Friday, November 7, 2014

Blues stay even-keeled despite Seventh Heaven

Team's winning spread out among several factors, goaltending at the top

ST. LOUIS -- In the past seven games, the Blues have been a perfect 7-for-7. The wins have given them 14 of a possible 14 points and thrust them right into the thick of the points race in the NHL.

It's early, but even at this stage of the season, the Blues (9-3-1 overall, good for 19 points) know in order to keep up with the heavyweights of not only the Western Conference but the league, they have to grab any points on the table.

That's why they've been able to maintain an even-keel and not be overwhelmed during a stretch in which they've been able to win hockey games without having some of their injured top players (David Backes, T.J. Oshie and Paul Stastny) for stretches and a plethora of others dealing with a bacterial illness that affected the majority of the hockey club.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Devils forward Tuomo Ruutu (left) can't get the puck to go past Blues goalie
Jake Allen, who almost recorded his third straight shutout Thursday night. 

But players continuously point in the direction of two specific players that have kept the boat afloat: goalies Brian Elliott and Jake Allen. Elliott, who will get the start Saturday against the Nashville Predators (8-3-2), is 5-2-1 with a 2.06 goals-against average and .920 save percentage while Allen, who came within 3 minutes, 25 seconds of a third consecutive shutout, is 4-1-0 with a 1.40 GAA and .944 save percentage. 

"Goaltending has been the base part of it," defenseman Barret Jackman said. "There's been spurts of games where we haven't played our best, but we still come out on top. That speaks volumes for the guys between the pipes. They've been solid every night. If we've had a slow start or slow finish, they've always been there to bail us out. Obviously there's been some timely goals. The work ethic's always there, but the goalies have played the biggest part."

Fellow defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk agreed.

"Goaltending's been fantastic. It's been fantastic all year," Shattenkirk said. "I think the games that we've lost, we hung them out to dry for too long. ... There's a healthy competition there. I think it drives both of them. More importantly, they enjoy it as well. They're very tight, they're close, they enjoy being around each other and learning from each other. It's good. It's healthy to have that kind of competition. ... We had a tremendous season (last year) and you lose the last couple of games, the next thing you know, you're in second place. It's the way it goes in this division. It's tough. We're not going to sit here and whine that we wish we were in the East. It's good. It keeps you on your toes. It keeps us from getting into those big slumps and makes sure we're constantly on top of our game.

"... The common denominator is that we've just cleaned up our team game, most importantly puck support. The games we've struggled in this year, the periods we've struggled in this year, we've gotten spread out when things don't go our way. Once we start coming to the puck, we have short-pass support. That's when we look fast, that's when we look our best and we play our best."

Elliott, who has won four straight starts, won his past two games via shootout. He's been thankful for a certain Russian named Vladimir Tarasenko, who's come up with a timely goal or two during the streak as well.

"We've been on the right side of things," Elliott said. "A couple shootout goals here or there could end the streak pretty early. You've just got to look at the positives and learn from the negatives. I don't think it's anything key. A blocked shot here, a Tarasenko goal there. It's worked out and you have to keep on that. You can't just sit back and try to ride it easily. You've got to work for those.

"Jake obviously was on fire; still on fire. You want to come in the same way and be the backbone. Same thing we do all the time. Everybody plays their role. It should work out. You want to put some extra pressure on yourself obviously to get up for the game, but I think it's just going to happen naturally."

Backes returned after missing one game due to concussion-like symptoms; Stastny returned Thursday after missing eight games with a shoulder injury and Oshie (concussion) is the only one missing from the lineup at present time. It seems players have cleared themselves from the illness that affected them the past few weeks but there's still a way to get things where the Blues want them from an overall-game perspective.

"We've been on the right side, but you can look at (three) things for me: timely goals and not just by Vlad but a majority of them by Vlad; the power play has come through for us lately a lot and the goaltending," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said. "To me, the goaltending has been the story. It's held us in when we've been kind of waiting for the push-back from us. To me, those are the three stories for us.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Vladimir Tarasenko has 11 points (eight goals) in the past six
games for the Blues, who are looking for eighth straight win.

"... We are winning games on spirit, but as I told the players today, experience counts in one area: you've been there before, you've seen it before. Spirit can only carry you so far. Our spirit's tremendous. Our camaraderie, our chemistry, whatever you want to call it. For me, our spirit has won us points, but we're going to have t get up on board on the execution side of things. I think the players recognize that. They recognize that execution is going to have to be something that's going to be needed moving forward."

The Blues will be looking for their eighth straight win Saturday, which would be the first time since winning nine in a row from Oct. 15-Nov. 5, 2002. Staying level-headed is the best recipe for success since .

"There's always things you can improve on," Jackman said. "We're not looking at any streaks. You've got to look at Nashville, a team that's been playing good this year. That's our next challenge. It's a big test for us."

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