Monday, March 31, 2014

Blues begin final push, end season with eight games in 13 days

Hitchcock puts team through brisk practice, searches for right line fits

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- It was a sight not seen often at the Ice Zone inside St. Louis Outlet Mall in the month of March: the Blues skating to a full practice session.

With games being so compressed and many of them away from Scottrade Center, the Blues got the last of two consecutive days off between games Sunday and Monday before the regular season ends April 13.

Sunday was an actual day off for players to get away and take a break both physically and mentally. Monday was a back-to-work, put on the hard hat, grab the lunch pail kind of day. It was a brisk 50-minute practice coach Ken Hitchcock and assistants Brad Shaw, Gary Agnew, Ray Bennett and Corey Hirsch put the players through.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Carlo Colaiacovo (left) and the Blues will look to gain revenge on Jakub
Voracek (93) and the Philadelphia Flyers on Tuesday night.

It came on the heels of a disheartening 4-2 loss to the Dallas Stars in which the Blues (50-17-7) fell into some bad habits throughout the game.

And with the Philadelphia Flyers (39-27-8) coming to town also in desperation mode and fighting for the playoffs like the Stars (36-27-11), the Blues are being battle-tested. 

"Some of it was a day's practice after a day off and some of it was obviously getting better in some areas, especially coordination offensively and defensively," Hitchcock said, referring to practice Monday. "Some of it was raising the compete level obviously, but it's nice to get 50 minutes in like we did today and hopefully we'll carry that level up to the next degree tomorrow. We'll need it against Philadelphia. 

"I don't think it's the playoffs but certainly it is the prep. One of the things you have to be careful about is that you hope the players don't get too far ahead of themselves. No point preparing for the playoffs if you're not going to prepare for the competition, which for me was the disappointing part of the Dallas situation. We knew it was a desperate team. If you turn down the volume, we played pretty well in some areas, but if you really turned up the volume in the game where it was in the desperate situations, they were more desperate than we were."

The players came in fresh and ready to move on and work on some fine-tuning.

"Unfortunately in the game of hockey, you're not going to win all of them," said defenseman Carlo Colaiacovo, who is expected to get back into the lineup against the Flyers after sitting out Saturday. "Obviously we would have loved to have a different result the other night. ... We had a day yesterday to get away, refresh our minds and stuff. Today you can see the work ethic with guys that they're ready to get back at it. I think tomorrow in having a team like Philly coming in is definitely a good response game for us. Time for us to refocus and make sire that we're bringing our 'A' game because we owe them something.

"Hockey is such a total grind, both physically and mentally. Maybe more mentally now at this time of year because there's so much going on. The beauty of having these mandatory days off is knowing that you can work your hardest up to a certain point knowing you're going to reach the benefits of it. We have a pretty older group in here, a good mix of guys that take advantage of those days when they get them for the most part and save their energy for the games. Today was a good work day and tomorrow we get right back it."

Newcomer Steve Ott, still looking for his first goal as a Blue, said taking advantage of an off-day was more than beneficial.

"It was a good, personal day," Ott said. "All the adjusting and moving stuff in. Family came down and what-not. It's nice to have your own cars again, your animals back and all that good stuff. That's kind of what I did was just settle into my place.

"It was nice to refresh yesterday and actually have a two-day break in there after a game. The rest of the way, it's going to be a game every other night and it's going to be a high level. Especially with Philly, all the teams fighting for their lives or trying to move in the standings, that's the effort you have to match and today's practice was all about the effort."
(St. Louis Blues photo)
A pair of No. 17's do battle against the boards in a game recently
in Philadelphia, with the Blues' Vladimir Sobotka putting the
squeeze on the Flyers' Wayne Simmonds (17).

The Blues will begin the final push, playing eight games in 13 nights, including a pair of four games in six nights. The players and coaches keep pushing that they're motivated for the top seed, which would be a huge asset for the Blues heading into the playoffs since they have one of the top home records in the NHL. Only time will tell.

"We've been used to it here from the last little stretch we've had having a ton of games jammed in," defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk said. "I think we're a team that almost likes that a little bit more, to just play games. We seem to rebound well off of losses, which is why I think we've been pretty successful here. 

"That wasn't the way we wanted to start our homestand, but I think it's great we have a team like Philly coming in tomorrow who's really playing some of their best hockey right now and a team we just saw a few weeks ago that we're seeking a little redemption on. It was a good, hard-working practice today and same thing tomorrow morning before the game."

* NOTES -- Hitchcock said after the loss Saturday that he would look to "send a message" to some players in hopes of jump-starting some more consistent play out of some players.

The Blues can't afford to only get production out of the David Backes, Alexander Steen and T.J. Oshie line to be effective.

Hitchcock was moving parts around in practice Monday in hopes of kick-starting some engines.

"I would use the word probing," Hitchcock said. "I would say we know we're going to need it, and we're doing probing and pushing behind it. 

"We're not looking for combinations that work. It's too late for that. We're trying to get people to understand when they play really well, how it looks and what it feels like. We had some conversations with people today; we'll have some more tomorrow trying to get more people connected and involved in the finishing part of our game. I think all of us feel as happy as we are for the one line, we can't win with just one line doing that. ... We had quite a few individual meetings today; no group meeting at all."

Hitchcock wouldn't reveal any lineup changes or changes other than Ryan Miller will get the start in goal against the Flyers. The Flyers defeated Miller and the Blues 4-1 on March 22.

... Right wing Vladimir Tarasenko, who hasn't played since March 15 after having surgery on his right thumb to repair some ligament damage, was cleared to skate and was on the ice briefly with his teammates.

Tarasenko, who has 22 goals and 43 points on the season, took a few twirls around the ice, holding a stick in his left hand and not being able to use his right one yet, skated for roughly 5-10 minutes and left as practice began.

