Blues focused on selves, not others; Elliott to get plenty of
work; Berglund expected to return; Jokinen, Michalek not ready
ST. LOUIS -- Now that the Blues have chased down the Nashville Predators and control their own fate as far as the Central Division is concerned, might as well strive for the highest marker possible.
The Blues (43-19-5), who host the Minnesota Wild on Saturday to conclude a three-game homestand before going on a 10-day, six-game road trip, are even with the Predators (42-20-7) with 91 points but hold the top spot with two games in hand.
And to think that on Feb. 24, the Blues were nine points (89-80) behind Nashville and all but a foregone conclusion that there was an iota of hope to catch them. But now that they're here, in the words of a poker player, the Blues are all-in.
"I think you can't dismiss home ice and you can't dismiss the highest seed possible, you're going to need it," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said. "Every little advantage you can take advantage of ... you want to get the highest seed. The highest seed for me means you've always got this ace in your back pocket. You've always got the extra game at home that you can rely on your fans, you can rely on your own bed. It does make a difference."
Since Feb. 24, the Blues have gone 5-1-1; the Predators have gone 1-7-0. And quite honestly, if the Blues knew what was going on around the Predators, they're not saying so.
"In my experience, any time you start looking at the standings, your stats or your goals or points or whatever, it seems like you try too hard to bring offense, you try too hard to win games," right wing T.J. Oshie said. "We've got to stay within ourselves, just play our game. Our main focus is to be playing our best hockey. If we're in first place and that's the way we do it, fine. If we drop to sixth, but we're playing our best hockey in the playoffs, I'd rather be doing that. The guys who won the last couple years, I don't know if there's any No. 1's that have won except maybe Chicago a couple years ago. We're looking to be playing our best hockey and I think we're taking a couple good steps last week to get there.
"I think from past experiences, we've had some lulls kind of at the end of the season. It seems like we ramp up the practice and we ramp up the pregame skates and this year, he's letting us rest a little bit and guys get, not really days off; we're still coming to the rink and we still meet, but we get days where we're not wearing and tearing on our bodies and I think that's going to be huge when it comes to a seven-game series. ... You always want to finish as high as you can, give yourself the best opportunity, but you look at one through 10 right now, there's some good teams out there. Whoever we play, it's going to be a battle. It's going to be a tough test. We just want to be playing our best hockey."
Captain David Backes agreed.
"I just think it boils down to we've got to take care of business here and whatever happens in their games, we can't control that anymore," Backes said. "We've done a pretty good job of taking care of our end. They've had a pretty flawless year and have stumbled a little bit as of late.
"I think that's the optimal way to be. If you worry about things you can't control, you drive yourself nuts. We can control how we're playing and what points we're getting. We'll keep adding them up until the end of the season. We'll be told where we're playing in the playoffs and go from there. ... All those things matter, but the most important things is that we're getting better every day, we're peaking and we're playing our best hockey come April going into May. The rest will sort itself out and we can't think too much about it."
If the playoffs started today, the Blues' reward would be a first round date with the defending Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings, who moved into a playoff position for the first time in two weeks.
When Hitchcock was asked about if he knew, he joked, "Yep, sure did. Can't pick your dance partner. I got a feeling I'm not the only coach looking at that team. I think there's a lot of people ... they're the big, ugly bear that everybody watches. When is he going to look for the garbage. He's looking in the garbage can now; he's entered the dumpster."
* Elliott gets the workload -- Goalie Brian Elliott, who tied Jaroslav Halak for first in franchise history by getting his 20th shutout in Thursday's 1-0 shootout win against the Philadelphia Flyers, will start in goal for the fifth consecutive game against the Wild.
It may not sound like much, but with 15 regular season games remaining, it may make sense to give Elliott not only the bulk of the work but against the top teams since he will be the guy the Blues rely on when the playoffs begin.
Jake Allen is scheduled to start his first game since March 1 on Sunday at Dallas.
"You can't play in enough big games," Hitchcock said of Elliott. "He just needs to play in big games. Brian hasn't been a go-to guy in the playoffs. It's the first experience for him, so as much as he's a veteran player and he's played really well, it's a new experience for him. Getting him accustomed to anything we can responsibility and pressure is going to be good for him, good for us and good for him. The more we can get it where it's natural, the better we want to do. We're trying to just narrow everybody's focus right now. Basically the grunt part of the season's over and let's get playing.
