Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Division title, Presidents' Trophy immediate goals for Blues

With five games remaining, team in position to seal Central, top spot in NHL

ST. LOUIS -- A lot of franchise records were broken Tuesday night following the Blues' 3-0 win over the Nashville Predators.

But in light of all the accolades the Blues and their players were able to bask in after an impressive victory, including a number of marks set by goalie Brian Elliott, the immediate goals are still clear: win a division title and claim the overall top spot in the NHL. They can aid a long playoff run gaining home ice advantage, which the Blues have shown this season by winning a franchise-best 30 games (30-4-4).

The talk became something of a reality for the Blues (48-20-9) a few weeks back. But with so many games left on the schedule and a handful of teams right in the mix with them, the team didn't want to look too far ahead. But with only five games left and the Blues holding a two-point lead over the New York Rangers (105-103) overall and a four-point lead on Vancouver in the Western Conference, it's a serious reality now and one they would not want to relinquish.
(Getty Images)
Jason Arnott and the Blues have positioned themselves to win their first
division title and Presidents' Trophy since 1999-2000.

"The players are focused on it now because we've been here for a little while, we've earned it and we want to keep it," said coach Ken Hitchcock, who is 42-13-9 since taking the job on Nov. 6 and who's seen his club pitch 190:42 consecutive shutout minutes, eclipsing the previous record stretch of 184:47 in 1988-89. "From our coaches standpoint, home ice might be the littlest edge that you can get that you might need. I just think it's so competitive. ... Any time you can get home ice for one or two series or whatever is advantageous, I think."

The Blues put some separation between themselves and the Detroit Red Wings (97 points) and Predators (96). They need four points to clinch their first Central Division title since their last Presidents' Trophy-winning team in 1999-2000, when they won 51 games and collected 114 points.

"It's big, but for some reason, we haven't really looked ahead too much to say we are going to be first," said winger T.J. Oshie, who had a goal and an assist Tuesday night. "Let's just go play. We're getting better every night and that's where we want to be at the end. But we're still focused on the next-game mentality."

And that motivation comes from veterans like Jamie Langenbrunner, who scored his 58th career game-winning goal Tuesday night (third with the Blues) in his 1,100th career game.

"Our first motivation is to be playing well," Langenbrunner said. "We feel if we do that, we'll end up in the top spot.

"Obviously Vancouver's right there on our heels, Detroit and these guys (Nashville) are nipping too, but we can control it and we just want to keep playing good hockey and keep getting better. Hopefully we'll continue to get healthy and the lineup will get better and better and we'll keep moving forward."

Elliott had quite a night in goal Tuesday. Elliott, who leads the NHL in goals-against average (1.43) and save percentage (.943), also set a personal-best shutout mark, breaking his old mark of 174:35 set March 20-26, 2010 with Ottawa. He's currently at 186:33 and set a Blues franchise record for consecutive shutout minutes, which was 186:15 held by Manny Legace (set from Dec. 28-Jan. 28, 2007-08). Elliott's ninth shutout this season also broke Glenn Hall's 1968-69 franchise record with most shutouts (8).

But in the end, it's all about the team goals, and the personal accolades are put aside by these players. It's what's made them the success story they are. And winning a division and No. 1 overall seed is next on the list.

"That has to be the goal," Elliott said. "If it wasn't, we wouldn't be doing our jobs. When it comes down to it, I think it's huge positioning yourself going into the playoffs.

"We're no different, but we'll take it day by day and not look too far in the future."

And there will always be the watchful 60-year-old wily veteran coach in Hitchcock, who will continue to crack the whip and keep the focus narrow-minded should the players stray too far away.

"We're not there yet," said Hitchcock, whose team will play in Chicago Thursday night. "We're getting closer, but there's a whole other level out there. We saw a little bit of it (Tuesday), but you're going to see a lot of it when push comes to shove.

"We're going to have to be really good for a long period of time if we expect to win a playoff series."

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