Monday, January 1, 2018


Blues start second half against Devils; time 
changes for two games; Sanford resumes skating

ST. LOUIS -- The Blues will begin the second half of the season on Tuesday when they begin a short two-game homestand against the New Jersey Devils (7 p.m.; FS-MW, KMOX 1120-AM).

At 24-15-2, the Blues are on pace for 100 points, which is likely good enough to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and it's been an adventurous first half, one in which included a team projected to take a dip in the standings getting off to a terrific start, setting franchise records for points at various junctures early in the schedule despite some key injuries to players such as Alexander Steen, Jay Bouwmeester, Robby Fabbri and Zach Sanford. Jaden Schwartz, Brayden Schenn and Vladimir Tarasenko were the talk of the league, tearing up the offensive trail on a pace that warranted conversations as being among the best lines in the NHL. But it was a bumpy December that included more injuries (Schwartz more noticeably) and a 7-8-1 record.

But the Blues are right in the thick of the ultra-competitive Central Division race, trailing WInnipeg by two points and Nashville by one.

Now as the schedule lightens up with 11 games in 31 January days after 16 games in 31 days in December, the Blues will hope to use some mental and physical breathing room while teams with games in hand play out the final three-plus months with games compacted close together.

"I think obviously we'd have liked to have had a few more wins in there, but I don't think we can sit here and say, 'Phew, we're out of the woods here,'" Blues coach Mike Yeo said. "I think we've played two real good games in a row. ... The mindset now has to be every night, we have to be all in to our game, we have to be ready to play, compete at a high level. When we do those things, then we get rewarded more often than not."

Only Arizona (41) has played as many games as the Blues, who look to benefit from having a bye week this month (Jan. 9-15), plus the All-Star break (Jan. 26-29).

"Right now with the way our group is, a little rest is probably a good thing," Blues left wing Scottie Upshall said. "We've got some guys that aren't 100 percent but are battling every night. Having a little bit of a bye week and then the All-Star break, it's going to be an opportunity to reset, but there's a lot of games against good opponents. We've got Vegas coming in, Jersey's a great team, there's some big games and big points to have here in the next little bit. Those are huge."

What the Blues want to do is just keep pace and stay in that top eight. If they can win a division title, go for it. If they can earn a top seed in the conference, go for it. But they key is to try and stay as healthy as possible, get back some of those missing longterm and pull together all the resources possible.

"It was a tough month for us, for sure having trouble scoring goals," Blues center Kyle Brodziak said. "... We know we're a better team than what we've shown in the last month. It's something that's just got to build back up again. We did a real good job coming out of the gates playing as well as we did. We took a little step back fro a while and we've just got to try coming to the rink and building it back up to where we're capable of being.

"I think physically, mentally as well, the rest will be good. The last month or so has been a bit of a grind. It feels like, especially when you're losing, you don't feel like you have a chance to step back and take a deep breath and kind of reassess things. It just almost feels like night after night. We got caught in a little bit of a downward spiral and hopefully this next month of having a couple of breaks and getting a chance to reset will do some good things for us."

* Schedule time changes -- Two Sunday game times in February have been changed to accommodate coverage from NBC.

The Blues' home game on Feb. 11 against the Pittsburgh Penguins has been moved from 2 p.m. to 11:20 a.m. and the Feb. 25 road game at Nashville has been moved from 5 p.m. to 11:20 a.m.

The game against the Penguins will wrap up a slate of three games in less than four days for the Blues and four of six, and the Nashville game starts a three-game in four-day set.

Both games will lead into NBC’s coverage of the XXIII Olympic Winter Games from PyeongChang, South Korea.

* Sanford skating -- Remember Sanford? No? Well, he was to have a top nine role on the team this season, likely a role on the third line before dislocating his left shoulder on the first day of training camp on Sept. 15.

Sanford, acquired from the Washington Capitals on Feb. 27, 2017 for Kevin Shattenkirk, had surgery to repair the shoulder and was at the time to be reevaluated in six months. But he has resumed skating to get his conditioning off and running in anticipation for a possible return sometime late in the season.

"Skating before the group here," Yeo said. "It's a good sign. We've obviously talked about 'Schwartzy,' we've talked about Robby and 'Bouw' and some of the injuries that we've had. For me, camp, Day 1, [Sanford] goes down and that was a bit of a blow. I was expecting big things from Zach this year. Hopefully he can turn this season around and still be a positive. He's a kid with a real bright future. Obviously he's got size, he's got skill and he's got sort of an attitude and a presence about him that you like in hockey players."

* New Year's practice -- After taking New Year's Eve off, the Blues were back on the ice to ring in 2018 at Scottrade Center in preparation of the Devils, who are one of the surprising teams in the Eastern Conference at 22-10-6.

The Blues won the only meeting between the teams this season, 3-1 at New Jersey on Nov. 7.

"Yeah, I think it was a good practice," Yeo said. "Glad that we got the day off, glad that we got to practice today and now, we know we have to be good tomorrow. I think that this is a team that, for me, is the most improved team this year. You look at Vegas and what they've done and obviously that's a new team, we don't have anything to compare to, but Jersey and what they've done is really impressive."

The Blues, despite a run of losing five of six games prior to a 3-2 win over Carolina on Saturday, have been building their game back to respectable level and Yeo thinks it's happening.

"Yeah, I have, and you obviously look at that Edmonton game (on Dec. 21), we played 55 minutes really well, I think the Dallas game (Dec. 29), we played 55 minutes really well and last game I think was a complete game. I feel like we're close to being on top of our game and the most important think for us now is to make sure we don't just say, 'OK, that's great. We got the win and now we're back.' We have to keep working and keep building here because we've got another tough test tomorrow."

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