Thursday, April 1, 2021

Ready or not, Blues set to face meat of their schedule

Team in 2-5-4 slide set to meet arguably one of 
hottest teams in Avalanche, 10-0-2 in its past 12 games

ST. LOUIS -- Breaktime is over for the Blues, and it's time to get into the gauntlet of their schedule that begins with arguably the hottest team in the league right now.

When the Blues (16-13-6) drop the puck on Friday, they'll do so against the Colorado Avalanche (23-8-4), who are 10-0-2 in their past 12 games and have outscored their opponents 58-19. 

Yes, 58-19, an average of 4.8 goals for and 1.6 against.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Blues defenseman Marco Scandella (left) and Avalanche forward Gabriel
Landeskog will likely collide again in a two-game set beginning Friday. 

Meanwhile, the Blues went into their four-game mini break from the schedule scuffling. They're 0-3-1 in their past four games and 2-5-4 in their past 11 and are coming off back-to-back losses -- at home, mind you -- to the lowly Anaheim Ducks, last in the West Division, and a team you're expected to take four points from, especially on home ice. But that's a story for another day, the home ice mess.

The Blues play 17 of their final 21 games against the Avs (six times), Vegas (four) and Minnesota (seven), the teams directly above them and while they're trying to hold on for dear life to the fourth and final playoff spot in the division.

So the focus has to be singular and not that they're playing these teams down the stretch. Somehow, that cliche one game at a time has to be the focus moving forward, and it's something coach Craig Berube has preached since Day 1.

"I don't think the focus has changed," Berube said. "We're trying to win games. That's it. I think our game's gotten better. I look at the two San Jose games, the Vegas game and these last three. I didn't like the Vegas game, but going into the third period in Vegas, we're tied, so we obviously did some good things, but the game itself wasn't the same as these last ones. So we win two in San Jose, go into Vegas and didn't turn out how we wanted it (to). Our third period had to be better. I thought we played a real good game in Minny and I think we played well enough to win games here at home against Anaheim, but in the end, they're not wins. We talk about goal scoring, we talk about this or that, it's just finding ways to win games and get the confidence level back up. That's where the focus is. I think we've got good players, really good players and I think we're a real good team, but in the end, you've got to win games."

So how does one get confident playing against the Avalanche, a team the Blues haven't seen since the first two games of the regular season? They split those games, with the Blues playing arguably their best game of the season in winning the opener, 4-1, before getting wiped out in the second, 8-0.

"It's good in a way that every game's important coming in," center Tyler Bozak said. "We're going to play a lot of meaningful games against really, really good teams that we're probably going to have to go through anyways if we want to get to what our goal is. 

"With Colorado, they have a ton of power. They can score a lot of goals. We're going to have to play a style that makes us successful. It may not be the prettiest, but we've got to be good defensively, we can't turn pucks over we've got to be hard on their top guys and take away their time and space and limit their opportunities and time with the puck."

A team that's lacking confidence, the last thing they need is this juggernaut coming at them, one that will not feel sorry for the Blues in the least as they piece together their lineup that was full of holes due to injuries. 

Ivan Barbashev (hairline fracture in left ankle) is the latest that could return on Friday after going through a second full practice.

"It's always good to have depth. I think we have a lot of depth here, a lot of guys that can jump in and play different roles," Bozak said. "Obviously you want to find accommodations that work best and have the best chemistry. The guys I'm with now, it's going to be fun. They're very hard-working guys, great on the forecheck. We all kind of bring a different element. Hopefully those things mesh together and we work together well in the game."

They'll all have to work well together going against Colorado on back-to-back nights, and they'll have to do so staring the grim reaper right in the face.

"I don't think you want to go in there and be on your heels," Berube said. "You've got to go in there and initiate, I think. We've got to take the play to them in my opinion, we've got to make it a hard forechecking game, good decisions with the puck and put them on their heels. You can't sit back and let them come at you, you can't give them too much respect. You've got to go out and play and it's going to come down to real good puck decisions, getting on the forecheck and forcing them into making bad decisions with the puck, being physical and hard on them. It all boils down to doing a good job at both nets. We're going to have to get to the net on this team offensively and we're going to have to defend our net very well. They do a good job of getting people there, shooting pucks, getting rebounds and tips and things like that. The other part of the game that they're dangerous obviously is special teams. They're good in both areas. Our special teams have to be better than theirs this weekend."

Yep, all that, and then some. But maybe this is what the Blues need. Maybe they'll understand that if they don't come together as a group and be ready to play, they'll get kicked in the teeth. So why not go full-bore and get after this team and perhaps try and build off some of the good that happened the past few games?

"I think that our focus on the last three games definitely has been a lot better," forward David Perron said. "We had some points that the coaching staff kind of challenged us to do and we saw results in that way as far as limiting shots, having more shots on our team for us, but it didn't result in team wins just yet, but I think that the wheel is starting to go the other way in the right direction. I'm sure you remember 'Hitch' always saying that when you play good hockey, and when you're not playing good hockey and just want to turn it around, it just doesn't happen by flipping a switch. I feel like we've got that going in the right direction and hopefully we can build on the good positives, little things that we did and also keep that and keep adding so that it does result in team wins because at the end of the day, that's really what matters too."

So how do the Blues keep Colorado away from scoring a bushel of goals?

"I think the more we can play with the puck in the offensive zone, build on offensive zone time, that will limit a lot of what they want to do," defenseman Robert Bortuzzo said. "They're a very dangerous team off the rush. We'll have to be good with the puck in the neutral zone. But at the same time, when they get in the o-zone, I believe they score a lot of goals around the net and they're hard at the net. They're going to score a lot of their goals off the rush noticing this year, but I think they're a tenacious team offensively that we're going to have to be hard around our net and coming out of our own end will be a big part of our game."

* NOTES -- Of the guys in question this week, only defenseman Colton Parayko is not going to make the trip, Berube said.

Parayko has been dealing with an upper-body injury and missed the past 19 games, in which the Blues are 7-8-4.

Parayko has been on the ice regularly in the past couple weeks but it's evident he's not ready for action yet.

"No, he will not make the trip," Berube said. "I don't know how long, but he's not making the trip."

As for defenseman Vince Dunn, who did not play against the Ducks last Sunday after taking a shot off the knee against Anaheim on Friday, Berube said, "I think he's fine to go. He looked OK to me, not great, but I think he's fine to go."

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