... The NHL unveiled its Three Stars of the Week Monday, and Oshie was selected as the third star.

The Blues' forward, who recorded his first NHL hat trick in a 5-1 win against the Minnesota Wild on Thursday, scored four goals and had six points in three games.

The 27-year-old Oshie already has set career highs in goals (21), assists (39), points (60) and game-winning goals (5) in 73 games.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Blues primed to push to the finish

Division, conference, Presidents' Trophy not out of the question 
despite clunker against Dallas Saturday; Hitchcock to shuffle deck

ST. LOUIS -- The Blues' 4-2 setback on home ice against the Dallas Stars set the team back a step in its quest for end-of-season goals but not all was lost.

The Blues (50-17-7) have fallen out of the top spot in the race for the Presidents' Trophy. Residence has been taken up by the Boston Bruins, who lead the Blues by three points (110-107). 

The Blues, who did clinch a playoff berth last week, next need to cross a division title off the list. That appears imminent as the Colorado Avalanche (100 points) and Chicago Blackhawks (99 points) seem to have too much ground to catch up on and few games left to do it.
(St. Louis Blues/Mark Buckner)
The Blues' Vladimir Sobotka (middle) and Ian Cole (right) will look to get
back on track after falling to the Dallas Stars on Saturday night.

The Blues' closest pursuer for the Western Conference crown are the Anaheim Ducks, who are three points back with 104 and the San Jose Sharks, who have 103 points but with three fewer games left. The Ducks seem to offer the Blues, who have eight games remaining, the only legitimate threat for the top spot in the conference.

So there is still plenty left to play for, but when the Blues hit the ice Monday morning at the Ice Zone, it'll be time to get their mojo back.

Blues coach Ken Hitchcock used terms such as "sloppy" and "throwing our sticks on the ice" as well as "inconsistent" to define what the Blues have been going through in stretches.

Hitchcock wouldn't specify names, but it was pretty clear he was pointing at the back three forward units when he was referring to inconsistency. Maybe not so much of the second line consisting of Vladimir Sobotka, Jaden Schwartz and Patrik Berglund, but putting too much burden on the line of David Backes, Alexander Steen and T.J. Oshie forced Hitchcock to separate that trio earlier in the season despite their rapid number of points. It was to balance out four consistent lines, which could be a place the veteran coach will go to once again as the Blues finish the season playing eight games in 13 days.

"I thought we were casual and paid for it (Saturday)," Hitchcock said. "We need a good hockey practice on Monday, get back to work and get back to doing the things we need to do. We had a really average outing (Saturday) and paid for it. We've won games like that before, getting all those scoring chances, twice we mount comebacks (against Dallas), things like that. But if you look at it, in the first period against Minnesota (Thursday in a 5-1 victory), what were the shots, 8-1 for Minnesota? They scored on their ones here. Minny didn't score. If Minny scores on those, we're chasing that game, too. That's what I mean by not engaged. We've got to get engaged a lot quicker in the game, start dictating from a work standpoint. We're playing at times like we're just throwing our sticks on the ice a little bit here. We'll get that fixed."

Steen produced the only two goals Saturday, and it gave the top line 18 points in three games. But that's not what Hitchcock is looking for.

"What we are right now is too inconsistent," Hitchcock said. "We've got too many players who are having good games and then are following it up with poor games. Right now, we can't afford to do that. Have to send a few messages here in the next couple games and see if we can get everybody's attention."

The Blues are looking to alleviate the pressure that Backes' line will bring. By doing that, they get balance from the entire group.

"We've always needed the whole group," Backes said. "Even these last couple of games, we've been able to have tons of success because the rest of the guys have been tiring out lines or leaving us in great situations and doing the little things, shutting down the other team's top lines. 

"We may have been putting up numbers on the scoresheet, but other guys have been doing the bulk of the work. We've been able to have more energy because we've got different guys that are able to kill a lot. (We've) been able to start in the offensive zone more because we've got guys that have been responsible in the defensive zone. Those types of things go a little bit unnoticed and don't end up on the scoresheet. We've been getting credit, but the rest of the guys have been doing a lot of work, too."

Which is why the Blues will play out the rest of their schedule with motivation in mind and not just coast down the stretch.

"We really want to win the Presidents' Trophy," defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk said, "and I think that's what we're really driving for right now. Who knows who we're going to play in the first round, that's going to be anybody's guess. I think for that reason it's easier just to focus on a game-to-game basis and not worry about that down the road."

"This is always a tough time. The teams that are separated from the pack have to deal with that. The teams like Dallas and those guys are the ones fighting to get in, and in a way, that's a nice thing because they can just worry about the next game and worry about their fate that way."

Added forward Jaden Schwartz: "We've got a goal right now and that's the Presidents' Trophy and we want to finish as high in the standings as we can because that could mean a lot down the road. We're playing desperate teams and teams that are hungry, so we don't want to be looking too far ahead. (Saturday was) an example of a hungry team that out-battled us quite a bit of the game.

"(Saturday) was a tight game and we gave up a few too many chances. We're getting a lot of shots, we're getting a lot of chances, but we've got to find a way to get hungrier around the net, get some 5 on 5 goals. We've got to focus on a day to day basis right now to get better so we give ourselves a chance to be in the zone when the playoffs come."

It's not just the forwards, but the Blues were not sharp in their own zone Saturday, and it extends back in goal to Ryan Miller, who allowed four goals on 27 shots and seemed to be really down on himself after the game.

"Pretty disappointing," said Miller, who's still learning on the fly with the Blues and their structure. "Wanted to build a little bit on that last game and not able to do that.

"Learning or not, got to come through."

Alex Pietrangelo's message to Blues fans who like to overreact to the goalie situation no matter who is in: don't overreact.

"We're not worried about it," Pietrangelo said. "They scored some good goals. (Saturday), we didn't really box out and we gave up breakaways. 

