Friday, December 11, 2015

Blues to be tested against first-place Stars

Ten points separates Dallas and St. Louis in first of five meetings

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- It's no secret that the Blues haven't been playing their best hockey in December.

It can actually be traced a bit farther back than that into November, but with a 3-1 victory Friday night against the Philadelphia Flyers, the Blues (16-9-4) find themselves 10 points out of first place behind the red-hot Dallas Stars.

The Blues' game has been stellar at times and stagnant at others, which makes it puzzling how they could look so good one period and so blasé the next. The roller coaster has been frustrating for players, coaches and certainly their fans.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Blues goalie Jake Allen (34), who makes a save in a 4-1 win vs. Arizona
on Tuesday, said the Blues need to bring their best Saturday vs. Dallas.

But when the Blues host the Stars on Saturday (7 p.m. on FS-MW, KMOX 1120-AM), as goalie Jake Allen put it, there's only one way to play, and that's their very best.

Or else ...

"If we don't, we're going to get our asses handed to us," Allen, who will get the start, said after an optional skate Friday. "Unfortunately that's the bitter truth. I think they're the best team in the league right now and they've proved that to start the year. They're a high-powered offense. All they need is one chance and we're going to have to be on our toes. 

"We definitely haven't been playing our best. Everyone knows that, everyone's talking about consistency and things like that. We don't need to talk anymore and just go out and play. Those are the things, but it has to happen. It's got to happen. It's got to come forth. We need to play with a little bit of swagger, I think. We lost our swagger a little bit I think from the group, from myself, right through the whole lineup, through the whole organization. We need to have our swagger back, our confidence and that's when we play our best."

So how does one regain that swagger?

"Just knowing that you're a good player," Allen said. "For me, if I have a bad game or (allow) a bad goal, go right back at it. Have the ability to change the game make a save or help the team in some way, somehow. I think that's an opportunity for every single one of these guys to get the ball rolling. One guy sees one guy doing it, it's a snowball effect. Once we get that going, we'll get back to our winning ways."

Coach Ken Hitchcock has often spoken of when the Blues played scared, it tends to bring out the best in their game. If facing Dallas, which enters Saturday with the most points (46), most wins (22), fewest regulation losses (five) and scored the most goals in the league (102), doesn't get a team on edge just a bit, it could make for a long night.

But Hitchcock said right now, it doesn't matter who the Blues play. Getting back on track is important no matter who it's against.

"I don't think it matters the opponent," Hitchcock said. "We played Philadelphia (Thursday, a 4-2 defeat), (which) was playing the best hockey of the year for them. So we got them. That was the best that they'd been playing. They got points in five of their last six games coming into our building, so I don't think it matters who the opponent is. Colorado has won their last couple in a row, Dallas is a hot team; I don't think it matters. I think it's all about us and the way we're playing and how many really good minutes in a game can we build. 

"There are seasons that you get away with playing 40 or 45 minutes and win the hockey game. This is not going to be one of those seasons. The teams are too close, there's too many good teams, there's teams that are the same. You look at the teams that are losing by a goal in the West now, they were the teams three weeks ago that were winning by a goal. To me, it's all about good minutes in a game, how many good, solid minutes that are smart and cohesive can you put in a game where you're not getting wrapped up in the chaos of what's happening on the ice. We've had too many chaotic situations that end up in our net because of it, and they've been very sudden plays that have come unexpectedly, very quickly at times but that they've been there and we've got to deal with it. Like I said, you're not going to get away in the National Hockey League this year in the West playing 45 good minutes. You're going to have to put a lot more into it."

So by accomplishing so much so early this season, the Stars seem to be the team that has gotten the most complete 60-minute games. And they're powered by some formidable offensive weapons in Jamie Benn, who went into Saturday as the NHL leader in goals with 20 and was tied for second in the league with teammate Tyler Seguin, who is tied for fourth in the league with 15 goals, in points with 40.

"I think what they've done is they've been able to ... when things haven't gone perfectly, they've been able to score their way out of trouble," Hitchcock said of the Stars. "But they learned their lesson last year. It's obvious by the way they've played. They learned their lesson last year. That was a tough season for them to give up the leads that they did in the third period and to lose games in the third period, they learned their lesson. They've started out the season with a really good focus knowing that it was a hard lesson not to be in the playoffs last year. They learned it and they're applying it now. 

"What I'm saying is, it's after 20 games; all of us are starting to figure this out that this is going to be a very difficult campaign in the West and you're just going to have to embrace how hard it's going to be. The point I'm making is there's no playing at 80 percent and expect to get in anymore. There's no playing at 85 percent to get in. You're going to have to play 90-plus to get in. I think that's the reality check that all of us are dealing with. We're going to have to get more from more people, we're going to have to get more consistent play from our whole group and we're going to have to build more minutes in our game than we're building right now because we are building an awful lot of good minutes; there's just not enough of them to expect to win. That's reality. Dallas, to me, has the point total in the West right now because they have been the most consistent team in building the most minutes. You watch them play, they've got a lot of good minutes in their game. That's why they've got the record they've got."

A perfect example of how it's been going for the Blues was Thursday. They got great minutes in the first (despite being scoreless) and third periods, when they dominated much of the play. But the second period turned chaotic, turnovers were magnified, coverage mistakes occurred and the Blues couldn't stop the bleeding. It's happened far too often.

"I think it's got to the point right now where everybody's a little fed up of some of the efforts we've had over the last little while," center Kyle Brodziak said. "It doesn't get any easier tomorrow night. I think we've got to look at that as a huge challenge and a huge test for us. I think we go into it and put our best foot forward and see where we stack up against the best right now and I think it'll be a good boost for us if we can come out with a good effort.

"... We haven't had a chance to see them yet, but you just look at the numbers and I think they speak for themselves. They have some of the highest goal totals in the league and some individual players who are right up there as the highest scoring guys in the league right now. That alone is going to be a big test for us. Whoever's out against the top guys has to make sure that number one, we have to try and shut them down. I think it's going to be a challenge for everybody because by the looks of it, their whole group in their lineup is contributing. We've just got to find a way to bring our best effort."
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Blues right wing Troy Brouwer (36) checks
Arizona's Oliver Eklan-Larsson on Tuesday.

Even as tight as the standings are or how difficult it will be to make the playoffs this season, right wing Troy Brouwer said all is not lost.

"It varies in each instance from my experience," Brouwer said. "The year I was able to win the Stanley Cup (in 2010 with the Chicago Blackhawks), I think we had a nine-game losing streak in the middle of the season (actually 2-5-2), you might have to check that out. It was a long slide. The faster you can get out of it, the faster you can get confidence back in your room, start playing the right way again, playing for each other, the faster you will get out of your slump and get yourself back on the right track. The good thing is, we did a real good job in the beginning of the season collecting points and getting off to a good start, and that's helped us to maintain our spot within the standings and within the playoffs at the moment. We've got to find a way as quickly as possible to get out of this slide."

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