Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Day after punishing, bruising win over Canucks, Blues to hit refresh button

Team stuck with game plan, were rewarded in end with shootout victory

ST. LOUIS -- The Blues had the day off Wednesday, and understandably so.

If any of the players involved in Tuesday night's 2-1 shootout win over the Vancouver Canucks are feeling the after affects, they should feel battered, bruised and downright worn out and drained after a tough, physical battle.

It's that time of year. Playoff hockey has started a couple weeks early, especially for those teams fighting for a playoff berth.

"They're banged up and they feel sore, but I think they feel like the effort and the reward in the end was worth it," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said. "... I think the feeling in the locker room is this hurt a lot, but it was worth it and that's the feeling we want to create. It's going to be painful to try to get into the playoffs here, but we feel like it's worth it."
(St. Louis Blues/Mark Buckner)
The Blues' David Backes (right) was on his game Tuesday against
the Vancouver Canucks.

The Blues, with 50 points in the Western Conference and in seventh place at 24-16-2, pumped 36 shots at the Canucks (24-12-7) and goalie Cory Schneider, who did his best to keep the home side off the scoreboard. But that all went by the wayside when defenseman Jay Bouwmeester found a chink in Schneider's armor when he finally was able to convert with 9 minutes, 10 seconds remaining.

After that, the sense was the Blues would get the two points one way or another.

"After a while, you've got to find a way to believe," Hitchcock said. "... To be able to stay with it and score the big goal, even if we would have not won in the shootout, to take it to overtime and get the point I think was something the guys would have been able to build on. We would have been in a tough spot to build something back from putting all this in and not getting any reward. We did it."

The sense in the locker room afterwards was this would have been one of those tough pills to swallow if the Blues came up empty-handed.

"Yeah, especially when you have a lot of zone time and stuff down there and couldn't get a goal," said Bouwmeester, who netted his first goal as a Blue. "... We just stuck with it. We had time down there, we were getting chances. Something was bout to happen.

"Overall, I thought it was a pretty good game. They're a top team when you let them get going playing in your end. We did a good job of going down and playing in their end."

The Blues did it their way: by checking hard, by keeping the puck away from the skillful Canucks, particularly the Sedin twins, by doing a more consistent job of sacrificing bodies and going into the hard, dirty areas to succeed.

"I think the players actually enjoy playing this way," Hitchcock said. "This is a very difficult, hard way to play, but I actually think if you talk to them, they enjoy it.

"Not all the way there, but better. There's some guys that have to learn how to (go to the dirty areas), how to protect the puck and stuff like that. But there was a lot of conscious effort to go into scoring positions, scoring areas, take the puck there. We went the short route to the net instead of the long route to the net which is a very good sign."

But the ones that led by example Tuesday were what Hitchcock called the veteran players, namely captain David Backes, who resembled a mixture of hockey and football player following the game.

"I think he responded really well," goalie Brian Elliott said of Backes. "I think we need that leadership by example. Guys don't want to go up against him. He can play with the best of them out there. Him banging out there was great to see."

"What's really coming forward right now is the older players are starting to lead," Hitchcock said. "I think you can see the vision on everybody's team from the veteran players who want to get to the playoffs so badly and then the younger players who are still trying to figure it out."

Hitchcock acknowledges the system he implements with the Blues is tough and trying. But when successful, it's hard to contain.

"I know from playing against this team that we're a hard team to play against," Bouwmeester said. "We just get the puck deep and cycle it and you wear teams down. (Tuesday) night was a good example where we did a good job of that. We knew that they played (Monday) night. That sort of has to be your game plan. The way the season's gone, it's a busy schedule for everyone. Those back-to-back games are tough. I thought we did a good job taking advantage."

Staying patient as the Blues have been struggling to score (six goals in six games despite going 4-2 in those games) can wear on a team thinking it's doing everything right but putting the finishing touches on the end result.

"It's just trying to stay level-headed," said Elliott, who stopped 21 shots and improved to 6-1-0 in April with a 1.03 goals-against average and .959 save percentage. "We knew what kind of game we were playing in (and) was going to be a battle. It's staying with your game plan and not getting too upset about it. Obviously it's a deflating kind of goal at the end of a period but I think we stuck with it and came out with a good response."
(St. Louis Blues/Mark Buckner)
Patrik Berglund (right) battles the Canucks' Jason Garrison during
Tuesday's Blues' 2-1 shootout win. 

The Blues also took advantage of helping Hitchcock gain his 600th career win.

"I'm proud of being able to be a coach in this league, but I'm more proud of the way our team's playing right now," said Hitchcock, whose team moves on for back-to-back home games Thursday and Friday against Phoenix and Dallas. "We're playing hard right now.

"I think a lot of teams are looking at what happened to Los Angeles last year, and a lot of teams, especially those trying to get into the playoffs are thinking maybe it could be us if we could just get in. We're going to have some real tough games here in the next little while, but I think everybody feels like if you just get in, you've got a chance. We're just trying to get in right now."

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