Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Blues get back to work, ready to tackle stretch run

Team doesn't play until Friday, will have 10 days between games to prepare

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- As it turns out, a little rest and relaxation is just what the doctor ordered for the Blues.

After playing 49 games in which the Blues (29-13-7) have positioned themselves well in the heated Western Conference, getting five days off -- if the Blues can steal the slogan from the milk commercials -- does a body good.

"We had that great stretch there, but it definitely wears down on you," defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk said after Monday's 90-minute practice at St. Louis Mills. "If we didn't have the break, it's something you can battle through, but the fact that we had it and everyone was either able to get away or rest or see the family was very nice."
(Getty Images)
Blues players (from l to r) Carlo Colaiacovo, Jason Arnott, Jamie
Langenbrunner and Vladimir Sobotka hope to celebrate some more
victories over the final 33 games of the season.

What helps the Blues is they get four days to prep themselves up before their first game back from break. They'll be the last team to get back at it post all-star break when they face the Los Angeles Kings Friday at Scottrade Center, which has been the Blues go 21-3-4 there thus far.

Of the 30 NHL teams, 26 of them will get back on the ice tonight, so that means they practiced Monday and then get back into the swing of things tonight. And 13 of those teams practiced Monday and hopped on a plane to travel to their destination, or travel, then practice when they arrive at their destination.

"There's two ways of looking at playing on Friday: it's great because you get to ease yourself into it, but it's also you're catching up to teams because they've played one or two games," defenseman Carlo Colaiacovo said. "We've really got to take these next couple days and build up and get ourselves back into game speed and game contention and really rev ourselves up for what is going to be a critical part of the season."

Once the Blues get back into game action, they'll play 20 of their final 33 games on the road, and those games will be compressed into 64 days, so there will be little or no time in between to get extended practices into the schedule.

Which is precisely why coach Ken Hitchcock put the players through a tough, hard-working practice Monday. They'll work out again this morning, take Wednesday off and practice again Thursday before tackling the final stretch of games.

"I really liked our attitude today," Hitchcock said after practice Monday. "I thought our attitude towards work ... this was a hard, demanding practice and our guys really answered the bell. I really liked our attitude coming back today.

"I was really impressed with the disposition of the players. But we talked about that: the singular focus, before you can even talk about what you're doing at the dance, you better get to the dance. Our whole focus now is to get to the dance, play as well as we can every day. If it's good or bad, leave it and let's get ready for the next one."

The Blues currently sit in fourth place in the conference but teams are so compressed that your positioning can change from one game to another. They're two points behind conference-leading Detroit, who have 67 points, but they're also just a point ahead of Central Division rivals Nashville and Chicago, which currently sit in fifth and sixth place, respectively.

"The visual when we start on Friday, we need to understand the visual won't look good," Hitchcock cautioned. "We'll have played the fewest games in the league and without playing hockey, teams are gonna go ahead of us, and we've got to deal with that.
(Getty Images)
Blues players Kevin Shattenkirk (left) and Matt D'Agostini will play key
roles down the stretch.

"The visual won't look great, but then it's business as usual. The one thing that we talk to the players about, which I think is really important, is that you don't carry any baggage the next day. Whether it's a good thing or bad thing, when you're playing that second day and playing as much as we're going to play, lots of back-to-backs, lots of games on the road, there's going to be games where you're going to play really well and not win because the home team is going to have an advantage somewhere."

The players were fully aware of what was at stake coming in Monday, and they realize what the finish will be like when the first week of April rolls around.

"The one feeling you saw when you came in this morning with all the guys that you haven't seen in a couple days is the relaxed feeling," Colaiacovo said. "I think a lot of guys took advantage of the opportunity of these days off. Obviously today was a longer work day, but we all know we needed it.

"A lot of guys will tell you they didn't feel great out there today. When you take five days off, it's tough to get right back into it. I've been in the league a long time and I've never had a break this long. I really relish the moment of having those days off knowing that (Sunday), I really didn't have to prepare myself harder for getting ready for a game."

If Monday was any indication, the Blues will be ready going forward.

"Once we went out on the ice, I feel really good right now," Hitchcock said. "... I told them today that the details get turned up a little bit because we need to do that stuff.

"This is a good start to the schedule coming back. If we can get two more practices like this, this will really put us in good standing moving forward."

Monday, January 30, 2012


McDonald cleared for contact; Steen still day-to-day; Huskins improving

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- For the first time since he took the ice prior to Christmas, Andy McDonald has dyed his jersey color.

Obviously ridding himself of the red was a priority, since this is the one that the players wear for no-contact purposes. So as the Blues returned to begin preparations for their post all-star stretch, McDonald was on the ice Monday afternoon wearing a yellow jersey.

What does all this mean? It means the veteran has been cleared for contact, and it's the next step in the process from returning from another concussion, an ailment that has plagued the 34-year-old Strathroy, Ontario native throughout his career.

It's nice to be able to compete for real and get some contact out there," McDonald said after practice at the St. Louis Mills Ice Zone. "With the red jersey, I think guys are a little bit holding back on you and not going to check you. It's certainly nice to compete for real in the drills."

McDonald, who has missed all but three of the Blues' 49 games this season, has been one of the Blues' most productive players during practices, according to coach Ken Hitchcock, who said he wasn't going to address McDonald again until he shed the red jersey.

Now come the questions of when does McDonald return. Concussions vary according to each player, but winger David Perron -- who missed 13 months with a concussion -- returned 15 days after getting cleared for contact in November.

"Until the team makes the decision that he's ready to go, the red to gold means contact," Hitchcock said of McDonald, who has 35 points in his last 36 games dating back to last season. "It means more contact, it means he's a player that's up to the next level where there aren't any other reservations from either side on seeing where the next level goes to.

"He's not a player yet. I'm sure we'll have a better evaluation towards the end of the week whether he's close or far away. It's nice to see that he's cleared for some type of contact. He's just like another player on the ice."

