Friday, March 28, 2014

All systems go for Blues closing out regular season

Division, conference titles, Presidents' Trophy all goals 
within reach; team wants momentum heading into playoffs

ST. LOUIS -- It has been suggested at times that the Blues, who have sewn up a playoff berth already, rest players during the home stretch of the regular season.

The Blues have nine regular season games remaining, and then the "second season" begins with the Stanley Cup Playoffs on April 16.

However, there's still unfinished business. Much of it, as a matter of fact.
(St. Louis Blues/Mark Buckner)
The Blues and T.J. Oshie (74) have realistic goals still within reach as the
regular season is winding down. St. Louis has nine games remaining.

The first goal off the checklist (clinching a playoff spot) has been fulfilled. But winning a division title, earning the Western Conference's top seed and last but not least, winning the Presidents' Trophy, are all goals well within reason. 

And according to coach Ken Hitchcock, why not go for them?

"They validate the season," Hitchcock said of the goals. "They validate why you start putting your gear on in September, training like crazy and traveling all over the (United States and Canada) and asking a lot of your players. It validates some of the goals you had in September. 

"Our goal was to win the division, win the conference and have a crack at the Presidents' Trophy. We're in the race and if you're in the race, you might as well try to win it. That's our goal is to try and win it. If we don't, it'll take us 10 minutes to move on. We're not going to lose any sleep over it. But what the heck, if you're fighting for it, let's fight for it."

The Blues won their 50th game for only the second time in franchise history Thursday after defeating the Minnesota Wild 5-1 (they won 51 in the 1999-2000 season when they won the only Presidents' Trophy in franchise history). With the Wild and Dallas Stars, who visit Scottrade Center Saturday, these are potential first round opponents and sending a stern message now can only help create mental obstacles later.

"Momentum's a big thing going into the playoffs," defenseman Alex Pietrangelo said. "If we can generate some momentum here ... some of these teams we're playing now are potential first round opponents. You're trying to send a message of how we're going to be playing. I think we're feeling pretty confident where our game's at right now. If we can just continue to roll going into the playoffs, we're going to be alright."

"We're going to play a couple teams that most likely we're going to see at some point in the postseason," said right wing T.J. Oshie, who tallied his first career hat trick Thursday. "We want to make a statement. (Thursday) night was (about) going in and getting the two points and making a statement. I think we did a good job in doing that. ... If you get a little mental edge on someone, no matter how small it is, I think that plays a big part in the postseason."

When the Stars (who hosted the Nashville Predators on Friday) come to town, it will be the second of a five-game homestand. The Blues will have finished the season playing seven of 10 on home ice. And in Hitchcock's eyes, the message being sent could come from a different angle.

"Sending a message that we're going to be hard to play against at home is probably more important," Hitchcock said. "It happens to be Minnesota and Dallas who are sitting there right where we match up today, but I think it's more sending a message that we're not going to be easy to play against at home. I think that's better for our psyche because we're going to start at home if we keep playing this way. That's the message for us. It's a combination of getting our game in order but also being really hard to play against."

Two seasons ago when the Blues fell short by two points of winning the Presidents' Trophy, they stumbled down the stretch, going 3-4-3 before being blitzed with a four-game sweep by the Los Angeles Kings in the second round. They were 12-3 in April during the lockout-shortened season last year but were again eliminated by the Kings in the first round in six games.

"You look at (the last two seasons), we didn't play the best near the end of the year," Pietrangelo said. "Other than those Philly and Chicago games (recently), we've been playing some pretty good hockey, especially these last three (games). We've really seemed to put things in the right direction."

"If it's (being) 8-2 or 9-1, 10-0 or 5-5, I think that's maybe a side note," captain David Backes said. "I think how we're playing, four lines rolling and able to get our game to where we want it to be going into the playoffs is our main goal. ... We've got nine more contests against teams that are playing for playoff spots or jockeying for position. There's not going to be an easy one in the bunch. We've got to bring our 'A' game and see what kind of games the other teams are bringing. Hopefully there's a lot more smiles after games. The focus is on how we're playing and the results will take care of themselves. We want to be hitting our stride come playoff time."

