Big week ahead for Blues; Winter Classic
update; protecting big leads; Allen looking like old self
ST. LOUIS -- The Blues began a stretch of four games in seven days against playoff-eligible teams by continuing their quality play on the road.
A 4-2 victory Sunday in Minnesota kick-started a week that includes home games Wednesday and Friday against Chicago and Anaheim, respectively, and concludes with a road game Saturday in Dallas.
The Blues (38-20-9), two points behind the Blackhawks and Stars for the race to No. 1 in the Central Division, have the chance to pull even or even jump into first place with regulation wins against the Blackhawks and Stars and a chance to derail the hottest team in the NHL, the Ducks, who were 18-1-1 before Monday the past 20 games.
"This is going to be a real test for us," coach Ken Hitchcock said. "These are four top teams, and so we're 1-0 in this week and we've got three more tough games coming up."
"Huge games," said right wing Ryan Reaves, who scored Sunday in Minnesota. "This is playoff stretch right now and we're playing teams that we're in the mix with, tied with and chasing. These are points that we've really got to steal and start getting some separation from."
With 15 regular season games remaining, the Blues, Blackhawks and Stars are jockeying for position within the division because the ones that finish second and third in the division will face one another in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
"It's a very big week," said forward Patrik Berglund, whose game winner Sunday was the fourth this season of his six goals. "It's a big challenge, but we haven't started thinking about that yet. We're going to let this one sink in and get back home and rest up and then we'll go from there."
* Protecting leads -- For the second straight game, the Blues were forced to protect a 3-0 lead and third straight game, they held a three-goal lead on the road.
The Blues polished off Carolina 5-2 on Feb. 28 by scoring four unanswered goals in a game the Hurricanes traded away hours before the game their captain (Eric Staal) and pulled a pair of forwards in Kris Versteeg, who was traded to Los Angeles later that night, and Riley Nash because of injury.
In Ottawa last Tuesday, the Senators rallied from a 3-0 deficit but lost when the Blues were able to salvage the second point in an 11-round shootout.
Sunday, the same scenario presented itself. The Blues built a 3-0 lead, had ample chances to build on the lead but would have the Wild instead rally furiously to cut the lead to one. Minnesota nearly tied it moments before Robby Fabbri eased everyone's minds with an empty-netter with 1 minute, 31 seconds remaining.
"We're getting lots of chances to put (teams) away, lots of chances to extend leads in a big way," Hitchcock said. "Part of it is bearing down and part of it is we're kind of changing our offensive structure. For better use of a term, we probably get a little too cute. I think it's stuff we can show the guys on Tuesday and get ready for Wednesday.
"We're creating a lot of offense, we're scoring goals in the hard areas, we're doing a lot of good things, but it's kind of attitude-wise. We've got to talk about how to shut a game down and what are the core things that take place. We've made similar mistakes the last three games, and they're coachable mistakes that we can correct; they're not effort mistakes. They're coachable mistakes and we'll get them corrected."
The Blues were successful the past two games by winning battles in the neutral zone, turning their respective opponents over -- like Jori Lehtera's goal to open the game Sunday -- and winning with the formula implemented.
"We're winning the game with checking," Hitchcock said. "When we're checking and our puck management is on top, we're doing a helluva a job, but the minute we come off it, we open ourselves up because we really pride ourselves in structure. Maybe what we lack in footspeed, we've got good structure. When we get into these foot races, we lose our structure and that's what we've got to address."
As long as the Blues don't deviate from the game plan, they seem to do well.
"We were obviously sticking to the game plan," Berglund said. "We wanted to keep playing the same way we did in the first and second. I think we started off doing a decent job. They got those two goals. Again, it's not fun to be a part of, but it's something we just have to get better at to close out games. We're letting in too many teams now when we have leads. It's on us. I don't know if we need to be more focused or whatever it is, but it's getting a little too tight every time."
But a lost puck battle along the boards produced the first goal, a coverage error and extended shift enabled the Wild to score again.
"We've just got to tighten it up a little bit when we get a lead in the third period," said Reaves, who was a plus-2 in a game Sunday for just the second time in his career (April 25, 2013 vs. Calgary). "We've got to learn to just keep playing our game and not back off and keep pushing forward. Lesson learned and we'll address it, but I think we're good."
* Allen back to old form -- Goalie Jake Allen won his third straight start Sunday and is one win shy of tying a career-high in wins with 22. He made 30 saves Sunday in his best game since returning from a knee injury.
Allen was called upon to make a handful of quality saves, including one in the second period on Jason Pominville to preserve a 3-0 lead, and another in the waning seconds with the paddle of his stick as the Wild were pressing with a sixth attacker.
"I've felt I've constantly progressed every game," Allen said. "Even the Nashville game (a 5-0 loss) I felt pretty good even though it was whatever happened, but I've felt that I'm slowly getting better trying to get my game back to where it needs to be. I think I'm on the right track."
Allen is 21-13-3 with a 2.26 goals-against average and .922 save percentage in 39 games (37 of them starts). He has five shutouts, which is still tied for second in the NHL despite missing six weeks.
"Jake was good when we needed him, and we're going to need that moving forward," Hitchcock said. "Any time you're getting points right now, it's good. Everybody's looking at what the number is to get in. We kind of got an idea of what it is; I'm sure Minny does, too. Any time you can pick up points at this time of year is good stuff.
"... He's just getting better and better. This is the most minutes he's put together. He's been in that 50-minute state for a little while. Now this is obviously 60 tonight."
Berglund said: "He made some unbelievable saves today again. But obviously we need that to win games."
* Winter Classic update -- As was reported here on Feb. 20, an announcement is expected Wednesday from the NHL to name the Blues as the hosts of the 2017 Bridgestone Winter Classic, with the Blackhawks as the opponents on Jan. 2, 2017. That announcement could still take place on Wednesday, but as of Monday evening, there was no indication that it will.
A source said the Winter Classic "will happen" here between Blues and Blackhawks, and an announcement is just a formality.
The league announced on Sunday that Winnipeg will host Edmonton on Oct. 23 in the 2016 Tim Horton's NHL Heritage Classic at Investors Group Field.