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Posted On Saturday, 04.28.2012 / 1:45 PM

By Louie Korac -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - Blues vs. Kings series blog

Backes-Kopitar matchup a highlight of this series

ST. LOUIS -- As the St. Louis Blues and Los Angeles Kings finally lace the skates and begin what is expected to be a hard-hitting, hard-nosed and physical Western Conference Semifinals, two players quite familiar with one another will get re-acclimated shortly after at the drop of the puck Saturday night.

The Blues' David Backes and the Kings' Anze Kopitar will see a lot of ice time together, and they'll be in each other's way more times than they might care to see but both will be faced with the challenge of overcoming what the other has to bring.

Backes is the Blues' checking specialist and just got done engaging with San Jose's Joe Thornton in the Western Conference Quarterfinals. It will be contrasting styles when going up against Kopitar and his linemates.

"Joe's a little bit bigger of a body, but I think Kopitar's got a speed element ... he's one of the fastest guys in the league," said Backes, who finished with one point in five games against the Sharks. "If you've seen me skate, I'm not.

"There's a physical element on my side that needs to balance out his speed. It's not one-on-one. We're not out there playing one-on-one on a full sheet [of ice]. I've got linemates [David Perron and T.J. Oshie] and he's got linemates [Dustin Brown and Justin Williams] helping him. I think the collective unit needs to be better than their collective unit and we'll see if that happens."

Kopitar, who saw a lot of Vancouver's Ryan Kesler in their quarterfinal series, had a goal and three assists in five games. He expects a different challenge facing Backes but is quite familiar with it.

"It's going to be a physical game," Kopitar said. "I have seen him quite a bit over the last couple seasons. It's nothing new. I'm sure the intensity's going to be high and I'm sure it's going to be a physical game.

"I don't think [Kings coach] Darryl [Sutter] was too big on matchups even the first series. He was rotating lines and was pretty much going with his feeling on whoever was going. ... We're going to come out, we're going to have to play. If the matchups are important to them, they're probably going to match it since we're here. For us, we just have to go out and play."

Brown was a teammate of Backes' at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.

"Just a big, straight-line body ... he does a lot of the little things right," Brown said of Backes. "You don't see him change his game too much. That's why he's probably successful on a nightly basis. He's big, he's strong and he knows a straight-line game, physical ... he's just hard to play against in general."

Sutter is equally as impressed with Backes.

"He's one of the really good young captains in the League," Sutter said. "I think he has an identity and it's a strong one. He plays both sides of the puck, plays a 200-foot game. We're lucky we have a couple centermen like that, too, so hopefull we can saw that off a little."

Blues coach Ken Hitchcock would like to see more offense from the Backes line, which collected two goals and five assists but understands their commitment to defending playing with a lead the majority of the last series.

"The first thing he has to do is trust his linemates a little more and secondly he's got to play more reckless," Hitchcock said. "He played safe ... and playing against Joe is no day at the beach. Joe was dialed in and Joe was playing for his life. He was a terrific player in our series, so David had his hands full. The other thing is, sometimes 5-on-5 with as much as David plays on the power play and he kills penalties, sometimes 5-on-5 is a rest and we want to get him past that, where he's really contributing more 5-on-5 because he's back playing a little more reckless and not so careful. He plays reckless on the power play, which is great, it helps us. He's obviously a great penalty killer. We just want him to trust his linemates and not have to be the safety net that he thinks he has to be all the time."

Added Backes: "It's kind of situational, who you're out against, time of the game, score of the game ... that kind of dictates it. Luckily in the series against San Jose, we were faced with leads and just protecting them and making sure we took care of mostly in the defensive side.

"There's going to be times in tie games when you need a goal and we're going to have to wade it on the other side. There's a balance there that needs to be found; I don't think it was perfect in the first round. It was good, but we need to be great in order to win this series."
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Posted On Saturday, 04.28.2012 / 12:49 PM

By Louie Korac -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - Blues vs. Kings series blog

Projected Game 1 lineups

ST. LOUIS -- Here are the probable lineups for Game 1 of the Western Conference Semifinals between the Los Angeles Kings and St. Louis Blues from Scottrade Center:

KINGS

Dustin Brown - Anze Kopitar - Justin Williams
Dustin Penner - Mike Richards - Jeff Carter
Dwight King - Jarret Stoll - Trevor Lewis
Brad Richardson - Colin Fraser - Jordan Nolan

Rob Scuderi - Drew Doughty
Willie Mitchell - Slava Voynov
Alec Martinez - Matt Greene

Jonathan Quick
Jonathan Bernier

Forwards Kyle Clifford [concussion] and Scott Parse [hip] will not play. Healthy scratches include forwards Andrei Loktionov and Kevin Westgarth as well as defenseman Davis Drewiske.

