Sunday, April 28, 2013

Blues complete task of home ice advantage, top Blackhawks

Blues earn No. 4 seed in West, will face
Kings in rematch of conference semifinals

ST. LOUIS -- When the Blues dropped a dismal and lackluster game six days ago in Denver against the worst team in the Western Conference, the focus might have been better off to shift on just getting into the playoffs instead of getting greedy and go hunting for home ice advantage.

But after Saturday night's 3-1 win over a makeshift Chicago Blackhawks squad at Scottrade Center, the Blues ended the regular season waiting for an opponent in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and they'll do it at home.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
The Blues' David Backes (left) and Kris Russell celebrate after Jaden
Schwartz (9) scored against Chicago Saturday night.

The Blues completed what might have been unthinkable by winning their sixth in a row at home, they went 7-1-0 in the month of April at home (allowing only nine goals in those eight games) and finished a stretch of winning 12 of 15 games in 27 days.

"Three weeks ago, we looked up and we were in ninth place ... and legit ninth place," said Blues coach Ken Hitchcock, whose team went 12-3-0 in April. "We were one game in hand on eighth, I think, but we were behind and then what did we go, 12-3?

"We earned this. We fought hard to get back in this and I think that reality check of waking up one morning and just assuming you're going to be in the playoffs and then all of the sudden, you're sitting there in ninth place is exactly what this team needed. The reality check of getting back to who we were had to come sooner or later. The right people for me took the team over and really established our checking mindset and when we started to win games 1-0, 1-0, I think the buy-in became a lot easier. But the right people needed to take the game over because we were halfway everywhere and not being very effective, but we really turned it around."

When the Blues fell 4-2 to the Los Angeles Kings on March 28, they were on the outside looking in. Even though there was a game in hand on eighth-place at the time, the Blues tackled the task at hand, met it head-on and conquered the unthinkable.

"I didn't really pay attention to the standings all that much," said Elliott,
who finished April 11-2-0 with a 1.28 goals-against average, a .948 save percentage and three shutouts after starting the season 3-6-1 with a 3.65 GAA and .851 save percentage. "I was just trying to look forward to the next game. When you're looking at the standings, I think that's when you're getting in trouble. It was just look forward, try to win that next game. I think the guys did a good job of just trying to stick with that plan."

The game Saturday had a ton of meaning for the Blues, as a victory secured the fourth seed in the Western Conference and home-ice advantage to open the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The Blackhawks were playing with eight rookies in the lineup, many recalls from the Rockford IceHogs of the American Hockey League, and the Blues took advantage.

Jaden Schwartz set the tone with the first two-goal game of his NHL career, Brian Elliott stopped 22 shots to give him a franchise-best 11 wins in the month of April, and David Backes added a pair of assists to give him 300 career points.

The Blues, who concluded the season 29-17-2, will host the fifth-seeded Los Angeles Kings, who downed the San Jose Sharks 3-2 Saturday night. The Sharks will open the postseason as the No. 6 seed against the Vancouver Canucks.

"Whether they got some of their guys in or not, they're going to work hard and you know they're going to come at us," Schwartz said of the Blackhawks. "You want to make sure we stick to our game plan, do the things that make us successful."

The Blackhawks, who finished 36-7-5, won the Presidents' Trophy and will have home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs, got a goal from Ben Smith. They finished 16-1-1 against Central Division foes, both losses coming at the hands of the Blues. Goalie Carter Hutton, who stopped 25 shots, and defensemen Shawn Lalonde and Ryan Stanton all made their NHL debuts.

"Some guys had some good games," Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said. "It was nice to see a couple guys get their first NHL game, and they got better as the game went on."

Added Bryan Bickell, one of the regulars who did play: "With all the [regular] guys out and new guys in, I thought [the young guys] did a great job. We had to change our game a little bit, but there was a lot of hard work out there. [The Blues] were fighting for home ice, a few bounces here and there we could’ve had opportunities on. But they came out on top."

Patrik Berglund opened the scoring by knocking in a rebound of an Andy McDonald shot past goalie Hutton, who made his NHL debut, 4:33 into the game. It was Berglund's 17th of the season.

The Blackhawks' younger skaters displayed some quality zone time and quick skating ability but were unable to solve Elliott, and Schwartz was able to give the Blues a 2-0 lead with 2:36 left in the opening period when he was on the doorstep and scooped a backhand of a Backes redirection past Hutton.

It was the kind of start the Blues needed to set the tempo and establish that the game meant much more to them.

"We don't want to give them any confidence off the bat," Schwartz said of Chicago. "We want to make sure we got a good start. We did a good job of that. We knew they didn't have their full lineup in, but they're still going to come to work and they want to win, too."

Schwartz added his second of the game when he and Backes used a nifty little give-and-go play and Schwartz was able to slide a backhand between Hutton's pads with one of those rookies (Drew LeBlanc) applying pressure 8:39 into the second period for a 3-0 lead.

"I think he's just gotten better and better," Hitchcock said of Schwartz. "He's a strong player. He's going to be really needed here in the playoffs. When you need the game turned around from an effort standpoint, really the fourth line and Schwartzy have really helped us. They really lifted our spirits as far as their competitiveness. He can strip people of pucks, he plays a lot like Zach Parise does. It's really good for us. His confidence is growing the way he's being able to score now. His touch seems to be coming back, the touch that he had in college and in junior is starting to come back. It's a real good sign for us right now."

Smith added his fourth career goal when his snap shot from the top of the left circle beat Elliott 8:23 into the third period off a feed from Jeremy Morin, spoiling the Blues' netminder's shutout bid.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
The Blues' David Perron (right) stands his ground in front of Blackhawks
goalie Carter Hutton Saturday night.

It didn't matter. The only think that did was the win.

"I don't think any of us really looked back or even sat back and really soaked it in," Elliott said. "I don't think we will. We don't really have time for that. I think we did what we needed to do to give ourselves the best chance. That's what good teams do. I think we can only build on that and just keep going."

Hitchcock confirmed the Blues will open the postseason with Elliott between the pipes.

"He was very good when Jaro (Halak) got hurt in the playoffs and then he had the inner ear infection and didn't really play up to par until the last game."

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