Blues last team to get going; Hitchcock
wants all-in mentality; McDonald, Steen out
By LOUIE KORAC
HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- When Ken Hitchcock walked in to do his media session Monday following a five-day layoff because of the all-star break, his message was simple:
"It won't be a pretty visual when we get back at it Friday," the Blues' coach said, meaning that the standings and where the Blues (29-13-7) would sit when they host the Los Angeles Kings (25-16-10) will see them in a different position than when the week began.
However, Hitchcock was able to jokingly say: "They have let us back in the league. ... We can come to play now."
The Blues already lost ground on all three divisional teams (Detroit, Nashville and Chicago), who played Tuesday and each gained at least a point. They could lose more ground on them again as all three played games Thursday night.
The Blues will be the last team in the NHL to play a game after the all-star break and sat by helplessly without making a move.
"You really can't worry about the standings too much," winger B.J. Crombeen said. "You're always obviously looking at it because you want to be in the playoffs, you always want to be as high as you can, you want to be ahead of every team that you can, but really, you can't worry about it. All you can do is go out and make sure you're playing the best you can and make sure you're prepared for every game and making sure you're going out and getting points."
But now that they get the schedule cranked up again, the 33 games (20 of them on the road) will come and go in a breeze. They will have the most games remaining (along with the San Jose Sharks, Boston Bruins, New York Rangers and Florida Panthers) and will play them in just 64 days.
"It goes fast," Hitchcock said. "There's going to be days you wake up and you think you're never gonna win again and there's going to be days where you think you can never lose. You're just going to have to deal with it.
"I told the players yesterday and today the thing you can't do ... what wears you out is the long, drawn-out meetings the day after (a game) or the long sessions. It's more taxing than playing the game. If you didn't win, play harder. That's the bottom line. I like what (head coach) Paul MacLean said in Ottawa: the meeting was brief, compete harder."
Defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk acknowledged that.
"That forces us to play even better," he said. "We obviously know how important these games are and how important this whole final two months or so is going to be. It's going to be a battle, teams are going to be jockeying for position. We want to make sure that we take care of ourselves as well."
But Hitchcock doesn't mind if the players pay attention to what's going on around them. He feels like it's a good rallying cry.
"I think watching the scoreboard is the best thing. It motivates you," Hitchcock said. "I just don't want them to look below. Once you start climbing the ladder, I want you to look up.
"Every person in that locker room knows the importance of first in the division. That's still the focus here. We're not prepared to let Detroit run and hide on everybody. I want our players to have the same attitude. But watching games and watching scores I think is important, but looking up is more important. I want that to be the goal. ... I'll do the worrying, they can do the looking."
* All in or bust -- Now that the Blues are hitting the stretch run of games, Hitchcock is past the getting-to-know and learning-on-the-fly stage.
The Blues' coach said it all comes down to effort and either you're all in or you'll be on the outside looking in. Time for the competitors to step up to the plate.
"To me, this is kind of you're in or you're out," Hitchcock said. "I think the chance to grow and the chance to develop and having patience with effort is over. I think you've got to go with the guys that are working and hopefully it's everybody, but you can't be in a position where you're waiting and hoping now. The growth period is over. Now it's about going with the guys that are going to do the job.
"It doesn't matter who it is. It's about getting the job done. At this time of year, learning and you can't beg people to compete at this time of year. ... Everybody in this organization wanted to be in this position. We all wanted this chance and we got it. We've just got to take it one day at a time and when things don't go well, don't go look for 50,000 answers. Just and compete harder. It's pretty simple."
* Elliott the All-Star -- While his teammates were resting up during the all-star break, Blues goalie Brian Elliott represented the team and spent some time where it all began for him in Ottawa.
"It's something that I'll never forget for sure," said Elliott, who is 15-5-2 with a 1.69 goals-against average and .938 save percentage this season. "Sitting next to those type of guys in the locker room and getting a chance to talk to them and picking their brain a little bit, that was the best part of the whole weekend."
Well, maybe not the best. That reception Elliott got from Senators fans was pretty good ... and quite unexpected.
"I wasn't expecting that at all. I had a great time there," Elliott said of Ottawa. "They got my career off to a start, so it was pretty cool to go back there and get that ovation and to know that you're recognized in the area."
