Blues looking to establish home ice; aiding
Shattenkirk; crowd on D; Gunnarsson eager for playoffs
HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- After their 10-day trip that culminated with a 3-1-2 record, the Blues can see the light at the end of the tunnel.
The regular season tunnel.
With eight games remaining in the 2014-15 regular season, the Blues are in the home stretch -- literally.
With six of their eight games remaining to be played on home ice, it's a chance for the Blues (46-21-7, 99 points) to reestablish home ice dominance, where they are 24-9-2 but just 3-4-0 the past seven games.
"I think it's the same as our road atmosphere and attitude ... we've got to go and get two points every night, regardless of who we're playing, where we're playing, we need two points, we need to focus that night and get a job done," captain David Backes said. "We had that singular focus for a little bit on the road trip, it fell off and we stumbled a little bit and then got it back there against the Penguins when we saw the light at the end of the tunnel. So we got some home-cooking, (slept) in our own beds, and we need to, yes, reestablish ourselves in our home dominance. But take it one game at a time and know that each two points in these last eight games is vitally important."
It all starts with the next three at Scottrade Center, with the surging Columbus Blue Jackets, who played Friday in Chicago, on the docket Saturday, followed by Vancouver and Calgary before the Blues go on the road for two in Dallas and Chicago and ending with home games against Winnipeg, the Blackhawks and Minnesota.
"There's a lot of good teams that are still coming into this building to play for spots, and we're still working on our game," defenseman Barret Jackman said. "We're still trying to be at our best going into the playoffs. Get the right combinations, the right chemistry and work on a few things so we're fresh but going hard for the playoffs."
For the moment anyway, the Blues have lost their hold of first place in the Central Division to the Nashville Predators, who are a point ahead and could go two or three points up when the Predators play at Washington Saturday morning. The Blues will have two games in hand when they take on Columbus.
And coupled with the Anaheim Ducks (101 points) in the Western Conference, the New York Rangers (101 points), Montreal Canadiens (100 points) and Tampa Bay Lightning (99 points), the race for the Presidents' Trophy will be furious down the stretch.
"It's never been this tight," Backes said. "You look at, there could be four teams, five teams (at) 110 points. Every point is going to matter. Who positions themselves best for first-round matchups, whatever that may be, you look down the standings and whoever is first may get the L.A. Kings in the first round. So you don't get to pick your partner, but you want to be playing your best hockey and that's what we can control and that's our focus."
What's most important for the Blues is not to finish the way they did last season, and that was on a season-worst six-game losing streak that not only cost them the Central Division title (Colorado win it by one point) but the Blues lacked any sort of momentum in their opening round playoff loss to the Blackhwks despite going up 2-0 in that series, a series they lost in six.
The Blues did have a plethora of injuries last season at the end but are healthy for the first time in two months heading into Saturday and they'd like to keep it that way.
"Yeah, I mean, that was different," forward Steve Ott said of last season. "I think the amount of injuries we had at the end was something that I've never seen in my career before, where you lose so many key guys to such bad injuries. Guys tried to give it their all and give it their best. You never want to make excuses, but this is a different team, a different situation for us. Collectively, we've been strong and collectively we have the depth for guys to keep pulling guys along.
"... A ton of work but I mean our focus in these last eight games is to be playing at our highest level. A lot of us obviously know what happened last year in the last six or so. We gave up home-ice advantage and other things and it's just too important for our team to have the opportunities to go out there and put the hammer down on teams, show how we are heading in, and have everybody clicking at a high level rather than having to hit the magic button come playoffs."
Blues coach Ken Hitchcock appreciates that his team is in a good position to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs, because for some really good teams, it's a continuous dogfight.
"I thought (Kings coach) Darryl Sutter put it best yesterday. The biggest challenge in the National Hockey League is getting in the playoffs and it is really hard and it is getting harder every year," Hitchcock said. "I've said this before, the playoffs are for the players. We have some guidance that we have to supply, but it is really hard getting into the playoffs. When you look at the teams that are outside the playoffs right now, in the West alone, there are teams that we've had real difficulties with that have played better hockey than we have played against them. That is a huge challenge. When you see the quality of players and the teams that aren't going to make it, it really gives you pause thinking, 'For us to get to 99 points right now, a lot more went right than wrong.' A tough game at the end in Detroit, we've had a couple of tough games, but we've had a lot of things go right to get to 99 and so have a lot of other teams. You look at a team like L.A. who's playing as well or better than anybody right now, and all the points they lost in overtime. If they get even half those points, they're leading the league. That's just how close it is. I think to just get in is really challenging and really difficult."
