Saturday, March 8, 2014

Under the radar Avs join Blues, Blackhawks in division race

Young Colorado team not leaving perch near top of 
Central Division, set for key showdown with St. Louis today

Much of the talk in the NHL pipelines continues to revolve around the Blues and Chicago Blackhawks as the teams fighting for not only the Central Division title but the overall best record as well.

True to form, the Blues (42-14-6, 90 points) and Blackhawks (37-13-14, 88 points) are right there with the best of them with a fifth of their remaining, respective schedules left to be played.

However, not a lot of fuss has been made of the Colorado Avalanche, the Blues' opponent today at 2 p.m. (FSN, KMOX 1120-AM). The Avs (41-17-5, 87 points) are right there clawing on the heels of the Blackhawks and a win today against the Blues will put them one point out of the Central Division lead.

The Avs are young and energetic and the going consensus was that they would so some point fall off after a great start under first-year coach Patrick Roy but that has not been the case.

"They got our attention the last game we played Colorado (a 4-1 Blues victory Nov. 27 in Denver) ... I don't know what it is, but they play with a lot of pizazz and risk and they get away with it every time," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said. "They're hard to play against because they don't pay for their mistakes. Their goalie sweeps up their mess and they don't come off of the way they play. They get down 2-0, it doesn't even faze them. They just keep coming at you. 

"I know everybody in the West is going, 'Boy, I'm not sure we'd like that team (in the playoffs).' They're young and they've got a lot of top-end skill, but they've got a swagger about them. They don't care; they just keep coming. I'm sure they get down 3-, 4-0, they don't even think about it. They know they've got a lot of goals in that group. That's a scary team to have to play against."

The Blues are 2-0 against the Avalanche, including a 7-3 victory at Scottrade Center on Nov. 14 but have not seen Colorado 13 weeks.

"We've done really well against them because we've made them uncomfortable and that's the thing for us is we've got to continue to make them uncomfortable so they can't get on that swagger game that they're capable of," Hitchcock said.

With 20 games remaining, the Blues will continue their push for the top of the NHL, and it's a goal well within reach so might as well make it a priority.

The Blues have only one Presidents' Trophy in franchise history, in 1999-2000 when they finished 51-19-11-1, good for 114 points.

"As long as it's goal-oriented and it's realistic, then let's go for it," Hitchcock said. "What the heck, let's have a goal, let's go for it, keep ourselves focused. It's not just play games to play games. 

"We wanted to lead the division at the break; we did it. We wanted to continue to lead the division and obviously chasing the Presidents' Trophy means you've led the division, too. Let's be goal-oriented. I think just playing games is walking around in the wilderness. I don't like that feeling at all. We talked about that with the players, and it was a real eye-opener for me when two guys put their hands up ... those are the only two players that have won a Presidents' Trophy (Brenden Morrow in Dallas and Maxim Lapierre in Vancouver). Why not do that? Why not go for it?"

* NOTES -- Ryan Miller (3-0 since being acquired with a 1.67 goals-against average and .921 save percentage since being acquired by the Blues last week), will start his fourth consecutive game today.

Hitchcock said that the team likely won't use Miller on back-to-back games, so unless something changes, look for Brian Elliott to get the start tomorrow night in Minnesota.

... Also, the League announced on Friday that the April 6 game between the Blues and Blackhawks has been moved from a 6:30 p.m. start time to 11:30 a.m. and will be broadcast as a national television game as part of the NBC Game of the Week.

... The Blues are 16-0-1 against Central Division opponents this season after Thursday's 2-1 win at Nashville and will look to extend that mark today. They have won 13 straight within the division.

... With an afternoon game, there is no morning skate today, so expect the Blues to use the same lineup as the previous two games barring any gameday changes today:

Alexander Steen-David Backes-T.J. Oshie

Jaden Schwartz-Patrik Berglund-Vladimir Tarasenko

Brenden Morrow-Derek Roy-Steve Ott

Magnus Paajarvi-Maxim Lapierre-Ryan Reaves

Jay Bouwmeester-Alex Pietrangelo

Barret Jackman-Kevin Shattenkirk

Ian Cole-Roman Polak

Ryan Miller in goal; Brian Elliott is the backup

Healthy scratches include Carlo Colaiacovo and Chris Porter. Vladimir Sobotka (knee) and Jordan Leopold (ankle) remain sidelined with injuries.

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