(HockeySTL)-- Of all the seasons in the Blues’ storied franchise history, this year is shaping up to be the best. The Blues are on pace for 121 points this year, which would be seven more than their previous franchise-best. But the concern now is the focus of the team.
Nine of the club’s 23 players made their way to Sochi, Russia this past weekend for the opening stages of the 2014 Winter Olympics. The Blues had 10 players selected to compete, which was tied for most in the entire National Hockey League. However, a leg injury to Vladimir Sobotka kept him from making the trip. Sobotka will spend the three-week break resting and healing, with the goal of returning to the team shortly after the Olympics. Other players will be taking much-needed vacations. And of course, the Olympians will be competing.
The Blues don’t play again until Feb. 26. When they travel to Vancouver and begin a three-game road trip. They won’t be back on home ice until Mar. 4. It’s easy to understand why the coaching staff is concerned with player readiness when the NHL schedule starts back up.
“I told the players when we come back March and April is for them,” said Blues head coach Ken Hitchcock. “They have to really grab it when we come back.”
And the coach is a bit concerned with selecting the right approach to regaining the player’s attention.
“My concern now is the process of getting the team to play the right hockey at the right time,” he said. “I think we’ve played awfully well. We’ve been really resilient all year; we’ve responded to that, but it’s going to get really dialed up when we come back. I think the players recognize that and are responding to that.”
The Blues certainly finished the final of their 57 pre-break games on the right note, with a shootout win over the Winnipeg Jets. The win propelled them into first place in the Central Division and second place in the entire NHL. Being in the first slot in their division when the break arrived has been the team’s goal from the get-go. They knew they were in good shape if they could at least be on the same level as the defending Stanley Cup Champion Blackhawks when February arrived. But as it stands, they’re a step ahead with 25 games remaining in the regular season.
“They’re an elite team that has played well for many years so for us to be up there with that, it’s a big feather in our cap,” said Blues defenseman Barret Jackman. “We have a lot of work to do over the break here and come back the same team, maybe even better in the last 25 games.”
The Blues take 84 points and a 39-12-6 record into the break. They are first in the NHL in win percentage (.737), second in goals per game (3.32) and shutouts (7), as well as third in goals against per game (2.32), goals against (132), and wins (39).
But this season has been about much more than statistics. It has been about overcoming the obstacles an 82-game season can throw at a team. Those obstacles, which for the Blues included injuries to key players and stretches of adversity, were successfully handled by the team.
“We’ve battled hard,” said Jackman. “We’ve gone through some injuries, sickness, things that a lot of teams have gone through, but we are still one of the top teams in the League right now and that’s a pretty good feeling going into break.”
Recently, the Blues have acquired a habit of giving away late leads. They have done so in four straight games, but they have also persevered and finished with at least a point in each of those contests. Those mental mistakes could very well be attributed to the excitement surrounding the Olympic break.
“I think everyone is excited,” said Hitchcock. “They need a break from everything. It has been a very difficult challenge for everyone to maintain a hard focus and they deserve a lot of credit. Every time we got pushed and shoved, we answered the bell.”
And Hitchcock is expecting even better play from his club in the final two months of the season.
“Everybody knows we have another gear we can play at and a whole different gear we need to play at,” he said. “There is a whole different level of emotional engagement we’d like to see from the team and I think come March we are going to get it.”
A different level of play will be difficult to come by, considering the vast amount of success the team has had up to this point. March has been a rough month for the Blues in past seasons, mostly because of the large amount of away games it usually entails. Unfortunately, success in March often coincides with how a team finishes the season.
For the Blues to come back and play in March like they have played in the past four months, they will need a large contingent of players to continue putting up career-type numbers. They will also need some more to step up.
The Blues aren’t successful because of any one player. This season they have five players with 40 or more points, nine players with 30 or more points, seven players with ten or more goals, and 14 players with 10 or more assists. So, the success following the Olympic break rides on a committee, not on any one person.
“We are a team that needs everybody,” said Hitchcock. “We have several players with career years going on right now and we have to continue to have that.”
The players know what lies ahead. Gone are the days when the Blues were an inexperienced bunch of players that struggled and collapsed under pressure. The Blues are looking to seize the opportunity and have put themselves in a good position to do so. But the final stretch of the season, which is the most important part, will undoubtedly provide a test.
“It’s going to be like coming out of the lockout (last year),” said Jackman. “Every point means something down the stretch, so it’s going to be about the mental focus coming back and being the team that doesn’t crack.”