Blues control own destiny for fourth; Halak healthy;
Russell to play; Blues-Wolves cement agreement
By LOUIE KORAC
ST. LOUIS -- The Blues control heir own destiny. There's no other way one would want it.
The Blues needed two scenarios -- three if you include the Chicago Blackhawks -- to unfold for the race the fourth seed in the Western Conference and home ice advantage in, at least, the first round of the playoffs.
The Blues needed both the Los Angeles Kings and San Jose Sharks to lose (the Sharks could have gotten one point) for the Blues to have control of their fate.
The Detroit Red Wings obliged by downing the Kings 3-1 Wednesday, and the Phoenix Coyotes slipped past the Sharks 2-1 later in the night. Both teams have one game remaining -- against each other Saturday -- and lead the Blues (27-17-2) by one point (57-56) in the standings.
The Blues controlled their own fate Tuesday and promptly went out and dominated the Colorado Avalanche 3-1 in clinching a playoff berth. Now there's this little thing about home ice advantage.
"We've got a couple games here to push for home ice advantage," forward Alexander Steen said following Tuesday's win. "It's still within reach, so it's still a goal."
And as coach Ken Hitchcock said Wednesday after practice, what the Kings were able to do as an eighth seed en route to winning the Stanley Cup a season ago, don't fool yourself if that's something that's a common occurrence.
"I think it's real important. Highest seed is important," Hitchcock said. "Nothing against what Los Angeles did, they did a great task, but those are rare breeds to see come out of an eight seed, start on the road all the time and win. I think those don't happen very often.
"For me, which is great competition, I think every team legitimately feels that they can beat the other team that they're playing. You could end up with home ice and carrying a five or six seed, you never know."
If the Blues beat the Calgary Flames, who they will host tonight at 7 p.m. (FSN, KMOX 1120-AM), they will take sole possession of fourth place. To secure that spot, they can do so by 1) beating the Chicago Blackhawks in any form, or 2) earn a point against the Hawks and have San Jose beat Los Angeles in any form. The Blues and Sharks would be tied in points, but the Blues would own the tie-breaker based on more ROWS (regulation/overtime wins). A regulation loss tonight eliminates the Blues from any hopes of finishing fourth since either the Sharks or Kings will gain two points facing one another Saturday. Win tonight and Saturday against the Blackhawks, who clinched the Presidents' Trophy with a 4-1 win at Edmonton Wednesday and have a meaningless game here Saturday, the Blues will open the Stanley Cup Playoffs next week at home.
"We've got two games to build some momentum for the playoffs," captain David Backes said. "It's a good feeling to be back there, but it's one little item checked off our list. We've got a lot more to go."
As for making the playoffs, it's old hat to Hitchcock.
"I said this last year, it feels normal for me," Hitchcock said. "I just expect (it), but I can tell you that this season was as challenging as any season I've ever coached in to manage the peaks and valleys of the season. We've had a number of peaks and valleys. This season has been very challenging on keeping a level head and getting guys through some very tough times. That's what I'm hoping is that the tough times that we've gone through are going to really help us because we're going to go through a bunch of them now. I feel like this season had a real opportunity to go south a few times and we gathered it back in and brought it back north again."
* Halak healthy -- To say it's been a frustrating abbreviated season for Jaroslav Halak would be understating things just a bit. The Blues' netminder has had his share of ups and downs on the ice but mostly off it.
A second groin injury has kept Halak (6-5-1 with a 2.14 goals-against average and .899 save percentage) shelved since injuring himself April 1 at Minnesota. Halak, who missed roughly three weeks in February for a similar injury in Detroit, deemed himself 100 percent -- or as close to it as he can be -- and ready to man the pipes again should the Blues need him over the final two regular season games and into the playoffs.
"It feels like it again," Halak said after practice Wednesday at Scottrade Center. "We'll see how far along but hopefully for the rest of the year. That was my story for the whole season so far.
