Archive for January, 2012

Blues Must Keep Pace

Jaroslav Halak stretches prior to a game (Mark buckner/Getty Images)

ST. LOUIS, MO.  (Joe Richter, Missouri Sports Magazine) – The St. Louis Blues are in first place in the National Hockey League (tied with the New York Rangers) after their 45th game for the first time since 2000.  But they know it’s not time to let off the gas.  One bad week and they could be out of the playoffs.  That’s how the NHL goes these days.  Teams can’t just grab the first place spot and ride into the playoffs on cruise control anymore.  The NHL’s playoff scenario will be a fight to the end, and it’s a fight the Blues type of game is made for.

As of Tuesday, the Blues had 60 points, which was good for first place in the Western Conference.  Consider this, however – the ninth place team (Colorado Avalanche) had just ten fewer points (50).  The 12th place team (Calgary Flames) of a 15-team Conference had 47 points.  The Blues are on pace for about 109 points, but they have to keep the pace.

The Minnesota Wild are a perfect example of a good team having a bad week and falling out of the top spot in the standings.  The Blues got their first shootout win against the Wild on Saturday, January 14th, and the Wild found itself in eighth place in the Western Conference (as of Tuesday afternoon).  But the last time the two teams played, Minnesota was among the top three teams.  They just happened to have a bad couple weeks in between.  After the Wild’s 3-2 shootout win on the 19th of November against St. Louis, they went 8-2 in their next ten.  Then the bad stretch happened.  The Wild went 2-9-3 in their next couple weeks, relegating them to the middle of the pack.  They just couldn’t keep the pace.

The Blues can’t fall into that trap.  Luckily, they have a coach, Ken Hitchcock, who won’t let his team get complacent.  He’s also noticed how his team reacts to the pressure of playing the best teams.  “We’re willing to work for our chances,” Hitchcock said last week.  “This is a real competitive group right now.”

With puckmaster Alex Steen and the slippery Andy McDonald out of the lineup, two potent offensive weapons, the Blues aren’t exactly scoring in bunches.  But the team is playing a great team game.  Hitchcock knows Steen’s and McDonald’s presence and imminent return will change things dramatically, but his team has shown a lot about themselves by winning without that offensive punch.  Hitchcock said, “Even when Steener (Alex Steen) was out and with (Andy) McDonald out, we’re still competitive as heck; and we’re a different lineup with them in.”

This is a young Blues team, a nucleus with very little if at all playoff experience.  That’s why General Manager Doug Armstrong added vets such as Jason Arnott and Jamie Langenbrunner.  They have contributed a lot of toughness and a bit of scoring, as well.  But they might have supplied the kind of hardhat, professional attitude that the youngsters have absorbed.  If nothing else, the Blues are reacting to their success very well.  They’re not changing their plan because they’re among the best teams in the NHL.  Hitchcock uses the matchups against top teams as measuring sticks for his team.  “We respond well when we’re a little bit scared,” he said.  “If you don’t play well against teams like Vancouver and Detroit, you’re gonna get blitzed.  So we play our best hockey whenever we’re feeling like that.”

Blues fans hope so.  One bad week or two could have the Blues looking up at the standings wondering why they couldn’t keep the pace.

 

NEXT UP

The Blues (27-12-6) host the Edmonton Oilers (17-23-4) at Scottrade Center in St. Louis, Missouri Thursday night.  Loaded with young stars, the Oilers have been struggling lately – 2-7-1 in their last ten.  Game time Thursday is 7:00 CST.

 

INTO THE BLUE

  • The Blues are 27th (before Tuesday’s games) in the NHL in power play efficiency, going 22-for-160 (13.8%).  The Blues’ penalty killing units have allowed 27 goals in 155 (82.6%) shorthanded situations (15th before Tuesday’s games).
  • The Blues have allowed the second fewest goals per game (1.98) and the fewest shots per game (26.3).  The Blues are third in the NHL with a 1.44 ratio when playing five-on-five.
  • Alex Steen is still sidelined with concussion-like symptoms, as is Andy McDonald.  Steen could return Thursday; McDonald is skating in practice with a “no-contact” jersey.  Defenseman Kent Huskins (fractured foot) is also skating in practice, but no return date has been set.

 

Brian Elliott makes a save (Buckner/Getty)

 

Copyright© 2012 Missouri Sports Magazine. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without prior written consent.

All team and league logos are properties of their respective leagues, teams, ownership groups and/or organizations.  Pictures property of Getty Images.

Help Honor Iraq Vets

ST. LOUIS, MO.  (Joe Richter, Missouri Sports Magazine) – We hold parades for sports teams, but what about the people who are really important to our country?  Where are the parades for those who sacrifice a large portion of their lives to serve their country, and foster freedom around the globe?  That’s just what Craig Schneider and Tom Appelbaum are trying to make happen on January 28thin downtown St. Louis.

