Monday, March 9, 2015


Time to re-establish home swag for Blues, set 
sights on Central; Shattenkirk, Michalek improving

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- The Blues obviously fixed a few ailments on a road trip that saw them go 3-1-1.

It was split up in two, but taking seven of a possible 10 points is impressive considering the difficulties of winning in the opposition's building.

As the Blues (41-19-5) get set to host the Winnipeg Jets (33-21-12) to start a three-game homestand, fixing what ails them on Scottrade Center ice would be beneficial since the schedule is, as David Backes put it, down to the "dog days."

When the Blues last played at home, they were losing a disheartening 5-2 game to the Montreal Canadiens that finished a 1-3-0 homestand and all but left them out of a chance to win the Central Division. But with Nashville reeling -- they lost six in a row before playing at Arizona on Monday, the Blues can use a good dose of home cooking.

"We had the one homestand which wasn't very pleasing, but I think it's our overall game," Backes said. "Whether that changes from the road to home, I hope that's not a huge factor. In the playoffs, you've got to win games in both venues and making sure that you're digging in and finding ways. We need to get back to that sort of mentality. It's no easier at home than it is on the road and vice versa.

"That sometimes does get hard, middle of the season, dog days of bringing your 'A' game, being 100 percent engaged. I think you saw that a little bit in that homestand. We were a little bit on our heels. We weren't quite as hungry as a team that would say is fighting for their lives for the playoffs. Now we're in the last home stretch here of games. You see light at the end of the tunnel and we should be ramping up every night to be playing our best. ... You get past that trade deadline, you know who your group's going to be and you see a light at the end of the tunnel. It's do-or-die time. Get your game in order, get where you're going to be in the standings and then roll into the playoffs."

The Blues are 22-8-2 on home ice, which is certainly respectable. But with the postseason right around the corner, it might be a good idea to be the intimidator on home ice again and already put the opposition in a hole from a mental perspective.

"I just think we've got to narrow our focus down to one game at a time," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said. "I think we got too far ahead of ourselves when we were here. We got too loose in our game and it affected us. I think we got too comfortable in our game, we got too comfortable staying in town for such an extended period of time and got sloppy. We've got to grow our game back where we've got to put details back in it; doesn't matter whether road (or) at home. 

"This is one of the toughest parts of the schedule for us. We've got nine in 15 nights with a lot of travel coming up and it's going to be a very difficult challenge. We need to keep our focus as narrow as we can. Rather than the homestand, I'm preparing for Tuesday night and whatever goes from there, we'll deal with it. But to me, this is the perfect time of season to really live your live, go at it day-to-day and not worry about anything else because these games, pretty much every team's got the same amount of games left over the same amount of time. It's going to be really challenging for everybody."

* Goal of winning division -- Five games ago, the Blues were nine points behind the Predators for the Central Division title. For all intents and purposes, it was over.

The Blues were two points out of first before Nashville's game Monday with two games in hand. It could still be two with three games in hand, or even three points or four points with three games in hand. 

No matter what, it's very realistic for the Blues to win the division now.

"I don't spend too much time looking at it, but we can't control what happens to them," Backes said of the Predators, who were 41-19-7 before Monday. "We've played our games against them and we can control what we do and that's two points on the line when we're playing our games and we move forward to the next two. If we take care of our business, play our brand of hockey, things will just work themselves out. Regardless of playing in the playoffs, if you wanna reach the goal that we have in mind, you're going to have to play each team or the best of the best and find a way to win. We're going to take that mentality moving forward."

Hitchcock feels like if the Blues worry about gaining points, the results will fall into place.

"I know I've said this to people before, (and) everybody talks about playoffs, but I really prefer to look at it from the standpoint that it's going to ... our goal is that it's going to take 100 points to get in the playoffs," Hitchcock said. "Whatever the numbers are, there's still a lot of points out there that we've got to get. Whether we catch Nashville or not, I think it's piqued everybody's interest with what's happened, but we've got to continue to play well to get points. To me, every night is about points. 

"That was what was so disappointing in the Philadelphia game (Thursday, a 3-1 loss). In that game, we've got to get points. We got (a point) in the Vancouver game, kept playing and we played very well against Toronto, but we've got to get points. However they come, whatever Nashville does doesn't matter but we've got to get points too to get up into that air where everybody else looks they're going to go to right now because the teams that are in this mix, the 10 teams or so that are in this mix, nobody's losing. Or if they lose, they lose one and win three in a row. Looking at it, you've got to go with the assumption that people are going to win three-quarters of their games and we've got to adjust accordingly."

* Injury update -- Defenseman Jay Bouwmeester, who missed the win against the Maple Leafs after falling ill, and center Olli Jokinen, who left the game in the third period with an upper body injury, were not on the ice for practice Monday. But Hitchcock expects they'll be available for selection to play against Winnipeg.

Also, defensemen Kevin Shattenkirk (abdomen) and Zbynek Michalek (concussion) did not skate with the team but did so on their own.

Hitchcock was encouraged.

"Yeah, they both had real good days today, so they both worked like crazy," Hitchcock said of Shattenkirk and Michalek. "I would say the next evaluation where you can start asking questions and I'll give you the right answers will be when you see them on the ice with us either in a skate or a pregame skate or whatever, an optional practice. But they're getting really close that way, so it's a good sign."