"I feel great as far as conditioning. I've been working hard for the past two and a half weeks. I think there's no issue there. But there's always the game situations and playing the games. That's a different thing from practicing. I would be happy to play at least one game, but I know Ells (Brian Elliott) has been playing great for us. If he plays, I'm going to accept that and I'm going to be here when I get a chance and I'll be ready."
Halak was injured right at the end of the first period of that 4-1 win over the Wild. He said it wasn't the exact same area that affected him in Detroit but a little worse. Halak admitted he may have come back too soon following the first injury but rehabilitated more and took his time this go-around.
"I took my time. The first time I didn't take my time," he said. "I came back too early. That's what happens. This time, I just wanted to make sure it feels good in practices. When I get a chance to play the games, we'll see what happens there.
"It was almost similar to the same thing. In Detroit, I was still able to play. In Minnesota, I had to come off right away. Maybe a little bit worse. Everybody goes through adversity over the course of the season. I know it has been a short season. I'm sure it's not what I pictured before the season in my mind that the season will go like this, but here I am. It happened. It's behind me. Hopefully I can stay healthy and be ready for our guys."
Elliott will get the start against the Flames tonight, and it's likely that Halak will come off injured-reserve and serve as the backup, at least that's what Hitchcock plans on doing if Halak gives him the green light.
"It's his call," Hitchcock said. "Whether he's ready to back up to even think about before he even gets playing again ... our focus right now is on Elliott and (Jake) Allen and as soon as Jaro says he's ready to join in, obviously he'll take Jake's place. But right now, the focus is on Elliott and getting him up and ready for Calgary.
"It's kind of one day at a time with Jaro right now. He's (very) close, but I think until he feels comfortable, 100 percent where he feels like if he had to go in in case of an injury or something like that, he's got to feel comfortable he's able to do that and so far, he hasn't given us that sign. We're hoping for it in the next day or two but it's not there yet."
Halak said Wednesday he'd tell his coach he can play.
"I would tell him yes," Halak said of Hitchcock. "I would love to get game action. It's totally up to them whether to play me or not. Ells has been playing great and he deserves to play. We'll see what happens.
"In a perfect world, that would be ideal. If not, I'm going to try to be ready. If I get a chance or not, I'll be working hard. Hopefully I'll get back in."
With the Blues in a dogfight for the fourth seed in the Western Conference, playing the hot Elliott might be best suited instead of a rusty Halak.
"Points are so important, seeding's so important," Hitchcock said. "I think momentum is important. Brian's playing tomorrow and we'll just see on Saturday."
* Russell to play -- Defenseman Kris Russell, who arguably was playing his best hockey not only this season but in his short Blues career when he was cast as the seventh defenseman following the trades of Jordan Leopold and Jay Bouwmeester, will play tonight against Calgary.
Defenseman Barret Jackman is day to day, according to Hitchcock, after blocking a Gabriel Landeskog shot in the second period of Tuesday's win. Jackman will not play tonight and likely won't play in the regular season finale against the Blackhawks. He finished the second period against the Avalanche but was not on the bench or on the ice in the third period.
"Russell will play tomorrow. We'll give Jacks that day off and just read it," Hitchcock said Wednesday. "He's day to day. For him, Game 1 (of the playoffs) is critical. Making sure he's ready for Game 1 is going to be important.
"I don't think he needs any more games to play to be ready for it. He's not a guy that needs to be constantly on the ice to play. Right now, our focus to him moves to Game 1 of the playoffs."
Russell will slot back into the third defensive pairing with Roman Polak, a pairing that has been together before.
"Both him and Coley (Ian Cole) have been good soldiers for our team," Hitchcock said of Russell and Cole. "Ian's the other guy we'd like to get in and get a game in here, too. Those two guys have been great soldiers for us. They've had a great attitude. The players have loved them being around, especially Kris, who was a regular player. He gets first call. He deserves it. Him and Polak were a good pair, so I don't see any drop-off at all."
