Friday, February 7, 2014

Blues looking to head to Olympics on winning note

Surging Jets stand in way of taking three of four on homestand; 
St. Louis looking to stay unbeaten in regulation vs. divisional foes

ST. LOUIS -- There's something to be said for going out on a high note.

That's what the Blues (38-12-6) are up against when they host the surging 28-26-5 Winnipeg Jets, who are 9-3-0 since Paul Maurice took over for the fired Claude Noel, Saturday at 1 p.m.

The Blues, who are 2-1 on a four-game homestand despite blowing two goal-leads in each of  those games, will close out their schedule before nine of their players -- it would have been 10 had Vladimir Sobotka not injured his left knee -- head to Sochi, Russia for the 2014 Sochi Olympics. Those players will board planes for late Saturday afternoon or Saturday night. The others will enjoy some much-needed rest and relaxation before reconvening to begin a strong push to the finish.

(St. Louis Blues/Mark Buckner)
Winnipeg native Alexander Steen (right) has four goals in three games vs.
the Jets this season.
"I don't think we've played our greatest hockey as of late but still managed to get points," said Blues defenseman Barret Jackman. "It'll be nice to get a great game under our belts tomorrow and feel good and send those Olympians off on a strong note and the Blues into the break on a high."

Added defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, who will represent the United States along with David Backes and T.J. Oshie: "We have a chance to grab two more points and make some big headways. It's our one last chance here together for a little while, so I think we pour it all in and everyone can go on their way and do what they have next."

When the Blues come back, they will begin a grueling stretch of games. Six of their first seven will be played away from Scottrade Center, beginning on Feb. 26 at Vancouver and Feb. 28 at Anaheim. Then it will be a stretch of 15 games in 28 days that will define whether the Blues can win the division or even perhaps be in line to win a Presidents' Trophy.

So for those that will not participate in Olympic competition, allowing the body to heal will be of utmost importance.

"Early on in the break, rest yourself, but later on in the break and when we get back, we've got to make sure that the guys around here are working together," center Derek Roy said. "We're going to have to work hard and try to push each other, so when these guys come back from the Olympics -- tired or not -- the guys that didn't play in the Olympics step up.

"We're looking to close our homestand off and we know we've got a lot of games coming up after the Olympic break, so to get this win at home is huge. We all know what's at stake here and we're just trying to finish off the break and not let distractions get in front of us."

But first thing's first, and that's a date with the Jets, who have thrust themselves right back into the playoff picture by winning nine of 12 games since Maurice took over the team.

"They're having a lot better results," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said of the Jets. "You see structure, discipline. Paul's gone in there and known that they've got skill, they've got transitional speed, they've got size. So he's just put a smart positional game plan, very much a pressure positional game and (having) success because of it. I think he knew watching the team that there's a certain skill level if he could get them to focus on checking and defense that they had enough weapons in there to create all the offense in the world. That's proven true."

The Jets are the lone team to stand in the Blues' way of a perfect run of games against Central Division foes. If the Blues had not blown a 3-1 third-period lead at Winnipeg on Oct. 18 en route to a 4-3 shootout loss, they'd be a perfect 15-0-0 in the division. But at 14-0-1, 29 of a possible 30 points against the likes that include Chicago, Colorado, Minnesota and Nashville is not too bad.

"With the way playoffs play out this year, it's important to win those games," Shattenkirk said. "That's the best way to make separation on teams is to beat them. 

"We just approach them with that kind of attitude, that we're probably going to see one or two of these teams down the road come playoff time. You have to set the tone during the regular season."

The Blues hope to build off of Thursday's emotional 3-2 overtime victory against the Boston Bruins, where Oshie scored the game-winner after the Blues coughed up a 2-0 third-period lead.

"These are emotional, roller coaster games and you've got to weather it," Hitchcock said. "Like I said today to a couple guys, we are doing a lot of things really well, but we're feeding the engine too much. If we can stop feeding the other team's engine, good things are going to be in store for us moving forward. It's two similar areas that we're feeding it, and we've got to find a way to not do that. I think if we keep up the same effort and energy that we have and limit those feeding troughs we're giving the other team, we're going to be in good shape."
(St. Louis Blues/Mark Buckner)
Vladimir Tarasenko (91) is expected to return to the lineup Saturday when
the Blues play host to the Winnipeg Jets.

So what can be expected for the grand finale before the Olympics tomorrow?

"Wear a seat belt and hang on for dear life because you never know where you're going to go," said Hitchcock, whose team is 2-0-1 against the Jets this season. "To me, it's very similar to the very first game of the season or the first game off of a long break: play it, write it off, move on."

Brian Elliott will get the start in goal for the Blues. Vladimir Tarasenko, who sat out the win against Boston Thursday with a fever, was back on the ice Friday and said he felt better. He is expected to return to the lineup Saturday.

It's the second time in three weeks Tarasenko has fallen ill. The first time was a stomach ailment. Tarasenko, who has 18 goals and 33 points in 53 games, was sharp and crisp in practice Friday.

No comments:

Post a Comment