Friday, April 10, 2015


Blues performed well without top scorers; comparing 
Allen and Elliott's season; some players to sit out Saturday

ST. LOUIS -- Who says 28 percent of a team's offense will help deteriorate a team's game?

With the return of Alexander Steen and Vladimir Tarasenko for Saturday's regular season finale against the Minnesota Wild (2 p.m.; NBC, KYKY 98.1-FM), the Blues (50-24-7) managed to go 4-1-0 with the two sidelined together from the lineup.

How? Well, call it a no-choice altering of the way the Blues executed their game plan. Throw away the way they played with their two top scorers out of the lineup. It had to change to a more defensive-oriented, tight-checking, clog-up-the-ice mentality.

And it worked.

"We were forced to do it," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said. "We were forced. Injuries forced us to change and we had to play a more territorial game and check harder. 

"You look at (Thursday, a 2-1 home victory against the Chicago Blackhawks), when we checked hard, we were really effective. The minute we came off it in the second period, boom! People are right on our back. Same thing against Winnipeg (Tuesday, a 1-0 home loss). We ground hard, but the minute we came off it in the second period, they were all over us. That's how close it is right now. 

But getting Tarasenko, the Blues' leading goal scorer (36) and points producer (71) as well as Steen (24 goals, 38 assists; 62 points) along with defenseman Robert Bortuzzo, who missed two games, will give each an opportunity to get their skates underneath them prior to the start of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Getting Steen and Tarasenko "gives us a little bit of a reward for all the work we're putting in offensively and defensively, but if we've got to grind it out this way, this is the way we've got to play; this is the way we've got to try and get points in games," Hitchcock said.

The Blues have the opportunity to clinch the top seed in the Western Conference. They're tied with the Anaheim Ducks with 107 points, but the Ducks currently hold the tie-breaker because they have one more regulation or overtime win (42-41). The Blues need one of the following scenarios to play out:

+ A Blues win in a shootout Saturday and have the Ducks lose in regulation or overtime or shootout. 

+ If the Blues happen to win in regulation or overtime and the Ducks win via shootout, the Blues would earn the tie-breaker based on goal differential, which is the fourth tie-breaker. They'd both be tied in ROW's and the head-to-head matchup is even because in the case where there are an uneven number of home games played between the two teams (they played three times, twice in Anaheim), the first matchup in Anaheim becomes irrelevant, and in that case, each team won on home ice this season.

+ The Blues earn a point and the Ducks lose in regulation. 

+ A Blues regulation loss gives the Ducks the top seed no matter what Anaheim does against the Coyotes.

But the Blues will do so without 5-6 guys according to Hitchcock, who said they need to rest and clear things up because of being banged up.

"You've got to do what's best for Game 1 of the playoffs right now," Hitchcock said. "What's best for Game 1 is some guys need to get in and get playing, and some guys need to get a little bit healthier. We're going to do what's best for us. We're still going to ice a lineup that's capable of winning the hockey game and we expect to play really well tomorrow. If we've got guys at 70 percent or 80 percent or whatever, we're not going to ask them to play when we have healthy guys that can."

As far as Steen and Tarasenko returning, Hitchcock said they had this planned.

"We knew the schedule three or four days ago, the potential of the schedule," he said. "We knew it was either going to be Thursday or Saturday or we felt strongly that way in the way they practiced. We just waited for clearance. So we waited until the last possible minute for clearance. We could have pushed it for (Thursday), but we waited until Saturday."

With Minnesota being a potential first round matchup, Hitchcock doesn't want to display his full deck.

"I don't think either team is gonna want to show a lot of cards today or tomorrow," Hitchcock said. "We're going to make some changes. We're going to sit some people who are a little banged up. I'm sure they're going to do the same thing. I don't think either team is interested in showing their hand. Just play the game and then as of Saturday night, we'll find out who the opponent is. I don't think there's going to be a lot of surprises from what they do and what we do. We've played them recently, but we're not going to show anything nor or we going to show any of the combinations we're going to work with."

The Blues' opponent will be either the Wild, Winnipeg or Chicago.

But the main goal here was to at least get home ice advantage, which the Blues will do for at least the first two rounds.