McDonald has stated in the past that he won't play a game until he's 100 percent, which basically means until he's symptom-free.

"I'm close, I'll just leave it at that," McDonald said when asked if he was symptom-free. "I'm starting to put together days without anything. It's a big difference from a month ago where it would be tough to get through the day without a symptom. Now I'm starting to put days together with nothing. Hopefully that will continue."

Any guesses on a return date? McDonald wouldn't go there.

"No timetable," McDonald said. "... There's not really any plan. I think it's kind of wait and see. I've been real close for a long time and like I've said before, I want to be 100 percent. I don't want to go out there and hold back and feel like there's something still going on or feeling some type of symptom. I want to be able to go out and play my game and not have any worries out there.

"From some standpoints, I feel like I'm ready to play. But I've just got to be patient with it and make sure you're 100 percent before you get back out there in the game."

* Steen status quo -- Alex Steen, who has also seen lingering effects of concussion symptoms, is still listed as day-to-day after another hard practice with the team Monday.

Steen, who has missed 13 games and has not played since Dec. 27 in Detroit, was not forthcoming as to when he feels he can return.

"There's nothing really to say about it," he said. "You get off the ice and right now, you just wait and see how you feel. ... I'm not going to diagnose myself every minute of practice or every minute of the day. If I'm doing that, I'm not ready to go. When I'm ready to go, I won't be thinking about it. I'm just going to let it take it's time."

Steen returned to his hometown of Winnipeg to visit family and friends during the all-star break and said it was good therapy.

"It's good to give the body a rest, especially the last little while, I was kind of stressing myself to get back (into the lineup)," Steen said. "There's no games going on, so it was a little easier to relax and give my head a break."

* Huskins closer to return -- Lost in all the injury hubbub recently for the Blues has been the ankle injury of defenseman Kent Huskins, who has missed 39 games after breaking a bone blocking a shot on Oct. 28 in Calgary.

Huskins, signed to a one-year contract over the summer to give the Blues veteran stability on their blue line, also participated in Monday's hard workout and was feeling good about it afterwards.

"I'm glad to be back practicing," Huskins said. "I feel like I'm getting up to speed finally. I'm just expecting (the ankle) to get better every day and see where it goes.

"Today was the first day I wasn't really thinking about it. That's a good thing. You don't want to be distracted at all thinking about that and being tentative."

Huskins said there's no reason to try and even pinpoint a return date. Working the ankle in a game would be the ultimate test but it's not known when that will happen.

"It's tough to say not being in a game," Huskins said. "Practices are one thing. We have a high tempo out there, but it's not a game. Until I get in that situation, it's tough to know. But it's feeling a lot better."

* Halak/Elliott to split games -- Hitchcock would not name a starting goalie for Friday's home game against the Los Angeles Kings, but the veteran coach did say that both would get plenty of work. He just hasn't made up his mind yet.

The Blues will play Friday at home and then an important Central Division game Saturday night in Nashville. They will begin Friday a stretch of 10 games in 17 days.

"I want to see where Elliott's at and where Halak's at," Hitchcock said. "I would say in the next four games, they're both probably going to play some hockey here."

Elliott, the Blues' lone all-star, was excused from Monday's practice but will be back on the ice Tuesday.

* Nichol update -- Veteran center Scott Nichol abruptly left the ice about midway through Monday's skate. He departed the rink area with trainer Ray Barile and an injury of some sort was speculated.

But the 37-year-old was whisked away because of a family emergency, according to Hitchcock, who did not elaborate.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Elliott turns two-way contract into all-star selection

Netminder parlays stellar season into
being selected to play among league's best

ST. LOUIS -- Brian Elliott suited up as the backup to Jaroslav Halak on Oct. 1, the Blues' final preseason game. He had no idea if it would be his final time pulling on the same jersey again.

Elliott was in competition with Ben Bishop as to who would be the choice to be Halak's backup a week later for the season-opener.

But when the Blues lost 4-0 to the Dallas Stars on that final day of the preseason and Halak had another rough outing, the Blues quickly made the choice of going with Elliott.

The team was quietly concerned with Halak's camp and preseason performance, so they opted with the more experienced Elliott in case Halak's play carried into the regular season even though Elliott and Bishop were basically coming down the stretch dead even.

Halak did struggle early, and Elliott was there as the perfect backbone, but what has transpired over nearly fourth months, nobody could have predicted. Elliott, 26, not only has been the perfect backup, but he has also been the perfect No. 1, or in the Blues' case, the perfect 1b.
(Getty Images)
Brian Elliott went to fighting for a backup job to earning an all-star bid.

Elliott has put up sparkling numbers, going 15-5-2 with a 1.69 goals-against average and .938 save percentage with five shutouts. He was the NHL leader for a good portion of the season in GAA, save percentage and was on equal footing in shutouts.

The Blues are having a resurgence of their own, and Elliott is the team's lone representative after being selected to play in the All-Star Game this weekend in Ottawa, the team that originally drafted him in 2003.

"It's definitely something you don't picture," Elliott said. "It's an honor to be selected. It's not something you put as a goal, but when it happens, it's pretty cool. You can't really put too much thought into it. ... When it comes time to the break, then that's the time to soak it in and enjoy it."

What makes this even more remarkable is that Elliott, coming off his worst season statistic-wise when he was 15-27-9 for the Senators and then Colorado after being traded for Craig Anderson, didn't even know where or when he'd land on his feet with another contract this past summer.

He was given a chance with the Blues, who signed Elliott to a one-year, two-way contract worth what now is a bargain price of $600,000 that he's since parlayed into a two-year, $3.6-million extension signed last week.

"It's kind of a feel-good story to be honest with you," said Blues coach Ken Hitchcock. "... He's still on a two-way contract, he's made the best of a situation where there wasn't a lot of guarantees in training camp. I just think if you're a young hockey fan or young hockey player, this just gives you real good confidence that if you stay with it and you keep battling and you keep focusing and you're willing to look your weaknesses and your strengths right in the eye, good things can happen. Brian was a talented guy that kind of got off the rails and put himself back on the rails. Anybody in hockey's proud of it; probably anybody in sports is proud to have a guy come from that far back. We're all proud for him."

