Bernie: Blues are back to the grind

2014-02-27T08:10:00Z 2014-03-12T20:17:41Z Bernie: Blues are back to the grindBernie Miklasz bjmiklasz@post-dispatch.com stltoday.com

Three days after the closing ceremonies at the Sochi Olympics, the Blues were in Vancouver late Wednesday night, taking part in the reopening ceremonies that marked the resumption of their NHL schedule.

It’s time for the final regular-season push, and the Blues hope they’ll find enough petrol to refuel the bodies of the nine players who expended energy in pursuit of Olympic prizes.

With 25 games remaining, this patch of ice figured to be hazardous. When the puck dropped in Vancouver, the Blues began a stretch of playing 11 of 15 games on the road, including six of the first seven.

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I realize several NHL teams had contingents in Sochi, but how many are restarting the season with a road-heavy itinerary that means more time in planes and hotels? After tonight’s game at the New York Rangers, Blues rival Chicago has the luxury of playing nine of its next 12 at home.

With some Blues sanding the rust that formed during the break, and others needing to recalibrate post-Olympics body clocks, the Blues had no choice but to jump over the boards and go right back in. There’s no sympathy in hockey.

“The challenge is to be mentally tough,” Blues GM Doug Armstrong said on the phone from Vancouver, where the Blues lost 1-0. “This is the most difficult part of the (regular) season. We have a lot of road games. And from here on out, every game is important. Teams are fighting for playoff spots. Physically, we’ll be fine. But mentally we’ll have to be even tougher. Can we keep our focus?”

Armstrong thinks his team is ready for the grind. He has been impressed by the Blues’ enhanced maturity this season and believes it will last.

“We’ve been much better at handling the flow of the season,” Armstrong said. “This isn’t a team made up of mostly young guys anymore, and there’s a difference. We’re more professional in going about our business. The emotion is there, but we’re more centered in handling the highs and the lows of a season and getting ready for the next game.”

The next 15 games certainly will test Armstrong’s theory, but there’s certainly a lot to like about the Blues.

With a record of 39-12-6 before playing the Canucks, the Blues possessed the NHL’s top winning percentage at .737. They were second in goals scored per game, and third in fewest goals allowed per game.

The Blues have been strong at even strength — with a plus 45 going into Vancouver — but were also functioning at a high level on the special teams, ranking fourth in both power-play success and penalty killing.

Moreover, the Blues are the only NHL team averaging at least a goal more per game than their opponents — and that’s rare. Over the previous seven NHL seasons, only two teams have done it: the 2013 Blackhawks and the 2009-10 Washington Capitals.

As is the case with every team, the Blues have questions.

They need a lot more from power forward Chris Stewart, who entered the game at Vancouver with no goals in his previous 14 games and a minus-8 rating in his previous 22 games. That’s unacceptable.

The Blues are hoping that young forwards Vladimir Tarasenko and Jaden Schwartz can continue their upward trajectory. And injuries could chip away at the Blues’ solid overall depth. If that happens, it could mean expanded roles for forwards Magnus Paajarvi and Dmitrij Jaskin, and defensemen Ian Cole and Carlo Colaiacovo.

The biggest question of all is draped over Jaroslav’s Halak net.

Can the Blues count on Halak to be a money goaltender? A deep postseason runs depends on it.

The Blues have once again reaffirmed their faith in Halak, offering unconditional support following his depressing Olympics experience for Slovakia. Armstrong knows that Halak makes fans nervous. But the GM is confident.

“St. Louis historically has been a graveyard for goaltenders,” Armstrong said. “I’m not being critical of the fans, but it doesn’t seem like they’ve ever been happy with who’s in the net. Jaro doesn’t deserve to have the past put on him."

Because of injuries, “Jaro has been our starting goaltender for exactly two playoff games,” Armstrong said. “He hasn’t failed. He’s going to have the opportunity to show what he’s capable of. That’s how it is in sports. Until you win, you can’t win.”

Armstrong, the former Dallas GM, likens Halak to Eddie Belfour, a goaltender from his Dallas past. Belfour was considered an underachiever and enigma in Chicago until winning the Stanley Cup in Dallas.

“The knock on Jaro, is the same knock I heard on Belfour — that he couldn’t win the big games,” Armstrong said. “We got him in Dallas, and we won it all.”

The Blues continue to bank on Halak’s past, namely the 2010 postseason that saw him lead Montreal to tremendous upsets over Washington and Pittsburgh in the first two rounds.

With the Canadiens winning the final three games of the Washington series, Halak stopped 131 of 134 shots. After giving up five goals to Pittsburgh in the opening game, Halak had a .945 save percentage over the final six.

Armstrong expects to see that version of Halak in the Blues goal. We’ll see if the GM’s confidence remains intact through the NHL’s trade deadline next Wednesday.

Separate from the goaltending, is Armstrong plotting any moves? He’ll be talking to other GMs but isn’t in aggressive mind-set. And Armstrong made so-called depth moves months ago by signing forward Brenden Morrow and Colaiacovo.

Before last year’s deadline Armstrong traded for Buffalo defenseman Jordan Leopold, then made a bold move to acquire world-class defenseman Jay Bouwmeester from Calgary. The Blues subsequently signed both defensemen to contract extensions.

“Last year I felt we had a glaring need, and had to improve the left side of our defense,” Armstrong said. “I don’t feel there’s a glaring need right now.

“You always consider tweaking the roster if it makes sense. And I never say ‘never.’ But in two weeks if we have the same team that we have right now, I’d be happy.”

It’s good to have the Blues back in action. It’s still winter. Now they have to prove that they can last all the way to summer.

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