ST. PAUL - Trailing 3-2 in the best-of-7 series, the Blues enter Sunday’s Game 6 against the Minnesota Wild with one simple goal: bring the series back home.
“The last thing Minnesota wants to do is have this thing come back to our building. That’s the last thing they want,” Blues Head Coach Ken Hitchcock said. “We have to make sure they get to look that in the eye. That’s our goal, that’s the whole focus for us. Just bring this thing home.”
A potential Game 7 would be Wednesday night at Scottrade Center.
Let’s focus on some positives. As they face a must-win situation on the road, it’s important to note the Blues have been an outstanding road team this season, going 24-12-5 in the regular season, which was third-best in the League. In the last game at Xcel Energy Center, the Blues scored six goals in the first 40 minutes en route to a 6-1 victory in Game 4. That’s the game the Blues want to draw from entering Sunday’s contest.
And except for the second period, the Blues were pretty good in Game 5, too. Minnesota was limited to just three shots in both the first and third periods, but the Wild capitalized on the limited opportunities they received. The Blues created plenty of their own chances but just need to find a way to bury them.
“We had our fair share of chances (in Game 5),” Blues forward Alexander Steen said. “I thought myself, I had two and didn’t bury them. Obviously, they get one in the other end a few minutes later. Those pucks have to get in.
“It’s playoffs, it’s tight margins,” Steen added. “We knew it was going to be a tight series. This is playoff hockey. Things aren’t just going to go easy. Right now we’re down 3-2 but we’re heading into Minny and we want to bring this series back. That’s our main focus.”
Neither team has been able to sustain momentum for more than one game in this series. As Hitchcock pointed out several days ago, he feels that both teams have to pour so much energy and emotion into a win that they’re drained when the next game rolls around.
If that rings true again, its advantage Blues in Game 6.
“Certainly (Game 6) is going to be our best,” Blues forward Jaden Schwartz said. “The season’s on the line really, plain and simple. We have to do everything we can to bring it back here. That has to be our mentality: leave everything out there and no excuses at the end of the game.”
ST. LOUIS - What a difference one game makes.
Down 2-1 in the series and coming off an uncharacteristic performance, the Blues exploded for six goals and dominated every aspect of Game 4 against the Wild. With the series even, the Blues have regained home-ice advantage in what is now a best-of-3 series.
“That’s exactly what we wanted to do,” Paul Stastny said. “We rolled four lines and kept going and going and didn’t really take our foot off the gas pedal. That was important for us.”
Jake Allen said he could sense a difference long before Game 4 began.
“I could tell after (Game 3), guys were not happy with their performance there,” Allen said. “It was unacceptable I think from our standpoint and we had a lot to prove and a lot of ground to make up. I could tell right after the game, the reaction from some of the guys, that the second game (in Minnesota) was going to be a lot better.”
If the Blues are to advance in this series, they’ll need a lot where that came from. To a man, they all expect a big push from the Wild in tonight’s Game 5 (8:30 p.m., FSMW, NBCSN, Y98).
"They'll come out, they'll be ready," Stastny said. "I think for us, it's about what we do. When we've won, when we've been successful, I think we've been more worried about our game plan and we've stuck to it and haven't deviated from it too much.”
“It was their turn to adjust a little bit,” Patrik Berglund said. “They’re going to come out with a big push, and they didn’t like the score last game - they’re going to be ready this time.”
Speaking of Berglund, the Blues have to be very happy with what he’s brought to the table in the series thus far.
Berglund has two goals and two assists in the first four games.
“He’s playing well. He’s had some huge goals for us,” Jaden Schwartz said. “He’s really working hard to get to the dirty areas and it’s nice to see. He’s a fun guy in the locker room and a big, key guy for our team. It’s nice to see him stepping up like this.”
“I think it started in the regular season with 10 games (left),” Head Coach Ken Hitchcock said. “He’s just having more fun playing hockey. No pressure on himself, not stressing about what he’s not doing - he’s just coming and competing and playing.
“He’s really playing well right now. He’s playing very effective.”
ST. PAUL - Blues Head Coach Ken Hitchcock told reporters after Tuesday’s practice that he wouldn’t show his lines during the morning skate prior to Game 4.
So take this entire blog with a grain of salt - it might be worthless by 8:30 p.m. when the Blues and Wild meet tonight in a pivotal contest (FSMW, NBCSN, Y98 FM).
But if the lines do stick, the Blues will be going back to something that worked for the majority of the regular season.
Do these look familiar?
“Those guys and I have a had a lot of success together,” Backes said of being reunited with Steen and Oshie. “They work their butts off and I try to help out. It’s a line combination that seemed to work no matter what situation we were put in. It seemed to have a good effect on the game, and that’s what we’re looking for this evening.”
