Thursday, January 30, 2014

Blues' goal by Olympic break: top spot in division

Team trails Chicago by two points, turns focus to Carolina for game Friday

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- The Blues journeyed off to their final road destination before all teams will shut down for the 2014 Sochi Olympics. It will begin a stretch of five games in nine days.

After playing the Carolina Hurricanes (24-20-9) Friday night in Raleigh, the Blues (36-11-5) will play four straight at Scottrade Center with a purpose in mind.

They'll not only want to play well, but even though there will still be 25 games remaining in the regular season, having the lead in the Central Division is also a target in mind.
(St. Louis Blues/Mark Buckner)
Jaden Schwartz (9) and the Blues will look to continue their three-game
winning streak Friday night in Carolina against the Hurricanes.

The Blues trail the Chicago Blackhawks, who have 79 points, by two in the standings but they also have four games in hand.

"It's been mentioned," defenseman Barret Jackman said. "That would be a great goal just going into the break, but it's all about how we play. We don't want to be playing OK hockey or average hockey and get where we want to be. We want to be competing hard, we want to be playing the right way and win every game you can but doing it the way we're going to have to after the break as well."

Heading into the break, the Blues will still have three games in hand. They'll play five, Chicago will play four. But if the Blues can take care of their own business, it would be a nice feat when players head to Sochi to be on top looking down.

"We're going to lose some of those games that we have in hand right now," defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk said. "I think that's what we focus on is staying on the pace that we've been going at all year. That'll get us to first place. We know that.

"It's important to us, but I think more importantly, we want to keep going in the right direction as a team. However the standings shake out after the break, that's what's going to be more important."

The Blues will play back-to-back games beginning Friday at Carolina. They play host to the Nashville Predators Saturday night, but as they've been good at doing all season, focusing on the opponent at hand is crucial. And the Hurricanes remind coach Ken Hitchcock of a similar opponent.

"They play the game very similar to what Dallas plays," Hitchcock said of the Hurricanes. "They've got great speed and structure in their game and they play with tempo. Us getting up to speed early, we're going to need a really fast practice tomorrow. I want to really have a fast practice with a lot of tempo in it just to get our minds ready for the speed of that game because it'll be one of the fastest teams we play against. They've taken games over with that speed and tenacity that they have up front. Each of their lines has a strong identity.

"Obviously they're playing great now. They're really playing well. They've got great tempo, great speed up front. Their transition game is about as fast as anybody in the league, very similar to Dallas quite frankly."

The Blues won the only meeting between the two teams when they played at Scottrade Center on Nov. 16, winning 4-2 on a goal and assist each from Alexander Steen and Roman Polak.

"I don't think we saw (Jeff) Skinner when we played them so that's just another dynamic player who can put pucks in the net," Shattenkirk said. "I think more importantly, they're a team that plays really well at home. They have a great crowd, they get a lot of energy from their crowd. Anything we can kind of go to limit that momentum that they seem to generate there is going to be important."

"They've got some big, skilled forwards ... the Staal brothers (Eric and Jordan), (Alexander) Semin and Skinner," Jackman said. "He's not big, but he's shifty and works hard. He's kind of like a Schwartz-type player. These guys feed off transition, they feed off of the rush. We've got limit turnovers and kind of play the way we did against Jersey the other night and make them play defense."

The Blues spent Thursday before leaving the Raleigh working on puck management, particularly from their own zone. The practice was brisk that often had a fast pace.
(St. Louis Blues/Mark Buckner)
T.J. Oshie (right) skates into position when the Blues faced Carolina at
home on Nov. 16. The Blues won 4-2 and play in Carolina Friday.

"A lot of today were exits," Hitchcock said. "First, under no pressure, then under limited pressure, then under full pressure. We need to be better at that. I think if we're better on our exits and better on our counters, we're going to get back to eliminating scoring chances. The last game was the first game in six games that we allowed single-digit scoring chances (since) the game in Vancouver. It was nice to get back on task where we're not allowing so many quality scoring opportunities that we have in the last few games.

"I think the teams that beat (Carolina) match the pace early in the game. I think they're a team that sets the tempo early and makes you react and if you're not ready for the pace of the game, they skate so well, both back and front. They've got a lot of really good transitional players. They've got guys like Faulk and Hainsey and now they've got Liles on the back end. They've got a lot of guys that get up in the play and they've got the forwards with great speed, those three lines. For us, it's don't be behind. That's why a lot of things we did today were specifically for tomorrow to make sure that our feet were moving and we're up to the pace hopefully."

* NOTES -- As was reported Wednesday, Jaroslav Halak will get the start in goal against the Hurricanes. Brian Elliott will get the home start against Nashville. As for the remaining three games before the break, Hitchcock said "I'll have to sleep on those."

. . . Practice lines Thursday included Jaden Schwartz, David Backes and Chris Stewart; Vladimir Sobotka, Derek Roy and Vladimir Tarasenko; Magnus Paajarvi, Patrik Berglund and T.J. Oshie; Brenden Morrow, Maxim Lapierre and Ryan Reaves. Steen did not practice again, as he's nursing a lower-body injury but he will be good to play, as has been the case the past two games.

Hitchcock wouldn't commit to a lineup, but with Stewart skating in Steen's spot on the top line, he could be scratched Friday, as was Reaves on Tuesday. Reaves had been skating in Steen's spot and did not play against the New Jersey Devils.

Defensive pairings included the same as Tuesday's game, and that would indicate Ian Cole will stay in Friday with Roman Polak, with Jordan Leopold and Carlo Colaiacovo as scratches. But Hitchcock did say Wednesday that Leopold will play "at some point this weekend."

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