Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Building up game again key to Blues' success

Team won't dwell on season-ending slide, turned focus to postseason

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- No, it's not the ideal way to enter the playoffs, losing the final six games of the regular season and giving the fans a false sense of hope.

But as the Blues prepare to face the Chicago Blackhawks in the Western Conference First Round series beginning with Game 1 Thursday at Scottrade Center, a chance to step back and tackle what really matters is what this group is focused on, not what is done.

"Obviously you want to win all the time," forward Alexander Steen said. "You go through ups and downs during the season and ours came toward the end. But you've got to look over the course of an 82-game season ... 52 wins and we had a real strong season, played extremely solid. We really found our niche and our calling card, how we play. It's key for us to get into that battle mode right off the bat."
(St. Louis Blues/Mark Buckner)
A healthy David Backes (42) would go along way for the Blues in
their playoff series against Brent Seabrook (7), Marcus Kruger (16)
and the Chicago Blackhawks.

And for the Blues' fans that are worried that another spring disappointment is inevitable on the heels of the season-ending swoon?

"What's done is done," defenseman Jay Bouwmeester said. "We have to remind ourselves that we're in the playoffs. There's a lot of teams that aren't and would really like to be in our position. So regardless of what happened the last five-six games, turn the page. It's over. It's not going to get us anywhere dwelling on it."

Obviously, injuries to key players at the end of the season have played a major role in the Blues' losing skid and at times, it seemed as if the Blues were bored at times with the final stretch of games after clinching a playoff spot even though some lofty goals (Presidents' Trophy, highest seed in the Western Conference and a Central Division title) were still on the table.

"The playoffs are just keep going. You've got to win four games," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said. "For me it's keep going. Momentum is a big part of the playoffs. 

"We're going to need to dislodge any of the negative momentum of what happened here in the last 10 days. We're going to need to get our players back up and running that obviously didn't play the last 10 days, see how many of these we get back and running. To me, it's all about momentum because a series can change quickly and it can evolve quickly, too. In other words, you can get negative momentum going and you can't get off the map. For us, what we need to do to get back and living in the fear of Chicago and their skill level will get our attention right away. I don't think either team anticipated this. I don't think either team loves playing each other, which should make for a helluva series."

The Blackhawks, who won the past two games against the Blues after losing the first three (two via shootout), have battled inconsistent play and injuries to key players (Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane) as well. They're not taking anything, or anyone, for granted.

"The Blues have had an outstanding season," said Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville. "They play a hard game. They play a perfect team game positionally, they play tight, work hard and don't give you any space."

Added fourth-line wing Brandon Bollig, a native of St. Charles.

"They’re fighting through some different things right now," Bollig said. "I'm sure come playoffs they'll turn it around and play good hockey.

"I’ve never played against them in a playoff series. Being my hometown it (will) be fun to go back and play in an atmosphere like that and such high pressure."

Hitchcock and the coaching staff feel like their greatest challenge is to get the players to understand that teams have a high respect factor when they step on the ice against the Blues. It brings out the best in every opponent. Being a playoff team the past two seasons will change the minds of many around the league.

"That's going to be a challenge, but that's why I'm the the coach," Hitchcock said. "That's my job. That's going to be a challenge. The second-best thing is to understand that this is a single opponent. This is the first time since I've been here that we took every team's best licks. This is a new world for this franchise, taking every team's best licks. When we had the big record two years ago, we surprised everybody and teams weren't ready for our level. Last year when we got rolling at the end, nobody was ready for our level. They look and thought, 'Where are these guys coming from?' But we got everybody's 'A' game, especially since the Olympic break and that really wore on our team. That was a real shock and surprise. There were so many times the players would say, 'We don't see them play like this, why are they playing like this.' You had teams always talk about, 'Gee, we get our 'A' game against you guys. We wish we played you guys every night.' That's what happens when you're a top dog. And you've got to get used to playing in that. 

"This was our very first experience at playing in that atmosphere, and our guys are going to be a lot better for it. Now, we get one opponent, face to face and I think that's going to help us a lot."
(St. Louis Blues/Mark Buckner)
The Blues' Alexander Steen (left) hope to stay a step ahead of Johnny
Oduya and the Chicago Blackhawks in their playoff series.

"A lot of it's based on personnel," Hitchcock added. "We get the right personnel back in, we know how to play. We know how to win, but to me, it's a new season. I sat here three weeks ago and said, 'Momentum means everything.' I knew we had our foot off the gas a little bit, so momentum was important. Goals were out there, and we just saw what happens when we take the foot off the gas just a little bit. Other teams can do it a different way. Other teams can play at 75 or 70 percent and still win. We've got to be close to red-line to win and we've been doing that all year. When we took our foot off the gas, this is what's happened so my job is to find a way to get the foot back on the gas again."

Get their foot on the gas and turn it on again.

"Not so much turn on ... build up," Hitchcock said. "When you have a tough finish like we do, the build-back is gradual, but I've had this happen twice. I've had success with it. I've had it happen twice and not have success with it. I've seen it both ways, but I know the two times we've had success, it was a slow build-up.

"Whatever happens, we're going to need to play in tight, hard-fought games to get through it on the other side, but it's doable. The challenge for us is going to be boosting everybody up. We got between all the injuries and getting everybody's 'A' game here at the end here and we didn't get our 'A' game. We got beat down pretty good here, so we've got to build it back up."

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