Blues need to get back on their game to survive Blackhawks

News-DemocratApril 14, 2014 

— The best prescription for a struggling St. Louis Blues squad hammered by injuries may be rest and relaxation.

With six of the team's top nine forwards and two defensemen out of the lineup Sunday for the regular season finale, the Blues were off Monday before beginning preparations for a first-round playoff series against the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks.

The longtime rivals renew playoff hostilities for the first time since 2002 at 7 p.m. Thursday in Game 1 at Scottrade Center. It's only the second time in NHL playoff history where two teams have at least 107 points in an opening round series.

"It's good just to get a couple days break here," Blues defenseman Jay Bouwmeester said. "Since the (Olympic) break in February, we've been a pretty busy team -- and especially busy right at the end of the year."

Blues coach Ken Hitchcock seemed to be pointing a finger at the busy schedule and the team's eight players that competed at the Winter Olympics for the late-season slide.

"The big picture is we set a record for (wins)," Hitchcock said. "We had a brutal stretch here at the end; everyone went through as brutal stretch. The teams that had the Olympians, at some period of time, they hit the wall

"Chicago's stretch was right after the break, ours happened now. This break will do us really a lot of good and we can get re-energized, refocused and come back and get ready to play."

The Blues would like to wipe the slate clean on their first six-game losing streak since 2006 and a ghastly run of injuries that includes some of the team's best players.

Forwards David Backes (foot), T.J. Oshie (upper body) and Vladimir Sobotka (lower body) are expected back for Game 1, along with defensemen Jay Bouwmeester and Barret Jackman.

The return of forwards Vladimir Tarasenko (thumb) and forwards Brenden Morrow (foot) and Patrik Berglund (upper body) isn't as likely.

Chicago has its own issues, having lost two in a row and six of the last 11.

The Blackhawks have been playing without their top two players in injured forwards Jonathan Toews (missed six games with upper-body injury) and Patrick Kane (missed 12 games with lower-body injury).

"I think overall for the most part of the year we've been pretty lucky with injuries," Bouwmeester said. "We've had a few guys out here and there and it sort of catches up in the end (but) you don't want it to all happen at once.

"We'll get guys back for sure. Every team goes through it, it just happened to us at the end of the year."

Bouwmeester and other Blues talked about regaining the strong level of hockey that helped them play as one of the best teams in the NHL for much of the season.

While the Blues won three of the five games between the teams this season, the Blackhawks outscored them 8-2 while winning the last two meetings.

The teams do not like each other, but that's nothing new in a bruising rivalry that has endured for decades and dates back to the old Arena and Chicago Stadium.

"It's key for us to get into that battle mode right off the bat," Blues winger Alexander Steen said. "We don't get better by feeling sorry for ourselves, it's the way we finished the season. There's 16 teams left and we don't have anything, we've got to go and get it. We've got to go and grab it.

"We'll be looking to get ourselves body and mind prepared for Chicago. It's going to be fun."

What hasn't been fun is a puzzling stretch of offensive-impaired hockey by a Blues team that ranked among the top five in the NHL for most of the season and still is sixth at 2.9 goals per game.

However, the Blues' scoreless streak is 143 minutes, 59 seconds heading into the playoffs and coach Ken Hitchcock's squad has been blanked seven times in the last 25 games.

During the six-game losing skid, the Blues mustered only five goals. They have notched two goals or fewer in nine straight games.

How does a team trying to get injured top-flight forwards back into the lineup -- a team that was already struggling to score and was eliminated from the playoffs each of the last two years because of a lack of scoring -- suddenly find a way to re-ignite its offensive pilot light?

"For us, just get the players back in, get the thing coordinated, get guys back playing with people that played with each other all year and see where it goes from there," Hitchcock said. "But it's not rocket science, and it's not like we don't know them and they don't know us. We know how we're going to create offense, they know how they're going to create offense."

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

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