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."

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