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.
DALLAS - With last night’s convincing 4-1 vs. Calgary, the Blues punched their ticket to the postseason for the fourth consecutive time and 39th time in franchise history.
But there won’t be any time to celebrate.
The Blues get right back to work tonight at American Airlines Center in Dallas, where they’ll meet the Stars (7:30 p.m., FSMW, KMOX) and need to continue collecting points to chase first place in the Central Division and secure home-ice advantage for the first round of the playoffs.
The recipe to accomplish that? Just build on last night’s win against the Flames.
“What an effort from the guys,” goalie Jake Allen said after Thursday’s game at Scottrade Center. “Coming down to the wire, clinching a playoff spot, a couple of our key players (Alexander Steen and Vladimir Tarasenko) out, guys stepped up tonight. It was impressive.”
“We worked hard at both ends,” added forward Paul Stastny. “I know it’s cliche-ish, but we held onto the puck a little more. We tried making some plays throughout all four lines, and I think as a team we played pretty sound hockey, and then even when it was a one-goal game, just kept going.
“It was nice [clinching] on home ice. Now the next step for us is get better until April 15 or whenever the playoffs start, but our focus is trying to get home ice.”
Brian Elliott will be back between the pipes tonight in Dallas. The Stars find themselves out of the playoff picture but have won seven of their last 10 games.
The Blues and Stars have split the first four games of the season series. The road team has won each game.
ST. LOUIS - Despite their recent struggles, the Blues have a great opportunity to turn things around tonight against the Calgary Flames (7 p.m., FSMW, KMOX).
In fact, with just one point tonight, the Blues can clinch a playoff berth for the fourth consecutive season and 39th time in franchise history.
“We’re very fortunate to have that opportunity in front of us, especially with the amount of games we have left,” said Jake Allen, who will start tonight for the Blues. “We need to create some momentum starting at home, and tonight is a great opportunity for us. Create some momentum, get the ball rolling for the playoffs and clinch a playoff spot.”
The Blues can also clinch if the Los Angeles Kings lose in regulation to the Edmonton Oilers, but the club would rather focus on what it can control.
“(We need to) focus on good team play, focus on being mentally ready to play and battle,” said Olli Jokinen. “Every team we play needs points, they’re not any different than us. There’s less room and space out there.
“Just focus on tonight. You can’t lose your focus and start thinking about who we’re going to play in the playoffs. You’ve got to focus on the task ahead and that’s the only thing that’s been a little bit off. Gotta to get the focus back and try to get two points tonight against a very good hockey club.”
Getting two points tonight won’t be easy. The Flames are third in the Pacific division with 91 points and sit just three points ahead of the Kings.
“They wait for you to make mistakes,” Blues Head Coach Ken Hitchcock said of the Flames. “When you make mistakes, they make you pay.”
ST. LOUIS - T.J. Oshie watched Saturday’s game against the Blue Jackets at home while he battled the stomach flu. Seeing the team trailing after 40 minutes, he entertained the idea of trying to make it for the third period.
Of course, that wasn’t realistic. He couldn’t even keep a full meal down until Sunday night. But he skated today, is feeling better and will be back in the lineup tonight when the Blues meet the Vancouver Canucks at 7 p.m. at Scottrade Center (FSMW, KMOX).
Where will he find the energy needed to compete?
“Red Bull,” Oshie joked after the morning skate.
But seriously, though.
“It’s not too hard to get up for an NHL game, especially when you sit out and you have to watch your team on TV and they lose a game. You want to get out there,” Oshie said. “I’m excited to get my legs back underneath me. Obviously it’s going to take a few shifts maybe in the first period to start feeling good again, but hopefully (David Backes) can carry me until then.”
The Oshie-Backes line will be without Alexander Steen (lower-body) tonight. Steen was injured in the first period Saturday against the Blue Jackets but has been labeled day-to-day. Blues Head Coach Ken Hitchcock said Steen is feeling better and is a “short-term” injury.
Without Steen, forward Olli Jokinen will slide into his spot on the top line.
“Yesterday’s (practice) was one of his best days with us,” Hitchcock said of Jokinen. “It’s a good fit for (Backes), because Olli can take faceoffs on the left side…this is a good fit and we’re going to give him lots of ice time and get a real strong evaluation in the next couple games on him.”