"It's a good feeling in here but it's temporary," captain David Backes said. "We've got to take it, put a feather in our cap but know that the work has just begun and now we're gonna need to really get down ... and put our foot on the pedal."

"It was more home ice. Winning the division is nice, but man, home ice was important for us," Hitchcock said. "We needed home ice because that's that little advantage that we can take advantage of some period of time. It's always that little bit of cushion that you can use hopefully some time down the line, but we want home ice badly. To me, what getting home ice advantage does is validate the amount of work you put into 82 games. When you put this type of work in, you want to see some reward at the end of the day. And if it didn't happen, then we change the subject and say something in a few days different. But you want to validate all of the work that you put in to have something to show for it, and we have something to show for it because this division is so difficult."

* Allen going strong; Elliott starts Saturday -- Jake Allen has been the story in goal for the Blues recently, going 5-1-1 in the past seven starts where he has not allowed more than two goals in any of those games.

And in a season where Elliott, who will get the start against the Wild, has been strong all season that resulted in being chosen for the All-Star Game, Hitchcock has went with the hot guy recently instead of the veteran that's been through the wars before.

"That's no different than defense," Hitchcock explained. "We've got guys that ... (Zbynek) Michalek came in here; we didn't know what we had in Michalek, but he grabbed a spot; he went ahead of people. We didn't know a guy like Ty Rattie comes in and makes a real positive impression, so that's just a competitive cauldron inside of a team. It's probably not comfortable for the person that has to step aside; it's going to be his turn some other time. That's the competitive cauldron that works in a hockey club, so you have to get ready when it's your turn. When somebody jumps ahead of you, then you've got to keep working and stay with it because it's gonna turn and you're gonna be needed. 

"... We have our record quite frankly because we have two good goalies. One guy has been really good lately, and one guy's had a helluva season. Elliott's had a helluva season, and one guy's been good lately, so I opted to go with the guy that was really good lately, and that's not a slight against Brian at all, but I just felt like Jake was feeling it, I took a chance and went with him."

Hitchcock likes the fact he has two strong options at his disposal, but as is the case in each situation, there will be someone that will not like the decision, and this happens to be Elliott.

"(Allen's) had a great month, but Elliott's had a great year," Hitchcock said. "The last month, we've probably leaned here lately a little bit on Jake, but that doesn't mean that we're not gonna use Brian if we have to. We're more than confident. We're playing Brian tomorrow to get him integrated, too. I think we've hads the best of both worlds here. We've had one goalie who's had a helluva year and one goalie that's been on the learning curve and has learned a lot and really used that to his strengths here in the last month. I think from that standpoint that's helped us. We've got a young guy who's improved, has gotten better and when he was given the ball, he ran with it in a good way and then we've got another guy here who's been pretty consistent and pretty solid all year.

"... I don't worry about that stuff right now. You know what, if (Allen) has a tough go, then we've got someone we trust immensely in Elliott. It's not a big deal for us."

The players also recognize the situation as a positive one.

"Jake has the hot hand right now; he's playing well, but we have all the confidence in the world in Brian to come back and do the same thing," defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk said.

"He's playing good," center Paul Stastny said of Allen. "He's cool and calm. I think he doesn't get too high or too low. That's really important. I think he's in his own element. Goalies are a special breed of their own so we let them be."

In an unusual mental standpoint, Allen said he tends to thrive more in situations where the opponent is one that is more prominent or higher in the stands.

"You want to play the best.  You want to beat the best," said Allen, who is 22-7-4 on the season. "This is a challenge. You're not going to win every challenge every time. Just get back up there and keep fighting again. I like playing against the best teams and the best players and prove yourself. I'm still a young guy and got a long way to go. I just want to be my best and try to get better, so that's only going to help me.

"I think every game for me the last while's felt like a playoff game. I was trying to prove a point. I think I did that."

* NOTES -- One combination Hitchcock said won't play together Saturday is the one with Jaden Schwartz, Stastny and T.J. Oshie, assembled when Steen and Tarasenko went out.

"We've liked it; we've really liked it," Hitchcock said. "We'll see down the line how other guys go. This is the tough part. You're adding two significant players into your team; we want to see how they look and see how our lineup looks."

Expect to see Steen and Tarasenko to flank Jori Lehtera.

"We've liked it, but it's been a very small sampling," Hitchcock said.

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