By LOU KORAC
ST. LOUIS -- There comes a time when a team clinches that Stanley Cup Playoff berth early enough, to take the remaining regular season games and use them as prep, but not for players to not overly exert themselves in the process.
Forget it. That's not the Blues' thinking, not when there's still the idea of clinching first place in the Central Division on the line.
When the Blues (42-28-8) host the red-hot Colorado Avalanche (36-29-13) at 7 p.m. today (NBCSN, KMOX 1120-AM), they can move into a three-way tie for first in the division, which would be quite the accomplishment considering where the Blues were when they woke up on Jan. 3.
The Blues will be going for the season sweep against the Avalanche, winning the first three games, including two in overtime. It would be their first against the Avalanche/Quebec Nordiques franchise since 1991-92 and fifth time ever.
The Blues were last in the league with 34 points but have since gone 27-10-4 to put themselves in this position. A win tonight would move the Blues past Nashville because they hold the tiebreaker on regulation/overtime wins (ROW's) but not the Winnipeg Jets, who currently hold a 43-41 ROW's advantage. The Predators have 40, and the Jets play at the Chicago Blackhawks Monday night but all three teams could be tied in points at the end of the night with 94.
"We're two points back," Blues center Tyler Bozak said. "We want to win every game obviously, so we're going to try and do that. Hopefully we can climb in the standings as much as we can.
"When we were in last place, there was no one talking about being done or anything like that or how much ground we had to make. We had to take it one day at a time and we're going to keep doing that from here on out."
The Blues, 6-1-1 their past eight games, have plenty to play for, as do the Avs, 6-0-1 their past seven. Colorado is one point ahead of the Arizona Coyotes for the Western Conference's second wild card with a game in hand.
"It's going to be a real good test for us," Blues interim coach Craig Berube said. "The situation they're in, we're going to get a real desperate team. Lots of speed, obviously [Nathan] MacKinnon highly-skilled player, great player. It's going to be a good test for us for sure, they come at you with a lot of speed. They look good right now, very good goaltending (from Philipp Grubauer)."
The Blues know they will be playing beyond the regular season, as opposed to last year when they were squeezed out by the Avalanche by one point on the final day of the regular season. But knowing there's plenty left on the line, like home ice advantage, is something definitely worth going all-out for.
"We're not going to go into the games playing any different or thinking any different," Blues defenseman Vince Dunn said. "These are really big games for us and we really want to make a push to get into that first place spot. It would be really amazing for our club to do that, seeing where we were two and a half, three months ago. I think the mentality is the same as it was a week ago, we're really striving to get to that No. 1 spot and we're going to do whatever it takes."
"We want to start in front of our fans," Blues forward Robert Thomas said. "The last like 20 games at home, our fans have been so good for us. You can tell how excited they are for this group and coming into playoffs."
And hearing that makes Berube appreciate the mindset.
"It's important," he said. "Home ice advantage is important in the playoffs any way you look at it. I like that our guys want to keep building and winning. It's important to have consistency."
The Blues will close with three of four games at Enterprise Center. Including tonight, they play here Thursday against Philadelphia and close against Vancouver on Saturday. There's one remaining road game, at Chicago on Wednesday.
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The Bozak line with Thomas and Pat Maroon was the 24th game they've played together on Saturday and may have been their best one yet.
Not only did they account for two of the three goals (two goals, three assists) in a 3-2 overtime win at New Jersey. Each player was plus-2 and Bozak won seven of eight faceoffs, the line had effective minutes and controlled the puck in the offensive zone when they had it.
"We were happy with the way we played against the Rangers, too," Bozak said. "I think we spent a lot of time in the offensive zone, got a lot of touches. I think we're learning where each other are on the ice and how to support each other on the ice. Obviously puck possession is a huge thing for our line. We're not going to try to go rush chances against other lines. We'll try and get it deep and play in the offensive zone. It worked well. I think the puck was following us around well against New Jersey, which was nice and it was nice to get a couple goals and contribute.
"We all bring a different dynamic, which I think is important."
Maroon brings the strength of holding and protecting pucks, Thomas brings the speed and wizardry and Bozak brings the smarts.