"(Miller's) been fine. We brought him in here for a reason. He's been great since he's been here. We're kind of leaving him out to dry."
(St. Louis Blues/Mark Buckner)
Blues goalie Ryan Miller (39) tries to find the puck in front of the Stars'
Shawn Horcoff (10) Saturday night. Miller stopped 23 of 27 shots.

Which is why Backes, who has 27 goals and 56 points on the season, isn't worried either.

"Learn lessons, it's not the end of the world," Backes said. "We'll regroup, and we've got a tough game against Philly (Tuesday) and hopefully get back on track in the win column.

"No, I don't think we played terribly (Saturday). We could have played better for sure, but a couple of scoring chances we don't capitalize on, and some inopportune mistakes at bad times. After a power-play goal, when we've got a lot of momentum, that next shift is huge and we get scored on. It kind of deflates the building after we thought the roof was going to come off there."

"I mean it's frustrating," said Pietrangelo, whose 42 assists is a career high and 50 points one off tying a career high. "You really start moving things in the right direction and then you kind of take a step back. But we've got a couple of days here to figure that out and move on to the next one. All we can really do is prepare ourselves and get ready to play on Tuesday."

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Blues fall flat against desperate Stars in 4-2 loss

Sloppy play, costly turnovers hurt St. Louis, 
which fell behind Boston for the top spot in the NHL

ST. LOUIS -- Playing another desperate team fighting for a playoff spot, the Blues ran into the resistance Saturday night from the Dallas Stars they failed to get from the Minnesota Wild on Thursday.

The Blues will get into situations like their 4-2 loss to the Stars Saturday night where games won't look perfect.

But in the eyes of coach Ken Hitchcock, there was a culmination of things that happened in the game that have led to this loss.
(St. Louis Blues/Mark Buckner)
Alexander Steen (left) is tied up by Stars forward Jamie Benn Saturday
at Scottrade Center. Steen scored twice but the Blues fell 4-2 to Dallas.

"I thought we were just sloppy. We were sloppy," Hitchcock said. "I think where we were not very competitive or out of sync was in our own zone. We gave the first goal away twice. We ran around on their third goal. We went chasing hits on their third goal. Fourth goal, we jumped by it twice. That's sloppy. 

"I think we got away with it against Minnesota and we scored, got the lead, but we were doing the same stuff early then. [Dallas] scored on their chances tonight. We had a lot of chances, but we didn't score. They compete. They're in desperation stage, they're competing hard." 

The desperate Stars do not hold one of the two Western Conference wild cards into the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but they are within reach. 

Colton Sceviour's first two-goal game in the NHL started a five-game trip off right Saturday at Scottrade Center. 

The Stars (35-27-11) ended a four-game road losing streak, won for the fourth time in five games, and reached 81 points. The Stars are now only one point behind the Phoenix Coyotes, who fell 3-1 to the Minnesota Wild. Dallas still trails the Wild by four points.

Cody Eakin had a goal and an assist for the Stars, who got a goal from Antoine Roussel and 33 saves from Kari Lehtonen. Shawn Horcoff assisted on Sceviour's goals, and Jordie Benn had two assists.

The Blues (50-17-7) were looking to jump back over the Boston Bruins in the race for the Presidents' Trophy but lost in regulation on home ice for the first time in 11 games (8-1-2). 

Boston leads St. Louis by one point (108-107) after a 4-2 win against the Washington Capitals earlier Saturday. 

Alexander Steen scored twice for the Blues in his 600th NHL game, and Kevin Shattenkirk had two assists to set a career highs in assists (35) and points (44). Ryan Miller stopped 23 shots and is 9-3-1 for St. Louis since being acquired Feb. 28.

"It was a gritty game," Steen said. "Obviously they got a good start and they got a good bounce on their fourth one. It's tough. We feel like we'd been all over them in the third period, had some good chances. They get the fourth one. We were a little late tonight."

The Blues have gotten 18 points in the past three games from the Steen, David Backes and T.J. Oshie line, got little to nothing from the guys behind them. And that what concerns Hitchcock, who said: "What we are right now is too inconsistent. We've got too many players who are having good games and then are following it up with poor games. Right now, we can't afford to do that. Have to send a few messages here in the next couple games and see if we can get everybody's attention."

Those messages will come on Monday, when the Blues hit the ice for practice after a day off. It's not rocket science to think Hitchcock will blow his forward lines up looking for more consistency.

"It alarms you, but you've just got to get back to work," Hitchcock said. "What we really needed today was for other people to step up and didn't get it. That's what we needed. We've counted on one line for a good portion of the time, now we needed other people to step up today, didn't get it. That's what worries me. We need other people to grab the rope here a little bit. The Backes line isn't going to be perfect every night, but this was a real opportunity for other guys to really step forward, really help us. That's what we need."

The Stars played with the lead for all but 3:53. They converted a Blues turnover into the first goal, Sceviour's first of the game less than four minutes after faceoff. 

In an attempt to whip the puck around the boards, Blues forward Steve Ott whiffed. Horcoff passed to Sceviour in the slot and he beat Miller from in tight. Ott played played with Derek Roy and Brenden Morrow, and that line was a combined minus-5. 

The Stars were being outshot 8-0 in the second period, but Sceviour gave Dallas a 2-0 lead when Horcoff's shot was stopped by Miller but caromed off Sceviour's right leg 7:21 into the period for his seventh of the season. Vernon Fiddler's assist was the 200th NHL point. 

The Blues made it 2-1 when Steen redirected Alex Pietrangelo's shot-pass from the high slot over Lehtonen with 5:44 left in the second on the power play. 

Eakin restored the Stars' two-goal lead 25 seconds later with a redirection off a Jordie Benn shot from the blue line. 