* Perron answers the call -- Blues winger David Perron was demoted to the fourth line at the start of Tuesday's game against Colorado. Perron, who has one goal in 20 games, was deemed to not have had his best game Sunday night in Denver against the Avalanche.
Perron didn't have any points Tuesday nor was directly involved in any shortcomings, but Hitchcock explained the temporary demotion to the fourth line with Adam Cracknell and Ryan Reaves.
"He didn't play very good. Pretty simple, you go backwards on a line, he didn't play very good," Hitchcock said. "He had a decision to make and he answered the bell. ... Can't just keep having meetings. It doesn't work that way. We're at a stage in the season where, 'What have you done for me lately?' I was very impressed with his response. It comes to this sometimes, but I was very impressed with his response."
Perron responded and finished with 17 minutes 17 seconds of ice time and got put back up with Patrik Berglund and Vladimir Tarasenko on the third line.
* Blues, Wolves consummate NHL-AHL agreement -- The Blues made it official Tuesday night with the announcement that they have reached a three-year affiliation agreement to make the Chicago Wolves their American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate.
The Wolves, who joined the AHL in 2001, play their home games at the Allstate Arena in the Chicago suburb of Rosemont, Illinois. In their 12-year AHL history, the club has never had a losing season and has qualified for the postseason eight times, appearing in the league championship final three times and winning the Calder Cup twice (2002, 2008).
The Wolves were formerly affiliated with the Atlanta Thrashers from 2001-2011 and Vancouver Canucks from 2011-2013, and prior to joining the AHL, the Wolves were members of the IHL from 1994 to 2000 and won the Turner Cup twice (1998, 2000).
"We're certainly excited to have (Wolves general manager) Wendell (Young) here and to announce our affiliation with the Chicago Wolves, who are a top American Hockey League franchise," Blues general manager Doug Armstrong said. "To be associated with such a winning organization, it's going to be very beneficial for the Blues.
"... That's where this made it a no-brainer to affiliate with the Chicago Wolves and Wendell Young. Their reputation is second to none. There's a lot of synergies between the two organizations. When you're trying to acquire players that can certainly turn the wheel for Wendell's team and also help our team as depth, playing for the Wolves and playing for a city like Chicago I think is a good sell."
Young said it was a no-brainer to associate with the Blues, who end a lengthy partnership with the Peoria Rivermen, who they sold to the Vancouver Canucks, the Wolves' previous NHL partner.
"There was a view from Vancouver that they were going to move on and then Doug called and 100 percent I sat down with my owner, we had a conversation and it just went from there," Young said. "Just knowing the reputation of Doug and the management here and the organization and knowing that it's just a good fit for us. We knew what we wanted. It's easy for us to get in and out, I think it's easy to get players up and down and even if the team's on the road, we play right next to O'Hare airport, we can get players out very quick to a lot of locations.
"We've got (Ty) Rattie coming out, (Jordan) Binnington ... there's a bunch of guys. We've gone through the depth chart. That was one of the enticing things. They've got some great, young talent. I think that's the key to having a team in the American League to be good. Your young talent and your young draft picks have to be major contributors, and your vets and the call-up guys we call mutual depth guys are the guys that are the fillers and the glue. Your young guys have to be the main guys."
The Blues have taken a lot of heat in the Peoria area for leaving their market, which has had the Rivermen for 31 years but felt like this was the right decision.
"Certainly Peoria's a great hockey market and we've been there for a number of years, but our belief is from a hockey operations standpoint moving forward, the organization in Chicago, the ownership group in there, the facility that they play in, the practice facility is NHL-caliber," Armstrong said. "It seemed like the right time to make this move for us.
"The drive from Peoria to St. Louis is very good, but the travel schedule for our players to Peoria was very difficult. Not only for divisional games into Chicago and Milwaukee and Rockford, Grand Rapids, but you have to bus for three hours or take a flight is very taxing on the players. We think with the proximity of where the Wolves play and practice to O'Hare, it's going to be excellent not only for divisional travel but for league travel."