It'll be Elliott's first All-Star appearance and one he savors going back to Ottawa, particularly seeing former teammates, friends and fellow All-Stars Daniel Alfredsson, Jason Spezza, Erik Karlsson and Milan Michalek.

"It's definitely weird. It's gonna be cold up there. I know that for sure," Elliott said with a smile last week. "I've got a lot of friends there and obviously they got four guys being selected there. It'll be good to hang out with them again. I'm looking forward to that."

Teammate David Backes, the Blues' lone All-Star a season ago, agreed that the experience will be something worth cherishing.

"Ells is very deserving and he'll have a great time in a place that he's played before," Backes said.

Elliott, who won a career-high 29 games for the Senators his second season in 2009-10, dropped to 15 wins a season ago and his GAA jumped up to 3.34 after it was 2.57. Many goalies would have a tough time finding their way back to excellence, but the Newmarket, Ontario native Elliott said it's all about living in the present and future.
(Getty Images)
Brian Elliott is 15-5-2 with a 1.69 goals-against average and .938 save
percentage in his first season with the Blues.

"Right at the end of the season, I think you just have to put last year's experience in your back pocket and learn from it and know you've got a place in your career for a reason," Elliott said. "You just have to try to get back to that place and gain from it.

"... Just trying to stay relaxed and stay focused and not let any outside things bother me. Sometimes you start thinking too much and that's when things go wrong. You just kind of have to keep it simple out there, let the game come to you and obviously the guys playing in front of me and scoring big goals, that helps a lot, too."

Hitchcock, who's coached a few All-Star type goalies in his tenure, including one of Elliott's idols growing up (Ed Belfour), said simplifying things is what's gotten Elliott back on top of the platform.

"He's a perfect example of looking and by overworking, he created holes in his game and pucks were going through him and around him because he was trying to scramble to a position rather than be in position," Hitchcock said. "He's a great example of using his size to his advantage. He's a 6-foot-3 guy, he's a big guy and he just lessens his movement and made himself more compact so he's in position to make the save rather than scrambling over there trying to make an acrobatic save.

"It's just another one of those good examples about learning to play the position. A more conservative approach ended up using his size to his advantage."

Elliott, not expecting the All-Star nod, was planning on spending the time off at his home in Wisconsin relaxing with wife Amanda. Those plans have been obviously altered, and he doesn't mind.

"I wasn't going on a beach vacation or anything like that," Elliott joked. "I was going to some cold weather anyway. Why not make it a little colder?"

Instead of relaxation, he'll have to settle for taking part in the game Sunday and Saturday's Skills Competition.

"I don't know. I'm definitely not the fastest skater that's for sure," Elliott said laughing. "I think they'll throw me in there somewhere. All goalies get thrown in. Some of the guys have crazy moves. Maybe you have to throw out a crazy save selection to top them.

"I'm happy to represent the Blues there, and I think it will be an awesome experience and I'm gonna soak it in as much as I can."

Elliott may very well be the favorite for Comeback Player of the Year, but according to his coach, this pace is no fluke.

"He was able to find his game," Hitchcock said. "He looked at things, he came back with a new focus and changed some of the things that needed to get changed and he's been good since.

"I think it's another example of when a guy wins ... he won in college, he won in the American (Hockey) League. There's a reason a guy wins. It isn't an accident."

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Strong first half has Blues positioned well

Team has room to grow, 20 of final 33 games away from home

ST. LOUIS -- After the Blues drained everything they had physically, emotionally and mentally into a 3-2 shootout loss to Pittsburgh Tuesday night, players, coaches and even management were all looking forward to some rest and relaxation.

A number of them scattered around the country, some even left the country to recharge and refresh the batteries and some chose to remain in St. Louis to allow the mind and body to heal because the Blues, who are 29-13-7 and just two points behind NHL-leader Detroit for No. 1 overall, will have a daunting task of trying to keep pace with the impressive numbers they've put up so far.

We're going to have some real battles, and if we want to be a good team, we're going to have to grow from our last two games because we're there, but if we want to beat these teams and we want to be a top team, we've got to grow," said Blues coach Ken Hitchcock, who's 23-6-7 since taking over for Davis Payne on Nov. 6.
(Getty Images)
Goalie Brian Elliott helped the Blues get off to their blazing start with
stellar play in goal, which led to an all-star berth.

The Blues will have huge challenges when they reconvene from break, playing 20 of their final 33 games away from the friendly confines of Scottrade Center, where they've compiled the most wins in the NHL at 21-3-4. Many of those battles will come against the teams they will have to jockey with for Western Conference supremacy.

Which prompted Hitchcock to proclaim, "... We're as good or better than 22 teams in the league, but there's eight out there, they're big-time teams ... big-time teams, and we get 'em, and we get lots of them and we get them in their building."

But looking back, it's hard not to notice how the Blues positioned themselves to not only be among the West's top eight and be a playoff team but be a legitimate playoff contender. Goaltending has been at the forefront for most, if not all, of the 49 games this season, with all-star Brian Elliott (15-5-2, 1.69 goals-against average and .938 save percentage) coming out of nowhere after signing a one-year, two-way contract. No. 1 goalie Jaroslav Halak got off to a horrendous start at 1-6 with a 3.53 GAA and .835 save percentage but has since gone 13-2-5. He's 14-8-5 on the season with a 2.04 GAA and .918 save percentage. The duo has combined for an NHL-best nine shutouts (Elliott has five of them).

The Blues have been stout on defense as well, contributing to their conference-low 102 goals allowed through 49 games, which is tied with Boston for second-fewest behind the New York Rangers' 96 (with the Rangers playing two fewer games).

