Friday, November 8, 2013

Blues brace for tough tests during homestand

Penguins, with Crosby, Malkin, first up in series of challenging games

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- It's no secret that the Blues are a top-tiered team in the NHL based on their recent regular season success and ability to climb to the top of the standings.

But a stretch of upcoming games, including a real eye-opener against the Pittsburgh Penguins (11-5-0) Saturday night (7 p.m. on FSN, KMOX 1120-AM), has the Blues (10-2-2) in for a real test.

And the Blues seem to be in a position to prove themselves in these types of environments, which is why Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said his team will "get scared and scared straight."

That's what will be the challenge for the Blues, who will face upper-echelon opponents beginning Saturday.

(St. Louis Blues photo)
The last time Patrik Berglund (21) and Kris Letang (right) squared off, the
Penguins won in a shootout here Jan. 24, 2012.
"I don't think scared is the right word, but when there's a challenge in front of us, when we're playing a team that we know is a Cup contender or a playoff team every year, you have these little competitions or moments during the season that kind of define you as a team," defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk said. "This three-game stretch coming up here is going to be a good chance for us to prove ourselves."

After the Penguins, then it's the Phoenix Coyotes and then arguably the most surprising story of the early season, the Colorado Avalanche. All three teams are at or near the top of not only their respective divisions but their respective conferences as well.

"I think it's knowing if you make a mistake, these good teams are going to capitalize on that obviously," defenseman Alex Pietrangelo said. "We've played well in big games. You've seen when we played Chicago, everyone steps up to the plate. These next three opponents are opponents that are going to be important for us to get on track. It's going to be a real good test for us."

Hitchcock elaborated more Friday after an optional skate on the meaning of his team being in a scared frame of mind when it comes to top-notch teams.

"I think sometimes you get comfortable on the ice and then you start forcing pucks," Hitchcock said. "After the first period, we've been too comfortable and it hasn't allowed us to continue building good minutes. The players look at the score, we look at the process and the process for us has to get better. If we want to be an elite team, the process has to get better. That's what we're focused on. Now we get opponents where you have no choice. You can't play 40 minutes, you have to play 60 or as close to 60 as you can if you expect to win and that's going to be really important for us."

First up is Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and a star-studded lineup the Penguins will bring to town. Crosby, who leads the NHL with 23 points, will be a dual threat like no other the Blues face.

"We play lots of teams with skill, but they work. They compete. They play right through you," Hitchcock said of Crosby and Malkin. "That's what I'm looking forward to is the challenge individually that each player has. There's a reason they've won so many hockey games. Not just because they have talent and skill, it's because of how hard they play. I think our players are looking forward to this. I'm looking forward to it. The process that we're going through, the next three games is going to give us some really good feedback of where our team stands."

One thing is for certain: both Crosby and Malkin, the Penguins' top two centers, can expect to see a lot of the Blues' top defensive pairing of Alex Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester.

"It's exciting. You don't get to see them too often," Pietrangelo said. "Obviously big-game players, good team. It's going to be a challenge for us, but we get excited for the opportunity to play a good hockey team like this. I think we're kind of building towards something to be a perfect game. Obviously a big win (Thursday) night, but it's going to be a tough one tomorrow.

"They've got some good depth and obviously the creativity and the speed, especially Crosby and Malkin have and Letang on the backend. They're willing to try things most other players aren't. Not only that, they're able to execute most of the time."

Players like Crosby and Malkin, who have a good cast of teammates such as Chris Kunitz, Kris Letang and others, tend to thrive in the open ice and in transition. The Blues hope to have the proper recipe to try and derail their success and do it as a unit.

"I don't think you want to overwhelm yourself," Bouwmeester said. "To contain guys like that, you have to do it collectively. You make sure you manage the puck good when they're out there, knowing when they're on the ice. They're good players. They're going to create stuff at some point and you just have to kind of limit it and not give them anything easy.

"The best way to defend those guys is if you're grinding and playing down in their end. Nobody really likes to play in their own end, especially guys that have that kind of skill and like being on the offense. That's where you have to do it as a group. Your forwards are a big part of it back-checking, back-pressure, not giving them a lot of time because obviously they're good players and they make good plays."

Shattenkirk agreed that letting them know you're there is the best way to cause a disruptive flow.

"Bumping them ... I think the one thing we do well when we're playing our best is our forwards do a great job of tracking back," Shattenkirk said. "When we do turn pucks over, we don't give them a chance to start that transition. We kind of limit their time and space where they maybe have to dump the puck. Then we seem to do a great job of exiting. The less time they have the puck on their stick obviously is the best.

(St. Louis Blues photo)
The Blues' Roman Polak (right) and Pittsburgh's Chris Kunitz will renew
acquaintances Saturday night at Scottrade Center. 
"It's a playoff game. One mistake could lead to a goal in a flash. They have so many dangerous players on the ice that can make you pay and they have so many skilled guys that work hard, which makes them a tough team to play against. We as a team do a good job against those types of teams, shutting then down. When we're playing our best game, they're not really getting much on the offensive end."

The Blues and Penguins won't face one another until March in Pittsburgh, and if they each have their say, they'd like to meet again, with something more at stake.

"Pittsburgh's been a measuring stick for a little while," Hitchcock said. "We're hoping that we're a measuring stick for them too because I'm sure that they're thinking they want to have a good game against us.

"I'm really looking forward to the individual matchups, the challenges, the way they play, the pressure they put on your defensive posture, things that we think we can take advantage of. I'm sure they're watching our game and they're thinking they can take advantage of some stuff. The whole matchup of when you've got two really good, competitive teams going at each other's going to be a lot of fun."

The last three meetings between the Blues and Penguins have resulted on one-goal affairs, with the Blues winning two of them. The last two meetings have ended in overtime (a Blues win) and a shootout (a Penguins victory).

* NOTES -- Forwards Brenden Morrow and Magnus Paajarvi (upper-body injuries) were on the ice again Friday. Neither is likely to play Saturday against the Penguins but Morrow seems likely of the two to a return to the lineup sooner. ... Forward Chris Porter could get into the lineup Saturday against Pittsburgh. ... Goalie Jaroslav Halak (8-2-1, 2.30 goals-against average and .911 save percentage) is expected to get the start Saturday. ... After Thursday's win over Calgary, the Blues have matched a franchise record for the most points (22) through the first 14 games of a season for the fourth time. They will look to post 11 wins in their first 15 games for the fourth time in club history and the first since 2003-04.

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