Blues have to balance when to be physical, when to play the game;
off-ice Tuesday; no goalie revealed; proving themselves in the postseason
HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- When it comes to ratcheting a team's physical play and intensity level, there's obviously a fine line between knowing when the initiate and knowing when to curb back.
But this is the Stanley Cup Playoffs, where two teams can potentially play one another seven times over a span of two weeks. The teams don't like one another to begin with; after all, the opponent stands in the way to getting closer to the ultimate goal of winning a Stanley Cup.
But when the Blues play the Minnesota Wild, beginning with Game 1 on Thursday at Scottrade Center, including the physical play will be part of their MO.
"That's going to be a key factor," left wing Steve Ott said. "We're a big, strong team. We want to play a heavy checking style of game and when you do so, you have to ride that fine line of discipline. For us, we want to be on the right side of the power play percentages and for us, we have to keep our cool and play whistle to whistle as best as possible.
"The emotions can get the best of you in a playoff series. You can never be too high, you can never be too low. You have to find consistency in your game and as an individual. When you do so, your emotions usually stay in check."
Even though the Wild finished the season as the NHL's top penalty-killing team (86.3 percent), the Blues would rather be the ones testing it with their fourth-ranked power play (22.3 percent) instead of the other way around, even though the Blues' penalty kill finished tied for seventh (83.7 percent). But that means knowing when the push, and knowing when to back off.
"I think in any series, you've got to play with a little bit of an edge," right wing Ryan Reaves said. "You've got to play physical. You've got to try and get on their main guys just like they're going to try and get on our guys. I think playoff hockey definitely ramps up a little bit in the physical department. You've got to make sure you keep it going for as long as the series goes.
"You can't get carried away with it. You can't go out and run somebody and take a penalty because one goal can cost playoff games really quick. I think it's something that for sure I'd like to lead the team in. I've tried to all year, but you've definitely got to stay disciplined."
Having the presence of players like Ott and Barret Jackman to lead the way in that area makes a big difference.
"You've got to play with energy, especially right at the beginning of the game," Jackman said. "You've got to come out and get everybody involved touching the puck or getting hit, getting over the nerves of the playoffs. Different circumstances call for different things and we'll take every one as they come.
"We've got a lot of guys that are leaders on this team. I definitely gotta be one of them that plays on the edge but plays within the system and doesn't get running around. A lot of the guys are the same. The juices are flowing. You've got to keep things in check but also be at a level above the opposition."
Coach Ken Hitchcock can say all the right things. It's up to the players to execute what's necessary in order to succeed.
"We all talk about whistle to whistle, but it's hard to do," Hitchcock said. "When you play a team from the same division, you don't have to worry about where the rivalry's at or where the edge is at; the edge is already there. The edge is from the regular season. So the edge in the games is going to be there; it's not going to be any different. You don't have to manufacture that.
"If you're playing an opponent that, say, was from the Pacific (Division) or something that you haven't seen for three months, that's a different animal. But there's freshness here. We played them in Game 68, 72 and 82, plus the playoffs now. They know us, we know them, there's no surprises and there's an edge to every game. It'll make for good hockey."
* Something to prove -- Past playoff experiences have been painful for the Blues, who have gone on to have a strong regular season for the fourth consecutive season with 51 wins.
It's the third time in franchise history (and in back-to-back seasons) in which the Blues have won 50 or more games in a season, but it's a situation where the players would like to make the fourth time a charm, and not have a repeat of past playoff performances. The Blues have not gone past the second round in any of the three past seasons.
"Well you learn from it," left wing Jaden Schwartz said. "Take what you can and take that moving into this series. Haven't turned out the way we wanted it to the last couple of years -- same with 29 other teams -- and we've got to learn from it. We've got a good challenge, a good opportunity in front of us.
"We certainly want it to be (a deep run), that's our goal. Got lots to prove. We've been having a great season, put ourselves in a good spot going into the playoffs with home-ice and different things like that. We're all hungry. We know what happened the last few years. So I know for me, I've been looking forward to this since last year. We're hungry, we're excited ... it's a big challenge, but we believe in ourselves in here and we believe the experience the last few years is going to help us."
Captain David Backes said there's lots to prove for the deeper, more experienced Blues.
"We've got plenty to prove, there's no question about it," he said. "We've had shortcomings in the past few years. We feel we have a deeper team, a more prepared team, a team that's playing better hockey, and healthier than we have been in the last few years in the playoffs. So it's time to put all those things to fruition and show what we can do.
"... We've got additions, we've got guys that are more seasoned, we've got guys with experience with postseason hockey and I think everyone's had fuel added to their fire to win in the postseason after last year's early exit. All those things combined with being healthy with playing better down the stretch, we should hit the ground running on Thursday."
But Hitchcock doesn't want the players to forget the long, arduous hours of work put into having a terrific regular season.