The Blues are facing a Canucks club that currently sits second in the Pacific Division with 91 points. Vancouver has lost two straight, most recently a 4-3 overtime decision against Dallas on Saturday. But against the Blues, Vancouver has won both meetings this season: 4-1 at Scottrade Center on Oct. 23 and 6-5 in a shootout at Rogers Arena on March 1.
“We’ve had really good games against them,” Hitchcock said. “They’ve been hard fought and pretty emotional. It’s two teams that play a very similar style. A lot of it is based on puck pursuit and physical game. They’re fun games to coach in and they really test us.”
Oshie said he expects a hard game tonight.
“They’re battling for their lives over there. It’s been the same story the last month or so though, so nothing new to expect for us,” Oshie said. “We just need to play our game, focus on ourselves, get back to our 200-foot game and a full 60.”
ST. LOUIS - After missing 25 games with an abdominal injury, Kevin Shattenkirk said he expects a few butterflies as he prepares for his return to the lineup tonight against the Columbus Blue Jackets (7 p.m., FSMW, KMOX).
He also said he’s really looking forward to feeling that first hit.
“I need to feel that again, to feel I can make it through there without feeling injured again,” Shattenkirk said after the morning skate today. “Until it happens in the game, you’re never going to have that confidence that everything is alright.
“I can already tell you that the first couple plays, I might be grabbing the puck, keeping my head up and not moving my feet,” he said. “That first hit will force me to get going and get the heck out of there.”
Blues Head Coach Ken Hitchcock said Shattenkirk will return on the third defensive pairing with Barret Jackman. Shattenkirk will also be back on the power play and can expect increased minutes after getting a few games under his belt.
“He’s passed every test, but now the test is that he’s going to play against somebody in a different sweater that doesn’t necessarily like him,” Hitchcock said. “He’s going to have to play through that competition. Our hope is that he comes through healthy. These are good tests for him, good challenges - but more than anything, it’s getting accustomed to, not just playing, but the whole routine of gameday. All of a sudden, you’re playing with some nerves, playing with some nervous energy, you’ve got some butterflies and all that stuff you stayed away from is back in your body now. You’ve got to get used to that stuff, too.”
Before the injury, Shattenkirk was among the League leaders in terms of power-play points and points by a defenseman. He also averages the most points per game by a defenseman (.82). Through 49 games this season, Shattenkirk has eight goals and 32 assists, and his presence back in the lineup is something his teammates have been looking forward to.
“It’s really big for us,” Ryan Reaves said. “It adds a lot of poise on the back end, a little bit of offense and it adds a different element to our power play. It’s that piece we’ve been missing.”
Getting Shattenkirk back in the lineup, along with Carl Gunnarsson, too, gives the Blues a completely healthy lineup with eight games remaining in the regular season.
PITTSBURGH - If it feels like forever since the Blues have been home, well…it pretty much has been.
The club’s season-high 10-day, six-game road trip will finally end tonight. Since hitting the road on March 14, the Blues have gone 2-1-2, collecting six of a possible 10 points on the trip.
“I’ve envisioned my bed quite a few times in the last few days and it will be nice,” captain David Backes said.
But before the Blues can fly home, they face off against a Pittsburgh Penguins club that is battling injuries. Evgeni Malkin (upper-body), Pascal Dupuis (blood clot), Patric Hornqvist (undisclosed) and Christian Ehrhoff (undisclosed) have all been out. The Penguins have lost four of the last five games and currently sit third in the Eastern Conference’s Metropolitan Division with 90 points.
“We’ve got some work to do first and then we’ll move on to some home-cooking after that,” Backes said. “That’s the mindset - we have to find a way to get two points.”
“We could go 3-1-2, which is a great road trip for where we started, where we’ve traveled and where we’ve been,” Head Coach Ken Hitchcock said. “To be able to finish with that record would be terrific. We’re going to pour it (all) in because we’ve got another chance to have another good road trip. That’s what everybody’s focused on right now. Try to get this win and come out of here feeling real positive.”
Jake Allen will be making back-to-back starts tonight for the Blues and his first career start against the Penguins.The 24-year-old goaltender began the road trip with a 28-save shutout effort on March 15 and had a strong outing Sunday afternoon, too, making 23-saves in a 2-1 overtime loss against the Red Wings.
