Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Playoff push begins tonight for Blues

Team will have to be road warriors should they
make playoffs; six-gams stretch begins in Phoenix

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- Five days of hard-skating, hard-hitting and cranking the timing of the game back up to speed, the Blues are ready to set their plan in motion against an opponent.

They'll wait no longer. That day is finally here.

With the feel of a regular season opener after having missed the previous two weeks so the NHL could shut down for the Winter Olympics, the Blues (28-25-9) resume the last quarter of their season when they begin a six-game trip today against the Phoenix Coyotes (8 p.m. on FSN, KMOX 1120-AM).

And when the Blues hit the ice for the morning skate today at Jobing.com Arena, they'll do it with their full compliment of players after USA silver medalists David Backes and Erik Johnson met the team Monday in Arizona.

"I think everybody's anxious to get back to work here," said forward Alex Steen. "The Olympic tournament was fun and great to watch, but we want to play now, too."

Each day since the Blues have been back on the ice -- they began Wednesday -- there were different elements of the game the team and coaches were working on.

What was really important is this was the first extended stretch of days the players and coach Davis Payne could really get down to the X's and O's of the game, allowing Payne to really put a stamp on this team as his own since his naming as head coach Jan. 2.

"When I first came in, there were some principles that we wanted to put into place, and some of those principles had to be done in theory," Payne said after practice Monday at the Ice Zone in St. Louis Mills. "Here was a chance for us to really drill in with application over and over again to the point where we really understand what I'm talking (about) on the board or what I'm talking about watching video and going over that kind of stuff. We've now had application on the ice, which translates as well. We'd like to make sure we take what we did against Washington, Toronto and Detroit and make sure that we erase the break and have that start up tomorrow night in Phoenix."

The players agree that the longer stretch of practices had its benefits.

"I think we've been able to go through more detail with what Payner wants," Steen said. "Coming in as a new coach, it's tough to just change everything. I think this week has really been good to go through a lot of the details."

And details they saw, as each day saw a different emphasis placed on the team game in particular.

"There were some things we wanted to expand upon," Payne said. "There was some offensive zone stuff that we wanted to get a little bit cleaner as far as spacing went and our repetitions and kind of where we're going and what our options are. We drilled on that just about every single day and then looked at a lot of different aspects of our game and just making sure that those finer points that perhaps were missing or causing ourselves to have to play in different areas of the ice have been cleaned up.

"Any time you have these guys practicing for five days in a row, they're itching for some new competition and we've got to get going at it in Phoenix tomorrow."

Monday may have been the easiest of the five days leading up to this final 20-game stretch, which has the Blues five points in back of eighth place Detroit (who won 3-2 Monday in Colorado), but it certainly was extremely beneficial.

"Today was our best practice," said defenseman Barret Jackman. "That's what the coaches kind of geared up as we wrapped up. They really wanted to stress some things and work on things. Payner's still new to this team so he's implementing a couple different parts to our game that we can clean up. I think it was good for us. Guys are refreshed mentally and physically. We're revved up and we're ready to go."

If the Blues will get themselves right smack in the middle of the playoff race -- right now they're on the outside looking in -- they'll have to do it as road warriors.

However, that's not a problem for this team, which is 16-9-4 away from home. they'll play 12 of their final 20 games away from Scottrade Center.

"We've played well on the road this year," said goalie Chris Mason, who should get the bulk of the workload down the stretch, just as he did a season ago. "I just think we have to continue to have the feeling that we had before the break there.

Steen agrees.

"You've go to jump back on the horse and do what you've been doing," he said. "We need to bring everything we can, the same effort we had at the beginning of the Olympic break there."

But some feel like starting over might not be a bad thing.

"Just start new. You obviously learn from what happened from the first half of the year," Jackman said. "It's down to a sprint, it's down to consistency and little things. You can't sweat what happened the night before. You take every game and it's a fresh slate and you've got to win, that's the bottom line.

"We don't look at it as being on the road or being at home, it's games you have to win against teams that are in front of you for the most part. ... We know we play well on the road and we've just got to continue to do it."

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