"I think any time you de-value the season, you make a huge mistake," Hitchcock said. "Playoffs are playoffs. It's a different animal. You don't know want it takes to get in there, you don't know what it takes to ... what your fitness level's like or your injury level's like to get there. But to not value nine months of work is ridiculous. I've always believed that since the day I was in Dallas. I learned that from people who are a lot smarter than I who had a lot more Cups. To me, we put real value in the regular season because it sets up the playoffs; we want to do well. We want to do as well as we can, but I'm not going to lose value for the sacrifice these guys put in for 8 1/2 months.
"(Players) feel that (pressure). They feel like this is a real opportunity. You've got two teams on similar paths, us and Minnesota. We feel like to grow to the next level, we want to do some damage. But I've said this before, that's for the players. This time of year is for the guys. Our job is to support them, to guide them along, but the emotion, the accountability, it's in with the guys. They want to prove to each other, not the rest of the hockey world; they don't care about the rest of the hockey world. They care about themselves. They've worked really hard together, the big core of this group. There's 15-16 guys that have been around for a little while. They want to do some damage. I think that's really good of them. I think it's smart on their behalf to want to accomplish more than they've ever wanted to accomplish. We're going to support them, we're going to be there for them, but we also got to view this thing that it's not a one-month season, it's a nine-, 10-, 11-month season; who knows."
* Off ice Tuesday -- After a hard-working day of practice on the ice to begin layoff preparations Monday, the Blues opted for having players come in for off-ice work before getting at it again with fury on Wednesday ahead of Game 1 on Thursday, with the puck drop at 8:30 p.m.
"Every team works different," Hitchcock said. "Minny skates for three days and we opted not to. We base it on what we've done all year, and that is we work, then we rest and we work again. We have a schedule that we follow and we opt with our group not to skate at practice two days in a row. We feel like with the way we play and the way we have to play to win games, we need to recover and the way we practice, which is at a very high tempo, we need time off from having a good hockey practice."
There was the option of taking the ice today, and some forwards Olli Jokinen, Chris Porter and Ty Rattie and defensemen Chris Butler and Robert Bortuzzo.
"We scheduled two days of skating," Hitchcock said. "We opted to have two hard practices and a rest day in between. Today everybody came in and we had a group off-ice program that everybody followed and then we gave the option for anybody that wanted to skate was able to skate today so (assistant coach) Sean (Farrell) ran the cardio part of it on the ice if you wanted or you could do the bike ride if you wanted."
* No goalie update -- Another day, another crickets moment when it came to Hitchcock announcing a starting goalie for Game 1.
Not that an announcement was expected, but Hitchcock, who in all probability knows who he's going to start, was asked about it again Tuesday.
"No, not yet," Hitchcock said before being asked if he was going to wait.
He said with a laugh, "We'll follow the same routine we followed all year. We'll let him (Brian Elliott or Jake Allen) know the day before and then I'm sure somebody from this pile (of media members) will ask that question. We'll have to answer that question tomorrow. We'll follow the same schedule that we followed all year and we're not going to change that schedule."
Teammates again reiterated that no matter who it is, the confidence is no different in one over the other.
"Both are capable. They've been phenomenal for us all year," Ott said. "They've been a crutch. 'Moose' has carried this team on his back throughout the tough times and the good times. 'Snake's came in and done the same. He's played extremely well the last little while. Both guys are tremendous teammates."
"It's not my call. Two great goaltenders for us, they've proven that," Schwartz said. "We feel confident whoever's in, that they're going to get the job done. So we believe in both of them and that's up to the coaches really."
When asked if more is being made out of this outside the locker room, Ott smiled, "That's for you to ask Hitch. You like those types of questions, not me."
Backes added: "We could discuss that all day and truthfully I don't know who it's going to be. Whoever it is, they'll give us a great chance to win. Both Jake and Brian have had great years and whoever it is, we'll be behind them.
"I don't know what the mentality of goaltending choices is. That's above my pay-grade and I don't hope to divulge or investigate any further anything that goes on in those guys' heads."
* Former Blue passes away -- Former Blue Mark Reeds, who was an assistant coach with the Ottawa Senators, passed away early Tuesday morning. He was 55.
Reeds, who battled cancer, played for the Blues and Hartford Whalers in his career. He had 150 points in 365 career NHL games. He was also coach of the Peoria Rivermen from 1996-99.
Among those who coached Reeds, who played for the Blues from 1981-87, included Red Berenson, Barclay Plager, Jacques Demers and Jacques Martin.
He played for former Blues general manager Larry Pleau with the Whalers.
Reeds had been battling cancer for the past couple years and recently was diagnosed with inoperable cancer.
Reeds is survived by wife Mary and children Kyle and Kelsey.
"No, I did not," Hitchcock said when asked if he knew Reeds. "I coached against him when he was with Paul (MacLean), but I didn't know him personally.
"That's a really sad situation for his family. A lot of the older guys obviously knew him, played with him. He was very close to a lot of the alumni here, so it's a tough situation."