Sure, this is a sports website.  But sometimes there are things much more important than multimillionaire athletes and what their teams are doing.  We need to show how much we appreciate the sacrifices made by American troops in Iraq who are returning back to the country they fought for.  We need to welcome our heroes with open arms.

Schneider and Applebaum are trying to put a parade down Market Street on January 28th to welcome our troops home from Iraq and honor them for their service to America.  There’s just one trick – they need to reach a certain dollar mark to make it happen.  They’re trying to do this in under a month.  People have told them they’re attempting the impossible – especially in a time of economic stagnancy.  But this is St. Louis, and this is America.  Charity and honor is what we do.

How does something like this happen in the modern age?  Schneider and Applebaum chose to utilize Facebook to get the word out.  They started the page “Make January 28th Welcome Home the Heroes from Iraq Day” on the social media website, and the region took notice.  A veteran’s charity of great reputation (but asked not to be named yet) offered to back the parade if Schneider and Applebaum could raise $25,000 by this Friday, January 13th to show just how interested the region is.  They need donations from those who want to thank the men and women who served in Iraq just as much as we needed these veterans to keep us free.

If you would like to donate to this very worthy cause and properly honor these brave men and women, visit their Facebook page, or send an email to them at iraqwelcomhome@gmail.com.  You can also pledge through the law offices of Tom Applebaum (314-985-5673) or fax a pledge to 314-985-0637.  If they’re unable to reach their financial goal, they’ll donate the money to the veteran’s charity mentioned.

As they say on their page, these veterans “didn’t ask for a parade, or a community show of support, or a gathering of people and organizations specifically focused on easing our warriors’ transition back to civilian life.  We’re throwing one anyway.”

It’s the least that a grateful country can do for those who have given so much.  Please do all you can to help make this happen.

(Thanks to Ann Rubin of KSDK for contributing to this article.)

The Blues are Doing it Right

For more from this author, visit www.missourisportsmag.com.

TJ Oshie in Pregame (Mark Buckner/Getty Images)

ST. LOUIS, MO.  (Joe Richter, Missouri Sports Magazine) – You’ve probably heard several times over the last week that St. Louis Blues Head Coach Ken Hitchcock is the longest tenured coach in St. Louis professional sports.  Tony La Russa retired from the Cardinals and Steve Spagnuolo was fired by the Rams, leaving “Hitch” as the coach who’s been in St. Louis the longest.  He laughs about that fact, but he’s not laughing about the team he coaches.  With a dominant 4-0 win Saturday night against one of the hottest teams in the National Hockey League – the Colorado Avalanche (9-1-0 in the ten games preceding Saturday) – the Blues moved into first place in the Central Division, and second in the Western Conference.  Considering the teams they leapfrogged, the Chicago Blackhawks and the Detroit Red Wings (who play each other Sunday night), the NHL is finding out that the Blues are no laughing matter.  They’re doing it right.

The franchise was collapsing under previous ownership – ever since the Blues traded Norris Trophy winning defenseman Chris Pronger (like him or hate him) the team has been a bottom feeder.  They’ve made the playoffs just once since then, a 4-0 sweep in the first round.  But then a guy named John Davidson came to town.

The Blues made Davidson the President of Hockey Operations, and things have improved ever since.  Davidson changed the attitude of the franchise.  He brought in some bright management people – such as wisely bringing the great Al MacInnis aboard as VP of Hockey Operations.  Jarmo Kekäläinen (who moved back to his native Finland) set the stage for what we’re seeing on the ice with some excellent drafting.  Bill Armstrong also was instrumental in the strong player development since 2004 – and it was no surprise he took over the team’s drafting.  The Blues brought in some great names as scouts, as well, and longtime Blues fans can’t help but crack a smile at some of the names – Rob DiMaio (pro scout), Basil McRae (part-time amateur scout), Rick Meagher (part-time amateur scout), Michel Picard (part-time amateur scout).

The result is a stockpile of talent.  Since 2004, the Blues have eleven draftees that are currently playing in the NHL – and many more who are on the cusp, such as Phil McRae and Ben Bishop.  Since 2005 (not counting developing first round picks from 2010 Jaden Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko), the Blues haven’t missed on a first round pick.   Every player drafted by the Blues in the first round between 2005 and 2009 are currently in the NHL, and five of those eight (TJ Oshie, Patrik Berglund, David Perron, Ian Cole and Alex Pietrangelo) are productive players on the team right now.  When it comes to scouting, the Blues are doing it right.