"We've proved it game-to-game, week-to-week all season long," captain David Backes said. "We're in a spot where we'd like to end the season. We just need to make sure that we don't have any drop-offs. Teams like Pittsburgh, teams like Detroit, like Chicago -- teams that are in the playoffs consistently -- after the All-Star break, they ramp it up. We need to not just match that but ramp it up ourselves and push ourselves to separate from the teams below us and hunt some of those teams above us."

When the Blues broke camp at the start of the season, many of them had visions of where they could be at this point. Now that it's here, do they take it with open arms?

"Absolutely," Backes said. "There's nothing to be ashamed of where we're at. We've put together a lot of hard work and a lot of work in practice and a lot of character in games to get to where we're at. We're proud of it.
(Getty Images)
David Backes (42) has been one of the Blues' top
players this season.

"It would be great to have Steener (Alex Steen) and Andy Mac (Andy McDonald) back to give us more punch on the offensive side from the forwards. I think with those guys back, we've got three pretty daunting scoring lines and a fourth line that no one wants to play against. It would be great to have those guys back but if they're not, we still need guys to step up and fill holes. We've been getting by with some of these guys we've either called up or filling in roles that would be maybe watching some games."

The play of Backes, T.J. Oshie, Alex Pietrangelo, Kevin Shattenkirk, David Perron to name a few have elevated the expectations that make the Blues a conference contender. Veterans Jason Arnott and Jamie Langenbrunner have played the experienced roles to perfection. However, there are areas that will need some attention. Namely special teams play and the record away from home (8-10-3).

"I think for us looking back at things, the one thing we've got to fix is the power play," said Hitchcock, whose team is 28th in the NHL at 13.4 percent. "... Our power play could have won both of these games (against Detroit and Pittsburgh) for us. We were in a perfect position to do it. We've got to fix it.

"Coming back from the break, we've got to decide which way we're going to go because the personnel we've got on the power play, the design that we're playing, we've got one unit kind of working. If that unit gets shut down, then we've got nothing else coming. So we've got to fix that. We've got to do a few things cleaning up penalty killing (19th in the league at 81.7 percent) and keep pushing forward 5-on-5."

What makes the Blues' first 49 games pretty remarkable is that they've been able to produce victories with only one all-star (Elliott). And coming from a coach that has 500-plus wins and a Stanley Cup to his resume, Hitchcock foresees a promising future.

"... I think our team has as much or more potential to grow from within than any team in the West," Hitchcock said. "We're young, we've got young players playing prime minutes, chance to get better, but boy we're going to really have to amp it up here when we get back. That's what we told the players: take a good break but man, when we come back, we're going to really have the temperature turned up to get better. We're going to really be hunting to get to another level here because there's a whole other level. You watch these veteran teams that have been through this war before, they're going to go to a whole other level here, and we're going to have to find a way to climb into that level."

In the meantime, players will rest up, freshen up, enjoy some fun in the sun and come back ready to tackle the stretch run.

"I think we've had a really good push so far," center Patrik Berglund said. "We're in a good place in the league. It's going to be really nice to relax for a couple days and come away from the hockey a little bit. It's going to be good for us."

Added Oshie: "I think the break's well-needed. Some guys are a little banged up. The rest is going to be huge, especially with our schedule coming up and how many road games we have, going coast-to-coast, I think we've got a 16-day road trip.

"The break's going to be good, but we're definitely excited to get back where we're at right now at this point in the season. We'll definitely take it. We want to be better, but we'll take it and we'll be ready to go after the break."

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Blues battle back, fall in shootout to Penguins

Berglund's two goals gain at least a point;
St. Louis heads into All-Star break in good shape

ST. LOUIS -- When the Blues fell behind by two goals Tuesday night, would the response be a thud like Monday night in Detroit or would they respond only like Ken Hitchcock's teams have done throughout this first half of the season?

Even though the Blues weren't able to grab that second point it arguably deserved in a 3-2 shootout loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins Tuesday night at Scottrade Center, they were able to keep from going into a prolonged break with two bad losses to linger.

Kunitz scored in the fourth round after the Blues' Alex Pietrangelo did not convert for the Blues as the Penguins took a victory against one of the NHL's hottest teams on its home ice.
(Getty Images)
Blues winger Scott Nichol gets a shot off on Penguins goalie Marc-Andre
Fleury Tuesday night.

The Blues (29-13-7) fell behind 2-0 midway through the game against a quality team in Pittsburgh (28-17-4) that has now won seven in a row after dropping six straight. But they got their game going on two Patrik Berglund goals, including a shorthanded penalty shot goal that tied the game 2-all and brought life into the 18,471 in the building.

"What we can take away from this is the way that we raised our level as the game went on," winger T.J. Oshie said. "(Monday) night against Detroit, that's where we fell down. That's where we struggled. They kicked it up in the second period and third period and we didn't respond. I think tonight, we were that team. We were the team that was kicking it in."

The Blues did kick it in. They got some close-range chances, especially late in the third period and in the overtime, but Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury literally stole a point from the Blues and hoisted it on his back.

Fleury, playing in his 22nd straight game (20 of them as a starter), stoned Berglund, David Backes and Vladmir Sobotka from in tight on redirections that would have ended the game.

"It was a great pass by Perry," Backes said of David Perron. "I'm backdoor and I get a lot of wood on it. (Fleury's) just go-go gadget leg all the way to that post ... another good save.

"I wish I could have got it right under the bar, but those bang-bang plays are tough. We had a few other chances in overtime that don't go our way."

The game went to a shootout and Kunitz lifted a backhand shot high over the glove of Brian Elliott, who made 37 saves, as the Penguins won the shootout by a 2-1 margin.

"Its something I used to do a little bit and I kind of got away from it," Kunitz said of the shootout. "(Elliott) is a goalie who is trying to challenge quite a bit and I tried to make a move."

Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said in his postgame interview that Fleury "made five 10-Bell saves to keep the game (tied). Otherwise, we've got it salted away.