"We've got kind of a weekly schedule. Obviously you read between the lines, Elliott will play (Saturday) and Allen's scheduled to play (Sunday) and then we'll go back to where we think it belongs. I think we're trying to pick the opponent here too. It might be on back to backs, it gets reversed where Allen Starts and Elliott comes back. We're trying to give Brian as much exposure as we can in significant games and competition and then help monitor his rest and everything like that too. I kind of read off Jimmy. Jimmy tells me where these guys are at, whether they need more rest too. The opponents are also potential playoff opponents also. That's why he gets the front of of the doubleheader this weekend and Allen gets the backend."
* Berglund expected to return -- Patrik Berglund's one-game hiatus from the lineup is not expected to go beyond the one game he was a healthy scratch for Thursday against the Flyers.
Hitchcock said Friday that Berglund, who was replaced by Chris Porter in the lineup Thursday and was one of seven skaters to be on the ice Friday, is expected to return against Minnesota.
"That's the plan, yeah," Hitchcock said.
So what are the Blues looking more from Berglund, who has eight goals and 20 points in 62 games this season, as they head down the home stretch?
"I think what we're looking for obviously is better play," Hitchcock said. "What we're looking for though is better play at the puck. We need him to just come up with more pucks. Needs to be more consistent at the puck, so the level to come up with it, the level to keep it needs to be higher. Positional play, he's good; he knows how to play the game. It's like if you move him down, he's a fourth line player, you're probably happy with him. But he's a third line player, second line player. So from that position on our team or on any team, you're looking for more. There needs to be a higher level of consistency there the way it was three weeks ago, four weeks ago where he won all the battles, he came up with all the pucks. Now he's losing all the battles and losing all the puck battles."
Hitchcock has always been a believer in Berglund but has noticed some recent flaws.
"Pretty significant to be honest with you, so we need it to go back to where it was," he said. "He's very capable of doing this. He's shown the ability to do this, but we need it done on an every day basis. We've got 30 days left in our season here. We need to see this on a nightly basis. We can't hope this is going to turn around."
* Steen to stick with Stastny -- When Hitchcock pulled Berglund from the lineup Thursday and off the line of Paul Stastny and Dmitrij Jaskin, he inserted Alexander Steen there instead of using Steen in his customary role playing on the top line with Backes and Oshie.
It was arguably the Blues' most effective line and perhaps Jaskin's best all-around game in the NHL.
Hitchcock plans to stick with it Saturday for at least another game.
"With Backes, Steen and Oshie, they play a hard forecheck, physical game, and the line (Steen) plays with Stastny is more a positional game, so it's more angles, sticks," Hitchcock said Friday. "It doesn't have the bang, but it's still just as effective. You get three smart players who know angling. Now you're going to get a good line. They had success yesterday as a line, as did all the lines yesterday, because we checked well.
"All the lines checked well yesterday, so as the game wore on, we got better and better. The harder we checked, the more scoring chances then. When we got behind them the more scoring chances we got. The whole thing was relevant, but what made it pleasing for us as coaches is the fact we didn't lose momentum ... there wasn't a line turning the puck over stalling us. We built momentum. There's a sequence starting with 11:30 left in the third period all the way down to 4:30 where every attack except for one went behind and put them under pressure ... every single one. Sometimes it was with possession, sometimes it was with a dump, sometimes a chip, but every possession put them in trouble. That's what we need moving forward now. I'd like that to be our mindset every night, but we build positive momentum in the game by playing that way. We got scoring chance after scoring chance playing that way. That's the sell job for the players if we want to have success, there's a visual sell job we could use to show, 'Hey, not only did you get it deep, you got scoring chances, you created momentum, everyone was on the (same) page, now we've got something to build on.'"
Chris Porter played with Backes and Oshie on Thursday and with a different left wing, it didn't allow Backes or Oshie to change their approach.
"They shouldn't alter. They play the way they play," Hitchcock said. "They were a good line, too, but whoever plays on that left side has to be a productive player. Can't just have a puck chaser there. It's got to be a productive player. Whoever gets that opportunity on a nightly basis, has to be a productive player, has to get shots on goal, has to get scoring chances, has to take advantage of all the work when he gets put in. Otherwise, you're just a fourth line guy."