"We're really creating off the cycle and from behind the net," Thomas said. "That built into last game that we knew we could do that after seeing how effective it was. I'd say last game was built off the New York game.
"Patty down low, no one can take the puck off him, especially when you get him around the net, it's hard to defend. Bozie's such a smart player, always get you the puck at the right time and makes players around him better. Everything clicks together and it's one of those chemistry lines."
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Dunn's overtime goal 2.8 seconds left in New Jersey Saturday was a thing of beauty, and it came with a little help from the Blues bench.
Dunn, unaware of the clock situation, got a little help from teammates, and once he saw a gap between two Devils skaters, he decided to go for it, darted between Nico Hischier and Will Butcher and was in on goalie Cory Schneider.
"Honestly, I heard the bench scream go, go, go because the time was winding down," Dunn said. "It got me thinking to start skating with it, but I think once I got over the blue line, I saw more space that I knew the clock was winding down and I could just take it and see what would happen. I think I kind of slowed off for a second and they were thinking to watch out for Vladi and O'Ry out there, they're two big offensive threats. I think they kind of covered up them more than they covered me and I just shot through that opening and just tried to get the puck on net.
"All that was going through my mind was we need to get a shot on net. At least give ourselves a chance to win this game with the last few seconds that we had left. I didn't really see O'Ry or Vladi open on that play, so I just took it on myself and just tried to get it through."
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If Bozak can predict the Blues' path in the Stanley Cup Playoffs like he has for the NCAA Final Four, the Blues may be in good shape.
Amazingly enough, Bozak, a college basketball fan, has predicted all four of the remaining teams vying for college basketball's top prize, picking Michigan State, Virginia, Auburn and Texas Tech.
"I have Auburn to win it," Bozak said, calling for the Tigers to beat the Spartans in the title game. "I watch quite a bit of college basketball this year and I just like them. They play fast and shoot a lot of 3's. They're really athletic, and I didn't think there was any team that could run away with it, and I knew everyone was going to take Duke, so I just had them lose against Michigan State and so I thought I'd differentiate myself.
"I've just always liked doing the bracket. It's fun, you always do it with your team for bragging rights, so it's fun. ... I like it. It's fun to watch. It's unpredictable, kind of different from the NBA obviously. I feel like every player's playing as hard as they can. A lot can happen in that game, so I really enjoy that."
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Defenseman Joel Edmundson and forward Sammy Blais, both nursing lower-body injuries, were part of the morning skate but will not play.
Both were injured in the March 12 game against Arizona and have missed nine games.
"They're both doing good," Berube said. "They skated yesterday for quite a while. They had a good day and I expected them to have even a better day today.
"I'm very hopeful both of them will be ready to go (before the end of the regular season)."
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The Blues' projected lineup:
Brayden Schenn-Ryan O'Reilly-Vladimir Tarasenko
Jaden Schwartz-Oskar Sundqvist-David Perron
Pat Maroon-Tyler Bozak-Robert Thomas
Zach Sanford-Ivan Barbashev-Alexander Steen
Vince Dunn-Alex Pietrangelo
Jay Bouwmeester-Colton Parayko
Carl Gunnarsson-Robert Bortuzzo
Jordan Binnington will start in goal; Jake Allen will be the backup.
Healthy scratches include Robby Fabbri, Michael Del Zotto and Mackenzie MacEachern. Joel Edmundson (lower body) and Sammy Blais (lower body) are out.
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The Avalanche's projected lineup:
Alexander Kerfoot-Nathan MacKinnon-J.T. Compher
Gabriel Landeskog-Carl Soderberg-Colin Wilson
Derick Brassard-Tyson Jost-Matt Calvert
Matt Nieto-Sven Andrighetto-Gabriel Bourque
Samuel Girard-Erik Johnson
Ian Cole-Tyson Barrie
Nikita Zadorov-Patrik Nemeth
Philipp Grubauer will start in goal; Semyon Varlamov will be the backup.
Healthy scratches include Andrew Agozzino and Ryan Graves. Mikko Rantanen (upper body) and Vladislav Kamenev (shoulder) are out.