Friday, March 29, 2013

Blues to hit home stretch clinging to playoff berth

Team sit in eighth place in west; college defenseman
picks Detroit; AHL's Rivermen appear to be leaving

ST. LOUIS -- The month of March was promising for the Blues, as they won six of their first nine and seemed to begin to cure what ailed them.

But the end of the month came and now has the Blues in desperate times after losing for the fourth time in five games to end March at .500 (7-7-0) and put them right back where they were when it all began.

And a lot of the same sore spots have surfaced in the team concept of winning hockey, and it has the Blues at 17-14-2 and only two points ahead of those chasing them for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
(St. Louis Blues/Mark Buckner)
The Blues' T.J. Oshie (74) and David Backes (42) will have to put their
best efforts forward in April with 15 games remaining and St. Louis in 8th
place in the Western Conference.

Yes, the Blues are now the hunted for those on the outside looking in, and if things don't change for the better in the month of April when the Blues' schedule will be as difficult as any in this shortened season, they'll find themselves on the outside quickly with little time to recover.

"We've been in worse situations here where we're 13, 14 (in the standings) and need help," Blues captain David Backes said after Thursday's 4-2 home loss to the Los Angeles Kings, losing the game in the final three minutes after the game was tied 2-2. "Now it's take care of business yourself and you like where you're at. Stumble and fall, and it's a coin flip at best whether we're playing into May. Here we go."

The Blues don't play again until Monday, when the gauntlet of their schedule takes them to surging Minnesota, which begins a stretch of six in seven away from Scottrade Center before finishing with seven of eight at home.

In case you need a calculator, that's 15 games in 30 days that includes three sets of back-to-backs and seven of those games against teams ahead of them in the standings.

"Tons of games in a short amount of time," Backes said. "We play 15 games in April and down the stretch run, a lot of three in four (nights), so rest is going to be at a premium.

"We can't be looking back on any of these games anymore saying we could have had two points here. We've used our allotment of those games where we had two points sitting there. Now it's time to grab those two points, whether it's pretty, ugly or whatever. Put them in the bank and move forward and keep a ball rolling, build something here."

It was a week of missed opportunities for the Blues. Just like they did on March 19 in Vancouver, they outplayed Calgary but fell 3-2 to the Flames, who are a longshot at best at pushing for a playoff berth. Then came a 3-0 thud at home against Edmonton Tuesday, the very same Oilers team the Blues throttled at home just three days earlier. Then it all culminated with Thursday's loss to the Kings, the eighth straight time (including a four-game sweep in last spring's playoffs) Los Angeles has downed the Blues.

"I think they've got a full group of 20 guys that are nose to the grindstone and willing to run through the wall for each other," Backes said. "We're working on it ... believe me, we're working on it, but we're not at that level yet and we need to get there sooner than later."

The Blues, who began the season 6-1-0, were sketchy at times but were finding ways to win. Then came an inconsistent February in which coach Ken Hitchcock's "buy-in" was losing its touch. But they were always able to maintain that fourth through sixth spot in the conference.

The inconsistency stems from not getting all 20 players at once to be on the same page, from not getting the timely save one game to sloppy turnovers that lead to odd-man rushes/breakaway scoring chances the next time and to not finishing scoring chances in the offensive zone in another game.

They all seem to add up to what the Blues have been since the end of January, hovering around the .500 mark (11-13-2).

"We've just got to get our game in order, all 20 guys," Backes said. "You've seen it in stretches when we've got 20 guys going, it's a beautiful thing out there. And then you've seen when we've got not everyone going, it's an uphill battle.

"We've taken strides and we've had long meetings internally the last few days to sort some of that out. I do think we've made progress, but it's not where it needs to be yet."

By the time they play at Minnesota Monday, the Blues, who took Friday of but will be back on the practice ice Saturday morning, could easily be on the outside having to fight their way back in.

"We've just got to look at ourselves right now," forward Alexander Steen said after Thursday's loss. "We've got to do whatever it takes to win the games. Right now, we're not doing that. We've lost a couple big ones here at home. Now we need to take our stuff on the road and make sure we start playing better on the road (and) getting points.That's what it's all about. We've got to start getting points."

"We've got the month of April now to go to put up or shut up and go home early, and that's really where we're at right now. Here we go," Backes said.

* DeKeyser to Detroit -- It was announced Friday afternoon that Western Michigan defenseman Dan DeKeyser, a free agent who drew interest from the Blues among others, chose to sign with the Detroit Red Wings.

DeKeyser, who played for former Blues coach Andy Murray with the Broncos, was this year's Justin Schultz, the free agent defenseman last year who chose the Edmonton Oilers.

DeKeyser, 23, is a Macomb, Mich. native, chose the Red Wings after not being drafted and becoming an unrestricted free agent when the Broncos' season concluded.

Among the teams believed to be interested in the 6-foot-3, 198-pound blue liner included the Blues, Red Wings, Nashville, Toronto, Anaheim, Edmonton, Philadelphia and Ottawa. DeKeyser finished with two goals and 13 assists in 35 games for the Broncos and began to draw heavy interest in the last year after being named a first-team All-CCHA member.

* Rivermen gone? -- The Peoria Journal Star is reporting that the Blues have notified the Peoria Civic Center in an email that the team will cease operations following the 2012-13 season.

It's not official until the proper paperwork is submitted, but the paper is reporting that the Blues, who acquired the American Hockey League affiliate as part of Tom Stillman and his group's acquisition of the Blues franchise, will pay a $90,000 penalty as part of an opt-out clause. The Blues still had two years remaining on a lease with the Civic Center.

Reports surfaced recently that the Blues are looking for an AHL affiliate that would not be owned by them. A franchise trying to stabilize its finances has seen the Blues make cost-cutting moves since new ownership purchased the team nearly a year ago.

There have been some reports that suggested that the Vancouver Canucks, who have an affiliate with the Chicago Wolves, would purchase the Rivermen franchise and relocate it closer in proximity to British Columbia and the Blues would be interested in affiliating with the Wolves but those reports have not been confirmed.

Once the Rivermen and Blues sever ties officially, Rivermen players/prospects would join the new affiliate and remain Blues property.

The Rivermen have been part of the Peoria community for 31 years.

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