* Jokinen, Michalek not ready yet; Shattenkirk progressing -- Forward Olli Jokinen continues to skate but will not play this weekend against Minnesota and Dallas.
Jokinen injured what is believed to be his shoulder against the Toronto Maple Leafs and has missed the past two games.
"Olli's not ready, no. He's close, but he's not ready," Hitchcock said. "We're being cautious because when he goes in, he's going to stay in, but we're being as cautious to where we get it as close to 100 (percent) as we can."
Hitchcock said on Wednesday that the decision for when Michalek, who has not played since Feb. 14, returns is up to him now, and he hasn't received that tap on the shoulder from the player yet.
"Not yet, but that's getting closer, too," Hitchcock said.
Shattenkirk is still more than likely in the two-week range for a return. But the initial steps have been taken and more is being accomplished each day.
"It's good to see him out there because how he's part of the group," Hitchcock said of Shattenkirk, who's missed the past 18 games. "It's hard to be part of the group when you're on the outside skating with the strength coach or you're skating with the trainer. It's hard to be part of the group because he's not in meetings. Now he's in meetings, now he's partaking in video sessions, so he's getting up to speed mentally.
"I think any time you get up to speed mentally, when you come in and you've got to play from a physical standpoint, you're more in tune with what's going on. Not only is the approach of what he does on the ice and then we monitor that, but I don't think we're close to evaluating where he's at until he participates in an actual hockey practice because all he's done is pregame skates. There's a difference between a pregame skate and a hockey practice. When he starts to get involved in a hockey practice, we can probably nail down the date."
* PK taking flight -- The Blues aren't oblivious to the fact that they are taking too many penalties, especially early, in games. But they can bank on the fact that the penalty kill is 21-for-22 the past seven games and are a season-best 11th in the NHL at 82 percent.
"We've been working on it," Oshie said. "We're finally getting just a little bit of consistency on who Hitch is throwing on the ice. Me and Stastny are going out together a lot more now and I'm starting to learn where he likes to go, how he likes to play it and he's certainly learned what I like to do. We're reading off each other and I think that's given us success."
Why the recent success?
"We just flat-win more 1-on-1's and low areas on the ice than we did before and our clears are close to 100 percent," Hitchcock said. "Quite frankly, competing at a higher level. We're competing with a high sense of pride, and it's impacting everything we do."
The past two games in particular, the Blues have taken five of their nine minor penalties in the first period, and Hitchcock said those need to be cut down.
"Early in games, yeah," he said. "Others, I don't worry about. Too many stick fouls early in games, but we'll get that corrected. Over-exuberant."
* Shot blockers overrated? -- Elliott was appreciative of the fact that his teammates were consistently sacrificing their bodies blocking shots against the Flyers. In fact, the Blues blocked 23 shots, with Carl Gunnarsson and Alex Pietrangelo leading the way with five each.
And while teammates appreciate the success, Hitchcock would rather not discuss its success rate.
"I think it's the most misleading stat in hockey," Hitchcock said.
"One of the reasons that it is though is because if you're a high shot-blocking team, it usually means you don't have the puck," Hitchcock said. "When you don't have the puck, good things usually don't happen. So to me, you need the puck to be successful."
* Wild up next -- The Wild, who played Friday at home against the Anaheim Ducks, have thrust themselves into the Western Conference wild card picture, and with Devan Dubnyk making his 26th consecutive start Friday, the Wild goalie has been the leading point to Minnesota's turnaround.
"The goalie (Dubnyk) gave them the confidence to start the program again, but there's way more than the goalie going on," Hitchcock said. "They're a confident team; in their passing, in their execution, in their positional play, in their calmness, their resiliency. There's just a real calmness in their game. They look the same every night; keep playing, keep playing, keep playing, win; keep playing, keep playing, keep playing. There's no peaks and valleys in their game. There's no highs and lows of emotion, there's a very constant level of play and there's a constant level of intensity and it just wears people out, and that's why they're winning so many games right now. They're playing as good as anybody in the West, or quite frankly, better than most."