Thursday, October 10, 2013

3-0 start matches only 1969-70, 1993-94 teams

Blues taking 3-0 start in stride, glad to pass test
against defending champs, focused on next opponent

ST. LOUIS -- Winning three games to begin a season has not been something the Blues are accustomed to doing.

But after Wednesday night's last-minute 3-2 victory over the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks, the Blues were able to match only the 1969-70 and 1993-94 teams to come out of the chute with three straight wins to begin a season.

The Blues of three, four or even five years ago might have felt like that's a heck of an accomplishment, but with the mindset of this particular group, it was a test they were happy to pass, but it's also one that they take in stride as well.

(St. Louis Blues/Mark Buckner)
Blues goalie Jaroslav Halak (41) has been strong in winning three games
and posting a 1.33 goals-against average and .948 save percentage.
"It's definitely a big game against these guys," said left wing Alexander Steen, who netted the game-winning goal with 21.1. seconds to play off a 3-on-1 rush. "We don't really like each other that much. That kind of comes with rivalries. They're always fun, high-paced games. (Wednesday) was no different.

"The atmosphere was great in the building, but in saying that, it is a big game and we'll enjoy it, (but) it is game three. Our goal this year is to continue to get better and evolve throughout the course of the year. That's what we're going to do."

There was a definite buzz in the building despite it only being the third game for each respective club. They expect to battle one another for not only divisional but conference supremacy and the Blues are the ones chasing a team that's won the Stanley Cup in 2010 and 2013.

"I think in the postgame, the players are looking forward to the day off (Thursday) and then moving on, moving on and getting ready for New York," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said after Wednesday's game. "It did (feel like a playoff game) during the actual competition, yes. I think everybody knows this is the third hockey game of the year, but I think the actual competition from the drop of the puck until the end of the game felt like a playoff game. It was a playoff game. It had the level of intensity of a good playoff game, but I think everybody was able to move forward quickly postgame knowing that we've got to get ready for game four."

Hitchcock had labeled Wednesday's game against Chicago, Saturday's game against the Rangers and Tuesday's game against San Jose as games the team will gain a lot of valuable information on. Wins over Nashville and Florida to begin the season were good starting points but seeing how the Blues stack up against playoff and experienced, battle-tested teams will speak volumes.

"The thing you learn when you play against Chicago was ... the reason they win isn't because they have skill. They have good skill level. They compete for, around and with the puck at a very high level, and I think we learned that today," Hitchcock said. "We learned how hard they compete on the puck. That's information moving forward.

"I told you we can't lose ... the next three games, we can't lose because we're going to get information that we need badly and this is really good information because there's things we need to work on from a technical standpoint. But (Chicago's) execution on and with the puck is top level and we need to be able to do that if we expect to win in the Western Conference. Any mistake we made was an odd-man rush or a scoring chance. Any time we weren't firm and hard on the puck, they took it off us and they went right back on our throat. Those are really good lessons for us to learn moving forward. I know the next time we play those guys (Oct. 17) we're going to play better because we're going to have that information."

The Blues are getting production up and down the lineup, both offensively and defensively, but to say the least, Jaroslav Halak has really stepped up in goal for this team. After last year's injury-riddled season that limited Halak to a 2.14 goals-against average and very mediocre .899 save percentage while going 6-5-1, the Blues' netminder is off to a rock-solid 3-0-0 mark with a 1.33 GAA and .948 save percentage with one shutout.

Halak has made key, timely saves in each of the Blues' first three games.

"Jaro didn't play because he got hurt (last year)," Hitchcock said. "If he doesn't get hurt, he's playing. They both had sketchy starts to the year (along with Brian Elliott) and then Jake (Allen) came in and settled it down, but Jaro ... we were prepared to go back in the net and then he got hurt.

"I told both guys, 'Listen, you're both good goalies.' I'm willing to throw out last year like a lot of coaches have to. There's a dozen teams that needed to throw out last year. Look at (Buffalo's) Ryan Miller already having a full training camp. I think it's just in fairness for Jaro, we needed to start from scratch again, but he needed to do his part too. He had to come in elite shape so that this injury bug wasn't going on. That was really important. He had to come in better shape so that he didn't put that injury back in play again, and that's exactly what the doctor told him when he went for the evaluation. You don't need surgery, but your conditioning level is going to dictate the strength of this muscle."

Halak made big stops on Patrick Sharp's second-period breakaway and then a big blast from the high slot from Duncan Keith with just over two minutes to play to preserve a 2-2 game, among some of his big stops.

"When the games are on the line ... all three games," Hitchcock said. "First period against Nashville, it's a different game if they get that first goal. Obviously against Florida, (Halak) makes four saves the first shift and then the breakaway save for us (on Sharp) was huge for us. It gave us a boost. He's done a heck of a job so far. He's had a real good start to the year."

(St. Louis Blues/Mark Buckner)
Patrik Berglund (right) and the Blues are off to a 3-0-0 start to the season.
Alex Pietrangelo is tied with Vancouver's Jason Garrison for most points by a defenseman (five), as Pietrangelo has five assists on the season, one which was setting up Steen for the game-winner Wednesday. The Patrik Berglund line with Jaden Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko has put up nine points in three games, with Tarasenko scoring the opening goal Wednesday. Defensively, they've been strong. The special teams have been really strong (although Chicago was 2-for-2 on the power play). Steen has a goal in each game as well as four points and Derek Roy, David Backes, Tarasenko, Berglund, Vladimir Sobotka and Schwartz are each at a point per game clip.

"I think we were saying before the game it's a good test and all that," said defenseman Jay Bouwmeester, who blocked Jonathan Toews' centering feed prior to Pietrangelo springing Steen loose for the game-winner. "... It's early in the year. As the year goes on, teams are going to tighten up and we'll see where we're at.

"They won the Cup last year so everyone's looking to see where they're at. It was a good test. Coming off a 7-0 game where the other team didn't really play that well, it was a good test to see if we were ready and we were."

Added Halak: "I think (it shows) we can play really good hockey. We just have to play as a unit and just be patient out there."

If the Blues can win Saturday night against the Rangers, it'll mark the first time in franchise history they've won four in a row to begin a season.

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