"We had a little bit of a soft spot there when they went up 2-0," Hitchcock said. "We weren't very good, but then we started to really ramp it up."

Evgeni Malkin scored for the Penguins in the shootout, but Oshie evened things up for the Blues in Round 3 before Kunitz -- who is now 11-for-29 lifetime in the shootout -- won it for Pittsburgh.

"It's something I thought about and it worked out," Kunitz said. "It feels nice and hopefully there's more of them to come."

The Blues were coming off a 3-1 loss Monday to the Red Wings, a game that saw the Western Conference's top spot up for grabs. The Wings took it, and the Blues had to turn it around and play their fourth game in six nights. But even after falling behind, the Blues were able to take the game over and evening it out before nearly pulling it off if not for the theatrics of Fleury, who stopped 32 shots.

"It wasn't too technical but they didn't go in and I'm happy with it," Fleury said. "It feels good definitely because just before that, we had a tough stretch with six losses in a row. To be able to battle through that and come back and with these seven wins, they're huge. It gives us a better position in the standings also and we can relax a little more, a little better."

Berglund scored twice for the Blues, the fourth two-goal game of his career. Elliott was strong in his first game since Jan. 12 as the Blues earned a point in 16 straight home games, going 13-0-3. They're not 21-3-4 on home ice and 9-0-2 against the Eastern Conference.
(Getty Images)
Blues defenseman Roman Polak (right) hauls down Pittsburgh's Chris
Kunitz during Tuesday's game at Scottrade Center.

"We had to work for it," Backes said. "... Fleury's a pretty good goalie. They're a team that's got some resiliency as well and that's why they're in the playoffs every year."

Down 2-1, Berglund was hooked at on a break-in by Kris Letang and awarded a shorthanded penalty shot 5:04 into the third. Berglund curled to the right, froze Fleury and snapped a shot to the stick side for a 2-2 game. The last Blues' successful penalty shot came on Dec. 18, 2010 by David Backes against San Jose's Antero Niittymaki.

"It gave us a lot of energy," Berglund said. "We had a lot of good scoring chances, but I still think we're struggling a little bit with burying our chances because I think we got plenty of them. That's an element that we've got to work on."

The Penguins broke through when Neal snapped a shot from the left circle through Elliott's left side after a backhand feed from Paul Martin 3:26 into the second period. It was a power-play goal that was Neal's 100th goal of his career after David Backes was called for pulling down Malkin. It was also Neal's 11th point in the last seven games (six goals, five assists).

Sullivan, who scored his 23rd career goal against the Blues and 51st point of his career against St. Louis, was able to somehow bat in a puck past Elliott after Deryk Engelland's shot deflected off the skate of Carlo Colaiacovo, Colaiacovo then batted the puck away from his net but Sullivan caught it in the right spot and got enough to put it back on goal and in12:16 into the second.

The Blues got back to within 2-1 on Berglund's 11th of the season and first in eight games. The Penguins turned the puck over at center ice, and Stewart was able to saucer a tight feed to Berglund, who deked Fleury and slammed home a forehand with 4:44 left in the second. It broke a streak of 86:04 minutes without a goal.

Both teams go into the break now before reconvening next week. Both teams look like solid choices to be primed for playoff berths.

"Just to be able to relax a little bit and be re-energized and come back after (the break) will be good," Fleury said.

"This one's good (to go into the break on)," Hitchcock said. "... When we scored our (first) goal there, we really started to ramp it up. It was a hard game. They're sitting here rested, great hockey team and to play like we did ... pretty impressive."

The Blues ended January with an 8-1-2 mark, which is quite in contrast with last year's 2-8-2 January that threw the Blues right out of the Western Conference's top eight.

"It was a helluva point, a helluva hockey game," Hitchcock said. "We had everything there for us at the end of the third ... all the chances, all the chances in overtime to win it. ... We were on the hunt the whole third period. This one's good."

(1-24-12) Penguins-Blues Gameday Lineup

ST. LOUIS -- Playing their fourth game in six nights, the Blues haven't gotten any free passes heading into the All-Star break.

After a playoff-type intensity for 60 minutes in a 3-1 loss at Detroit Monday, the Blues jumped on a plane and headed back home, where they have the red-hot Pittsburgh Penguins awaiting for tonight's matchup at Scottrade Center.

The Penguins (27-17-4) have reeled off six wins in a row after dropping six. In the six games they've won, the Pens have picked it up offensively with 25 goals. They scored only six in the previous six losses in a row.

"Pittsburgh's playing really well," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said. "They've got the good winning feeling going. We're in the same position when we went into Pittsburgh. We played very well there, so if we can duplicate the game there we played in Pitt, it'll be really good for us. That was a jumping off point for us. We really took the ball from there and played well for about a month. That's what we want to do is keep building on the good things we're doing and address some of the things we need to get better in."

The Blues won 3-2 in overtime on Nov. 23, which was Sidney Crosby's second game back from a concussion, on an overtime goal by Alex Pietrangelo. It started a string of four straight wins for the Blues and the Penguins remember it quite well.

"They're a formidable challenge," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said of the Blues. "They play a physical, aggressive game. They have been tough to score against, they haven't given up a lot of goals, they've gotten good goaltending and they're a team that takes the attack to the other team as well quickly and with aggression. They're playing well on the road and at home."

The Blues (29-13-6) went on a 9-1-2 run starting with the win over the Penguins, a game they used as a building block to what Hitchcock is trying to preach to his squad.

"We want to do the things they do," Hitchcock said of the Penguins. "They're one of the best north-south teams in the league. They have been for four years now. We want to learn to play that way. It's a hard way to play, it's very demanding but very successful.

"We played that way for the most part against Pitt and were very successful. It helps selling it down the line in other games. We were able to use that game for over a month as a reference point that this is how you have to play to win hockey games in the league now."