Blues Celebrate a Goal (Buckner/Getty)

So many ex-Blues have stayed with the team – most notably Bruce Affleck, who’s been a fixture with the team for decades.  Affleck is Vice President, Broadcasting and Blues Alumni.  He’s part of an alumni group that shows what Blues hockey is all about.  They are constantly seeking ways to help the community and grow the game of hockey in St. Louis.  The franchise should be extremely proud of what their ex-players do for the city.  The team has reached out to the community in many facets, with names you never hear despite their contributions such as Randy Girsch and Lamont Buford.  When it comes to the greater St. Louis community and having a group of alumni that develops the game in the city, the Blues are doing it right.

But let’s get back to the current Blues.  And if we do that, we have to talk about Doug Armstrong.  Armstrong didn’t have much salary room to work with, but he signed the players the Blues needed to take the next step.  The depth he added to the team, supplementing what the Blues have done in drafts, gave the team the kind of roster that could get them back to the playoffs.  He didn’t just fix the roster to get back to the playoffs, though; he adjusted the roster to go deep in the playoffs.  Goaltender Brian Elliott has been a nice surprise, but the contributions of veteran forwards Jason Arnott and Jamie Langenbrunner have given the Blues an element they didn’t have – playoff experience.  Both have won Stanley Cups, and Arnott even scored the Cup-winning goal.  Before this previous offseason, the Blues were so young that the team parties should have been held at Chuckie Cheese.  After Armstrong was done adding experience, the Blues looked more like a championship team.  He added well over three hundred career playoff games to the roster, nearly tripling the amount of playoff games played by players on his team’s roster.  The attitude in the locker room changed.  The Blues went from a team that felt it could make the playoffs to a team that felt it could compete long into the NHL’s second season – the Stanley Cup Playoffs.  Armstrong’s work over the offseason is the biggest reason the Blues are doing it right.

The Blues didn’t take the NHL by storm, however.  They struggled around the .500 mark for the first month of the season.  The “maybe” attitude seemed to be returning.  Enter Ken Hitchcock.

Hitchcock simplified the game for the Blues; and the team’s record since he started with the team (18-5-5) really gives the team hope that they truly are a Cup contender.  The Blues brought in a coach with a Stanley Cup and over 500 career wins in Hitch, and his confidence and work ethic has infected the Blues.  Bringing in a winner such as Hitch is yet another reason the Blues are doing it right.

Finally, the Blues never take for granted the kind of fans they have.  Oshie, Perron, Hitchcock and others have praised the kind of lift they get when they play in front of the home crowd.  They know how much this town loves their Blues, and they know how much this town deserves a parade down Market Street with the team carrying the Cup.  They know it is time to dethrone the perennial contenders in the Western Conference.  And they must know they’re doing it right.

(Buckner/Getty Images)

NEXT UP

The Blues (24-12-5) head north to take on the Montreal Canadians (16-18-7) in Montreal, Quebec Tuesday night.  Game time Tuesday is early, 6:30 CST.

 

INTO THE BLUE

  • Blues first round pick Jaden Schwartz (14th overall, 2010) was Team Canada’s captain at the 2012 IIHF World Junior Championships.  Schwartz, 19, is currently second in scoring at Colorado College with 21 points (7g, 14a, +5) in 14 games.  His older brother, Rylan, is first in scoring on the team with 26 points (17g, 9a, +4) in 19 games.  Schwartz had two goals and three assists in six WJC games.
  • The Blues are 22nd (before Sunday’s games) in the NHL in power play efficiency, going 21-for-142 (14.8%).  The Blues’ penalty killing units have allowed 25 goals in 140 (82.1%) shorthanded situations (18th before Sunday’s games).
  • Rookie defenseman Cade Fairchild (4th round, 2007) was sent back to Peoria due to the return of defenseman Ian Cole from his three-game suspension.  In four games played, Fairchild had no points, one shot and a minus-1 plus/minus rating.
  • Alex Steen is still sidelined with concussion-like symptoms, as is Andy McDonald.  However, McDonald is skating in practice with a “no-contact” jersey.
  • Rugged forward Ryan Reaves returned from a hip injury on Saturday night.  He had just over eight minutes in ice time, and had 12 minutes in penalties.
  • Defenseman Kent Huskins (fractured foot) is skating in practice, but it will take time for him to get in a game.
  • The St. Louis Blues Alumni played the Lindenwood Lions ice hockey team (coached by former Blues defenseman Rick Zombo) in an exhibition game on January 8th.  The proceeds went to the Disabled Athletes Sports Association.

 

Copyright© 2012 Missouri Sports Magazine. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without prior written consent.

All team and league logos are properties of their respective leagues, teams, ownership groups and/or organizations.

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