Monday, November 30, 2015

Blues' record comparable to last season

One point off mark of 2014-15 season, 
accomplished in much better fashion with plethora of injuries

By LOU KORAC
ST. LOUIS -- The Blues begin the third month of the season Tuesday when they play host to the Florida Panthers at Scottrade Center.

Their record is 15-6-3, good for 33 points, which is respectable and among the leaders in the NHL entering play Monday. 

They're one point off pace of their mark through 24 games last season (16-6-2, 34 points), but it's hardly considered any sort of failure. As a matter of fact, it's remarkably better the way they've gotten there currently than how they got there last season.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Paul Stastny (26) missed 16 games with a broken foot earlier this season.
The Blues have been able to withstand a number of injuries this season.

Last season, the Blues only had to endure Paul Stastny's shoulder injury for eight games and were relatively injury-free most of the year. This season has been a different story.

The Blues are among the NHL leaders in man-games missed. Only Buffalo, Detroit and Edmonton had more man-games missed entering play Monday. And considering the Blues have played large portions of the season without Stastny (16 games), Kevin Shattenkirk (10), Robby Fabbri (six), Steve Ott (six), Jaden Schwartz (currently missed 17) and Patrik Berglund (all season), it's been quite a story that the they've not only tread water but entered play Monday fifth in the league in points, second in the Western Conference.

"I think it's way more impressive than last year," Ott said. "One being the schedule's completely different. We started the season with a hard, hard road trip (six games); that was exhausting. We've played a lot of weird divisional, hard games in close spans where you kind of switch things up. Then you top it off with the amount of injuries that we've had. Not just your run of the mill hockey players, your most key guys. 

"Any time you miss 'Shatty' for the way we did, 'Stas' the way we did, 'Schwartzy' the way we are, obviously 'Bergy' for the whole season so far, you take those four guys away from any dressing room, that team would probably be in the basement right now."

The Blues have had to plug in players to fill gaping holes left by those key players and not only have they performed but have been thrust into crucial roles. Guys like Scottie Upshall and Scott Gomez, who weren't even on the radar coming into training camp before both veterans came in on professional tryouts before earning and signing one-year contracts. Younger players like Fabbri and defensemen Colton Parayko and Joel Edmundson, as well as Magnus Paajarvi and Dmitrij Jaskin and Ty Rattie (when he was recalled from the American Hockey League) have been thrust into situations perhaps not thought of before the injuries. All have kept the Blues well above the equator.

"We were in scramble mode before," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock admitted. "There's no way to put it. I think what's saved us was Gomez and Upshall. I think they came in and gave us good minutes, allowed us to stay afloat. They came in as guys trying to help us and I don't want to say part-time players, but they were guys that came in on a limited role, got thrust into the limelight right away and answered the bell. It's given us, rather than trying to bring American (Hockey) League players or call-up players to try and survive from within; these were NHL players who knew how to play the game. They gave us good, sustained minutes, which I think helped keep us to stay afloat to be honest with you.

"I can't even remember where we were last year, but I think what's helped us, we've been able to get points in the third period, win games in the third period. I don't know that we've down going into the third that much, but we've been tied and getting wins or points out of those games. Those are the points you're going to need. I think what we're doing now is we're starting to put more and more better minutes together. I think we were starting at 30 minutes at the start of the year of really solid play. Now we're in the 40's. I think that's what's allowing us to play well towards the end of games; we're getting better and better minutes from more and more people, more and more people involved in the good play. ... We're getting more and more players connected in building good minutes, so it's allowing us to control the game a little bit more."

The Blues are a team that has to endure comebacks all season. They've only led in five of 24 games this season after one period but have had what Hitchcock and players called the "spirit" in coming back. They're 4-4-1 when trailing after one but 7-0-0 when leading after two and 7-0-0 when tied after two.

But it's been a common thread around the NHL this season: close, tight games right to the finish.

"It feels like every game's a playoff game, it feels like every game's one goal," Hitchcock said. "We were bemoaning the fact of that a couple weeks ago, but I think that's the reality that the league is like that now; it's so close. You're just going to have to live in that atmosphere. So I think learning how to play in that atmosphere is going to help us. But I just think we're going to be in a lot of one-goal hockey games for the rest of the year and we're just going to have to get used to it because there is not much difference in a dozen teams in both conferences right now. I think it really bears fruit when you see how many games ... I was looking, I think Detroit and somebody else played nine or 10 overtime games already, and that's incredible. That's almost half of their schedule has gone into overtime. I think just learning to play in that atmosphere is something everybody's going to have to get used to.

"I think even the players are looking at the standings on a daily basis. It used to be coaches for nothing but the first 30 games, but I think the players are looking at it, too, right now. I think we're all looking at where we stand, we're all looking at who's above us and who's below us. I just think when you have this much proximity of teams in the standings, you can't help but notice on a daily basis. I know I'm watching every day now. It's fun, but it feels like the wins are bigger and the losses are even bigger than that, and that's just the atmosphere that you work in right now in the National Hockey League."

The Blues' 8-1-3 in one-goal games is a testament to their attention to not only detail but to amp things up when the game is on the line.

"The teams that throw away points in October are always wishing they had them in April," Ott said. "For us to crawl back in the amount of games that we have, come back in third periods, be able to play tight and win games or collect points like we have, come April, we shouldn't be sweating as hard. But we're going to continue to have to push to stay at the top of the league.

"That's one of the reasons how our team's built, is by depth. We're built for the playoffs. Obviously you have to get into the playoffs and collect points on the way in; these points are all-too-important, but when you're collectively thinking you have the depth on the team, come playoff time when guys do go down, you hope that guys are able to step up. Now you know who can step up in certain situations when the season continues to progress and guys go down or needed to boost up a teammate or someone needs to come into the lineup."

Captain David Backes also said points now are equally as vital as they are in April.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
The Blues have been able to accumulate points this season despite injuries.
Players like Scottie Upshall (10) have filled in quite nicely.

"They'll come back to bite you in the butt in a hurry," Backes said. "We've seen that in the past, learned our lessons early in my career that these two points are as valuable as the other two points. It's got to be a great effort every night and regroup and piece it all together and find out that maybe we don't skate the next day because we poured it all into the game. Those things are acceptable when you're pouring it all into the game and getting the right result.

"We're concentrating on what we're doing now. Last year's written its own story and we've got to piece it together as we go this year. We've had some adversity, we've had some key guys out of the lineup and been able to maintain a decent level of play and find ways to win games. I think we've had a lot of success so far this year, but we need to keep getting better as everyone else keeps getting better to maintain our position and the top five teams in the league."

* NOTES -- Hitchcock said Tuesday's lineup will remain the same as the one that played in a 3-1 victory against Columbus Saturday, meaning Robert Bortuzzo, Dmitrij Jaskin and Scott Gomez will be healthy scratches. 

Jake Allen will start in goal for the 15th time in 17 games, but Brian Elliott will get the start on Friday when the Blues travel to the New York Islanders.

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