Going in with momentum gives a team that advances deep or wins it all a huge boost.

"In the last 10 years, I've seen it once, maybe twice, a team limped in and played well," Hitchcock said. "... That's not a very good percentage. I think every player that has experience knows you have to play well going in to build momentum. You can't start the playoffs searching for your hockey game. You can't search for your identity in Game 1 of the playoffs. You've got to have a lot of things going for you. If you're trying to find your game leading into the playoffs, you're going to have a really tough go. Momentum is everything and we've got to find a way to keep playing well."

One thing is for certain: the Blues (50-16-7) will embrace any role, any situation or any scenario they're put in. They have no choice, but it's a chance to prove their worth in the process.

"We're not going to run and hide from being a good team," Hitchcock said. "We're not going to be overwhelmed because we're the favorites in a playoff series or we're expected to win a playoff series. We're not going to run and hide from that. We're going to embrace it. I look at what's coming up and the opportunity in the next nine games ... I don't want us getting too far ahead of ourselves, but I look at the next nine games as strong prep and getting ready for the postseason. But I also look at the opportunity in front of us right now, and it's a great opportunity. I think the players want to embrace that. 

"I think they look at this as, 'Heck, why not us? Why not us giving ourselves a chance?' Everybody talks about our inexperience of getting further in the playoffs, but those other teams had to start our somewhere, too. Why not us give ourselves a chance to see how far we can go? So they're not running and hiding from any responsibilities."

So for those looking for the Blues to sit people out, don't count on it or expect it unless a player needs it for injury-related purposes. 
(St. Louis Blues/Mark Buckner)
Roman Polak (left) and Jaden Schwartz (right) want to help the Blues gain
momentum heading into the playoffs.

"No I'm not looking at that. They've got time to rest," Hitchcock said of the players. "I'm looking at playing well. I don't think resting people ... we've got 20,000 people in the building that we have an obligation to. I'm not going to go crazy and over-play people, but I think allowing people to play and people pay good money to see us play well. I'm not going to cheat the fans by doing things, but at the same time, I'm not going to play a player that can use a day off because of injury either. We've got enough depth to play with. There's times we want to see other people play. We might bring a defenseman or two into the mix here in the next two or three games just to get them some more experience, but from that standpoint, I'm not going to sit people out because it's a chance to rest them or anything like that."

Heading into Friday's games, the Blues led the Boston Bruins by one point in the race for the Presidents' Trophy, the San Jose Sharks by four points in the Western Conference race and the Chicago Blackhawks by eight points in the race for the Central Division. 

Someone has to be at the top of the heap. Why not the Blues?

"I think we want to make a statement around the league that we deserve to be where we're at," Oshie said. "We want the target on our back and we want that trophy."

* NOTES -- Hitchcock wouldn't commit to a lineup against the Stars, who defeated the Blues 3-2 in overtime during the teams' last meeting here in St. Louis on March 11. Hitchcock hinted the same lineup that played Thursday would be in tact. Ryan Miller, 9-2-1 with a 2.03 goals-against average and .918 save percentage with the Blues, will start in goal.

Carlo Colaiacovo, who has taken the latest turn as the sixth defenseman and run with the opportunity the past three games, is playing arguably his best as a Blue paired with Kevin Shattenkirk the past two games. It will be hard for Hitchcock to remove him from the lineup, but the coach said both Jordan Leopold and Ian Cole need to get in the lineup before the postseason begins.

"They're not going to sit too long," Hitchcock said of Leopold and Cole. "They're going to get in. 

"It's hard to take Carlo out, but we've got to get these guys in some games. Shatty's a guy that can play with anybody and in any situation. These guys have got to play and they're going to play."

- - Vladimir Tarasenko (thumb) has not been cleared to skate nine days after having surgery. Hitchcock said he hopes Tarasenko will get cleared "in the next little while," but he wasn't clear when that would be.

Tarasenko's initial prognosis was that he would be reevaluated in six weeks. He was injured against the Nashville Predators on March 15.

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