Allen gets the call again; injured players out
Thursday; standings watch; Shattenkirk's "applause"
ST. LOUIS -- The biggest news to come from the Blues wasn't the fact they were ready to get a couple injured players back in the lineup against the Chicago.
No, it was Ken Hitchcock's announcement of the starting goalie, and to the surprise of some -- but not many -- the Blues' coach will ride the hot hand -- or glove or pad, whichever you choose -- in hopes of winning a hockey game and at least clinching home ice advantage in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Jake Allen, who thwarted the Blackhawks on Sunday in a 38-save effort that ultimately led to a 2-1 victory by the Blues, gets the call for a third straight game, fourth in five games and sixth in nine.
The Blues (49-24-7, 105 points) are down to two regular season games remaining. A win Thursday against their hated division rivals can not only clinch home ice advantage in the first round but could possibly clinch the Central Division title for the second time in four seasons of the Nashville Predators lose to the Minnesota Wild in regulation.
A few "ifs" but the move by Hitchcock is a strong indicator that if Allen doesn't falter in any fashion here, he could very well be the starter when the playoffs begin next week.
Allen, who's allowed one goal in each of his past three starts and hasn't allowed more than two goals in any of these past six games, and if he continues to play as well as he has, it's his job now to lose.
"If Jake has a tough night, we just go play 'Ells,'" Hitchcock said of Brian Elliott. "It's a pretty good situation for us. We've got two good goalies, two guys you count on. They have their own internal competition, which is fun. That's their competitive cauldron that they're involved in."
Allen, who is 21-7-4 with a 2.32 GAA and .912 save percentage on the season, is 4-1-1 with a 1.16 goals-against average and .959 save percentage in his past six starts.
"I don't know that he's hot. He's just playing good. He's playing well," Hitchcock said of Allen, who is 10-2-2 since Jan. 10. "He's seeing the puck and making big saves. We're not exactly giving up a lot of quality chances, but boy, the ones we're giving up, he's had to make big saves. We've given up some breakaways and some 2-on-1s. He's made big saves.
"(Tuesday), early in the hockey game, we give up a breakaway and he makes a big save, keeps the game 0-0. He's making big saves when we need it right now, which is keeping us in games. It was the same thing against Chicago. We gave up two breakaways in the first period; otherwise we might be chasing the game. He's really given us a chance to win every night, and it's a good sign."
* Injured players ruled out -- Alexander Steen (lower body), Vladimir Tarasenko (lower body) and Robert Bortuzzo (upper body) have been ruled out of Thursday's showdown.
It's beginning to look more and more like none will be available for the remainder of the regular season, which concludes Saturday against the Wild.
When asked if they would be ready for the playoffs, Hitchcock said, "Yes, the playoffs." Not necessarily the start of the playoffs but the playoffs.
When? Nobody really knows.
* Standings watch -- Last season at this time, the Blues were floundering. Not because of poor play. More like the cavalry was in retreat mode because of a slew of injuries that hit at once.
Not to mention the Blues had a playoff berth locked up well in advance, it was not the way they envisioned finishing. And it ultimately carried over into the playoffs.
This season, with the standings for the Central Division title hotly contested (Nashville has 104 points and Chicago has 102), the Blues feel like they have a sharpness to their game and are more focused heading down the stretch.
"I think we're obviously watching it," defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk said. "It's something that's in the back of our minds. I think we know first and foremost that the only way to really take care of ourselves is to win, so tomorrow's a big game. I think we can lock up home ice advantage tomorrow if we win and at least get one of the top two spots (in the division) if we win tomorrow. It's a big game. They're a team that's chasing us right now and we know how good they can be at this time of the year. It's just as important that we get a good one tomorrow.
"You look at the lead Nashville had earlier in the year and it looked like they were the team that was just going to cruise along all year, but our division is I think the toughest one around. To have to play these teams night in and night out ... it's hard to get long winning streaks and cruise along. At any moment, these teams are all good enough to do the same thing or catch you sleeping if you think that it's just another easy night."
Hitchcock said the idea if to get the benefits of being at home, but is it really a benefit?
Going into games Thursday, nine teams (including the Blackhawks) have won more or as many road games this season than they have on the road. Of the 30 teams in the NHL, 15 of them have at least 20 wins away from home this season.
"It's get as high as you can. Home ice is a big deal; it's a big deal for us and it's a big deal during a series, especially if you can have it for more than one series. This is not just about the series against the first opponent; it might be the series against the second opponent. We kind of caught a break yesterday but both teams lost that are chasing us. Now we get another go at it tomorrow.
"It's a fun time of year. It's a fun time of year for everybody. Every shift matters, every game matters. Every game around the Eastern or Western Conference matters. It's a fun time to be a part of our business right now."
* Shattenkirk's applause -- Speaking of Shattenkirk, he was issued a 10-minute misconduct at the end of Tuesday's 1-0 loss to the WInnipeg Jets for "applauding" in the direction of referees Steve Kozari and Graham Skilliter following a scrum which involved all 10 players at the end of the game.
Shattenkirk could be seen coming out of the scrum and sarcastically clap in the direction of the officials, who were criticized throughout the game for a plethora of missed calls.
"That's on Twitter. I think you can find a GIF or two on that," Shattenkirk joked Wednesday. "I'll leave it at that.
"That one's in the past now. I'll take the stats. I guess fantasy hockey owners will be happy about the 10 penalty minutes."
For the record, it was Kozari who called the slashing penalty on Paul Stastny, which negated the tying goal with 5 minutes, 1 second remaining in the second.