Shattenkirk has been out since Feb. 1 and Michalek has not played since Feb. 14. Both accompanied the team on the past trip.

"I expect everyone that was on the ice and the guys that weren't available (Monday) to be available (Tuesday)," Hitchcock said. "So the only two guys for me that won't be ready tomorrow will be Michalek and Shatty. Everybody else will be ready to go."

* Bortuzzo making a mark -- New Blues defenseman Robert Bortuzzo, acquired at the trade deadline from the Pittsburgh Penguins for fellow defenseman Ian Cole, has made an impressive mark on his new team.

The 6-foot-4, 215-pound Thunder Bay, Ontario native played 16 minutes, 30 seconds in his Blues debut against the Flyers and had six shots and played 17:19 against the Leafs.

"I kind of want to play with that edge but always being under control," Bortuzzo said. "I think that's the best thing. If you can be physical, be physical, but if it's not there, don't force it. Positionally, I think it's having a good stick. In terms of that abrasiveness and being hard to play against, that's something I think helps myself. I want to stand up for teammates and make it hard on the other team's top-end players.

"I think the staff and team's done a great job of communicating some of those differences. Whether it's through video or just questions on the bench or guys communicating in between periods. It's been an easy transition."

Hitchcock will have a tough time pulling Bortuzzo from the lineup if he continues to play at this pace.

"I think his game is solid," Hitchcock said of Bortuzzo. "He's just solid. He's heads-up, he's alert, he's into the game and he makes a good first pass. I didn't watch him that closely in Pittsburgh, but he's an effective player for us. He looks like a guy that in a couple years can really impact in a positive way. He's a young guy; he's just learning the game. He's had a real positive impact in our locker room."

Bortuzzo has been Barret Jackman's partner on the third defensive pairing, a spot Hitchcock said is the best fit for Bortuzzo.

"He is right now, but there's going to come a time when Michalek and Shattenkirk come in ... we're going to have a multitude of right shots for the first time in this franchise's history," Hitchcock said. "We'll see where it goes."

Bortuzzo called the trade tough but said it's easy when you go from one contender to another.

"At the end of the day, we're in this to win hockey games and that ultimate goal is to be a championship hockey team," Bortuzzo said. "It was tough being traded. It was something I've never gone through, but when you find out it's an organization and a team like the Blues, that definitely raises your excitement level. You hear a lot of great things from an outsider and when you get here right away, those things are reinforced. 

"I can't say enough about working with Barret. So far, even in practice if I'm a little lost on a couple drills, he'll communicate and then in the games, he's doing everything he can to talk and communicate. Obviously a very experienced guy who I want to learn from."

* STL Line finding its mark -- They were hot at the beginning of the season and leveled off some in the highs and lows of an 82-game season, but it seems the line of Jori Lehtera, Jaden Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko is heating up offensively again.

The trio accounted for seven points in the 6-1 in against the Leafs and have 11 points in the past  three games.

"I think there's games before that we were playing well and had lots of chances they didn't go in," Schwartz said. "This time of the year, you're not going to score every single game, but you want to contribute as much as you can and try to stay positive when they're not going in."

"On the road, their line was terrific," Hitchcock said. "For a while now, that line's been fine. It's been fine for us for really five games now. ... Their puck support's way better. They're closer to each other, and when they have puck support at close proximity, they're very effective offensively. That's what you're seeing now, you're seeing little give-and-go plays, short pass support. When they play like that, they're really effective."

Check to score seems to be the best mantra for the unit, as it does for all the lines. But the "STL Line" seems to perfect the strategy when they check well.

"We've been inconsistent in that area still," Hitchcock said. "When we do it like we did against Toronto ... I think what you see when we get chances off the rush, it means we've checked well. So when you get scoring chances in this day and age off the rush, it means you've created an odd-man break by the way you check. So when our rush attack chances are very limited, it's a sign we're not checking well. But when they're in that seven, eight, nine, 10 chances, that means we've checked well, we've created turnovers and we've created odd-man rushes because of it."

* Blues look to stay perfect against Jets -- The Blues, who have three game remaining with Winnipeg on the schedule, have two wins this season against the Jets.

They won 4-2 and most recently, 2-1 in a shootout on Feb. 26 at MTS Centre. The Jets are holding the final wild-card berth in the Western Conference and will bring a heavy game to Scottrade Center on Tuesday despite being without key players Dustin Byfuglien (upper body), Bryan Little (undisclosed) and Mathieu Perreault (lower body).

"They play physical because they skate," Hitchcock said of the Jets. "Winnipeg doesn't get enough credit because of how fast they are. They're fast. They're on you fast, it looks like to me the only time they rest is when they're on the bench. They work. So I think it's their work that forces you to play. If not, you're going to get steam-rolled. They're a team that plays a very honest game. If you're not prepared to dig in physically, emotionally, whatever, you're going to get run over. I like the challenges. To me, every game we play against Winnipeg feels like a playoff game, looks like a playoff game. There's a lot of good play on both sides of the puck by both teams. I don't know what Paul feels like, but I feel like I can pull 30 clips out of this and show things in our game that are really relevant. It's two teams that are pretty honest hockey clubs that go at each other."

Brian Elliott will start in goal on Tuesday.

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