By LOU KORAC
ST. LOUIS -- In the past five seasons, the Blues have played games in March pretty much knowing they were going to be part of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
These games in March, although they had meaning jockeying for position, the Blues (33-27-5) didn't have to play with the kind of urgency they do this year in March.
As they get set to host the Anaheim Ducks (35-22-10) today at 7 p.m. (FS-MW, KMOX 1120-AM), the Blues have a small grip on the second and final wild card spot in the Western Conference, by one point over the Los Angeles Kings. The Blues on the other hand, also trail the Nashville Predators by four points for third in the Central Division. The Blues have a game in hand on LA and two in hand on the Predators.
"We were so fortunate the last couple years," said goalie Jake Allen, who gets the start tonight. "We got such a big lead by Christmas, we were pretty much solidified by Christmas. Now it's a completely different story, a story that we haven't been in the last 3-4 years.
"We're fighting to get in right now. That's the ultimate goal. We'll worry about the playoffs once we get in. Right now, we're fighting for that No. 8 spot and anything can happens in the playoffs, but right now, we're just focused on getting points. LA's right there, Nashville's right there too. And obviously last night, probably the worst possible outcome for us, but we have no control over that. We're just trying to get as many points as we can. If we win 8-7 and get a win, then that's all that matters."
With 17 games remaining, the Blues know from here on out, it's almost a do-or-die scenario and each point is critical at this juncture. Just ask them how much one point in a game like the one they lost with 4.6 seconds left against Florida would mean right now.
"The last couple years at this point of the season, we're kind of waiting to get to the playoffs; we put ourselves in a different spot," captain Alex Pietrangelo said. "I like it. I like the challenge. I like the opportunity for a lot of people to step up here. We're trying to play our best hockey to lead us into the playoffs, which is always a good thing. It's even easier to rise up to the challenge now in the position that we are. We know we've got a good chance here with the way we're playing now. Obviously we want to be in a different spot, but we'll rise to that challenge.
"We all know where we are. I'd be lying if I said we weren't looking. We know where we are in the standings. I think you kind of get that feel in the locker room before games that every game's important; it doesn't matter who we're playing. Eastern Conference, Western Conference, this is an opportunity to really put ourselves in a good spot here in the next couple weeks."
Scoreboard watching is a norm for players, even if they say they don't pay attention to it. The worst-case scenario Thursday was for the Kings and Predators to go into overtime and play the proverbial three-point game.
"You've got to help yourself first, but obviously it's just a natural tendency," Allen said. "We're all going to watch the scores. We're not oblivious to reality. We know what's going on around us. I think you need to have that sense of urgency, especially in our game, too. This next stretch here, I think is our toughest stretch to end the season, so this is going to be a real test for us and see where we can go.
"We've just got to find a way to get points. We're not used to not being in the playoffs here. It definitely would be a disappointment if we didn't make it. We're all focused; we're going to make the playoffs. We've got not many games left, but we still have a good chance to get in and even move up, so it will be nice."
The one silver lining to fighting right now is that those teams that do get in as a seven- or eight-seed, they have momentum and are playing well.
Just ask the Blues, who lost to a very hot Minnesota team in 2015 when the Wild had to play playoff-like hockey from January on, and the Kings, who won a Stanley Cup in 2012 as an eight seed than played themselves in at the end.
"Teams that fight their way in the seven, eight spot, usually you have been winning games prior to the playoffs, either winning a stretch of games or a chunk of games," Allen said. "You're right, carry that play into the playoffs and go from there. I'm confident in this group once we get into the playoffs that we can do some damage. It's just right now, I don't think think too far forward. Just focus on getting in, catching these teams ahead of us and keeping the ones behind us out of play."
Blues coach Mike Yeo was leading the Wild in their charge in 2015 and knows what it means.
"For us right now, we're battling to get in," Yeo said. "I've been a part of teams and the one thing you can do is it makes it tough, you have to be at your best every night but part of that is that it sharpens your game, too. If indeed you get into the playoffs, then you're on top of your game and you're ready to go.
"Those teams that we're battling with are going to win hockey games. That's why we can't hope our way into the playoffs. We have to win hockey games, we have to get points and in order to do that, we have to concentrate on our game and get prepared. Obviously a good test today. Our mindset should be coming home and making sure that we play a real strong game at home. That's something we haven't done enough of."
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The Blues, who host the Ducks and New York Islanders on Saturday before hitting the west coast road swing for five games, want to improve their mark on Scottrade Center ice.
Since Dec. 17, the Blues are 4-10-1 on Scottrade Center ice after starting the season 13-1-2 here.
"Every one of them has been very winnable, but there's too many points in a game where we crack, whether it's a big opportunity we give up or a large period of time where we don't have a push back in our game," Yeo said. "I think on the road, we handled the ups and downs better. The last game was a good example of that."
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The Blues will stick with the same lineup that played in a 2-1 win against the Wild on Tuesday, which means forwards Ivan Barbashev, Zach Sanford and Nail Yakupov along with defenseman Jordan Schmaltz will be healthy scratches.
With games being of utmost importance, Yeo is sticking with a veteran lineup and has no real plan for the young kids at this point.
"In all honesty, we don't have a plan. A week out, we don't have a plan," Yeo said. "All I'm saying is we're just going day to day right now, we're making sure we're doing everything we can to make sure that they're part of the group and make sure that they're getting the work in practice that they need so when they get into the lineup, they're ready to go."
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The Blues' projected lineup:
Jaden Schwartz-Paul Stastny-Vladimir Tarasenko
Alexander Steen-Patrik Berglund-David Perron
Dmitrij Jaskin-Jori Lehtera-Magnus Paajarvi
Scottie Upshall-Kyle Brodziak-Ryan Reaves
Jay Bouwmeester-Alex Pietrangelo
Joel Edmundson-Colton Parayko
Carl Gunnarsson-Robert Bortuzzo
Jake Allen will start in goal; Carter Hutton will be the backup.
Healthy scratches include Nail Yakupov, Zach Sanford, Ivan Barbashev and Jordan Schmaltz. Robby Fabbri (knee) is out for the season.
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The Ducks' projected lineup:
Rickard Rakell-Ryan Getzlaf-Patrick Eaves
Andrew Cogliano-Ryan Kesler-Jakob Silfverberg
Ondrej Kase-Nate Thompson-Corey Perry
Logan Shaw-Chris Wagner-Jared Boll
Cam Fowler-Sami Vatanen
Hampus Lindholm-Josh Manson
Brandon Montour-Kevin Bieksa
Jonathan Bernier could start after making 43 saves in a 1-0 shutout of the Chicago Blackhawks on Thursday; Jhonas Enroth, who could start, would be the backup.
Korbinian Holzer is expected to be the healthy scratch. John Gibson (lower body), Clayton Stoner (lower body), Simon Despres (upper body) and Nick Ritchie (upper body) are out. Antoine Vermette will serve the final game of a 10-game suspension.