Steen's first two-goal game since Dec. 19 (29 games) made it 3-2 49 seconds into the third period. The Blues' second power-play goal came on a one-timer from the top of the right circle that beat Lehtonen inside the near post.

"I think we came into the third period with the mindset that we were going to turn this around," Steen said.

The Stars had other ideas. They would restore a two-goal lead when a puck skidded past Shattenkirk at the right point and Roussel broke free. He beat Miller upstairs 7:56 into the third period.

"In the beginning, I think they really earned (breaks)," Steen said. "That's what happens sometimes. Towards the late stages of the game, I thought we had them on the ropes a little bit. That fourth one was tough."

Shattenkirk said it was a do-or-die play he felt he had to make.

"It was a tough play," he said. "If Alex Steen kind of gets in (Roussel's) way a little more, it's probably an interference penalty also. He has to let him to. It was a tough position. It was a tough hop, especially at 3-2. When we're down by a goal, you're trying to create some offense there and hold the blue line. If we're up 3-2, I'm probably backing off that and letting him come. It's just a situation of the game. If it bounces the other way for us, maybe we're scoring a goal. It's something that's a little high-risk, high-reward. You hope it works out and you try to keep your team in the game."
(St. Louis Blues/Mark Buckner)
Defenseman Roman Polak (pictured) and the Blues had a tough night in
a 4-2 loss to the Dallas Stars Saturday night.

(Momentum) was changing," Hitchcock said. "They had no scoring chances. Their breakaway was their own scoring chance in the third period and they scored on it. We were in their zone the whole time. I think if we would have tied it up, we would have won the hockey game. Every time we made a push, they scored two or three shifts later. In one case, the next shift."

Miller, whose goals-against average is 2.18 and save percentage is .912, was down on himself following the game.

"I've got to manage the puck better," Miller said. "I know guys are driving the net and I'm trying to keep ahead of those guys. I didn't feel like I had a situation where I could just knock it down. And bad play. I've got to know what's coming at me, all my options.

"The third goal was just a poor decision on my part. I put the puck in a bad spot and we can't recover. It's got to go behind the net or it's got to be a better lead for the defensemen. Really those two goals in the second just better puck management."

(3-29-14) Stars-Blues Gameday Lineup

ST. LOUIS -- Ken Hitchcock's lineup doesn't usually change the following game after a win. But in the case of the Blues, who have more depth than usual, two changes will be made for tonight's game against the Dallas Stars.

When the Blues (50-16-7) host the Stars (35-27-11) at 7 p.m. (FSN, KMOX 1120-AM), left wing Chris Porter and defenseman Ian Cole will be in the lineup and left wing Magnus Paajarvi and defenseman Carlo Colaiacovo will be out of the lineup.

Cole, who hasn't played since March 19 at Chicago, will replace Colaiacovo not because of poor play. In fact, Colaiacovo, who has a goal and four points in 18 games and has arguably played his best hockey in a Blues uniform, will give way to Cole simply to get him into what Hitchcock calls "the mix."

"We want to see Cole play more," Hitchcock said. "I think he's underrated from the red line in. He's also going to get power play time today. Not just tokens at the end, but I think he's going to get some significant power play time today and we'll see how he looks. 

"I'm not experimenting. I have a plan in the back of my head if tomorrow was Game 1, where we want to go. I also feel like we're in a position where we need to get more people involved in the solutions here. So I want to see other people play and not leave people on the sidelines too long. The focus is more including as many people as we can."

Cole will play with Kevin Shattenkirk, and the two have a history together in junior and the United States Developmental Program's U-18 squad.

"It'll be good," Cole said. "Give (Shattenkirk) the opportunity to jump whenever he wants pretty much and I'll be back there."

As for Porter, he will be inserted into the lineup out of necessity. Porter, who has one assist in 16 games, has played his way into the mix with his tenacity.

"(Porter) wins all the board battles," Hitchcock said. "The fourth line's got to win a lot more board battles than they're winning right now. It's one and done and it's not good enough. We need to get more play from our fourth line, more sustained pressure, more weight and tenacity brought in. Every time it seems like we play him on our team, our team plays really well. He plays really sound. He's got a great conscience, he's a smart player. If he can finish on all the empty nets, he'd probably have 20 goals this year even in a limited role. He wins all the board battles and that's exactly what we need from that line right now."

- - -

After picking up his 30th point of the season Thursday against the Minnesota Wild, Vladimir Sobotka gave the Blues 11 players this season with 30 points or more, which is No. 1 in the NHL.

Balance is the key for the Blues, who don't rely on that one go-to guy for point production.

Among the 30-point club are T.J. Oshie (60), Alexander Steen (58), David Backes (55), Jaden Schwartz (53), Alex Pietrangelo (49), Vladimir Tarasenko (43), Shattenkirk (42), Derek Roy (37), Jay Bouwmeester (36), Patrik Berglund (32) and Sobotka (30).

"I think some players are playing to their potential, but I think the other thing we've done is really since training camp, we've put in so many competitive drills during the hockey practices that it's impacted the way guys are outworking goaltenders," Hitchcock said. "I think it's just our mindset. 

"We play defense to create offense rather than just play defense to play defense rather than just play defense to play defense. Our mindset is how fast can we play defense to get it back in the offensive zone. We have this reputation of being a big team. We're not really that big, but we are quick. We can create turnovers and if we get in the offensive zone, I think that's kind of the focus for us."

- - -

* Steen will play in his 600th career game tonight. He has 154 goals and 361 points.

* With a victory tonight, the Blues will match the 1999-2000 team for most wins in franchise history.

* The Blues are 11-2-1 in their past 14 and 8-0-2 in their past 10 home games.

* The Blues are 22-5-7 in one-goal games, which is third-best in the NHL.

* The Blues' penalty kill is second in the NHL at 85.9 percent. They have killed 59 of 64 attempts since Feb. 1.

