Wednesday, 03.21.2012 / 8:58 AM PT
The same Blues who have made the playoffs just once since the lockout, the same ones who started the season 6-7-0 before firing coach Davis Payne, have 100 points and were the first team in the NHL to clinch a playoff spot. The Blues are one of eight teams in the NHL this season to fire their coach, but replacing Payne with Ken Hitchcock (a former Cup winner in Dallas) has had a pretty clear turnaround effect on the team.
Hitchcock took over the team early enough in the season to get the Blues to buy into a defensive-minded system that has them leading the NHL by a mile with just 1.85 goals-against per game. That's why they're a ridiculous 37-0-1 when scoring three or more goals.
They've got a young and talented back end that includes guys like Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk (whose brother Keith happens to be a Ducks staffer), as well as a stellar goaltending duo of Brian Elliott and Jaroslav Halak. Elliott leads the NHL with a goals-against average of 1.62 (1.62!) and a .937 save percentage, while Halak is second in goals-against (1.85) and fourth in save percentage (.929). They've pretty much split time in net this season, with Halak having 42 games played to Elliott's 33, but Halak will be in net tonight against the Ducks at Honda Center.
Bruce Boudreau this morning was asked about Halak's playoff performance against his No.1-seeded Washington Capitals in 2010, when the goalie led the Montreal Canadiens to a first round series win in seven games. "I'm still mad at him," Boudreau said, not exactly smiling.
Meanwhile, the Blues don't even have a player among the top 60 scorers in the NHL. Their leading point-producer, TJ Oshie, is currently 69th in the league with 50 points.
"They're a good hockey club," Boudreau said of the Blues this morning. "It's not going to be easy. It never is against these guys."
And get this: The Blues have been doing this all season despite having a pretty decent amount of injury problems. In fact, for the first time this season, St. Louis practiced yesterday at Honda Center with its full opening night roster (and mid-season acquisitions) on the ice, though some of the guys out there aren't ready to play yet. That included Alex Steen, Matt D'Agostini and Kris Russell, who are all out with concussions. Steen has been out since December and has been in California receiving therapy in a hyperbaric chamber.
Also on the ice but questionable was David Backes, who has a foot injury, and definitely out tonight is former Duck Andy McDonald, who has a bad shoulder.
The Blues, who are in the second leg of a seven-game trip, are 6-1-1 in their last eight games, including a 3-1 win over Anaheim at home back on March 8.
Tonight the Ducks look to keep intact that same Ryan-Bonino-Palmieri line that rang up eight points in the 5-3 win in San Jose two nights ago. Look for Devante Smith-Pelly to possibly join Getzlaf and Perry on the top unit. Jason Blake and Niklas Hagman, who were held out of the game in San Jose, are possible to be in the lineup tonight, according to Boudreau. Also, Jonas Hiller looks to be back in there after getting a "rest" following 32 straight starts.
One cool thing if you're at the game tonight: The Ground Zero American Flag will be presented tonight during the national anthem, and later available for viewing on the concourse near Section 209.