Monday, February 10, 2014

Blues' short-term goals achieved

When team reconvenes following Olympic break, 
25 games remain, including rugged March schedule

ST. LOUIS -- For the next two-plus weeks as the 2014 Sochi Olympics are about to get underway for the men's ice hockey competition, Blues players will be split up -- literally.

Half the team, including general manager Doug Armstrong as well as head coach Ken Hitchcock have departed for Russia to represent their respective countries in search of gold. The other half? Well, there will be plenty of rest and relaxation at the outset; some will head south for warmer climates, some will head north for similar weather that's been hovering in St. Louis for much of the winter with ski's and slopes on their minds.

But the Blues (39-12-6), who are tied in points (84) with the Chicago Blackhawks atop the Central Division standings, had hopes of catching the Hawks when they finished the pre-Olympic schedule.
(St. Louis Blues/Mark Buckner)
Alexander Steen (20) leads the Blues in goals with 28 and is tied
with T.J. Oshie for most points with 46. Steen will participate in the
Olympics for Sweden.

Not only do the Blues have a realistic shot at winning the division, they're right in the middle of the Western Conference's top mark as well as the NHL's top record, which would see a Presidents' Trophy come along with it.

"We're sitting in a pretty good position," said veteran winger Brenden Morrow, who scored his 10th goal Saturday in a 4-3 shootout victory against the Winnipeg Jets.

"There's parts of our game we're going to have to clean up down the stretch, but this is the point in the season where there's some sloppy things that are happening and you've just got to grind it out and find ways to collect points," Morrow said. "They're going to be huge. They keep adding up."

The Blues are third in the league in wins behind Anaheim (41) and Pittsburgh; they have the second-fewest regulation losses behind the Blackhawks (11); they have the highest point percentage (.737) with games in hand on other teams; they're second in the league in goals per game (3.32) behind Chicago (3.37); they're tied for third in the league in goals against per game with San Jose (2.32), which only trails Los Angeles (2.10) and Boston (2.14); their 1.40 5-on-5 goals for/against ratio only trails Boston (1.48) and Anaheim (1.43); they're tied for fourth in the league in power play efficiency (21.7 percent); they're fourth in the league in penalty kill at 85.1 percent; they're second only to New Jersey (25.4) in shots against per game at 26.6. 

Individually, players are having career years, and the Blues are the only team in the NHL with nine players with 30 or more points. There have been many accomplishments but there's plenty more left to do.

"It's been a very difficult challenge for the players to maintain a hard focus," Hitchcock said. "They deserve a lot of credit. Every time we got pushed and shoved we answered the bell.

"Everybody knows that we've got a whole other gear we're going to have to play at and we've got another gear we can play at. To get points every night is pretty important right now."

Along with the Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings, the Blues had 10 players selected to participate in the Olympics, more than any other team. The Blues are only sending nine with Vladimir Sobotka (fractured kneecap) on the mend and having to miss the Olympics for the Czech Republic. But David Backes, T.J. Oshie and Kevin Shattenkirk (USA), Jay Bouwmeester and Alex Pietrangelo (Canada), Alexander Steen and Patrik Berglund (Sweden), Vladimir Tarasenko (Russia) and Jaroslav Halak (Slovakia) all will be competing and training at high levels. Those that are staying here will have to keep pace when the team can reconvene on Feb. 16.

"The bumps and bruises add up, but the toll it takes mentally on you, too," Morrow said. "To get to here, it's good to get a little break and re-energize, refocus, but you can't completely shut it down. It's tough to get back when games are this intense. You don't want to fall back in summer hockey mode. We'll take a couple days and refresh, but then get focused again."

Goalie Brian Elliott agreed.

"Sometimes you want it, sometimes you don't," Elliott said after Saturday's 4-3 shootout win against the Winnipeg Jets. "I think we're going to try and take advantage of it, keep on top of our fitness level a little bit and come back really hungry. 

"We have a tough March. We play a lot of games, I think the most in the NHL. It's going to be a battle. We've got to be ready for it and have all guys going hard. The guys coming back from the Olympics are going to be a little tired. Everybody's going to have to pick it up for them until they get their legs underneath them again."

The Blues will come back and begin a stretch of six games in seven away from home. They'll play 15 games in 28 days in March, which is the most in the NHL. The grind and race to the final 25 games will only be tougher.

"Everyone that's heading overseas is in pretty good shape, and the guys that are going on break are going to get some good skates when they get back," Oshie said. "I think everyone will be just fine. Maybe more so for those guys like 'Bouw' and 'Petro' who will be playing more minutes, but I think for the most part everyone's going to be ready to go when we get back.

"I think just everyone (needs) to come back refreshed. There's some frustrations on the bench, there's kind of this repetition of the same thing over and over again as far as practices and meetings. I think it's going to be fresh for everyone to get a little break from that and come back and have that fire, to get where we want to learn and get better."

Now that the Blues have caught up to Chicago, they'll need to take advantage of the three games in hand they have on the Hawks.
(St. Louis Blues/Mark Buckner)
The Blues' Jay Bouwmeester (19) will play in the Olympics for Canada
before returning to help the Blues in the chase the the Stanley Cup.

"For us to be up there with that, it's a big feather in our cap, but we've got a lot of work to do here over the break, stay in shape and recover, get some rest and come back the same team and even better in the last 25 games," defenseman Barret Jackman said. "It's going to be like coming out of the lockout (after the Olympics) where everybody's full tilt and every point means something down the stretch. It's really going to be about the mental focus coming back and being the team that doesn't crack in those one-goal games."

Hitchcock will take where the team is at, but there's huge obstacles looming when the Blues start up again Feb. 26 at Vancouver.

"I'm more concerned about the process," Hitchcock said. "I told the players (Saturday) when we come back, March and April is for them. They have to really grab it coming back. My concern now is the process to get the team playing its best hockey at the right time. We've played awfully well, we've been really resilient all year, we've responded to challenges all year. but it's going to really get dialed up when we get back and our players recognize that. Some guys are really looking forward to it. We're a team that needs everybody. We've got a lot of really career years from people going on right now. We've got to continue to have that, but I'm more concerned about the process. There's a whole other level of engagement that we'd like to see from our team. I think come March, we're going to get it."

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