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."

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