Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Blues accomplish plenty on longest trip of season

Team capped nearly 4,500 air miles in 10 days, 
feel good about taking eight of 12 points, going 3-1-2

By LOU KORAC
ST. LOUIS -- Blues coach Ken Hitchcock spoke in the pregame skate before the last of a six-game the importance of finishing it 3-1-2. A .500 mark would feel a bit disappointing.

And knowing that the Blues will have three off days before playing another game, it was a chance to pour everything into the 3-2 overtime victory against the Pittsburgh Penguins to finish the trip 3-1-2 and getting eight of a possible 12 points to stay afloat against teams fighting for 1) playoff position or 2) their playoff lives.

"Even when it went into overtime, it was a positive trip for us," said Hitchcock, whose team rallied from a 2-0 second-period deficit. "We battled hard. It wasn't clean. The games were hard. It's a desperate time of year for everybody. Points matter. ... These are hard games right now. There's no easy ice, there's no scoring chances unless you earn them, but to fight like we did on the last day of the road trip's a good sign."
(St. Louis Blues photo)
The Blues' Ryan Reaves (right) battles former Blue Ian Cole for the puck
during the Blues' 3-2 overtime victory at Pittsburgh on Tuesday to cap off
a 3-1-2 road trip.

Goalie Jake Allen, who stopped all 11 shots faced in the third period and 24 for the game, called the trip the longest he's ever been on as a pro. Days started running together, players were used to sleeping in hotel beds instead of their own, eating in restaurants and having team meals instead of home-cooked meals and the comforts of their own homes. 

To take 66 percent of the points that were on the table against five of six teams in a playoff position and one still alive, the Blues (46-21-7), who have 99 points and are on top of not only the Central Division but the Western Conference, are obviously satisfied.

"To have such a long trip at the end of the season, everybody's tired mentally because it's not easy," said defenseman Zbynek Michalek, who assisted on Alexander Steen's overtime goal. "Give the guys credit. We battled every single game. Other than the game in Minnesota, I think we did a pretty good job. We can be pretty satisfied, but there's still a lot of work ahead of us. But we can be confident with what we did I think."

"It was a tough road trip," said right wing Ryan Reaves, who assisted on Marcel Goc's tying goal to make it 2-2 on Tuesday. "It's the longest one of the year. To leave on a positive note and to leave on a winning note is really big for our team. We get to go home and play in front of the hometown crowd now; only two road games left. It's time for a big push and we can do that at home."

From St. Louis to Dallas, to the longest journey to Calgary, then Winnipeg, followed by Minnesota, Detroit, Pittsburgh and lastly, back home to St. Louis. It spanned 4,497 air miles in 10 days and three times zones. And to cap it off the way they did it Tuesday was the perfect topper of the longest trip.

"Not this game, but this trip," Allen said. "It easily could have been the other way. It could have easily came out those two overtime games may not have gotten a point. To be able to finish 3-1-2 and look back at the end of the season and see how crucial these points really were for us is huge."

"It was kind of weird locations for a long trip like that, but eight out of 12 points is really solid," said defenseman Robert Bortuzzo, who's goal got the Blues going Tuesday and cut the Penguins' lead to 2-1. "We played some good teams, a lot of team contending for playoff spots. ... We just want to keep on building towards the playoffs here."

With 99 points, the Blues were tied with Anaheim for the top spot in the conference (with one game in hand), and one point ahead of Nashville for the top spot in the Central Division (even on games) and five ahead of Chicago (the Blackhawks played at Philadelphia on Wednesday night with one of two games in hand).

Last season, the Blues knew well ahead of time they were going to make the playoffs, and it's no different this season. They'll get in. It's just a matter of when they clinch.

But last season, injuries decimated them, they finished the regular season with a six-game losing streak and ultimately lost out the division to Colorado by one point and faced the Blackhawks in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs instead of the Wild. 

Even in the most trying of times, points are precious, and under duress, the Blues were not able to close the deal last season and ultimately lost out on the division by one point.

Barring any unforeseen injuries down the stretch, the Blues, who have six of their eight remaining regular season games at the friendly confines of Scottrade Center, want to finish as high as they can and with as many points as possible. A team filled with momentum of a team that plays with confidence when the playoffs get underway.

"The veteran players stood up a few days ago and said, 'Listen, you can't just let these points not matter,'" Hitchcock said. "We know we've got a playoff spot, but these points have got to really matter. The seeding matters everywhere."

And Steve Ott, fourth-line extraordinaire who moves up and down the lineup when needed; who also lit the fire the Blues needed when he fought Craig Adams after the faceoff following Pittsburgh's two goals in 17 seconds, was one of the local people to speak up.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Blues players congregate around Alexander Steen to celebrate after the
winger's goal capped the Blues' road trip with a 3-2 victory vs. Pittsburgh.

"He was one of the guys that stood up and spoke out and answered the bell," Hitchcock said of Ott. "... (Ott's fight) just energized our bench. There's a lot of respect for Steve. He took one for the team in a big way and energized the bench.""

And when the wheels touched down late Tuesday night, the marathon trip was over. Time to unwind for a day, get two practices in and get set for the stretch run.

"Trip's over. We're happy to be going home right now," Steen said after the game Tuesday. "It's been a long trip, a long month for us. Started on the road, came back home ... I didn't feel like we were home for very long. We were back on another 10-day trip. It'll be nice for the boys to get home, get some home cooking, sleep in our beds, sit in our couches. That part will be nice. After that, we've got about two days to kind of breath a little bit and then get back to work on Friday seriously and our schedule gets crazy again. It's the last little push here and we're just getting ourselves ready.

* Lindbohm sent down -- The Blues assigned defenseman Petteri Lindbohm to the Chicago Wolves of the American Hockey League in what appears to be a clear signal that defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, who's missed the past 25 games following abdominal surgery, has a good chance of being activated to return to active game action Saturday against the Columbus Blue Jackets. Also, defenseman Carl Gunnarsson (upper-body injury), who's missed the past two games after being hurt in Minnesota, also is expected to return against Columbus on Saturday.

Hitchcock said Tuesday morning that the Blues "have got Shattenkirk coming back pretty quick here" was a clear indicator that "pretty quick" meant any day now.

With Shattenkirk and Gunnarsson on the cusp of being healthy, it would have given the Blues nine healthy, viable NHL defensemen at their disposal. So instead of perhaps having Lindbohm sit, the Blues opted to send him to Chicago to continue to develop and play games.

However, the 21-year-old Lindbohm, a sixth round pick in 2012, has shown great strides since being recalled and plays wise beyond his years.

The Blues are incredibly impressed with LIndbohm, including management, coaching staff and teammates. Hitchcock said, "Guys love him; he plays like crazy. ... He's just playing hockey. He doesn't even know the next opponent. He just comes to play."

One Blues player said, "If this kid continues down the path he's on, he's going to have a tremendous career."

Lindbohm has two goals and three points in 23 games along with 26 penalty minutes. Another feather in his cap was when Lindbohm jumped in to fight Detroit's Drew Miller on Sunday after Miller's hit on Blues center Jori Lehtera.

"Every game, you try to do your best and learn," LIndbohm said. "If you make mistakes, I just try to be better and better." 

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