ST. LOUIS - Aiden Howard-Maul was all smiles Thursday at the Blues morning skate.
Aiden, a six-year-old who is battling a type of kidney cancer called Wilms' Tumor, watched the team's practice, met some of the players and interviewed Ken Hitchcock after the skate.
"Are you gonna win tonight?" Aiden asked.
"That's a lot of pressure, Aiden," Hitchcock said. "I sure hope so."
Aiden has already surgery to remove a kidney. He will begin chemotherapy soon.
As Americans, we’ll never do enough to thank the military men and women for their service and sacrifice. All we can do is try and hope we come close.
To give it a shot and say thank you, the Blues welcomed Cpl. Justin McLoud and SSG. Joshua Eckhoff to Tuesday’s morning skate. Both were injured while serving overseas and were presented with personalized camouflage jerseys from Blues captain David Backes.
“They’ve served our country and made great sacrifices so we can be free. They’ve given me an opportunity to play a game I love. I can’t thank them enough,” Backes said. “For them to come down to the morning skate and see smiles on their faces, it’s very rewarding for us."
McLoud and Eckhoff were given a tour of the Blues locker room, where they met the team and sat in on Ken Hitchcock's pregame press conference. In addition, they had lunch with broadcasters John Kelly and Darren Pang.
"It was definitely special,” McLoud said. “Right when I walked in, I saw those jerseys and I wanted one. (Backes) came out and had a jersey with my name on it. It made my day for sure.”
Alexander Steen is earning a new nickname: "Alexander The Great."
Steen is the first NHL player to score 10 or more goals in his team's first nine games since Buffalo's Chris Drury and Atlanta's Marian Hossa did it in the 2006-07 season.
With 10 goals, he also finds himself tied for the League-lead with Washington Capitals star Alexander Ovechkin. As of Oct. 28, Steen has played two less games.
After his two-goal performance in Saturday's 6-1 win in Nashville, Steen played it cool with reporters.
"It's only nine games," he said. "(Ovechkin's) been doing it for years. I've been doing it for nine games."
No-big-deal it all you want, Steener, but this red-hot start isn't something Blues fans see every day.
Is there anything more exciting than Opening Night?
It all started back in 1967 with the likes of Red Berenson, Bob and Barclay Plager, Al Arbour and Glenn Hall. It continued through the years with hockey legends like Brett Hull, Adam Oates, Al MacInnis and Chris Pronger, and tonight at 7:30 p.m., it continues with the legends of tomorrow: David Backes, T.J. Oshie, Alex Pietrangelo, Kevin Shattenkirk and Jaroslav Halak, just to name a few.
It’s a chance to start fresh, to forget about the shortcomings of the past while figuring out how to succeed now and in the future. It’s about sacrifice: blood, sweat and tears in exchange for hoisting the Stanley Cup in June.
Yeah…there’s nothing quite like Opening Night.
Ken Hitchcock has been in this situation before.
As the head coach of the Dallas Stars in 1999, he found his team trailing the Colorado Avalanche 3-2 in the Western Conference Finals. Hitchcock not only led the Stars to a 4-1 victory on the road in Game 6, but he led them to a Stanley Cup championship several weeks later.
So what wisdom from that experience has Hitchcock shared with the Blues?
“You have to outplay the team. You can’t expect to play at the same level and win the hockey game. It doesn’t happen,” he said. “I’ve been in this situation a number of times and come through, and it’s been the same similar landscape. We have to outplay them today. If we play at the same level, it’s not going to be good enough.
“I know we’re going to get their best push because they don’t want to go back to St. Louis,” Hitchcock said. “But I know we have it in us to outplay them.”
With the best-of-7 series tied 2-2 after four games, it’s almost like everything is back to square one.
“You learn from everything and all the mistakes that you’ve made and you learn from the things we’re doing good,” T.J. Oshie said. “Now it’s a best-of-3 and we just have to approach it like that.”
Fortunately for the Blues, two of the final three games in this series will be played at Scottrade Center. The home team has won every game thus far.
Andy McDonald said the key to winning Game 5 will be getting back to the game plan. He said the team has strayed from it when things haven’t gone well, both in this series and throughout the regular season.
“The good teams play an entire game and trust the system that’s in place and do it every shift,” McDonald said. “That’s what happens in the playoffs. There’s so many ups and downs, calls that go against you, things that happen, it becomes more and more important to stick to the game (plan).”
Head Coach Ken Hitchcock had a good handle on what went wrong in Game 4 and touched upon it during his pregame press conference today.
“We gave up the wrong odd man rushes to the wrong people and they slammed it right in our net,” Hitchcock said. “We gave up too many odd man rushes because we were forcing offense. Instead of just letting the game drive itself, we tried to push and force the issue.”