“We want to make them familiar with each other,” Hitchcock said. “We know it’s going to be a hard game. There’s great chemistry and has been all year, especially with the first two lines, so we want to stay with that. Same thing with the first two D-pairs. We’ve reached a stage on our own team where we’ve got to expect a little bit more from guys and put them in a position to succeed, so we put them with guys they’ve spent most of the year with.”
“Portsy is a heck of a player. Probably the hardest working guy on our team by far,” Blues forward Steve Ott said. “His speed is a huge factor, physicality, also his puck play. He’s been very good for us. He had some injury trouble earlier in the year and that’s the only setback he’s had, because the rest of his game has been phenomenal. If I do get that chance to play with him, I know he’s going to be buzzing.”
ST. PAUL - If the Blues are to come back to St. Louis tied or leading their best-of-7 series with the Wild, it will be in large part because they carried their regular season road success into the postseason.
The Blues earned at least one point in eight of their final nine regular season road games (6-1-2) and finished with the NHL’s third-best road record overall, going 24-12-5.
“We’ve been a good road team,” Hitchcock said. “Sometimes it’s because you’re a little bit nervous or you don’t want to get beat, and so you have a real edge to your game and your focus. And I think we’ve played good on the road because our focus has been narrow and simple, and when we play a simple game, it’s effective.”
The Blues hope to carry that simple, focused game into tonight’s Game 3 at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul (FSMW, CNBC, KMOX).
“We have a lot of success playing a simple game on the road, playing a north game, keeping things out of our end,” said defenseman Alex Pietrangelo. “We’ve got to play the same way on the road as we play at home. You’re not going to get the match-ups you want, but we’re built on depth, so we’re not too worried about that.”
The Wild won 22 games at home during the regular season, which ranked 19th in the League. In their last 10 games at Xcel Energy Center, they were 4-5-1. But in the playoffs last season, the Wild went 5-1, so the Blues know they’ll have to earn their wins in this building.
“We’ve got to go there and play really well,” Hitchcock said. “We’ve got to play within our structure, because we’re going to have to win a game to take it back to get home ice back again, and so I think when we keep our focus narrow, we’re very, very, good.”
Through two games, Blues captain David Backes said he can feel the animosity between the teams ramping up.
“It’s been there since the realignment with the Central Division,” Backes said. “You see those guys four or five times a year, (in) preseason we see them twice a year now, and now we’re getting a little postseason action. There’s plenty of familiarity and things boiling…It’s a heck of a series so far. They’ve been pretty tight games, pretty entertaining games. It’s going to be another one tonight.”
ST. LOUIS - After a 4-2 loss in Game 1, Blues Head Coach Ken Hitchcock says he won’t change his lineup.
But he might make a tweak.
“There’s going to be instant chemistry there,” Oshie said after the team’s practice Friday at the Ice Zone. “We’ve played together for so long that when we play with someone else, we usually know it’s only a matter of time before we get back together.”
Late in Game 1 and at Friday’s practice, Hitchcock swapped Oshie with Berglund. For now, that’s the only tweak he’s expected to make.
“Not making any lineup changes,” Hitchcock said. “We need to play better. We need to play our way at a higher level, and if we do that, we’ll be in good shape. I think every aspect of our game needs to be amped up a little bit if we expect to beat this team. They’re a real good team, and we’re going to have to be on top of our game to beat them.”
It’s a safe assumption that the Blues weren’t on top of their game when the best-of-7 series opened on Thursday. Hitchcock liked the energy in the first period and in the third, but said his team was outplayed in the second.
“I thought they out-checked us. I thought their determination to defend was greater than ours was,” Hitchcock said. “There were ebbs and flows. We were really good in stages, they were better in more stages. I think their checking and their compete on the puck was at a little bit higher level throughout the lineup than ours was.
“They make you earn your stripes. It’s our job to earn our stripes,” Hitchcock added. “I thought we had times where we let them off the hook when we didn’t have to, and that fed the engine that fed the odd-man rushes. We gave up too many and it was a lot of the time when we had the puck. It was us having the puck in the offensive zone, getting checked off the puck, turning it over, and boom, they’re gone. And they’ve got the foot speed to go. We fed that engine a little too much.”
ST. LOUIS - Tonight might be Jake Allen’s first NHL playoff start, but he’s no stranger to postseason hockey.
Allen played 29 playoff games in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. He won a Gold Medal and was named MVP at the 2008 U-18 World Junior Championships, and he won a Silver Medal at the 2010 World Junior Championships.