* Helping Shatty -- With the return of Blues defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, who's been out since Feb. 1 with an abdominal injury, Shattenkirk's teammates will do all they can to help him transition into the toughest time of the schedule after missing 25 games.
Shattenkirk, who was having arguably the best season of his career and was gaining attention in talk of being a Norris Trophy candidate, was averaging 22 minutes, 54 seconds of ice time per game. Hitchcock would like to ease him into the 18-plus minute range and go from there.
"He's one of those players that's going to go and play his game and he's going to be back pretty quick," defenseman Carl Gunnarsson, who also returns to the lineup Saturday after missing two games with an upper-body injury, said of Shattenkirk. "We'll just try to help him back as much as possible. We've just got to feel that he's comfortable with his injury and feel that he's healthy enough. I don't doubt him for a second; I don't think anyone does."
Shattenkirk will begin the game opposite veteran Barret Jackman.
"It would be nice and there's obviously plenty of options that we can play around with now," Shattenkirk said. "Someone for me (like Jackman), who jumping back in you obviously feel very comfortable with. It'll be nice to have someone that talks a lot.
"I was telling him today (at practice) I've kind of lost that part of the game. It's just listening and listening to voices, the little things that make you a better player. He's someone who like an older guy knows how to do all that really well."
Jackman has little doubt in Shattenkirk's transition.
"Shatty's Shatty," Jackman said. "He's got unbelievable vision, he moves well. I'm sure the physical part of it and the fatigue of getting hit and battling is something that is kind of the last thing that comes back to you."
* Crowd on D -- With Shattenkirk and Gunnarsson back, the Blues are for the first time looking at a healthy defensive unit. It's so healthy, Petteri Lindbohm, who was playing as well as any blue liner the Blues had, was reassigned to the Chicago Wolves of the American Hockey League to reduce the number down to eight.
As it stands, Kirkwood native Chris Butler and Robert Bortuzzo, acquired at the trade deadline for Ian Cole, are the odd blue liners out of the lineup ... at least for Saturday.
And that speaks of itself since Bortuzzo has been such a pleasant surprise since being acquired. He scored his first goal as a Blue in Tuesday's 3-2 overtime win at Pittsburgh.
"I've said this before, we're a team of 25, we're not a team of 20 plus five," Hitchcock said. "So guys will get their chances. We've got eight games to play in 14-15 days, so we've got a lot of hockey left to play and who knows how it turns out. There's certain games that we want Robert to play in during the regular season for sure. There's three for sure that we want him in and have his role defined in those games. We're going to need him in those games."
Hitchcock would not say which three.
"I'm sure the last few games here we're probably going to try every combination and see what the coaches like best," Jackman said. "There might be some guys out of the lineup that aren't happy with it, but it's all going to be about getting the right combinations for the playoffs.
"We've got 25-26 guys here right now and everybody's healthy, everybody's capable of playing. You've got to go out there and you've got to do your job and play to the best of your ability and help the team."
"We have a lot of guys just waiting in line right now," Gunnarsson said. "We knew this was coming. Everyone seems healthy and we have guys that want to play. A little good competition is always healthy, right?"
* Gunnarsson thinking postseason -- He's played 359 NHL games and has been a steady player throughout his career, but for Gunnarsson, he's only been part of the Stanley Cup Playoffs once.
Gunnarsson, who spent the first five seasons of his NHL career with the Toronto Maple Leafs, has been a part of the playoffs in 2012-13, when he played in seven games.
Too often at this time of year, the Maple Leafs have been on the outside looking in and it was tough to be motivated when a player knows the end was near.
It's a different feeling for Gunnarsson this time around, and that's why the Orebro, Sweden native is looking forward to this postseason run.
"I want to get a run here before the playoffs and get a good feel," Gunnarsson said. "That's what I'm looking for.
"It's always nice when you get to the end of the season and have something else to look forward to."
Gunnarsson has two goals and 12 points in 55 games this season.
Adding him and Shattenkirk to the lineup is a big boost.
"Well yeah, it's a big boost," Hitchcock said. "(Shattenkirk) was trending towards 60-plus points, which would put him second or third in the scoring on our team and probably in the top of the league as far as defensemen. So it's a huge add.
"It's a big boost for everybody. He's got great patience. I think the thing that maybe fans don't understand is that when you add a player who has puck patience, it seems like your whole group develops more puck patience. So we've got one of the best puck movers in the league, a guy that's got great patience and vision and I think it's going to help the whole group because they're going to feel more comfortable under pressure and stress during the competition."