Blues to be tested before break; no ground gained
during winning streak; Pietrangelo's plus-minus going back up
HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- The Blues are on a five-game winning streak, and anyone involved with the NHL will admit that wins -- no matter who they are against -- are hard to come by.
However, considering that three of the Blues' wins during this streak are against the worst teams point-wise in the NHL (Arizona, Carolina and Edmonton), the nest stretch of games will be more of a telltale sign of just where the Blues (27-13-3) are.
It starts with Thursday against the Detroit Red Wings (23-11-9), followed by the Toronto Maple Leafs and Colorado Avalanche, who have been playing much better of late, before the Blues head into a 10-day hiatus between games that involves the All-Star break.
"There's some good hockey clubs," defenseman Alex Pietrangelo said. "Obviously we know what Detroit's made of. Toronto obviously, they're a good team as well. They're extremely skilled up front, and we know what Colorado brings. They're going to be good tests for us. If we can win these three going into the break on this little streak we've got going now, it's going to be a good feeling coming back."
The Blues know they will get tested against teams that bring a speed element into town. It all starts with the Red Wings, who will be finishing off a six-game trip.
"Edmonton brings speed with the puck; Detroit brings speed without the puck and with the puck," coach Ken Hitchcock said. "Detroit's a significant challenge for us because they're one of the deepest, best-coached teams in the league. Our structure, our discipline, our focus is going to get challenged. Toronto's playing awful well right now, too, so you're not going to get much space or time.
"I think the Detroit game for us is going to be a real good measure for where our team game's at because every part of it's going get challenged. We're really looking forward to it."
* No leverage -- When the Blues went into their slump recently, a 1-5-1 stretch, they obviously lost ground to some key teams running toe to toe with them in the standings.
The Blues were in first place in the Central Division before gaining three of a possible 14 points, and suddenly, the surging Nashville Predators and Chicago Blackhawks passed the Blues up.
Now that they've won five games in a row for the third time this season, the Blues were hoping to gain ground on those not only ahead of them but behind them (the Winnipeg Jets) as well.
"We've won five in a row and made up no ground," Hitchcock said. "That's the shock for me. You win five in a row and you just keep pace with what's above you. It's a tough league. It's a tough league because we've made up no ground on the people above us, and we've made up no ground on the wildcards below us. They're all winning, too. The one dip we had, other teams were dipping at the same time so we didn't lose as much ground as we would have. Man, you've got to really play well to get in the playoffs in this conference because you're sitting at 57 points and there's a team breathing down your neck, a team like Winnipeg, they're breathing right down your neck. We've just got to keep going."
The Central Division in particular, continues to be a bear.
Nashville is the surprise of the division with the ascension the Predators have made; the Blackhawks are the Blackhawks; the Jets are giving the impression that they're in this for the long haul, and the Dallas Stars and Avalanche have the firepower to stick it out until the end of the season. The Minnesota Wild, who began the season in first place, have bottomed out in recent weeks and are in last place, but up until a couple days ago, the Central Division was the only one with every team over .500.
"You had a 112-point team last year (Colorado) who's starting to rev it up now," Hitchcock said. "It's a tough division, boy. There's a lot of depth, there's a lot of good players, there's a lot of impact players.
"Nashville's probably throwing it out of balance for everybody because they surprised teams early and they've shown people how good they are. They've really added to the mix now. There's no easy games. There's no games where you can even take a period off and expect to win the hockey game. Every game you play in this division is not only a four-pointer but it's a 60-minute effort. You're going to need 60 minutes to beat these teams. It's going to be even tougher here once we get past this break here because it's going to feel like you're in the playoffs just to get in the playoffs now."
What the parity does is keeps the Blues hungry and interested, because they know if there are multiple slip-ups, it could prove costly down the line.
"I don't think the players look at the standings as much as we (coaches) do," Hitchcock said. "I think they look at the opponent more than anything. I think our players are looking forward to playing these next three games. We get to test ourselves, we get to see how many good minutes we get to put in, and I think everybody is really looking forward to this. Detroit's record, their players, their game, their franchise, they get your attention every time. And then obviously Toronto does the same thing. It's going to be a good challenge for us."
* Pietrangelo's plus-minus -- After a 5-0 loss to the Avalanche on Dec. 23, Pietrangelo's plus-minus sank to a season-low minus-12. Blues fans were voicing their displeasure with why the team's No. 1 defenseman had such a low plus-minus.
A lot of it coincided with the team's play, but in the nine games since the Blues returned from Christmas break, Pietrangelo is a plus-9 and has lowered his plus-minus to minus-3. He has been a plus-2 in each of the past three games.
Playing alongside partner Jay Bouwmeester, Pietrangelo is ninth in the NHL in time on ice at 25 minutes, 17 seconds, so they're faced with playing against the best players on the opposition.
"Last month, I think we've kind of found ourselves to be on the right side of things," Pietrangelo said. "We try and simplify with our forwards who do a lot of the work and it seems to be working, especially when you're playing with Backs, Steener and Osh line, they certainly seem to make things easier."
Running players in five-man units has certainly helped the Bouwmeester-Pietrangelo pairing. They're on the ice most of the time with Alexander Steen, David Backes and T.J. Oshie.
"You try and simplify the game, you try to skate on the offensive side and and defensive side a little bit more," Pietrangelo said. "When the unit of five is clicking the way we are, it started clicking about a month ago. We started finding our stride, the group of us.
"Any time you have success the way we are winning, and especially on the offensive side of the game, you gain a little bit more confidence. ... Me and Bouw, we're really focusing on the defensive side of the game. It seems to be giving us the most success offensively as well."
* Notes -- It was an optional skate for the Blues on Wednesday, with only four skaters and two goalies taking the ice.
Players were given the option of ice or off-ice and one player who took part in neither was Steve Ott, who Hitchcock said was battling the flu and is questionable to play Thursday.
Also, T.J. Oshie, who blocked a Justin Schultz shot in the Blues' 4-2 win against Edmonton, finished the game after momentarily leaving; Jaden Schwartz returned after being hit in the mouth with an errant shot off Pietrangelo's stick. He sustained a cut upper lip but no missing teeth according to Hitchcock, and Joakim Lindstrom, a healthy scratch the past six games and eight of nine, could return to play against Detroit. Hitchcock said Lindstrom is "chomping at the bit" to get back in.
Brian Elliott, who leads the NHL with a 1.95 goals-against average, will start in goal.