Blues' strong finish before break leads to plenty of optimism

News-DemocratFebruary 10, 2014 

— Having reached their goal of leading the Central Division at the Olympic break, the St. Louis Blues won't play another NHL game until Feb. 26 in Vancouver.

Most of them will still be busy with nine Blues players joining coach Ken Hitchcock and General Manager Doug Armstrong at the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.

"We've got goals in mind," said Blues veteran forward Brenden Morrow, who had a goal and assist Saturday in a 4-3 shootout win over Winnipeg. "We want to go deep and set yourself up, try and get home ice. I think we're one of the busiest teams, if not the busiest team when we come back.

"We've got to take advantage of our opportunity."

Morrow is correct. Once the Blues (39-12-6) return, they will play their final 24 regular-season games in a span of just 47 days.

In the overall NHL standings, only the Anaheim Ducks (87 points) have more points than the 84 points owned by the Blues and Blackhawks.

"I told the players when we come back in March and April it's for them," Hitchcock said. "They have to really grab it coming back. We've played awfully well. We've been really resilient all year, we've responded to challenges all year.

"But it's going to really get dialed up when we get back and our players recognize that. I think some guys are really looking forward to it."

The Blues went 7-1-1 before the break.

"We've battled hard," Blues defenseman Barret Jackman said. "We came through some injuries, sickness, like a lot of teams have gone through. But we're still one of the top teams in the league right now and that's a pretty good feeling going into the break."

With their top players competing against the best in the world at the Olympics, the Blues will be hoping for an injury-free Olympic tournament.

Other players are headed for vacations in warm climates or spending time with their families. But after the break, it's a sprint to the finish with every point crucial in a tight Western Conference race.

"It's really going to be like coming out of the lockout where everybody is full-tilt and every point means something down the stretch," Jackman said. "It's going to be about the mental focus coming back and being the team that doesn't crack in those one-goal games."

Morrow's role

A veteran like Morrow, who has been through the playoff wars with Hitchcock before when both were in Dallas, could be a valuable asset down the stretch.

He has 10 goals and 21 points in 51 games and perhaps just as important, is healthy and providing another leadership voice.

"I think he's got another gear," Hitchcock said. "Brenden has to make an adjustment; he's a player that's relied on intensity and emotion and reckless play his whole life. He's made a great living at it, he's been a special player playing that way.

"But as you get older you've got to have a more structured game because there's areas that you can't get to like you could before."

That being said, Hitchcock knows the value of a proven veteran warrior.

"Brenden's a guy that if you can get him the puck in scoring areas, he's going to finish every time," Hitchcock said. "In the last 10 days he's had marked improvement in his game and I think it's starting to show."

Shootout specialists

Now 7-3 in shootouts, the Blues continue to excel when the extra point is on the line. Perhaps it's the success of their top shootout specialists T.J. Oshie (7-for-10), Alexander Steen (4-for-8) and Vladimir Tarasenko (3-for-5).

"There's a calmness on the bench (during shootouts) and that's what's intriguing for me," Hitchcock said. "First of all we can go deep because we've got a lot of people who are good at it that are down the ladder, but we've also got those three guys that are pretty golden for us.

"We know we're going to get a goal from one of the three for sure."

Contact reporter Norm Sanders at 239-2454, nsanders@bnd.com or follow him on Twitter: @NormSanders

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