Tonight’s game could be a pivotal one in the series. If the Blues win, they’ll have a chance to wrap it up at Staples Center on Friday. If the Blues lose, they’ll face a must-win situation in a building where the Kings have won nine consecutive games.
Vladimir Tarasenko could make his Stanley Cup Playoffs debut tonight when the puck drops on Game 4 at 9 p.m. at Staples Center.
Ken Hitchcock didn’t say for certain that he’d play, but Tarasenko skated with the Blues’ fourth-line in Monday’s morning skate and was sharing the left-wing role with Adam Cracknell.
“I had a talk with him yesterday and he’s excited to play,” Hitchcock said. “I think he deserves to play based on his regular season…he certainly gives us some options moving forward if the game gets as close as it does.”
Tarasenko wasn’t in the lineup for the first three games of the Blues’ first-round series with Los Angeles. For a team looking to capitalize on their scoring chances, one would figure Tarasenko will be part of the equation eventually.
“He came back a bit tentative from the injury, but when you have a player that contributes like he does and is as strong on the puck and as determined as he is and is as big as he is, he’s an asset we can use,” Hitchcock said.
Tarasenko was the NHL’s rookie of the month for January when he had nine points (five goals and four assists). Since returning from a concussion on March 16, he has seven points (two goals and five assists).
Both goals since his return were scored on March 28 against the Kings.
As Brian Elliott sat on the ice after being run into by Kings’ captain Dustin Brown in Game 2, the crowd at Scottrade Center chanted “ELL-I-OTT! ELL-I-OTT!”
Elliott got up, finished the game with 28 saves and backstopped the Blues to a 2-1 victory and a 2-0 lead in the best-of-7 series.
“It was almost like a movie,” Elliott said after arriving Friday in Los Angeles. “I wanted to tell them, ‘Give me some time, hold on here.’ When you know you have the rink behind you, it feels pretty good.”
One would expect Elliott to start tonight in Game 3, and although the rink won’t be behind him, the entire city of St. Louis certainly will be.
Elliott has stopped 58 of 60 shots in this year’s postseason, which is good for a .966 save percentage. He leads all goaltenders in the playoffs with a 0.90 goals-against average.
“He’s a huge reason that we’re in the playoffs, and then the last two games, he’s really stood on his head at the moments that we’ve needed him, giving us an opportunity to be in a position where we’re up 2-0,” said Barret Jackman, Game 2’s other hero.
“This is really a continuation of the whole month of April,” added Ken Hitchcock. “He’s a reflection of our team. We’ve been playing well for six weeks. He’s making big saves at the right time.”
The Blues seem to be very happy with their performance in Game 1.
But just about everyone you talk to knows they’ll have to turn it up a notch to win the series, or even just to win tonight’s Game 2.
Here’s what some of the players had to say about being ready for a strong push from the Kings tonight.
Jordan Leopold: “We didn’t play a perfect game by any means, but we played pretty well. To be able to come out and do that, that was big. Especially to begin at home, we wanted to get our crowd into it and get the ball rolling early. We’ve got to go out tonight and come prepared and be ready to work.”
Chris Stewart: “You know they’re going to come hard. You can’t get frustrated and you can’t retaliate or take a penalty. Just match their intensity.”
Ken Hitchcock: “We’re playing as well as we’ve played all year, we’re playing that way right now, and all that does is give us an overtime win. That’s how good the hockey club we’re playing against is. We’re going to have to find a way to keep getting better and better as this series moves on, because we know in that room, they will.”
All that being said, the Kings find themselves in rather unfamiliar territory. They never trailed in a series during their Stanley Cup Playoff run last season, beginning each round with a 3-0 lead. It will be interesting for sure to see how they respond.
The Blues know tonight won’t be easy, but they say they’ll be ready.
The Blues lost all four games against the Kings in last year’s playoffs, and they lost all three regular season meetings this season.
So why does Blues Head Coach Ken Hitchcock think this time around will be different?
“The one thing we have going for us is I don’t think they know our team, because they haven’t played against this team,” Hitchcock said after today’s practice. “This is a different team than they played even here in the 4-2 (loss on March 28), and it’s a much different team than they played in the 6-4 (loss on March 5). What we’re hoping on is the way we played at the end of the year in the last six weeks is what our team is and we’re good enough to play against them.
“We’ve been preparing for this for 10 days and we think we’re ready.”
Since last playing the Kings on March 28, the Blues have won 12 of their last 15 games.
The Kings had an impressive 16-4 record last season in the playoffs en route to their first Stanley Cup in franchise history. Hitchcock said they are the only team in the League with the knowledge of what it takes to win the Stanley Cup.
“They know how deep they have to go, they know how deep they have to dig. Nobody has that knowledge,” Hitchcock said. “We’re all trying to get it, but they’ve got it. We’re going to have to find that if we expect to win because they’re not going to give us anything easy.”