The Blues will have the challenge of facing the scorching hot Evgeni Malkin, who leads the NHL with 58 points (26 goals, 32 assists) in 41 games.

Malkin has 15 points in nine games coming into tonight, and combined with James Neal's 26 goals and 20 assists, the Penguins will throw a lot at the Blues' top line, led by captain David Backes.

"I think when you play against teams who are good offensively, they challenge you defensively," Hitchcock said. "They're a little different opponent. They play a different way, but it'll be a good challenge for us."

- - -

The Blues' loss at Detroit marks their third and final time playing at Joe Louis Arena this season. They went 0-3 there, and all three losses are the Blues' only regulation losses in their last 15 games (10-3-2).

"They dialed up their ability to play defense and didn't give us much and created a lot on the transition," Backes said of the Western Conference-leading Red Wings. "Rather than having a good response to it and staying with our game, putting pucks in and going on the forecheck, we kind of tried to play a finesse game and tried to play an easier game. You can't respond that way or else they take advantage. They create a lot of penalties and capitalized on a lot of their chances."

Hitchcock agreed.

"They don't dial up their skill, they dial up their checking," Hitchcock said of the Red Wings. "They dial up the checking and they pushed a few of our guys out. Lessons learned.

"We're a young team trying to learn to win. We're getting closer and closer. There's going to come a time when we're going to beat them, whether it's in a series or whatever, we're going to end up beating them. But we're going to have to learn the lessons. ... All the games were very similar. We had an advantage early, they had the advantage late and they ended up beating us. The same thing happened here, too. They had the advantage early in both games here and then we took it over. They're up 3-2 in the series, but it's their checking that dialed it up yesterday. They pushed us out from that aspect and got some guys discouraged. We dealt with it today and it's going to make us better moving forward."

- - -

The game against Detroit changed for the Blues on Brad Stuart's check late in the first period on Pietrangelo.

The Blues were leading 1-0 at the time and the jolt along the right boards seemed to spark the Wings. They went on to score twice in the second and late in the third.

The Blues' Chris Stewart took exception to Stuart's hit, came off the bench on a line change and challenged Stuart. Stewart went on to drop Stuart in a fight but got 17 minutes in penalties, including an instigator penalty that led to Pavel Datsyuk's game-tying power play goal.

Still, the Blues had no issues with Stewart sticking up for a teammate.

"I loved it. No problem," Hitchcock said. "... What he did was a teammate's response. No issue."

Backes added: "We need to be able to kill off that penalty and pick a guy up. Maybe he took an extra penalty, but he stood up for a teammate. We're going to stick together and go through the battles together. He gets a lot of respect and admiration from our team; we don't think that was a poor play at all."

- - -

Tonight's game for Penguins center Joe Vitale isn't just a run of the mill hockey game. It's a chance to play at home.

Vitale, from nearby Sunset Hills, Mo., will make his forst appearance on Scottrade Center ice since his senior year in high school, when he helped CBC High School knock off De Smet in the Missouri Mid-States State Championship game in 2004.

"I had some good memories here when I was a kid and playing two periods at Blues games," said Vitale, who has two goals and nine points in 41 games this season. "I obviously played in playoff state championships here. To play here and come back and play (against) the Blues, it's pretty crazy, but I'm pretty sure it'll sink in sometime later this week when I'm on break."

Vitale will have a plethora of family and friends in attendance, to which he said: "I lost count. They got about three boxes. I let them have at it with that. People keep asking for tickets, but I finally had to shut my phone off. It's gameday and I'm trying to focus now."

His dad helped him in that aspect, but he's just glad to see a dream come true for a local kid.

"Twenty years ago, this wasn't really a hockey hotbed," said Vitale, who played most of his youth hockey at the local Affton Ice Rink. "So the expectations were pretty low. I was just kind of out there having fun. So it's definitely exciting being out there.

"I glanced at (the schedule), but I was hopeful that I would be here. Around Christmas time, I thought I had a shot to play here. I really started getting excited then."

Vitale's teammates know the feeling.

"It's a great thing to have your family, siblings in the stands and all your friends you grew up with," defenseman Kris Letang said. "To have them get the chance to see you play live, it's pretty amazing that he has a chance to do that.

"I'm from Montreal, so when we play in Montreal, there's always a little something about it because I grew up watching them play. It's always special to play in your hometown."

- - -

The Penguins continue to try to give daily updates on Crosby, but Bylsma said Tuesday that he's in California after visiting with Dr. Robert S. Bray, a neurological spine specialst, to continue to treat the lingering effects of concussion-like symptoms, which has forced Crosby to miss his 21st straight game tonight after playing in eight upon his return.

"Not a timetable because it's possible he could stay there for a little bit of a break as well," Bylsma said of Crosby. "Not a definitive day back in Pittsburgh because he'll be staying on the beach for a little bit."

Crosby first went to Atlanta to pay a visit to Ted Carrick, the chiropractic Neurologist who treated the 2009 NHL MVP for his concussion symptoms last summer.

- - -

The Blues' probable lineup for tonight:

David Perron-David Backes-T.J. Oshie

Vladimir Sobotka-Patrik Berglund-Matt D'Agostini

Jamie Langenbrunner-Jason Arnott-Chris Stewart

B.J. Crombeen-Scott Nichol-Ryan Reaves

Carlo Colaiacovo-Alex Pietrangelo

Barret Jackman-Kevin Shattenkirk

Kris Russell-Roman Polak

Brian Elliott will get his first start since Jan. 12. Jaroslav Halak, who played the previous five games, will back up tonight.

The Blues' inactives include forward Andy McDonald (concussion), winger Alex Steen (concussion symptoms) and defenseman Kent Huskins (ankle). Defenseman Ian Cole was assigned to Peoria Tuesday afternoon. Winger Chris Porter is a healthy scratch.