“I’ve learned a lot, I’ve watched a lot,” Allen said. “I’ve been around people and associated with people that will pay off. Some guys have a lot more playoff experience than I do, but (there’s) a lot of big games I’ve played in, and I’ve felt every single game for me in the NHL is a big game.”
Tonight’s Game 1 will be another big one for Allen, but he’s proven he’s ready for it. In critical games down the stretch, Allen has gone eight consecutive games giving up two goals or fewer. In April, he went 3-1-0 with a League-leading 1.01 goals-against average and a .964 save-percentage. In addition, Allen earned two big 2-1 victories against the Chicago Blackhawks over his final three games to help the club wrap up the Central Division title.
Starting in the Stanley Cup Playoffs is a moment Allen says he’s been looking forward to since he was a kid.
“It was a pretty cool feeling to be honest,” he said. “I definitely wouldn’t think I’d be starting Game 1 at the start of the year. It’s been a whirlwind year for me and took five years to get to this point. It’s paying off.”
Blues Head Coach Ken Hitchcock made his goalie decision public after the team’s practice Wednesday at the Ice Zone at St. Louis Outlet Mall.
“It’s a decision we couldn’t be wrong with, to be honest with you,” Hitchcock said. “Jake has gotten really hot down the stretch, which was really good for us because we needed it, but just his overall development, and then the way he played in the last month, we wanted to give him a chance to go in the playoffs.”
“It’s been quite the year for me, a little bit of ups and downs,” Allen said. “I found myself and found my game. Now I get an opportunity…I’m excited for the chance.”
ST. LOUIS - Although Ken Hitchcock wouldn’t show his hand, he did indicate that the lineup could look different when the Blues host the Minnesota Wild at 2 p.m. (NBC, Y98) in the regular season finale today at Scottrade Center.
“We’ve got to integrate those guys in quickly and see how they look and how our team looks when they’re in,” Hitchcock said Friday. “They’re our most creative players, they’re the guys that have led our team in scoring all year. They’re going to do nothing but help us, but how it affects the way we play with everybody else is going to be a little bit of a change. Getting them in the lineup and having them play (Saturday) is real good for us.”
Without Steen and Tarasenko, Hitchcock was forced to shake up his lines and make adjustments, saying his club transitioned from more of a puck possession team to more of a “territorial” one.
Steen will be making his first appearance since sustaining a lower-body injury on March 28 vs. Columbus. Tarasenko will play in his first game since March 30 vs. Vancouver. Both players have been skating for several days but have joined the team practices more recently.
Outside of that, the roster is anyone’s guess.
With the Wild being a potential first-round playoff opponent, Hitchcock wants to keep everyone guessing.
“We’re going to make some changes,” he said. “We’re going to sit some people who are a little banged up and I’m sure they’re going to do the same thing. I don’t think either team is interested in showing their hand.
“You’ve got to do what’s best for Game 1 of the playoffs right now. What’s best for Game 1 is some guys need to get and get playing, and some guys need to get a little bit healthier. We’re still going to ice a lineup that’s capable of winning the hockey game.”
The game has significant playoff implications. A Blues win could put them in first place in the Western Conference (pending the result of the Anaheim / Arizona game later tonight). The Blues could play either Minnesota, Chicago or Winnipeg in the first round.
Here's the scenario from the NHL on how the Blues can win the West tonight:
The Blues would clinch the top seed in the Western Conference if they defeat the Wild in regulation or overtime AND the Ducks post a shootout win or a loss of any kind against the Coyotes OR if they defeat the Wild in a shootout AND the Ducks lose to the Coyotes in any fashion OR if they get one point against the Wild AND the Ducks lose to the Coyotes in regulation.
Got all that?
ST. LOUIS - Two gameday blogs ago, we talked about how a regular season game doesn’t get much bigger than Sunday’s Blues / Blackhawks matchup at United Center.
While that was true - the 2-1 Blues’ victory catapulted the club into first place in the Central with three games to go - it’s tonight’s showdown that’s really about as big as regular season games can get.
With a win tonight, the Blues can claim home-ice advantage in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. With a win AND a regulation win from the Minnesota Wild against the Nashville Predators, the Blues would win the Central Division title for the second time in four seasons and guarantee home-ice advantage for at least the first two rounds of the playoffs.
In addition, the Blues would also pull even with the Anaheim Ducks (107 points) for first in the Western Conference with one game to play.
“You can’t pick who you’re going to play, there’s so many scenarios out there,” Blues Head Coach Ken Hitchcock said. “But man, home ice - it’s important and we want to get it. That’s the focus for the players, that’s the focus for us. (Chicago) is thinking the same thing, they want home-ice too. We’d like to win tonight to secure that.
“You’ve got to pour everything into these two (remaining) games,” Hitchcock added. “I think both these teams recognize how much it matters, how important it is.”
