Sunday, February 24, 2013

Blues get rare stretch of days between games

Rest, practice top items on things-to-do list
before Blackhawks invade St. Louis Thursday

ST. LOUIS -- After a week that began tumultuously and got tougher with a pair of narrow losses, the Blues will welcome some rare down time in the shortened NHL schedule.
Following Saturday's 2-1 victory over Columbus that snapped a five-game home winless skid (0-4-1), the Blues (10-6-2) went into a stretch of days in which they won't play again until Thursday.
After a day off Sunday, what do they plan on doing between now and Thursday when the Chicago Blackhawks come to town?
(St. Louis Blues/Mark Buckner)
Chris Stewart (25) and Jaroslav Halak (41) played key roles in the Blues'
2-1 victory over Columbus Saturday night, snapping a five-game home
winless streak (0-4-1).

"Practice," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said. "We need our tempo back up. We need to practice really fast and really hard for two or three days ... at least two days. We need Monday and Tuesday to be very high-tempo, really crisp, movement of the puck. All of the things that we need to work on, this is our last opportunity.

"I told the players (Saturday) I don't think we've got 12 hockey practices left until the end of the year. That's not very many. So every time we're on the ice together really counts. This, and that opportunity after the game in Vancouver (March 19) are the two opportunities that we have to really improve our team, and we've really got to take advantage of this."

What else is on the agenda?

"It's a good opportunity for us to catch up on some rest, get ready for obviously a tough opponent in Chicago," said defenseman Alex Pietrangelo.

"Get some rest, get some crispness to our game, work on some exits and neutral zone," added teammate Barret Jackman, who broke a Blues franchise record for defenseman by playing in his 616th game Saturday night. "Our all-around game could improve. We're going to get a couple workouts in, which is going to be big and our team game needs to improve.

"Get timing, get your tempo back. I think late in the third there (Saturday night), we did a good job of coming over the top with our back-check and that's really a staple in our game and that's something that we need to do. I'm sure we'll work on that. There's not one thing we can't work on right now and improve and get ready for the second half of the season."

The Blues raced out of the gates in January, going 6-1-0 for the month but creaks were clearly visible in their structure. It began to catch up to them in February, where they are currently 4-5-2 after snapping their 0-for-February home stretch with Saturday's narrow win.

"I think we've got to carry this into our next game against Chicago, playing the best team in the league," said left winger David Perron, who scored the game-winner midway through the third period Saturday. "We'll have a lot of practice time this week to figure some things out and I think it's going to be much-needed. With the short season, it seems we don't practice a lot and it's going to be good to have two or three practices in a row."

The Blues needed a win badly against the team in last place in the Western Conference but one that's played gritty, tough hockey so far this season under former Blues president John Davidson, who recently added former Blues director of amateur scouting Jarmo Kekalainen as his general manager. It's a win that Hitchcock feels like can be a springboard for a team that was 30-6-5 on home ice last season looking to get some mojo back in front of the home folks.

"Getting the feeling of winning again is going to do wonders for us at home now," Hitchcock said. "I really believe that. This helps us so much because we play at such a high level on the road (6-2-1 record) and with such a higher level of intensity. We're waiting for things to happen at home and then they don't happen and we get discouraged.

"We needed a goalie to step up. Jaro (Halak's) back. Looks like he's on the mark again. That helps a lot, but I think just the energy that we played with in the third period helped a lot, too."

It all originated from the top line of Perron, David Backes and T.J. Oshie, who started slow but finished with a flourish. Backes and Perron worked a 1-2 punch, with Backes avoiding a hip check from Tim Erixon to set up Perron in the slot.

"We really needed that line to step up in the third," Hitchcock said. "They had a rough night (early in the game), we needed them to step up in the third and they did, which was a great sign for us. They were a threat every shift in the third period, they were really determined and strong on the puck. That was really good to see.

"To get that line back working and sometimes at home, we're too impatient to start offense and so we get kind of where we're just trading chances. I thought they were forcing the issue in the first period and then they really settled in halfway through the hockey game and started to put their work boots on. With their skill and the work boots that they have, they're capable of really dominating games. I thought as the third period wore on, that line was really good for us."

(St. Louis Blues/Mark Buckner)
Vladimir Sobotka (right) congratulates Jaroslav Halak after the netminder
came up big for the Blues in the closing minutes of a 2-1 win Saturday.
Working the next couple days with a win under their belt certainly is better for the psyche than a third straight loss, which is what the Blues would have been looking at after falling at home to San Jose (2-1) and at Colorado (1-0 in overtime) the following night.

"You feel better," Pietrangelo said. "It's definitely kind of a weight off our shoulders, especially after losing a couple at home. To have four days off coming off a win and the best team in the league coming in here, it's a good feeling right now.

"... Even tonight, we played well, we found a way to win, but there's still a lot of things we're trying to get better at. We're trying to keep the intensity up to get ready for that game because (the Blackhawks) going to be coming.

As Jackman pointed out, the "second half" of the season begins Thursday, when the Blues begin another brutal stretch of 10 games in 17 days. So get some rest and relaxation in, allow the body clock to catch back up and be ready to hit the ice running Monday morning.

"You get a couple days off, and now we played. I think everyone's well-rested, we got the win," Jackman said. "I think the next few days will be nice to recharge, to mentally and physically get ready for a tough game against Chicago."

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