- - -

The Penguins' probable lineup:

Chris Kunitz-Evgeni Malkin-James Neal

Pascal Dupuis-Dustin Jeffrey-Tyler Kennedy

Matt Cooke-Richard Park-Steve Sullivan

Craig Adams-Joe Vitale-Eric Tangradi

Brooks Orpik-Kris Letang

Paul Martin-Zbynek Michalek

Matt Niskanen-Deryk Engelland

Marc-Andre Fleury will get the start; former Blue Brent Johnson is the backup.

The Penguins' inactives include Crosby (concussion symptoms), winger Arron Asham (concussion), center Jordan Staal (knee) and defenseman Simon Despres (knee). Defenseman Ben Lovejoy and winger Steve MacIntyre are expected to be healthy scratches.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Backes leads charge, helps Blues double up Sabres 4-2

Captain ties career-high with four-point night, wins Weenie of the Game award

ST. LOUIS -- After a four-point night, David Backes was sporting a brand new item that he and his teammates had recently cooked up.

Most teams have a player of the game award that is typically represented by a hard hat. But for the surging Blues, nothing like a good old-fashioned weenie in a bun to bring out a player's best.

Backes earned the Weenie of the Game award with a four-point night as the Blues doubled up the reeling Buffalo Sabres 4-2 Saturday night at Scottrade Center.

Backes scored a pair of third-period goals and assisted on two others but was more than happy to be interviewed wearing the biggest hot dog he can find on his noggin.

And he was jokingly not amused to hear other players hadn't been wearing it.

"I thought other guys were wearing these for interviews ... I guess not," Backes joked. "Some of our heart-and-soul guys came up with it. Instead of a hard hat, we get the weenie on our head."

(Getty Images)
The Blues' Jason Arnott (left) battles with Buffalo's Marc-Andre Gragnani
during Saturday's game at Scottrade Center.
Knowing that the Sabres were talented and capable enough to snap their road woes, the Blues turned to their captain to make sure that never materialized.

The Blues made sure a reeling road team didn't come into their house and steal a win.

Even after taking a spill in the first period that had 19,150 spectators silent and on the edge of their feet, Backes' four-point night matched his career high, the third time he's had such a night.

"We had a lot of good players today, led by our captain," marveled Blues coach Ken Hitchcock, whose team jumped into fourth place in the Western Conference, one point behind Detroit. "I thought our captain and that line (with David Perron and T.J. Oshie) really led us.

"David came back just like a bear and really went to work there. He was a major reason we won the hockey game today. Not just points-wise but disposition on the ice, intensity. I thought he really dragged us into the fight."

Backes' power play goal 11:35 into the third period gave the Blues the separation they needed, pushing a one-goal lead to 3-1 and the stingiest team in the Western Conference was able to thwart off any rally by the Sabres, who fell to 19-24-5 and continued a franchise-worst 12th straight road defeat.

"I get credit for the goal, but I just move it about three inches," Backes said. "Osh is in front of the net taking some abuse. Petro gets the shot through, the goalie never sees it and it's sitting on the goal line for me. Those guys deserve more credit than I do on that one. Our power play comes through when we need it. Critical game at home, we need to get two points and we were able to do that.

"I wasn't feeling too great (after being tripped by Marc-Andre Gragnani), but the training staff does a good job of putting Humpty Dumpty back together again. Thankfully my full speed isn't that fast."

Alex Pietrangelo extended his personal best points streak to nine games with a two assists and Oshie had two assists that fueled a comeback for the Blues.

B.J. Crombeen scored his first goal of the season, Perron scored and Jaroslav Halak improved to 11-0-3 in his last 14 starts by stopping 19 shots as the Blues (29-12-6) improved to an NHL-best 21-3-3 on home ice and 13-0-2 in the last 15 here.

"Tonight wasn't pretty, but we got it done and we got two points," said Halak, who is now 14-7-5 on the season after starting 1-6. "Sometimes I need to make big saves, but tonight, guys scored huge goals for me. That's why we got a win.

"Even though we gave up the late goal in the third period, we were still in control. We got the fourth one ... that was a nice play by Backes."

The Blues are 8-0-1 in January and 9-0-1 against Eastern Conference foes, the only NHL team without a regulation loss against the opposite conference.

St. Louis is also now 22-0-0 on the season when scoring three goals or more on the season, 26-0-1 dating back to March 19 of last season. They're 20-1-1 when leading after two periods.

The Sabres got a goal and an assist from Tyler Myers. Mike Weber added his first goal. Ryan Miller stopped 23 shots but fell to 0-10-0 during this road losing streak. However, he kept his team in this game with several key saves, particularly in the third period.

"It kind of got away from us in the second period," Miller said. "We didn’t do some of the things we needed to do. It turned into a period that gave them back the edge."

Weber's first goal of the season gave the Sabres a 1-0 lead off a shot from the left circle, beating Halak on the short side at 16:13 of the opening period. The goal ended Halak's shutout streak at 164:38, which is a personal best. His previous best was 160:08, set in October 2010.

"I'm not here to make any (team or individual) records," Halak said. "We're here to get two points and get the wins."

Halak, who won the Weenie of the Game award after his 1-0 shutout of Dallas Monday and has now won a personal best seven straight games, on why he didn't sport it.

"It's beautiful but come on! I'm better than that," he quipped.

The Sabres missed out on a pair of close-in chances, both off of plays by Nathan Gerbe. One off a pass and another where the diminutive winger missed an empty side. It's been that kind of theme for the Sabres as of late.

"I'll take full responsibility," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. "It’s not acceptable."

Trailing after one period is uncharted territory for the Blues. It's only the ninth time in 48 games they trailed after one period.

"Our first period wasn't what we wanted," Crombeen said. "We didn't really come out, we didn't play our game."

The Blues did gain their edge back in the second period on goals by Crombeen and Perron. The fourth line led the charge.

"It's something we've talked about a lot," Crombeen said. "We feel that we can usually get the puck down there and grind it down, try to create some momentum and stuff like that and obviously the different things we try to do to help out. Any time you can kick in with a goal, it's obviously a big help. It's something we want to be able to do more and more of."

