Hoping they have turned the corner and are driving on the playoff highway, the St. Louis Blues have a familiar roadblock in their path.
The Blues (20-14-2; 42 points) have a Sunday morning showdown in Detroit against the Red Wings (19-14-5; 43 points), with the teams separated by a point at No. 7 and No. 8 in the ultra-tight Western Conference playoff race.
"If you're ever looking for a source of motivation or wondering how big every game is down the stretch, no need to look any further than what the standings look like," said Blues captain David Backes, who had the game-winning goal in Friday's 3-1 victory over Columbus and has 15 career goals in 38 games against the Blue Jackets. "It's a big swing to win in regulation against the teams you're trying to battle for spots with."
The Blues put a little space between themselves and the Blue Jackets on Friday. Now they set their sights on the Red Wings, a team that has played two more games than the Blues.
"It's crunch time," Blues winger Chris Stewart said. "I think we finish the year with 15 games in 27 nights, so you know it's going to be tight. When you get the opportunity to get your rest you take it and get ready to battle. Everybody's in the same boat."
Stewart's goal Friday was his first in six games. He leads the Blues with 16 goals and 30 points and the team is 15-2-1 when he scores at least a point.
The emergence of Stewart has been big considering the low goal totals of Backes (five), Andy McDonald (four) and others.
"It's hard, last year everything went right," said Blues coach Ken Hitchcock, whose 2011-12 team tied for second overall in the NHL. "Every goal was scored at an important time. That's just the way it is, it's a grind. Last year we were a good team that got great goaltending and fortunate goals at the right time. That's the small edge we lived on, we lived on the fine line in the right way."
Things have been nowhere near as easy for the Blues this season thanks to inconsistencies and injuries in virtually every area.
"Sometimes we've been on the fine line the wrong way, but I think we've played better for the most part this year than we did last year -- and at times a lot better," Hitchcock insisted. "But we've not seen the same result because of it and I think it's been (the) timely save, timely goal. When you get that it's like gold and when you don't, you're kind of searching all the time."
The Blues alternated Brian Elliott and rookie Jake Allen in goal on Thursday and Friday and got a pair of victories. Jaroslav Halak remains out with what is believed to be a groin injury.
Do the Blues feel comfortable with a first-year player in goal in the heat of a playoff race?
"When you lose your starting goalie, there's an adjustment phase," Hitchcock said. "Allen came in and played great for us, so I think there's a comfort level within the framework of the team. There certainly is a comfort level from the coaching staff, so I don't anticipate us missing a beat here.
"But these are pressure games with high-intense action, you get a good evaluation of everybody. We're hoping everybody steps up, but one way or the other we're going to have a great evaluation before the playoffs start."
The Red Wings are coming off a 3-2 overtime victory Friday over the Colorado Avalanche that featured two goals from Pavel Datsyuk and 33 saves by Jimmy Howard.
The Blues and Red Wings will give a national TV audience on NBC a peek into one of hockey's most intense rivalries.
With just a handful of regular-season games remaining, Armstrong hopes new defensemen Jay Bouwmeester and Jordan Leopold mesh quickly with their new partners.
Bouwmeester has been paired with Alex Pietrangelo and Leopold is playing with Kevin Shattenkirk.
"We have to find chemistry quickly because the season's winding down," Armstrong said. "I'm hoping that these guys can find the proper partners quickly because we need to manufacture points to ensure we qualify for the playoffs."
The Blues' changed one-third of their defense, hoping to improve themselves in a big way.
"It's an area where we wanted to try to improve short and long term and I think we were able to do that," Armstrong said. "I think our group of six (defensemen) can go out against any group of six in the league. It gives us excellent depth."