Blues welcome the challenge of trying to be first overall in the NHL

News-DemocratMarch 29, 2014 

— The only time the St. Louis Blues finished first in the NHL overall standings, they followed it up with an unsightly first-round playoff exit against eighth-seeded San Jose.

But that was 1999-2000 and this is a new decade and a new team, a hard-working Blues bunch unafraid to become a club others will take pride in trying to hunt down in the playoffs.

Already at 50-16-7 and 107 points with nine games remaining, including six at home, the Blues have a chance to set franchise records for wins and points.

The record-setting 1999-2000 club had 51 wins and 114 points.

Their goal now is the Presidents Trophy for best regular-season record, but the unspoken end game includes the most famous trophy in all of hockey.

The elusive Stanley Cup.

"We want to make a statement around the league that we deserve to be where we're at," Blues winger T.J. Oshie said Thursday after collecting his first career hat trick in a 5-1 win over Minnesota. "We want the target on our back and we want that trophy.

"If you get a little mental edge on someone, no matter how small it is, I think that plays a big part in the postseason."

The Blues, who host the Dallas Stars tonight, have remained consistent much of the way, rarely needing to battle through the emotional highs and lows other clubs have experienced.

They are 21-1-2 in the Central Division, 42-1-3 when scoring three or more goals, 40-2-5 when scoring first and 31-0-4 when leading after two periods.

Gaining home-ice advantage in the playoffs is also huge with a 26-5-4 home record this season.

After back-to-back playoff losses to the Los Angeles Kings, once in the first round and once in the second, this team will be judged on its postseason performance.

"The most important thing is how we're playing come our last game of the year and going into the playoffs," said Oshie, who already has set career highs for goals (21), assists (39) and points (60).

"We're not going to run and hide from being a good team," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock told reporters after Thursday's win. "We're not going to be overwhelmed because we're the favorites in a playoff series or we're expected to win a payoff series. We're not going to run and hide from that, we're going to embrace it."

The Blues opened up a five-game homestand by beating the Wild for the ninth time in a row.

One recent coaching move by Hitchcock is paying big dividends.

Hitchcock reunited his top line of Oshie, David Backes and Alexander Steen, with Steen and Backes splitting time at center.

In the last two games, Backes and Oshie each have hat tricks -- the first time Blues teammates have accomplished that since Pavol Demitra and Michal Handzus in 2000 -- and the line has exploded for 15 points.

"I think the whole line's really playing with a strong focus right now," Hitchcock said. "They're really trying to lead us, they're trying to get details in their game."

By moving Backes to right wing, the position he played previously before moving to center and also with Team USA at two Olympics, it creates some forechecking mismatches.

Backes and Wild goaltender Darcy Kuemper tangled a bit in front of the net Thursday during the second period.

"I haven't had a lot of rookie goalies with disrespect like that in front of the net," Backes said. "That's where I've played a long time and when I feel disrespected, I'm going to stand my ground and see if there's any response. Our guys scored, I think three or four minutes after that (Jared) Schwartz puts one in the top corner.

"That's enough talking for us I think. "

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

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