* The line of Steen, Backes and Oshie have 15 points the past two games and they're a combined plus-17.

- - -

The Blues' probable lineup:

Alexander Steen-David Backes-T.J. Oshie

Patrik Berglund-Vladimir Sobotka-Jaden Schwartz

Brenden Morrow-Derek Roy-Steve Ott

Chris Porter-Maxim Lapierre-Ryan Reaves

Jay Bouwmeester-Alex Pietrangelo

Barret Jackman-Roman Polak

Ian Cole-Kevin Shattenkirk

Ryan Miller will get the start in goal; Brian Elliott will be the backup.

Healthy scratches include Jordan Leopold, Carlo Colaiacovo, Magnus Paajarvi and Dmitrij Jaskin. Vladimir Tarasenko (thumb) is out.

- - -

The Stars' projected lineup:

Jamie Benn-Tyler Seguin-Valeri Nichushkin

Antoine Roussel-Cody Eakin-Ryan Garbutt

Shawn Horcoff-Vernon Fiddler-Colton Sceviour

Ray Whitney-Dustin Jeffrey-Alex Chiasson

Alex Goligoski-Trevor Daley

Jordie Benn-Brenden Dillon

Aaron Rome-Sergei Gonchar

Kari Lehtonen is expected to start in goal; Tim Thomas would be the backup.

Healthy scratches include Kevin Connauton and Chris Mueller, who the Stars called up from their American Hockey League affiliate, the Texas Stars. Erik Cole (upper body) and Rich Peverley (irregular heartbeat) are out.

Stars coach Lindy Ruff said Seguin (soreness), Whitney (sickness) and a host of other players are battling injury and illness. Some are questionable for tonight.

Friday, March 28, 2014

All systems go for Blues closing out regular season

Division, conference titles, Presidents' Trophy all goals 
within reach; team wants momentum heading into playoffs

ST. LOUIS -- It has been suggested at times that the Blues, who have sewn up a playoff berth already, rest players during the home stretch of the regular season.

The Blues have nine regular season games remaining, and then the "second season" begins with the Stanley Cup Playoffs on April 16.

However, there's still unfinished business. Much of it, as a matter of fact.
(St. Louis Blues/Mark Buckner)
The Blues and T.J. Oshie (74) have realistic goals still within reach as the
regular season is winding down. St. Louis has nine games remaining.

The first goal off the checklist (clinching a playoff spot) has been fulfilled. But winning a division title, earning the Western Conference's top seed and last but not least, winning the Presidents' Trophy, are all goals well within reason. 

And according to coach Ken Hitchcock, why not go for them?

"They validate the season," Hitchcock said of the goals. "They validate why you start putting your gear on in September, training like crazy and traveling all over the (United States and Canada) and asking a lot of your players. It validates some of the goals you had in September. 

"Our goal was to win the division, win the conference and have a crack at the Presidents' Trophy. We're in the race and if you're in the race, you might as well try to win it. That's our goal is to try and win it. If we don't, it'll take us 10 minutes to move on. We're not going to lose any sleep over it. But what the heck, if you're fighting for it, let's fight for it."

The Blues won their 50th game for only the second time in franchise history Thursday after defeating the Minnesota Wild 5-1 (they won 51 in the 1999-2000 season when they won the only Presidents' Trophy in franchise history). With the Wild and Dallas Stars, who visit Scottrade Center Saturday, these are potential first round opponents and sending a stern message now can only help create mental obstacles later.

"Momentum's a big thing going into the playoffs," defenseman Alex Pietrangelo said. "If we can generate some momentum here ... some of these teams we're playing now are potential first round opponents. You're trying to send a message of how we're going to be playing. I think we're feeling pretty confident where our game's at right now. If we can just continue to roll going into the playoffs, we're going to be alright."

"We're going to play a couple teams that most likely we're going to see at some point in the postseason," said right wing T.J. Oshie, who tallied his first career hat trick Thursday. "We want to make a statement. (Thursday) night was (about) going in and getting the two points and making a statement. I think we did a good job in doing that. ... If you get a little mental edge on someone, no matter how small it is, I think that plays a big part in the postseason."

When the Stars (who hosted the Nashville Predators on Friday) come to town, it will be the second of a five-game homestand. The Blues will have finished the season playing seven of 10 on home ice. And in Hitchcock's eyes, the message being sent could come from a different angle.

"Sending a message that we're going to be hard to play against at home is probably more important," Hitchcock said. "It happens to be Minnesota and Dallas who are sitting there right where we match up today, but I think it's more sending a message that we're not going to be easy to play against at home. I think that's better for our psyche because we're going to start at home if we keep playing this way. That's the message for us. It's a combination of getting our game in order but also being really hard to play against."

Two seasons ago when the Blues fell short by two points of winning the Presidents' Trophy, they stumbled down the stretch, going 3-4-3 before being blitzed with a four-game sweep by the Los Angeles Kings in the second round. They were 12-3 in April during the lockout-shortened season last year but were again eliminated by the Kings in the first round in six games.

"You look at (the last two seasons), we didn't play the best near the end of the year," Pietrangelo said. "Other than those Philly and Chicago games (recently), we've been playing some pretty good hockey, especially these last three (games). We've really seemed to put things in the right direction."

"If it's (being) 8-2 or 9-1, 10-0 or 5-5, I think that's maybe a side note," captain David Backes said. "I think how we're playing, four lines rolling and able to get our game to where we want it to be going into the playoffs is our main goal. ... We've got nine more contests against teams that are playing for playoff spots or jockeying for position. There's not going to be an easy one in the bunch. We've got to bring our 'A' game and see what kind of games the other teams are bringing. Hopefully there's a lot more smiles after games. The focus is on how we're playing and the results will take care of themselves. We want to be hitting our stride come playoff time."

