Friday, March 9, 2012

Veteran presence keeping mood in stride for first-place Blues

Players with experience a calming influence on younger
players, keeping in perspective that being No. 1 in June is the goal

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- For a team filled with younger players, one would expect going into the locker room after Thursday's 3-1 win over Anaheim that Blues players would be experiencing a high of catapulting into first overall in the NHL.

Almost a feeling like a kid in a candy store, they wouldn't know how to react or contain their emotions.

The room wasn't subdued by any means -- there were certainly happy faces -- but it was feeling of it's great to be here, but let's not get too carried away. There's work to be done.

The attitude is a unique one for a Blues team that is 43-18-7 with 93 points, one ahead of Vancouver for first overall and in the Western Conference, two points ahead of the New York Rangers.

Why? Because of the calming influence that players like Jason Arnott, Jamie Langenbrunner, Scott Nichol and even an Andy McDonald have on guys that have never experienced this before. Even veteran Barret Jackman, without a lot of playoff experience, is a steadying influence.
(Getty Images)
Since the return of veteran Andy McDonald (10), the Blues'
power play is 13-for-41, or 31.7 percent. 

"You do have to enjoy the work you put in and enjoy the steps as they go," said Langenbrunner, who is progressing well from a broken left foot suffered Feb. 19 in Chicago and a veteran of two Stanley Cups and 137 playoff games. "Our first goal this year is to get a playoff spot and then win the division and go from there. You enjoy each step as you go, but the end goal is to be winning the Stanley Cup. I think with this group, anything less than that is a disappointment. We're working towards that.

"I think it can be (a distraction) if you let it, but from what I've seen, we're just kind of going about our business. It's great that what we've done so far that's put us in this position, but we realize what type of work and the game we've got to play that got us there. I think we've learned within the season when we get a little bit away from it, we're not going to be there. I think it's been a good process. I think we deserve to feel good about where we've worked to, but our goal is not to finish first overall in March, it's to finish first overall in June."

Add Arnott's one Cup and 115 games of playoff experience, McDonald (41), Kent Huskins (57) and Nichol (40), and you have a select group of guys with the been-there, done-that mentality.

"That's the attitude that you'd like," said Blues coach Ken Hitchcock, who's got a Stanley Cup to his resume as well. "You want to enjoy it, but then it's almost a fear factor of what's coming next. I think that for us, because of the veteran players, we take it in stride. I think if we didn't have the veteran players that have been through this stuff before, it would be more of a learning curve.

"We're trying to win hockey games, we're trying to learn what it takes knowing that there's another level out there against good teams and in the playoffs. We're trying to learn this stuff. We don't have that knowledge some of these other teams have. We're trying to learn it on the fly here. I think our players here are trying not to get too high so that they get too loose. I think that's the fear everybody has is when the highs become too high, you get too loose in your game and that's usually when the losing starts."

But the Blues haven't experienced any lows in the last four months. In fact, their longest losing streak is an 0-2-1 skid to end the calendar year. Other than that, it's been a grinding effort that's produced 43 wins.

"They monitor the highs and lows," Hitchcock said of the veteran players. "You need good veteran players. Not just any veteran player. Good veteran players monitor the highs and lows and they make sure the highs aren't too high and the lows aren't too low. That's what you need is people that can keep you grounded and keep you moving ahead."

Young guys like Ian Cole, who's experiencing the top of the mountain for the first time in his career, sees the experience as a plus and the attitude has rubbed off on he and his teammates.

"Obviously our goal is to end the season as the best team in the league ... in the world," Cole said. "It's great that we're the best team in the league right now, and even the best team in the league can be debatable by having the most points, best record or whatever. Even that's debatable, but what I think needs to be kept in perspective is even though we're the best team now doesn't mean we're going to be the best team in the end. There's that gap there that needs to be taken care of. We need to finish that off.
(Getty Images)
David Perron (57) is one of several Blues players experiencing being in
first place overall in the NHL for the first time.

"If we win the Presidents' Trophy, great. There's no reason to try and not win it because of the hex or curse or whatever you want to call it. Win every game on the ice, that's how I see it."

With 14 games left in the schedule, including nine of them on the road, the Blues will soldier on and try to keep pace with the likes of the Canucks, Rangers, Detroit or whoever else may try to become a speedbump in their quest.

"The NHL is a grind now. There are no nights off," Langenbrunner said. "You can't just show up anymore and get two points. You've got to be on top of your game every night. Any night you're not, you're really just hoping to get points. I think we've done a very good job of giving ourselves an opportunity night in and night out."

Added Cole: "Coach (Brad) Shaw actually said something to me today. He threw out a quote that you're never as good as people say you are, and you're never as bad as people you say you are. You're always usually somewhere in the middle.

"We're playing great, we're winning lots of games, we're No. 1 in the league, but are we as good as people make us out to be, are we the greatest Blues team ever? No. I wouldn't say so. I think we have a lot of work to do."

Words that are music to Hitchcock's ears.

"They like to work," Hitchcock said of his team. "This is a team that you don't have to crack the whip at practice. When it's time to work, they want to work. It's the same in the games. When it's time to go, they go."

* NOTES -- The Blues are expecting some reinforcements back from injury in the not-too-distant future.

Langenbrunner continues to skate and is progressing well from the broken left foot he suffered blocking a shot in Chicago, defenseman Kris Russell (concussion) skated again Friday before the optional skate and Huskins (bruised hand) also took part in the optional skate.

"I would say we've got a number of guys that are next-week players at some period of time," Hitchcock said. "Somewhere on that road trip, we're going to get some additions to the group here. I can't tell you which one it is ... Tuesday, Thursday or whatever, but I would say we're going to get additions into the group by next week. We should be good ... have some depth. They're not going to be ready for tomorrow for sure."

Said Langenbrunner: "With a broken bone, there's only so much you can do. I'm pushing it as much as I can and trying to make sure I keep my conditioning up. When I'm ready to go, I'm not going to be a dropoff on the team."

Matt D'Agostini (concussion) and Alex Steen (concussion) are the furthest ones away from returning but as far as D'Agostini is concerned, he's in the monitoring stages after skating a few times this week as well as off-ice workouts.

"This is just the process you go through," Hitchcock said of D'Agostini. "I think they have a plan for him. There's tests to here (Hitchcock held his hand up) and figure out where they're at. And then there's a test to here and figure out where they're at. It's the growth of this injury."

Steen has been in California getting treatment from a specialist, as well as using the hyperbaric chamber.

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