Blues Set Sights on Top Seed in West
HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- When the St. Louis Blues restart their season Wednesday against the Vancouver Canucks, their remaining 25 games will be so compressed into a tight window of days that there will be no time to think of anything other than the task at hand.
Some teams will be jockeying for Stanley Cup Playoff position, but the Blues (39-12-6) are a virtual lock and can achieve quite a few goals before going after the biggest prize of them all, the Stanley Cup.
The Blues are even with the Chicago Blackhawks for the Central Division lead with 84 points and three games in hand, and they're only three points behind the Anaheim Ducks for the Western Conference lead and best record in the NHL, also with three games in hand.
All are reasonable goals at this point and they're goals the Blues definitely have set their sights on.
"It is every game at a time, every period at a time," defenseman Ian Cole said. "I think for us, we want to get back on that roll and consistent mindset we had before we were on the break. We want to get back on that and get rolling again, but I think for us, we want to be the best team. That means you want to win the Presidents' Trophy, you want to win the conference, you want to win the division. Those are all things that we want to do.
"Obviously we want to win games and those (goals) are farther down the road, but if we win games, that'll take care of itself. We want to win as many games as we can. If that happens, even better."
Catching the Blackhawks by the 2014 Sochi Olympics was something the team wanted to accomplish.
Next on the list is passing Chicago.
"We definitely set our goal before the break there that we want to be first in the division going into the break," right wing Chris Stewart said. "We achieved that. Expectations are high. Teams are going to pick up right where they left off. It's been a dogfight all year and it's exactly what we expect."
With achieving all those goals comes one important aspect in mind: home-ice advantage.
The Blues are 22-5-3 on home ice but they're also 17-7-3 away from Scottrade Center. Only three teams (Anaheim, Colorado Avalanche and New York Rangers) have more wins away from home.
"Home ice would obviously be great, but we haven't really struggled to win on the road too," Stewart said. "We'll be comfortable with any situation we're put in. Any added incentive you can get put in to get those little benefits down the road is obviously going to be a positive. I think we're playing for first place. We believe we're a first-place team and we definitely want to finish on top."
With home-ice advantage comes the added benefits within the game.
"Home ice is very important, for sure, especially with the last change, get the matchups that we want on the ice," Cole said. "That's definitely huge. Regardless how well we've been on the road, we'd rather play in front of our fans at Scottrade Center. That's definitely something we're shooting for."
But in order to achieve what they want, the Blues can't worry about having three games in hand on the Hawks or Ducks or what their rivals are doing.
"We just worry about ourselves," Stewart said. "Every different team goes through different peaks and valleys over the year. I think we went through our rust spell before the break. We'll just keep chugging along here. We've got one thing in mind and that's the Stanley Cup. We're going to do whatever it takes."
But the Blues, who have the most games remaining in the Western Conference, have been down this road before. It was a different set of circumstances with the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, but the Blues are used to packing multiple games into short periods of time late in the season.
St. Louis typically spends more time on the road, particularly when Scottrade Center is used for the Missouri Valley Conference basketball tournament the first weekend in March, and that was the case last season.
The Blues played 14 games in 28 days in March and another 15 games in 27 days in April. They were 7-7 in March but 12-3 in April to win 19 of 29 games in 55 days.
Associate coach Brad Shaw cites the Blues' ability to use all 20 players as a key to success.
"The one thing that benefits us is we get our success through the team game," Shaw said. "We don't rely on one or two key guys. We have some fantastic pieces, but I really think it's our discipline to stick to the team game that gives us a chance to win night in and night out. The sooner that can show up and be a big part of how we play, then the sooner we get back to having the success that we want."
"We're going to be on the road a lot (in March)," said Elliott, who is 15-4-2 with a 2.13 goals-against average and .916 save percentage. "They're going to be valuable points. Getting two or one, it's going to be important down to every point.
"Whoever's in (goal) has to do the job. We'll take things as they come. It's important for the rest of the team to build off of us."
Halak will likely get the bulk of the starts down the stretch and can focus on the task at hand: helping the Blues succeed as well as make a deep, extended run in the playoffs.
Halak is 24-8-4 with a 2.26 GAA and .915 save percentage. He won seven of 10 (7-2-1) since dealing with a severe bout of the flu in late December.
"There's still a lot of hockey left," Halak said. "I'm still looking forward to the rest of the season. I'm going to try to do all I can.
"I need to get back to it. I need to get back to a few really good practices and then play the game. We'll see how it's going to go, but I'm really glad to be back here practicing. We've got a few more before the games."
And the Blues know when Halak's at his best. He's the franchise leader in shutouts (20) and has accomplished that feat in only 158 games.
"He's confident, he's big, he's aggressive and he's got a good energy level," Blues goalie coach Corey Hirsch said. "That's the thing we see the most. He has more of a presence in the net. He plays at the top of the paint, attacking pucks. It's an overall presence you can feel on the ice.
"We've talked quite a bit and it's status quo. Our goal here is the Stanley Cup and that's his. We just pick up where we left off."