Going in with momentum gives a team that advances deep or wins it all a huge boost.

"In the last 10 years, I've seen it once, maybe twice, a team limped in and played well," Hitchcock said. "... That's not a very good percentage. I think every player that has experience knows you have to play well going in to build momentum. You can't start the playoffs searching for your hockey game. You can't search for your identity in Game 1 of the playoffs. You've got to have a lot of things going for you. If you're trying to find your game leading into the playoffs, you're going to have a really tough go. Momentum is everything and we've got to find a way to keep playing well."

One thing is for certain: the Blues (50-16-7) will embrace any role, any situation or any scenario they're put in. They have no choice, but it's a chance to prove their worth in the process.

"We're not going to run and hide from being a good team," Hitchcock said. "We're not going to be overwhelmed because we're the favorites in a playoff series or we're expected to win a playoff series. We're not going to run and hide from that. We're going to embrace it. I look at what's coming up and the opportunity in the next nine games ... I don't want us getting too far ahead of ourselves, but I look at the next nine games as strong prep and getting ready for the postseason. But I also look at the opportunity in front of us right now, and it's a great opportunity. I think the players want to embrace that. 

"I think they look at this as, 'Heck, why not us? Why not us giving ourselves a chance?' Everybody talks about our inexperience of getting further in the playoffs, but those other teams had to start our somewhere, too. Why not us give ourselves a chance to see how far we can go? So they're not running and hiding from any responsibilities."

So for those looking for the Blues to sit people out, don't count on it or expect it unless a player needs it for injury-related purposes. 
(St. Louis Blues/Mark Buckner)
Roman Polak (left) and Jaden Schwartz (right) want to help the Blues gain
momentum heading into the playoffs.

"No I'm not looking at that. They've got time to rest," Hitchcock said of the players. "I'm looking at playing well. I don't think resting people ... we've got 20,000 people in the building that we have an obligation to. I'm not going to go crazy and over-play people, but I think allowing people to play and people pay good money to see us play well. I'm not going to cheat the fans by doing things, but at the same time, I'm not going to play a player that can use a day off because of injury either. We've got enough depth to play with. There's times we want to see other people play. We might bring a defenseman or two into the mix here in the next two or three games just to get them some more experience, but from that standpoint, I'm not going to sit people out because it's a chance to rest them or anything like that."

Heading into Friday's games, the Blues led the Boston Bruins by one point in the race for the Presidents' Trophy, the San Jose Sharks by four points in the Western Conference race and the Chicago Blackhawks by eight points in the race for the Central Division. 

Someone has to be at the top of the heap. Why not the Blues?

"I think we want to make a statement around the league that we deserve to be where we're at," Oshie said. "We want the target on our back and we want that trophy."

* NOTES -- Hitchcock wouldn't commit to a lineup against the Stars, who defeated the Blues 3-2 in overtime during the teams' last meeting here in St. Louis on March 11. Hitchcock hinted the same lineup that played Thursday would be in tact. Ryan Miller, 9-2-1 with a 2.03 goals-against average and .918 save percentage with the Blues, will start in goal.

Carlo Colaiacovo, who has taken the latest turn as the sixth defenseman and run with the opportunity the past three games, is playing arguably his best as a Blue paired with Kevin Shattenkirk the past two games. It will be hard for Hitchcock to remove him from the lineup, but the coach said both Jordan Leopold and Ian Cole need to get in the lineup before the postseason begins.

"They're not going to sit too long," Hitchcock said of Leopold and Cole. "They're going to get in. 

"It's hard to take Carlo out, but we've got to get these guys in some games. Shatty's a guy that can play with anybody and in any situation. These guys have got to play and they're going to play."

- - Vladimir Tarasenko (thumb) has not been cleared to skate nine days after having surgery. Hitchcock said he hopes Tarasenko will get cleared "in the next little while," but he wasn't clear when that would be.

Tarasenko's initial prognosis was that he would be reevaluated in six weeks. He was injured against the Nashville Predators on March 15.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Oshie's first hat trick leads Blues past Wild 5-1

Combined with Steen, Backes, St. Louis top line has 15 
points in two games; team remains top team in NHL with 107 points

ST. LOUIS -- Lyla Grace Oshie was born a St. Patrick's Day baby on March 17. She may not understand what her dad is doing on the ice these days, but T.J. Oshie's daughter will certainly see it firsthand once she's old enough.

Oshie had been looking for a way to score a goal for Lyla. He got it Tuesday against the Toronto Maple Leafs after being blanked the first three games.

But Thursday night brought a new souvenir for 'Baby Oshie.' It's another puck, but this one comes after dad netted his first career hat trick in a 5-1 victory against the Minnesota Wild at Scottrade Center.
(St. Louis Blues/Mark Buckner)
Behind the first career hat trick for T.J. Oshie (74) and a 27-save effort
from Ryan Miller (39), the Blues blasted the Wild 5-1 Thursday night.

Oshie brought the puck home from Toronto to add to a collection of keepsakes for his daughter. He'll add another after Thursday's milestone.

"She already got one ... maybe that third one will definitely go to her," Oshie said. "It's exciting, exciting night. Happy to get the win.

"I think (the hat trick) just a bonus. We're really focusing on playing good, team hockey right now. That's what we got tonight. A few of them just happened to go off my stick. The next night is going to be someone else."

Oshie's three goals is a culmination of his consistent play in recent weeks, but Blues coach Ken Hitchcock feels it's more of a reflection of the Blues' top line with David Backes and Alexander Steen.

Backes had two assists and Steen had an assist Thursday. Combined with their efforts against the Maple Leafs on Tuesday, the line has 15 points in two games. 

"I think the whole line's playing," Hitchcock said. "They're really playing with a strong focus, but now they're really trying to lead us. I think they're trying to get details in their game. Obviously when you're leaders like they are, you get the details in their game and it forces other people to have details in their game. 