Elliott, who stopped 13 of 19 shots in the third period of a 12-9 victory by Team Chara over Team Alfredsson, took part in Saturday's skills competition as well. He was in goal for Chicago's Patrick Kane, who broke out a Superman cape and Clark Kent glasses for a couple skits that was an attention-grabber.
"It shows everybody's personality," Elliott said. "I'm just trying to get out of the way so they can score. That one's all for the fans. The guys kind of embraced it. It made the skills competition fun."
As for Kane's sliding second attempt and then exploding puck on the third try, Elliott said he didn't know what was coming.
"Not his. I was in the way at first, so I had to move my legs out of the way (on the second chance)," Elliott said. "I caught a piece of something (from the third try). That's all I knew."
* Injury update -- With the way the Blues were running line combinations Thursday, Andy McDonald and Alex Steen (concussions) won't play Friday and likely won't play Saturday in Nashville for the Blues.
McDonald was cleared for contact Monday and Steen continues to progress but maybe slower than what was initially thought. Both continue to practice at full strength and practice at a quick pace but are yet 100 percent symptom-free.
"Still on Line 5 on the depth chart, so still not there yet," Hitchcock said. "A non-issue until we get the knock on the door and they say, 'We're in.'
"They both look good, but it's really in the players' hands. It's such a complicated issue. The mental and physical side of things, it's really in the players' hands. They've got to make up their mind. When they feel good, they'll probably knock on our door. Until then, it's just go through the process."
As for defenseman Kent Huskins, out since Oct. 28 with a broken bone in his left ankle, Hitchcock said the veteran signed last summer to a one-year contract is to the point where he can become a regular player and the need to recall defenseman Ian Cole looks unlikely for the near future.
"We were told yesterday that Husky is around 85-90 percent, which puts him in play probably Tuesday or Wednesday," Hitchcock said. "As long as we come through healthy tomorrow, we'll be fine. We can carry the six guys through the weekend here and just see where we're at, but I think Husky has gotten better and better. He's come back and had two really good practices; two of the three practices have been really good for him. He's getting closer for us now to get up to speed. Right now, I think we'll just stay where we're at."
* Sobotka's role -- The Blues have put Vladimir Sobotka on the left wing this week on the top line, alongside David Backes and T.J. Oshie. It left the impression that Sobotka would suit up there against the Kings Friday.
The likelihood is greater at home, but according to Hitchcock, Sobotka's versatility could put him into a role on any line.
"I think Sobotka's role is going to depend on the opposition," Hitchcock said. "I don't think that's cast in stone right now. I think it's going to depend on the opposition, and I think it's going to depend on if I'm able to get a matchup I want.
"He's good on any of those three lines, but we're going to have a difficult time getting a matchup on the road, so there might be a change. We would prefer to use him against other teams' top players regardless of the line he plays on. Whether he plays with (Jason) Arnott or (Patrik) Berglund, we prefer the hard match coming from him individually. We think he's got a real impact in the game. It's easier to get that matchup at home than on the road. I think you might see him with Backes and then if we play on the road, you might see him with Berglund or Arnott depending on how we can get our matchups."
Hitchcock just likes Sobotka's game but would like to see his offense pick up.
"He's invaluable to have because he's very good defensively and he's patient offensively," Hitchcock said of Sobotka. "I would like to see him finish the scoring chances that he gets. To start with, hit the net on all the chances he gets, which will be a big start. But he gets them because he's good. He's good with the puck."
* Getting back into it quickly or not -- The Blues had no choice. The schedule makers decided that they would go 10 days between games.
And while some teams practiced Monday, got on a plane and played the next day, the Blues have had four days to chew on what they will face.
"We have a chance to get back into it at practice," Elliott said. "Other teams, they get that break too but it's a little bit rushed getting back on the ice. We haven't had that rush. We have to take advantage of it and not use it as an excuse. We have to get on them right away."
Added Shattenkirk, who sees both sides as good reasoning: "I've always been a guy who just likes to play games, whether it be an all-star break or not, I always just love having game-game-game. It doesn't allow you to think as much about your previous game and your previous mistakes.
"But at the same time, if anyone needed this long break, it was us. We had a hard stretch for the last two-and-a-half months or so. We really put it all in, invested in what we have here. It's good to kind of sit back and almost get the itch back, get that little feel that you have coming into training camp. You miss it and you want to be back on the ice."