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)

 

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