"I think they're getting ready for the playoffs. They're not trying to just ease their way into it, they're trying to play their way into it. I think they're doing a bang-up job every night. They're reading off each other, their puck support ... I think the biggest thing for me is their puck support. They're movement away from the puck is really back to where it was at the start of the year and I think it's really, really impressive."

Backes, who got into an altercation with Wild goalie Darcy Kuemper in the second period, was happy for his teammate.

"Heck of a performance by him," Backes said of Oshie. "He's been a horse for us all year; strung a couple great shots together, a top to capitalize on that last one. I couldn't be happier for him. He's worked his butt off all year. To have the last two games like he's had, he's well-deserving and I couldn't be happier for him."

Jaden Schwartz and Brenden Morrow scored for the Blues, who leapfrogged the Boston Bruins for the points lead in the NHL standings and race for the Presidents' Trophy (107-106). The Bruins defeated the Chicago Blackhawks 3-0 earlier Thursday.

Ryan Miller made 27 saves and is 9-2-1 with the Blues. Jay Bouwmeester had two assists.

The Blues (50-16-7) reached 50 wins for the first time since 1999-2000 when they won 51 games in their only Presidents' Trophy-winning season.

St. Louis is 8-0-2 in its past 10 home games, 11-2-1 overall in the past 13, and have defeated the Wild nine straight times. Minnesota (37-26-11) is 3-5-4 in its past 12 games and lead the Phoenix Coyotes by one point for the top wild card in the Western Conference after Phoenix defeated the New Jersey Devils 3-2 in a shootout Thursday.

Oshie scored twice in the first period; his first, which tied a career-high 19th of the season set in 2011-12, came when he collected a rebound in the slot and beat Darcy Kuemper high glove side 4:43 into the game for a 1-0 lead.

St. Louis is 40-2-5 when scoring the first goal.

Oshie's second of the game and career-best 20th of the season came shorthanded. He picked Jaren Spurgeon's pass and raced in alone before beating Kuemper five-hole for a 2-0 lead with 26 seconds left.

The Blues had to kill off a four-minute power play after Kevin Shattenkirk was in the box for roughing Cody McCormick. The Blues took exception to McCormick getting an elbow up high on Shattenkirk.

"I think it was more of a message goal," Oshie said. "I don't know what the replay showed, but I think that was a questionable play by them that got the whole thing started. We had our little scrum and to put the puck in the net, it fired us up a little bit, especially me."

Oshie's third goal came off a Bouwmeester left point shot, with Oshie getting the tip in front at 7:18 of the third period. 

There was some debate whether Steen got a tip on the puck. He did, but there was a double deflection.

"I'm pretty sure we both touched it," Oshie said. "I don't know who touched it last.

"He came right away to me and said it was mine. Steener's too good of a guy to take that one."

Backes scored three goals Tuesday against the Maple Leafs. It was the first time the Blues had a hat trick in back-to-back games since the 2000-01 season when Pavol Demitra scored on Dec. 20 and Michal Handzus scored on Dec. 23.

Minnesota was 0-for-3 on the power play in the first period, 0-for-6 in the game.

The Blues' penalty kill, which had its work cut out the entire night, thwarted the Wild on all six opportunities and has now killed 59 of 66 dating back to Feb. 1.

"It's big. They're a team that needs the points," Miller said of the Wild. "They have a good power play, they move the puck well, they have some dangerous guys. 

"We just stuck together. We got some good blocks, good reads, some nice plays and it it was one of those games where you're going to have to kill them and not get too frustrated because you know you're not going to get the calls tonight."

Schwartz added to his career-high goal total when he scored his 23rd on the power play in the second period, firing a shot from the right circle into the top corner over Kuemper with 6:50 remaining in the second for a 3-0 lead.

Kuemper stopped 19 shots for the Wild; he is 1-5-2 in his past eight decisions after winning five consecutive starts.
(St. Louis Blues/Mark Buckner)
The Blues' Jaden Schwartz (left) battles with the Wild's Mikko Koivu for
the puck Thursday night at Scottrade Center.

Morrow scored the Blues' second power-play goal 10:45 into the third period after a two-man advantage expired.

Parise snapped Miller's shutout 26 seconds later off a feed from Charlie Coyle. Miller's last shutout was 99 games ago against the Montreal Canadiens on March 21, 2012.

"It would have been nice," Miller said, "but I felt like [Thursday] was a step forward as far as communication with the 'D.'"

The Blues don't like to talk about statement games. They prefer to debate whether they play the right way or not.

"I don't know if Hitch will agree, but it's one of those games where you're home after being on the road for a little bit," Backes said. "There always seems to be something about that where teams come out a little flat. We had times where we were real good managing the puck, the power play was pretty efficient tonight. There were other times when we were turning pucks over and they were forcing us into turnovers where we weren't getting them below the goal line and they were turning it into transition and had a few great chances. Millsie made a lot of timely saves. I think everyone's kicking themselves a little bit that we let up the one with 10 minutes left or so."

(3-27-14) Wild-Blues Gameday Lineup

ST. LOUIS -- It was after a 4-1 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers that Blues coach Ken Hitchcock felt like his defensive pairings needed some tweaking.

Barret Jackman and Kevin Shattenkirk have been a staple on the blue line, in the mold of Jay Bouwmeester and Alex Pietrangelo. It's been the back pair, anchored by Roman Polak, that have seen guys come and go.

Polak has had to make the biggest adjustments, playing with three different partners at various times throughout the season. He'd go from Jordan Leopold to Ian Cole to most recently, Carlo Colaiacovo.

But after the game in Philadelphia, Hitchcock made the change and went with a familiar, reliable pair.

