ST. LOUIS — A year ago, the St. Louis Blues were chasing the Presidents' Trophy. Tonight when they play the Vancouver Canucks (5 p.m., Sportsnet Pacific, Team 1040), they're trying just to secure a spot in the National Hockey League playoffs.
But when they get there, the big, bruising Blues may be a tougher opponent than they were last spring.
Already tight defensively and difficult to play against, the Blues further stacked their defence at the trading deadline by adding Jay Bouwmeester from Calgary and Jordan Leopold from Buffalo. And goalie Brian Elliott, sensational last season but erratic at the start of this one, has found his groove again. The Blues won six straight games before losing their last two, including a 2-0 defeat Sunday against the Western Conference-leading Chicago Blackhawks.
The Blues outplayed the Hawks and pummelled them physically, but couldn't score. And that's the problem.
“Our play without the puck has been much sounder so we're not giving up the quality chances we gave up before,” St. Louis coach Ken Hitchcock said. “We've taken a lot of pride in not being scored on, and that has allowed us to win all these games when we're not scoring. But if we expect to beat good teams down the stretch here, we're going to have to get more production across the board. We score by committee, and we need that committee to really step up in the next couple of weeks. We're certainly not playing to score one of two goals every night; that's not the plan.
“The biggest thing for us right now is to be the hardest team to play against that we can. And it's not just defensively. For us to get to the next level, we have to show more offensive determination also.”
The Canucks, closing in on their fifth straight division title, have won 11 of 14 games but have not been hard to play against in their last two. Sloppy periods characterized by turnovers and a failure to cope with pressure in the defensive zone saw the Canucks split road games in Denver and Nashville, where Vancouver won 5-2 Monday night.
Canucks captain Henrik Sedin said he'd have loved to play against his team, so careless was it with the puck in the second period against the Predators.
Vancouver's current hot streak began with a 3-2 win against St. Louis a month ago, when the Blues outshot the Canucks 34-19 but were beaten by goalie Cory Schneider. Nine of 10 Canucks’ wins since then have come against teams outside the playoff cut line.
Tonight will be a playoff-like test for the Canucks against a powerful team that could play them in the first round of the Stanley Cup tournament.
“As important as this game is for us, we have games Thursday and Friday that are equally important or more,” Hitchcock said. “We've got seven games left, six at home. We're controlling our own destiny and we don't really care who the opponent is. We're looking at it like we've got seven playoff games and we're not looking past anyone right now.”
After blowing the Presidents' Trophy on the final weekend of last season, the Blues made it to the second round of the playoffs before being steamrolled by the Los Angeles Kings the way the Canucks were in the first round. It was St. Louis’s first trip to the playoffs in three years and a learning experience for its many young players.
“Experience counts,” Hitchcock said. “But I also think the lessons we've learned this year are the hard lessons that a lot of young teams learn, which is you just can't throw your sticks on the ice and play. I think if we get in the playoffs, we'll be a hard team to play against.”
• PLAYERS TO WATCH:
Canucks: Alex Edler, who will be missing his partner Kevin Bieksa on the back end tonight (injury), has struggled to limit mistakes and giveaways and will be challenged by the Blues.
Blues: Goalie Brian Elliott, outplayed much of the season by rookie Jake Allen, is back in form and has won five of six starts, three of them by shutout.
Canucks: D Kevin Bieksa (lower body), LW Chris Higgins (knee), RW David Booth (foot), D Chris Tanev (ankle), C Manny Malhotra (eye).
Blues: RW Jamie Langenbrunner (hip), RW T.J. Oshie (foot), C Scott Nichol (lower body), G Jaroslav Halak (groin).
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