Crombeen took a terrific cross-ice feed from Backes and snapped a shot past Miller 7:45 into the period to tie the game 1-1. It was Crombeen's first goal since March 30, 2011 against Detroit.

"I don't know if I'd go that far," Crombeen joked when told he almost looked like a natural sniper on the play. "It was a pretty nice play by Backs and I had some time, was able to get it by (Miller), so I'll take it."

What he didn't get was the weenie hat, though.

"I was saying this might be my only chance," Crombeen joked. "I just want to make sure that thing gets lots of air time. That's all I'm worried about."
Blues captain David Backes talks to the media wearing his Weenie of the
Game award after a four-point night against Buffalo Saturday.

The Blues gained a 2-1 lead when Perron kept a puck in the Buffalo zone, got it to Oshie, and Oshie curled around the net and fired a wrister from the left circle that hit Perron in front with 6:47 left in the second.

"The first period was really a track meet," Hitchcock said. "Both teams just racing up and down the ice. They had a lot of odd-man rushes, we had odd-man rushes. We don't operate that well in that atmosphere.

"I thought we really toned it down and really played well in the second period. The second period was a really good period for us. We checked the puck back, we made some changes in things we needed to do offensively. I thought we did really well. ... I was happy with the way we grabbed the game in the second period."

The Blues had to kill off the final 3:54 of the game when Oshie got a cross checking penalty and had two minutes for unsportsmanlike conduct added on.

Myers made it 3-2 with 59.7 seconds left when his snap shot from the left circle through traffic beat Halak to the far post. Backes' empty-netter with 34.9 remaining sealed the Blues' win.

"We had a few great chances that we didn't bury, but in the end, we know that we can't try and change our game to be a run-and-gun, turn-and-burn, let's have a track race kind of game ... that's just not the way we are," Backes said. "We need to play hard and win battles and wear on teams. When we do that, we stick to our game, and good things happen."

Bishop ready for whatever future holds

Peoria netminder, having banner season,
becomes a Group VI UFA; Blues likely to trade him

ST. LOUIS -- Ben Bishop sees the writing on the wall.

A local kid who would love to fulfill a dream of playing for his hometown team has suddenly slipped away.

Bishop, who was able to don a Blues uniform for 13 games -- he's 4-5-1 in his career over two seasons with a 2.83 goals-against average and .896 save percentage -- likely has seen his last days in a Bluenote, thanks to the play of Brian Elliott.

Elliott and Bishop battled through training camp for the right to win the backup job behind Jaroslav Halak. Elliott, 26, won the battle and a disappointed Bishop was asked to go back to Peoria and the American Hockey League and continue to develop and build on his growth.

(Getty Images)
Ben Bishop can expect to be traded before the Feb. 27 trade
deadline after the Blues gave Brian Elliott a contract extension.
"It was definitely some sobering news, getting sent down like that," Bishop said. "But I just wanted to come down and show all 30 teams in the NHL that I was ready to play. We have a good team down here in Peoria and I was able to get off to a great start and hopefully just keep it going for the rest of the year."

But Elliott, who is 15-5-1 with a 1.68 GAA and .937 save percentage, has performed better than anyone could imagine.

The Blues rewarded Elliott with a two-year extension Wednesday, signaling that Bishop will more than likely be shopped leading into the Feb. 27 trade deadline.

"Yeah, there's obviously some writing on the wall, but at the same time, you never know what can happen," Bishop said. "If I end up getting traded, I end up getting traded. But you never know what could happen in St. Louis. I could be up there tomorrow, so you just have to get ready for all situations and not really look into it too much."

Bishop has raised eyebrows with his play in Peoria. He was 17-9-2 with a 2.30 GAA and .928 save percentage going into Saturday's game. But unless something unforeseen happens, Bishop will become an unrestricted free agent this summer. Had Bishop played with the Blues 17 games of 30-plus minutes this season, the Blues would have kept his restricted free agency rights. That doesn't look like it will happen -- unless the Blues lose one of their goalies to injury -- so Bishop will become a Group VI unrestricted free agent, which applies to players who have reached the age of 25, who have three accrued years of professional experience and whose contract expires but have played less than 28 NHL games as a goaltender.

Bishop has 13 games as a pro but 11 of them with 30-plus minutes.

There is no way the Blues allow Bishop to walk for nothing.

Bishop, a third round pick (85th overall) in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft, got some good news Saturday when the AHL selected him to the Western Conference All-Star team.

"It was definitely exciting news," Bishop said. "That should be a lot of fun to go up to Atlantic City and represent the Rivermen and the Blues' organization ... it'll be an honor.

"I feel like I'm playing the best I've ever played. I think the experience in the American League has definitely helped. You always say you're ready for the NHL, but I think the years down in Peoria really helped me out. So hopefully I can take that to the next level and produce at the NHL level."

Elliott's contract will lock he and Halak up for the next two years and just like the old comedy sitcom says: Three's Company. But Bishop has no animosity towards Elliott.

"Yeah, it was definitely a little tough to see that news, but he deserves it," Bishop said. "He's having a great year, he's putting up great numbers. It's a well-deserving contract, so you can't get mad at the Blues for doing anything like that.

"They want to compete and win, and they've got two guys up there right now that are probably the two best in the league, so you can't complain about that at all. My situation, I'm playing well down here, so I've just got to keep it up and focus on my team down here."

Bishop, 25, is getting looks around the league. As the deadline approaches, the Blues will no doubt be getting calls from franchises looking for a long-term solution.

"My heart's always been with the St. Louis Blues ever since I was a little kid," Bishop said. "I've always wanted to play with them. It's always been an honor to get a chance to play with them. Obviously I would like to do that in the future, but right now, I just want to show that I can play in the NHL, no matter where that is. If that's going to be with another organization, it's going to be with another organization. Right now, I'm just ready to get up there."