When the Blues faced the Pittsburgh Penguins on Sunday, Polak was paired with Jackman, a group the Blues have used often the past two seasons. And making up the final group: Shattenkirk and Colaiacovo, who saw limited ice time together when Shattenkirk arrived in a trade from the Colorado Avalanche in 2011.

The Blues have won games against the Penguins (1-0) and the Toronto Maple Leafs (5-3) since the change and the pairs will remain the same today when the Blues (49-16-7) host the Minnesota Wild (37-25-11) at 7 p.m. (FSN, KMOX 1120-AM).

Hitchcock has been most impressed with Colaiacovo and Shattenkirk, both puck-moving defensemen with not a lot of size but guys who can maintain offensive zone time with their ability to hang onto and move the puck.

"It frees up the pair of Shattenkirk and Carlo to really take some risks offensively, which is helping us because they're smart players," Hitchcock said. "They know when to get in and get out. I think by the way it gets matched up, those guys are able to maybe do some things in the offensive zone that really help; join the rush, the tempo and the way they transition the puck, the way they pass the puck as a pair. It makes it a pretty dynamic pair. I think allowing that pair to hang on offense longer without risk is helping us a lot. 

"I think both Polak and Jackman, we've used the pair before, but they weren't great on transition last year at times in the playoffs but this year they've been a lot better. For whatever the reason, they've both been able to move the puck crisp, they've been able to transition it quickly up front. Whether it's the sum of parts, two guys working together, the way the six have gone, it's made us faster on the back-end, especially on the puck movement. It's helped us a lot."

Hitchcock noted that Shattenkirk had five pinch opportunities in the game against the Maple Leafs, and all five had scoring chances.

"The easy thing about playing with Carlo is he loves talking, he loves communicating," Shattenkirk said. "For anyone, that makes things a breeze to play with. We've just taken a lot of pride every time we go out there and proving ourselves and making sure that we are as strong defensively as the groups in front of us. 

"It's always an adjustment, but so far it's been good that we've been able to ... it worked well in Pittsburgh. We were able to get things going there and I think having that early success allowed it to be a little more seamless than we though. ... As a team, we've been forechecking and backchecking well lately. Our gaps have been great as a pair. I think that's allowed us to 1) to stay out of our zone, and 2) to be able to have more time with the puck. We've been transitioning the puck quickly and that's where the two of us feel most comfortable when the puck's on our stick."

Polak and Jackman are back on familar ground, creating havoc with their physicality.

"I love playing with Roman," Jackman said. "You know what you get with him. He's going to be 100 percent on every play, he's physical, he can skate when he gets those big tree trunks going, he's a beast. ... He's a very defensive-minded player."

All the changes haven't seemed to affect Polak's play for the most part. There have been a few ups and downs, but playing with Jackman will only highlight the ups.

"It is what it is. I don't really mind," Polak said. "... You have to make a little adjustment. Everybody has a little different style, but I think I know the guys for a long time and I've almost played with everyone. I don't think it's a big deal.

"Me and Jacks are like a shutdown pair. Both guys are staying at home. It's a different style of hockey, but I like it with Jacks. We know each other."

So who takes the initiative when jumping into the offensive plays? Jackman has a simple solution.

"Looks like we play rock, paper, sissors for who has to go," Jackman joked. "Roman the last 10-15 games has really been jumping and making some unbelievable reads. He's been playing great offensively. I'll let him go when he's got the gas. Seems like he's always got the gas."

The group has left both Jordan Leopold and Ian Cole on the outside looking in at the moment, but that doesn't mean both will stay there.

"I wouldn't go crazy and say we're going to start Game 1 of the playoffs like this, but through necessity, we were forced to look at this, and it worked," Hitchcock said. "So we want to continue down this path. We're not opposed to change in-game or based on competition. I don't think you want to cast it, but I think the one thing that has happened is the pair of Colaiacovo and Shattenkirk have been able to do a lot of things against the different opposition that have really helped us keep a much stronger offensive game going."

- - -

* The Blues are 10-2-1 in the past 13 games overall and 7-0-2 on home ice, earning points in nine straight at Scottrade Center.

* The Blues will enter tonight's game killing off 53 of 58 penalties. They're third in the NHL with an 85.6 percent efficiency mark.

* Blues captain David Backes has four goals in the past two games and six in five. In what should be a Selke Trophy nomination, Backes is four goals off his career-high mark of 31.

* The Blues are on an eight-game winning streak against the Wild with three shutouts. St. Louis is 4-0-1 in the past five home meetings against the Wild. 

- - -

The Blues' probable lineup:

Alexander Steen-David Backes-T.J. Oshie

Patrik Berglund-Vladimir Sobotka-Jaden Schwartz

Brenden Morrow-Derek Roy-Steve Ott

Magnus Paajarvi-Maxim Lapierre-Ryan Reaves

Jay Bouwmeester-Alex Pietrangelo

Barret Jackman-Roman Polak

Carlo Colaiacovo-Kevin Shattenkirk

Ryan Miller will get the start in goal; Brian Elliott is the backup.

Healthy scratches include Chris Porter, Dmitrij Jaskin, Jordan Leopold and Ian Cole. Vladimir Tarasenko (thumb) is out.

- - -

The Wild's probable lineup:

Zach Parise-Mikael Granlund-Jason Pominville

Matt Moulson-Mikko Koivu-Charlie Coyle

Matt Cooke-Kyle Brodziak-Nino Niederreiter

Dany Heatley-Erik Haula-Cody McCormick

Ryan Suter-Jared Spurgeon

Jonas Brodin-Nate Prosser

Marco Scandella-Jonathan Blum

Darcy Kuemper will get the start in goal; Ilya Bryzgalov is the backup.

Healthy scratches include Mike Rupp, Justin Fontaine and Stephane VeilleuxJason Zucker (quad), Keith Ballard (groin), Clayton Stoner (knee), Josh Harding (illness) and Niklas Backstrom (abdomen).