Jake Allen will make his third consecutive start tonight and expects another tightly-contested game like Sunday, when he made 38 saves.
“It’s going to be another intense, physical game,” Allen said after the morning skate. “We’re going to have our work cut out for us because they’re fighting for the points like we are.”
“It’s always a fierce battle,” Chris Porter said of the Blues / Blackhawks rivalry. “A lot of physicality, usually good goaltending and low-scoring games. Home ice is huge, that’s what you work all year for. To wrap it up on our home ice would be huge.”
ST. LOUIS - If the Blues sweep their three-game home stand, they are guaranteed to win their second Central Division title in four years and snag home-ice advantage for the first round of the playoffs.
In fact, the club could clinch home-ice advantage with a win tonight against the Winnipeg Jets and a regulation loss by the Chicago Blackhawks.
“When you’re in control and you go lay it on the line and play as well as you can, you get rewarded. That’s extra motivation,” said Ryan Reaves after today’s morning skate. “Home ice (advantage) is huge. We want to play in front of our hometown, we like playing here, we like the hometown fans behind us, so that’s a big thing for us right now.”
Winning the division (and home-ice advantage, for that matter) is easier said than done, though. At this time of the year, nothing comes easy. The Blues’ three remaining games are all against division rivals hellbent on securing better playoff positions for themselves, or in Winnipeg’s case, just trying to get in at all.
The Jets currently sit in the final Wild Card position in the Western Conference. Their 2-0 win last night against the Minnesota Wild moved them past the Los Angeles Kings, who fell 2-1 in a shootout in Vancouver.
“They had a big win last night, they’re going to be guns-a-blazing again trying to get off to an early start like they normally do,” said Steve Ott, who plays in his 100th game as a Blue tonight. “For us, we’ve matched their physicality, we’re a hard team to play against and we need to make sure our game pushes forward like it has. When we’re playing our big body style, we’re tough to play against.”
For Head Coach Ken Hitchcock, beating the Jets is about not letting them dictate the game.
“I think the biggest key for us is the first period,” he said. “They have a very strong push in the first period and we have to negate that. That’s what’s given us our success - we haven’t allowed them to dictate as much as they do in most games.
“You can see what’s at stake for everybody right now,” Hitchcock added. “You see players doing things that in the middle of the season, there’s no way they would go down and block the shots they are, but they’re doing it now. Everything matters, every shift matters and you can see it.”
CHICAGO - Regular season games don’t get much bigger than this.
With four games remaining for both teams, the Blues and Blackhawks are separated by just one point in the standings. First round playoff matchups, home-ice advantage, maybe even a division title - all of those things could be significantly impacted by two Blues / Blackhawks games over the next five days.
It begins tonight at United Center, where the Blues will wrap up the road portion of the 2014-15 season with a 6:30 p.m. contest (NBCSN, Y98 FM).
Players don’t need to be reminded about how big these games are. They already know.
“It should be another big, tense game. It always is when you play these guys,” said Jaden Schwartz, who scored his second career hat trick in Friday’s 7-5 win in Dallas. “You get up for the games, the fans are always into it and they’re always exciting games to be part of, especially this time of year. We play them twice, and they’re big points…there should be nothing held back in these games.”
“Against Chicago, it’s always a big game,” said Patrik Berglund, who has six points (four goals, two assists) in his last four games. “We’re just going to prepare like we always do, try to go out there, play our game and get two points.”
The rivalry, which hasn’t seen a game since Feb. 8, will look a bit different tonight. The Blues are without forwards Alexander Steen (lower-body) and Vladimir Tarasenko (lower-body), while the Blackhawks are without Patrick Kane (collarbone).
“(Chicago) did what they had to do to keep getting points,” Blues Head Coach Ken Hitchcock said. “They hunkered down defensively. Unless you really earn it, they give you nothing. There are no free scoring chances, there’s no free ice. You’ve got to earn everything.
“They’ve done a heck of a job making the similar changes that we have to make right now,” he added. “We’re built a completely different way right now with (Steen and Tarasenko) out of the lineup. We’ve had to make changes on the run and we’ve done a heck of job these last two games.
Tonight’s game will be the 29th all-time meeting between the clubs. The Blues won the first matchup this season (3-2 on Oct. 25) but have lost the last two to the Blackhawks.
“Our game is how much time can we spend in the offensive zone and control the puck,” Hitchcock said. “How little time can we give them on transition and rush attacks? How we manage the puck…when we manage it really well against Chicago, we play really well. When we play careless and are knocked off the puck easily, then it’s advantage Chicago.”
After tonight, the Blues are hoping it’s advantage St. Louis in the standings.