BLUES

David Perron - David Backes - T.J. Oshie
Andy McDonald - Patrik Berglund - Alex Steen
Vladimir Sobotka - Jason Arnott - Chris Stewart
Jamie Langenbrunner - Scott Nichol - B.J. Crombeen

Carlo Colaiacovo - Alex Pietrangelo
Barret Jackman - Kevin Shattenkirk
Kris Russell - Roman Polak

Brian Elliott
Jake Allen

Goalie Jaroslav Halak [lower-body] will not be available for Games 1 and 2 but has been skating and is progressing. Healthy scratches include forwards Matt D'Agostini, Ryan Reaves, Chris Porter and Jaden Schwartz along with defensemen Kent Huskins and Ian Cole.
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Posted On Thursday, 04.26.2012 / 3:20 PM

By Louie Korac -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - Blues vs. Kings series blog

Blues endured wait to learn when series would start

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- As the St. Louis Blues prepare for the Western Conference Semifinals against the Los Angeles Kings, the element of surprise was when it would all get started.

Both teams had to wait for the NHL to release at least a partial schedule, which came Wednesday, to have a better idea when to mentally and physically prepare for the start of the series.

It's tougher for the Kings, who traveled to St. Louis Thursday for Games 1 and 2. But as much as they want to practice, the Blues also were looking for a better idea of when to really get the game preparation underway.

"It's the first go for a lot of guys without knowing the starting date; I think that was the bigger distraction," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said. "Having the down time, knowing when you're starting, players can plan their week. Not knowing in the first practices what day we were going was a little bit of a concern for everybody because you didn't know when to amp it up, how much to amp it up. You didn't have any idea.

"Once we got down [Wednesday] and we knew it was Saturday, then you saw even a bigger focus today. We had a very good focus today at practice."

For the players, staying even-keeled is key.

"You've just got to keep telling yourself that it's going to happen, just keep working every day," defenseman Carlo Colaiacovo said. "I can't remember when we've practiced this many days in a row except training camp. This time of year, you just want to be playing hockey. I think we're all ready right now."

Now a plan can be put in place.

"I think we we knew it was going to come Friday or Saturday from the start," defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk said. "We've been getting some stuff done for L.A., but today and tomorrow are kind of the key days of practicing and getting ready for them.

"Now that there's a set day, we know it's going to be Saturday, it's a little nicer to plan your week out and get ready."


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Posted On Thursday, 04.26.2012 / 3:18 PM

By Louie Korac -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - Blues vs. Kings series blog

Halak ruled out for first two games against Kings

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- Blues goalie Jaroslav Halak (lower body) skated before Thursday's practice and is progressing, according to coach Ken Hitchcock, but is still ruled out for Games 1 and 2 of the series.

"He skated before the team at practice," said Hitchcock, who announced Halak not being available early because he didn't want it to be a distraction. "He's getting better. Not ready for the first two games, so we'll just see from there. ... We've got our two goalies and away we go."
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Posted On Tuesday, 04.24.2012 / 4:28 PM

By Louie Korac -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - Blues vs. Kings series blog

GM of the Year finalist Armstrong rebuilt Blues

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- Doug Armstrong was on a mission to get the St. Louis Blues back on track.

It was a bit of a rocky start at the outset, but ultimately with a few changes and some tweaks to a roster chalk full of younger talent, the Blues were able to persevere.

And on Tuesday, the NHL announced that Armstrong, along with Florida's Dale Tallon and Nashville's David Poile are the finalists for the 2012 General Manager of the Year Award.

Armstrong became the 11th GM in Blues history on July 1, 2010, and is in his second full season.

Since taking the reins in 2010-11, Armstrong has orchestrated several additions to the club, including trading for Jaroslav Halak, Kevin Shattenkirk, Kris Russell and Chris Stewart while also signing veteran free agents Jason Arnott, Brian Elliott, Kent Huskins, Jamie Langenbrunner and Scott Nichol to mix in with that youth core.

The moves helped the Blues go from ninth to second in the Western Conference this season.

"It's certainly a great honor to be in there with David Poile and Dale Tallon, two guys who have done a tremendous job this season," Armstrong said. "It's certainly something that we cherish here as an organization.

"I sort of look at the Jennings Trophy as accepted by the goaltenders, but it's a team award. I think the manager of the year is really the ultimate team award from the work that the players and the scouts and coaches do. It's verification almost of an organizational award."

This season, the Blues posted their first 100-point campaign (49-22-11, 109 points) since 2001 and their first playoff series win since 2002 when they defeated the San Jose Sharks in five games in the Western Conference Quarterfinals. The club broke or tied 13 franchise records in 2011-12, including a 21-game home points streak and 30 home wins overall, which is a franchise record. Overall, the Blues have gone 87-55-22 in the last two seasons, tying for 11th best in the NHL under Armstrong, who now becomes the team's biggest fan since the GMs can't make any more deals or transactions.

