Monday, March 5, 2012

Successful trip has Blues believing they can be tops in NHL

Taking 10 of 12 points has team one point behind
Vancouver in West, two in back of Rangers for tops overall

ST. LOUIS -- When the Blues embarked on their latest trip that totaled 6,000-plus miles and six games, many pundits around the NHL thought this would be the defining time for this team.

The question everyone had was whether the Blues would stay toe-to-toe with the best of the West or would they fall off and compete with the rest of the pack.

After taking 10 of 12 points and winning five of the six games, it's safe to say the Blues (41-18-7) are for real and don't have any plans on vacating their current position of second in the Western Conference (first in the Central Division). In fact, the recent results only reaffirm their desire to fight for No. 1 overall in the League.

"I think it puts a realistic expectation going into our next road trip, too, on what we can accomplish," defenseman Carlo Colaiacovo said. "There's no second-guessing on our record and having that feeling of 'what-if, what-if, what-if.' Now there's that mindset where we're going into those games feeling like we're going to win. That's the mindset we need to have.

(Getty Images)
The Blues and Andy McDonald (right) finished off a successful 5-1 trip
with a 3-1 win at San Jose Saturday night.

"We're one point out of first place overall and that's something guys have got to feel pretty good about and obviously know what we can accomplish if we can continue to play like that."

The Blues began the day Monday tied with Detroit with 89 points, one off Vancouver's pace of 90 for the top spot in the West. The New York Rangers lead the NHL with 91 points.

"Everyone's been kind of waiting for us to fall off ... when's St. Louis going to fall off," winger Chris Stewart said. "We've hung in there with the best teams in the league. There's no reason to think why we wouldn't."

Added defenseman Alex Pietrangelo: "That trip helped. We know we've got another (seven-game) road trip coming up. It's a pretty good feeling in here right now.

"We knew last month (the trip) was going to be important just because of all the home games we had. If you want to be a good team, you've got to win on the road. With the amount of road games we have coming up, we know we've got to win those games to catch those teams."

The Blues accomplished much in wins over Nashville, Winnipeg, Calgary, Edmonton and San Jose, which might have been the best game of the trip in Saturday's 3-1 win that came on the heels of the only blemish, a 2-0 setback in Vancouver that was the third game in four nights.

The team shut down the top four power plays (Edmonton, Nashville, Vancouver and San Jose) on the trip, as they were a perfect 12-for-12 killing penalties -- they've killed off 27 in a row dating back to Feb. 14 -- while going 5-for-16 (31.2 percent) on the power play themselves.

"We were comfortable being uncomfortable, and I think it changed everything," said Blues coach Ken Hitchcock, who is 35-11-7 since taking over on Nov. 6. "There was a calmness on the bench and there was a calmness in our game. We didn't panic under pressure, we didn't make the puck somebody else's problem. We just started to play. I think we were able to maintain a competitive level for every game that kept up the way we needed to play. It almost looked like we were playing on the road like we were at home."

Hitchcock, who said the Blues "didn't play well the first two games (in Nashville and Winnipeg) and still won," really got it together prior to playing Monday night in Calgary, which came on the heels of the trade deadline frenzy earlier in the day.

The Blues, under tight budget constraints because of an impending ownership change, stood pat and will rely on hopefully getting injured players back for the home stretch.

"The trade deadline going and passing maybe helped alleviate some of the stresses some guys were feeling," Colaiacovo said. "At the end of the day, we're happy things stayed the way they were. We love the group that we have in here. Everyone battles hard for each other."

The Blues come back to Scottrade Center for three games before departing on another gargantuan seven-game trip that will be split up into two weeks. It begins Sunday in Columbus and goes to Chicago, Carolina and Tampa Bay before the team comes home for three days, then heads back out to Anaheim, Los Angeles and Phoenix.
(Getty Images)
Carlo Colaiacovo is all smiles after the Blues took the lead for
good Saturday night in San Jose. The Blues were 5-1 on a trip
that saw them take 10 of 12 points.

"I don't think anybody coming in today doesn't feel good about what we've accomplished so far," Colaiacovo said. "Obviously going on the road, the concern was where we were prior to it and how our game was going to be and how tough a schedule it was going to be for us.

"At the end of the day, we dug down deep and we battled through adversity. We found ways to win and we played some good hockey on the road. It's a great sign and great feeling to be part of going into this important stretch of the season."

Added Pietrangelo: "The whole road trip, we played a full 60 minutes and we didn't take our foot off the pedal no matter what the score was or who we were playing. We came off our path there in Edmonton, but in the third, we took it too them and buried them once it was 5-2."

The Blues won all five games scoring three goals or more and are now 33-0-0 on the season scoring three times or better in a game.

"We stuck to our game plans," Stewart said. "We went into some tough buildings and won. Even that one in Vancouver, we competed for 60 minutes against those guys. Unfortunately we didn't get the result we wanted, but we're just showing up every night, Hitch draws up the game plan and we're sticking to it to a tee."

* NOTES -- Hitchcock said the news on some injured players is encouraging after Monday's sudden optional skate.

Hitchcock did say that defenseman Kent Huskins is day-to-day with a bruised hand suffered in Saturday's win at San Jose. There's a good chance that Ian Cole will get into the lineup against Chicago Tuesday night and play with Roman Polak.

"He skated today, felt OK," Hitchcock said of Huskins. "... We want to get Cole in there and take the looks. We might put him in for a game or two."

As for Matt D'Agostini (concussion), Kris Russell (concussion symptoms) and Jamie Langenbrunner (broken foot), all participated in a skate Monday as well as off-ice workouts.

"The other guys are in various stages, so we'll see how many skate tomorrow of the guys that were left at home here," Hitchcock said. "We'll see how many of those guys get on the ice tomorrow.

"They were all skating today. They were all in before (practice), either skating or working out hard. Russell and D'Agostini rode the bike hard today, Lags skated today, so we'll see how they go next phase for tomorrow."

D'Agostini has not played since Feb. 7 in Ottawa, Langenbrunner since Feb. 19 in Chicago and Russell has been out since the first leg of the trip on Feb. 23 in Nashville.

As for Alex Steen, he's in California for a couple weeks visiting the same specialist that Andy McDonald used. He was still experiencing symptoms with vision after workouts.

... Jaroslav Halak, who was 5-0-0 on the trip with a 1.55 goals-against average and .939 save percentage, will get the start Tuesday night

"We'll see after today if we're just going to alternate for a little while," Hitchcock said. "Jaro's beat Chicago and played very well against them. We'll get that going and we'll just see for Anaheim (Thursday).

"Kind of one day at a time. We want to get both guys in a part of this homestand for sure. We'll just see as we go back on the road. We were planning to practice full-time today, but when we came to the rink, a lot of guys were still beat up and banged up. This allows us to put our whole group on the ice tomorrow and go at it."

Hitchcock also doesn't expect any other lineup changes, noting that he was pleased with the top two lines Saturday but could alternate wingers on the Jason Arnott-Chris Stewart line.

... Team Canada announced on Monday that Blues general manager Doug Armstrong has been chosen to its management group through the 2013-14 season.

Armstrong will work alongside returning Executive Director and Tampa Bay GM Steve Yzerman as well as a group that will include Detroit GM Ken Holland, Kevin Lowe (President of Hockey Operations for the Edmonton Oilers), Bob Nicholson (Hockey Canada) and Brad Pascall (Hockey Canada). The group will oversee operations for Team Canada, including staff selection, player evaluation and selection as well as team operations for international events.

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