Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Blues' blueprint for physicality just what they needed

Reaves, Backes, Cracknell pave way,
must elevate tempo to next level in Game 2

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- As if the 17,612 fans needed another reason to be heard to open the playoffs, Blues enforcer Ryan Reaves gave them plenty of reason to be loud.

It started with a pair of jarring hits on Jordan Nolan and Brad Richardson 11 seconds apart early in Game 1 if the Western Conference Quarterfinals against the Los Angeles Kings.

It was the start of what would be a pounding, bruising persona the Blues would put on display in a 2-1 overtime victory that has them up 1-0 in the series.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Adam Cracknell (right) was one of the Blues' more physical players in
their 2-1 overtime win over the Kings.

"I was a little out of position, kind of running around like an idiot for a couple seconds," Reaves joked Wednesday. "I think I kind of knew it was going to happen. I think I had to get the crowd into it early and send that message. I kind of took it on myself to send that message to that team that it's going to be physical, it's going to be a battle. If they want to stay in it, it's going to be tough."

Consider the message delivered.

After being pushed out of their element by the Kings who went on to win a Stanley Cup a season ago, the Blues felt like the only way to dictate the tempo in Tuesday's playoff opener was to initiate the contact and most importantly, push first.

The Blues, who took Game 1 on Alexander Steen's shorthanded overtime goal, came out with an intensity that was packed with the kind of physical element that's suited for their style of play.

"I think last year they did it to us," Reaves said of the 2012 sweep at the hands of the Kings. "They came out, all four lines were physical. They pushed us out. We really didn't have a response for them.

"I think this year, it's got to be the opposite. We've got to come out and push them out first and then when they push back, we've got to push harder."

Even though the Blues wound up being out-hit 41-38 in Game 1, their early initiation caused quite the stir that resonated through the blue-clad faithful that cheered loudly with every Reaves hit.

Reaves led the charge, with nine hits of his own. He was even joking Wednesday afternoon when told that he had out-hit the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team 9-7 on the night.

"I think hopefully I led by example," Reaves said. "I think the game kind of got amped up after that. It was a physical game. I think all four lines were playing physical. I think we got them on their toes for most of the game. I think we laid off near the end when we had the lead and a little bit in OT after they scored the goal, but I think we kind of sent a message that it's going to be a tough, physical series."

Add fellow fourth-liner Adam Cracknell and captain David Backes to the list with five hits each, the Blues dictated tempo, got an early jump and would have run the Kings out of the building had it not been for the stellar play of goalie Jonathan Quick, who stopped 40 shots.

"When Reaves goes out and whoever it is and gets a big hit and makes the other guys feel like we're taking it to them from a physical standpoint, I thought for the most part we were giving it out a little more last night," Blues veteran forward Andy McDonald said. "(The Kings) didn't seem to be playing as physical as they have been in the past. I don't know if that's us initiating more or whatever. It's a good sign for our team and that's the way we play. We're a physical team, we're on top of teams. We know Reaves is great. He got in there, got some big hits and got the crowd into it. We feed off that.

"It's Game 1 and I think we had the adrenaline going and (were) excited being our home opener in the playoffs and a lot to prove. We just have to make sure that we match that again tomorrow night and maybe even bring it up a notch. We know that they're going to come out a lot harder."

But it wasn't just Tuesday night that the Blues lit the fire. This sort of element to their game has been going on throughout the month of April, where they went 13-3-0 including Tuesday night's playoff victory.

"I don't think we focused as much on them as we did ourselves," said Steen, who netted both Blues goals Tuesday. "I think the way that we had played in the last month of the season, the way we started April and kind of got progressing is kind of something that was real positive. Now it's basically just wanting to play the same way, intensifying it ... almost picking it up a little bit, another notch or two. I thought yesterday we came out with a lot of jump and played the way we wanted to play, but being said, that's Game 1 and it's behind us now."

The Blues, known as one of the top-hitting teams in the NHL, understand that as good as they were in the physical department Tuesday, it will have to be even better Thursday.

(St. Louis Blues photo)
David Backes (left) continued to add his physical presence in the Blues'
2-1 win over the Kings in Game 1 of the conference quarterfinals.
"I think it has to go to another level," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said. "I think the contact was fine. We played physical, they played physical, but that's playoff hockey. There were 80 hits I guess in the game. That's what the stats people said, so for two big teams, that's around average ... 80 to 100, that's around average. Physical play is just part of who it is. ... That's the way it is for playoff hockey."

That's why Kings coach Darryl Sutter realizes that his team better come prepared for another physical war Thursday night.

"It was pretty much a matchup situation when you’re on the road when Hitch wants to play Backes against (Anze Kopitar)," Sutter said. "And it pretty much matches up who’s playing against who. And if you try and get away from it, quite honest, when you’re honest on the road, you see it in the first period last night, then your changes become scorng chances against.

"Your matchups are what they are. And how do you counter that? Some of the boys that play on our fourth lineboys."

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