“I just try to make the most of my opportunities right now,” Allen said. “They’ve been coming a little bit more rare than they used to, but I try to play the best when I get called upon and give the guys a chance. It’s down to crunch time now and these are big games for our team. It’s a fun time of the year and I’m just trying to keep it on a positive note coming into the playoffs.”
Allen, who served as the backup on Feb. 21 when the Penguins beat the Blues 4-2, said he knows what to look for after observing that game from the bench.
“Their pace in the neutral zone was pretty impressive, probably one of the fastest I’ve personally seen,” he said. “You have to be ready for that and their speed on the attacks. They’ve got lots of skilled guys up front. I definitely have the work cut out for myself and our team (tonight)."
ST. PAUL - It seems every team the Blues have met lately has been either fighting to keep a playoff spot or battling to improve upon their position.
That certainly isn’t making anything easy on the Blues, who aren’t necessarily worried about keeping a playoff spot but instead want the highest seed possible.
“A lot of these teams are desperate to get two points and stay in the race,” said Blues captain David Backes. “We need those two points just as bad as they do because we’re trying to win a Presidents’ Trophy, win a first seed and try to get a home-ice playoff series. They’re difficult. It’s a great challenge, a great measuring stick for where we’re at. It’s playoff-style hockey when it’s do or tie for these teams.”
“I had a chance to look at our schedule and see who we were playing against in these last 10 games or so, and everybody is right in the mix,” said Blues goalie Brian Elliott. “Everybody is playing for their lives, playing for their position. Like (today against Minnesota), two games against Chicago - it’s really going to write the story on how the season’s going to end and where you are in the playoffs.”
As the Blues prepare to face the Wild today (1 p.m., FSMW, KMOX), the team hopes to write a different ending than the one it wrote exactly one week ago. In that game, the Blues surrendered two goals in a 17-second span and fell 3-1 to the Wild at Scottrade Center despite outshooting Minnesota 42-19.
The Wild have won two of their last three games, including that 3-1 victory in St. Louis, but fell 3-2 to the Washington Capitals at home on Thursday. Despite the loss, the Wild own the top Wild Card position in the West with 85 points (39-25-7).
“We need to play a similar game (as last week), just bury our chances when we create them and we’ll like the end result,” Backes said. “We had a solid 60 minutes, had a lapse for a few and then they capitalized. That’s been our crux - having little lapses where other teams have capitalized. We’ve got to eliminate that.”
WINNIPEG - As the Blues get ready to meet the Winnipeg Jets tonight for the fourth time this season (7 p.m., FSMW, KMOX), one might be curious whether the defense and goaltending could possibly be any stingier.
With three shutouts over the last four games, the club now has 10 shutouts on the season, second only to the New York Rangers (11).
“I think it’s a combination of playing in the offense zone as much as we can,” said Blues captain David Backes. “That’s our recipe, along with some great goaltending and great penalty kills that have limited the other teams’ chances. When we do give up a good chance, our goaltenders have been real solid.
“Knock on wood that shutout streak continues and we talk about it again after tonight.”
As far as individual accolades go, Tuesday’s shutout in Calgary was Brian Elliott’s fifth of the season and 21st as a Blue, which set a new club record and put him ahead of goaltending greats such as Glenn Hall, Jacques Plante and Grant Fuhr.
“It’s pretty cool. You don’t really think about it as it’s happening, but some of those guys on the list are pretty special names,” Elliott said Tuesday. “I’m just honored to even be on that list, but it’s really about how the guys play in front of you. The last four years here for me, guys have made sacrifices by blocking shots (even) with their faces. That’s really how those shutouts come about. We’ve had a good team game since I’ve been here and I’m just part of it.”
Since the 2011-12 season, the Blues have posted a League-leading 41 shutouts. The Los Angeles Kings are second over that span with 35.
Two games into this season-high six-game road trip, the Blues have yet to surrender a goal.
“We’re really trying to be a little bit more aggressive up the ice, disrupt their breakouts and get them off their pace,” said Barret Jackman, who will be paired with Robert Bortuzzo tonight. “Being a little bit more aggressive in the zone, too, especially right when they get in the zone and gain entry.
“We’re playing every game like a must-win. The tighter it is down the stretch, the harder each game is,” Jackman added. “It doesn’t matter if you’re battling for first, a playoff spot or positioning - there’s a couple of teams at the bottom that want to ruin your season. Each game is important for us to win and go into the playoffs on a strong note.”