Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Another measuring stick for Blues with Rangers in town

Team looks to wrap up five-game homestand searching for fourth win in a row

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- Those with tickets to tonight's game between the Blues and New York Rangers, expect something in line with what you saw Saturday night when the San Jose Sharks were here.

That score was 1-0 in favor of the Blues, and with the league's second and third stingiest teams as far as goals-against average per game set to go head-to-head today at 7 p.m. (FSN, KMOX 1120-AM), scoring chances might come at a premium.
(Getty Images)
The Blues' Brian Elliott (left) will put his NHL-best goals-against average,
save percentage and four shutouts on the line tonight against the New
York Rangers tonight.

"I think it's going to be a hell of a hockey game," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said. "I think we're going to be excited to play. We've had time off, I think the guys have enjoyed the balance between work and rest. I think we're going to play well and I think they're going to play well, so I think it's going to be a hell of a hockey game.

"I think it's going to be as good a game as the San Jose game. I know we're excited to get going again. We're right on the edge of getting sick of listening to the coach in practice."

The Blues (17-9-3) are No. 2 in the league behind Boston, allowing 2.03 goals per game. The Rangers (17-7-4) are No. 3 at 2.07 goals per game. It's the last in a five-game homestand that has seen the Blues tested against the likes of Chicago, Detroit, San Jose and now the Rangers.

"This is a measure for us to see what we're up against and to see how we have to play to compete against these teams," defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk said. "We're not going to surprise teams anymore. They'll be ready to play. I know we will."

Asked if the Blues are still proving themselves around the league, Shattenkirk said: "I don't think so. The proving's done. Teams across the league now know that we're a different team this year ... a contender, I think. Once Hitch came in here and we had that little stretch there of 10, 12 games, we were proving things to people, we were showing them how when we play our best, this is what we give. Teams are ready for it now."

Added captain David Backes: "We're not surprising anyone anymore. We've got to make sure we bring our 'A' game because you're not sneaking up on anyone and they're going to be ready for you. ... There aren't going to be any easy ones, there never are in this league. We need to have that mindset going into Thursday."

Blues President John Davidson, who worked on Rangers games with Sam Rosen covering the team in 1983-84 and from 1986-2005 for MSG Network, has seen the Blues go 4-1-2 against the Rangers since taking over the team presidency. But he still keeps one eye on the Blueshirts for more reasons than one.

The Rangers, along with the Philadelphia Flyers, are being featured on HBO's 24/7 Flyers/Rangers: Road to the NHL Winter Classic, which debuted Wednesday night. When the Rangers receive the glamour, it seems to impact the rest of the teams in the United States.

"I keep an eye on the Rangers. They're just a terrific organization," Davidson said. "To see them play well, I like that.

"My own personal feeling is, when you have the Rangers playing well, the business world of the United States pays attention to hockey. So it's important for them to play well."

The Rangers have certainly caught the eye of Hitchcock, as they boast a lineup chalk full of star players (Marian Gaborik, Brad Richards, Henrik Lundqvist and Ryan Callahan) to go with rising players Derek Stepan, Dan Girardi, Michael Del Zotto, Brandon Dubinsky and Artem Anisimov, to name a few.

"The Rangers are probably playing the best hockey of anybody, certainly in the East," Hitchcock said. "Whether it's in the league or not, we'll see. But they're certainly playing the best of anybody in the East. They're blitzing teams right now, so that will be a real good wake-up call to start with on Thursday.

"I think the way the Rangers play has got everybody's attention. They play hard. They play physical, they take the extra two steps to play physical. They get after you. They score more than anybody I've seen off the cycle. So that's hard work, 3 on 3 down low. They just bury you in your own zone. They work. They play with a real edge."

The Blues, who have allowed the fewest 5-on-5 goals (32) in the league, feel they have a way to alleviate the Rangers' cycle game.

"What we've been doing lately has been anticipating that next play off the cycle and shutting it down before it happens," Shattenkirk said. "That's going to be important tomorrow. They have some good forwards who can use body position and I think they make those good, little plays down low. We're going to have to not be as aggressive and physical and maybe sit back and wait for that next play and try to pounce on it."

(Getty Images)
David Backes (42) and his fellow linemates on the Blues' top line will
have the task again of shutting down the Rangers' big guns tonight.
The Rangers are coming off a 1-0 game themselves, one in which they lost at home to Dallas on Tuesday to snap a run of seven wins in nine games (7-1-1).

"I told our players they play with a real hot pace and you're going to have to match it," Hitchcock said. "That game yesterday, a 1-0 game, was really well played. You take away the first six minutes, which was a chess match ... after that, it was really a well-played game by both teams. So we're going to have to be up to speed right away. They pride themselves on making you react to the tempo. And that coach sets the tempo high and makes the players play at that tempo. They have no choice."

The Blues understand what will be at stake.

"Their team defense is pretty strong," Shattenkirk said of the Rangers. "It's something they take pride in like we do. I don't expect there to be many opportunities. Whoever cashes in on their chances is going to be probably at the top."

Added Backes: "Whoever's willing to pay the price to get to those dirty areas to funnel the puck there and make sure it's going there time after time, that team's going to win the game.

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