of the conference's best. With the parity in the league nowadays and so many tight games that end up in three-point affairs, the Blues were fighting a losing battle.
"It's the time of year where playoff teams come to play," winger Chris Stewart said. "This is where the contenders separate themselves from the pretenders. If you look last year, you look at the Chicagos, the Detroits, the San Joses ... this is where they built their separation. From here on in, this is where they start their season. Not to say that before didn't count, but they really turn it up a notch here. Now we've got to do it, too. We've got to stick right with them. It's going to be a dogfight to the end here."
The Blues (21-12-5) are in sixth place in the West, just two points out of fourth and five back of Chicago for the top spot. But the team can really gain separation is from those teams on the outside looking in. The Blues are four points clear of ninth place but to solidify their place among the top eight, going on a tear in January will only enhance their chances. Because they will become road warriors once they enter February and March.
"When you take a look at those months (February and March), those are going to be tough games for sure," Stewart said. "We've got to win some games here at home to help us out in the future. It's going to come down to the end of the year and we're not going to want to be having to make up ground or looking for points.
"We want to be in a comfortable position, and we can do that if we put together a good home stretch here ... get a little separation in the standings."
Added Hitchcock: "The thing for us is it's just one day at a time. You can look at being home for most of January and we get a really long break during the All-Star break. Our thing is just one day at a time and trying to play well."
(From left to right) The Blues' Patrik Berglund, Barret Jackman, T.J. Oshie
and David Perron hope to feast on home cooking in January.
And by playing well, that means hitting people and pinning them back on their heels.
"How many (home) games we have is not relevant, because it doesn't matter," Hitchcock said. "You can do this forever and win on the road or you can do this and win forever at home. It doesn't matter. If you have the right mindset, you can win wherever you want. But it's the mindset.
"It's two things: it's get ready to get played hard because you're not sneaking up on anybody anymore, and No. 2, it's get your 'A' game out there from a checking standpoint. You'll end up spending no time in your zone and a lot of time in the other zone."
The Blues only have one-game trips to Montreal and Detroit in January. Otherwise, there won't be any lengthy trips for another six weeks.
"The opportunity is definitely there," Stewart said. "We've definitely got to use that to our advantage. Not to say we don't have tough opponents coming up, but we've got to show them that it's our building and we're going to do anything to get the win."