Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Blues surge to top, hope to stay there

Team is humbled but understands there is still a long season remaining

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- They woke up Tuesday morning sitting atop the NHL perch with two other teams, but when the Blues continue their season-long trek, it's the big picture that they'll continue to focus on.

And in order to do that, it's looking forward to the next game.

"It's so tight at the top right now," said winger T.J. Oshie, who netted the lone goal in Monday's 1-0 win over Dallas that enabled the Blues to catch Chicago and the New York Rangers for most points in the league with 60. "I think our biggest focus should be just getting ready for our next game, keep getting better each night and focusing on the little things that maybe we didn't do well last night and sharpen them up for Thursday."
(Getty Images)
Players like Alex Pietrangelo (27) and Patrik Berglund (right) are why the
Blues are at the top of the NHL.

Depending on the outcome of a number of games Tuesday night, the Blues will likely wake up Wednesday knowing they've been passed up in the never-ending merry-go-round of the NHL, where points are precious and competition is fierce. It's quite a logjam of teams near the top of the league, and the complexion will likely change from one night to the next.

But for the Blues (27-12-6), who have continued to work towards getting back to being a playoff team, they are gaining respectability around the NHL by wasting little time moving up after falling to 14th in the Western Conference at one point this season.

We've put a lot of hard work in," defenseman Barret Jackman said. "We've kind of quietly been working our way up the standings and our team's been playing great together. Nobody's been really standing out and carrying it. It's a collective effort, so it feels that much better.

"We had a lot of potential (early in the season). We just weren't putting everything together. I think everybody's picking each other up. We've been playing well as a team. ... We always find a way and that's what good teams do."

It took the Blues exactly 71 days from the day Ken Hitchcock was hired to replace Davis Payne to go from second-to-last in the conference to first. It even surprised them to an extent that it happened this quickly.

"I thought it was going to take a while," Oshie said. "We've always known we've got the guys in the locker room to do big things here. We've just now put it together as a whole. All the way through the lineup, guys are playing great."

Blues veteran Scott Nichol said earlier this season that this Blues team has superstar players on it. They just didn't realize that they're there yet ... guys like Oshie, David Perron, David Backes, Patrik Berglund, Alex Pietrangelo, among others. Maybe they're starting to get the idea.

"We've got guys that have been in the league three or four years that are core players, and they're great players," Nichol said. "Playing against them, you know they're great players. They're good players, but I don't think they know they're great yet. That's the next gear. That's where we need to push guys.

"We've got such a great attitude in here. It just seems like we win a game and then we park it the next day, win or lose. For having so much success this year at this stage, we're not full of ourselves. We're a pretty humbled bunch and we just keep a workmanlike attitude."

Which is why Hitchcock, who is 21-5-6 since his arrival, always believed the Blues had this level of play in them, even as a spectator watching from afar.
(Getty Images)
The Blues have gotten great contributions lately in goal from Jaroslav
Halak (41) and Kevin Shattenkirk (22) on defense.

"I thought that we were able to play at this level," Hitchcock said. "I saw this level in this team when I watched last year. ... The point totals are good, but when you look at things, jeez we're going to need these points because to have four teams going like this in the division is ridiculous. To be this hot with four teams, nobody's disappearing on each other. I talked to the Nashville people today. They think they can win the division the way they're playing. This is just going to be a battle to the end. Hopefully we keep playing well."

And Hitchcock's task is to get the most out of a group that be believes can still can go to another level.

"I don't look at the record, I just look at the way we play," Hitchcock said. "I just know if we play well, we'll get points. It might not come overnight. Has it come a little quicker points-wise? Sure. But the play is what I expected. I expected that the team could play at this level. We still think there's a whole other gear when we get people back ... hopefully this week."

The Blues entered Tuesday tied in the Central Division with the Blackhawks, one point in front of Detroit and four points in front of Nashville in what is arguably the best division in hockey. It's great company to be around and company they hope to be with when April rolls around.

"It's awesome to see compared to where we were five years ago," said Perron, who assisted on Oshie's goal Monday. "It's real positive obviously, but I think we're working towards the next game every time.

"It's good to be up there, but the key goal is to be up there at (the end) of the season. We just have to keep going that way."

Jackman agreed.

"There's still a lot of games to go, but everybody's been patient ... the organization, the fans and we're reaping the benefits now," Jackman said. "The fans are really behind us now. It's fun to be out in St. Louis now. People are talking hockey. It's a great feeling.

"We've got a target on our backs. We're not going to sneak up on teams the second half of the year. Everybody's stepping up their game and playing to a higher level. We have to be a team that does that as well. We can't be second-guessing ourselves. We've just got to go out there and play every night and play like we're the underdogs the rest of the year."

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