"You're here to lend support to the training staff, the coaching staff and the players," Armstrong said. "Really after the trade deadline, the job is done and as we say, you hope you haven't messed up things too much. You just move forward and you support the guys. Ultimately, the players have done a tremendous job right from training camp on. We got off to a little bit of a rocky start, but they were able to right that ship. I enjoy watching them go through this."

That rocky start included a 6-7 run that saw Armstrong make arguably his boldest move when he fired Davis Payne and brought in Ken Hitchcock to get back on track.

"Doug's a smart hockey guy," Hitchcock said. "I think his strength for me is, he trusts his people but he asks for information and really listens. He has a core group of guys, Army asks a lot of questions, he doesn't do anything without being very thorough and he's been that way since he worked in Dallas. That's his real strength, he's not afraid to ask questions, and if he doesn't feel like he's 100 percent, he's going to ask a lot of questions to get the right answers. He's very, very thorough. And he understands from the Dallas days what a good team feels like. The balance between veterans and young people, the necessary element to have on your team to demand the young players play accordingly."

Before joining the Blues, Armstrong spent 17 years with the Dallas Stars organization and his final six seasons as the club's GM. He was a part of the Stars’ organization since the club moved to Dallas in 1993 and helped lead the franchise to two Presidents' Trophies, two Western Conference titles and the 1999 Stanley Cup.

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Posted On Saturday, 04.21.2012 / 3:30 PM

By Louie Korac -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - Blues vs. Sharks series blog

Sharks find motivation in Penguins' victory

The Sharks are using the energy the Pittsburgh Penguins drew from winning a Game 5 to extend their series with the Philadelphia Flyers as a means to motivate themselves.

The Sharks are 0-4 all-time in series when they trail it 3-1 but feel like they can feed off past teams that have done it.

"Growing up watching it, you see it has happened all the time," Pavelski said. "When you watch that game in the Pitt-Philly series and you see Pitt win that second game, now there's Game 6 and now there's doubt in Philly's mind. We realize if we come out here and play a good game, play a strong game, make St. Louis come back with us, it's going to put a little doubt in everyone's mind. We'll gain a little confidence and we'll have to do it again then."

So how does that happen?

"It's just one day at a time," Sharks captain Joe Thornton said. "You've got to get through today to get to tomorrow. You've got to play with desperation, emotion and ultimately win the game tonight.

"We want to extend the series, so we've got to win here tonight to bring it back to San Jose for Game 6, but really just got to focus on one game and one game only."

The Sharks played desperate hockey at the end of the season when they won seven of nine and four in a row to end the regular season to get into the playoffs. Their backs were against the wall then, as they are now.

"We've talked about that. When you look at our season, we needed to work hard to get in, and the last four games -- two against Dallas and two against LA -- were must wins and we were able to get all four," coach Todd McLellan said. "We played well as a team with our backs up against the wall. We can do that here again tonight."

Added winger Ryane Clowe: "We've been in this position on the other side the last couple years where we've had a chance to close it out at home. It's not like there's extreme pressure, but you just want to go back on the road again. It's the thought that you don't want to go back to San Jose. You want to rest as much as possible and all that stuff. ... I know we've got a lot to lose but play like we're loose and we are playing for our lives."
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Posted On Saturday, 04.21.2012 / 3:26 PM

By Louie Korac -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - Blues vs. Sharks series blog

Blues stifling Sharks star Pavelski, Marleau

The Blues' ability to neutralize star Sharks Joe Pavelski and Patrick Marleau (zero points in eight games dating back to the regular season against St. Louis) has been a big reason why the Blues have held San Jose to 10 goals in eight games this season.

The duo combined for 61 goals and 125 points in the regular season, which speaks volumes for what the Blues have done to them all year. That doesn't mean to let up off the accelerator.

"They're coming hard," Blues defenseman Barret Jackman said of the pair. "They have the world-class talent. It can burn you if you give them any kind of room. We've got to continue to stay on them and really not give them opportunities to be difference-makers."

Pavelski, who is 42.2 percent on the faceoff dot, down from the 58.8 percent in the regular season, has a simple remedy.

"I think a lot of it's execution and just being ready," Pavelski said. "Obviously chances come at a premium here but we are getting them. You've got to get that one early and get in the game and we'll go from there."

Marleau was asked if the Blues have done anything to force some of the Sharks' stars to play out of their element.

"In the playoffs, you might have to do some things you wouldn't normally do," Marleau said. "On the other side of it, we have been getting chances. It's an inch here or there. It's that fine line, but you've got to stay positive and believe it's going to happen for yourself or the team."

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Posted On Saturday, 04.21.2012 / 3:19 PM

By Louie Korac -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - Blues vs. Sharks series blog

Sharks' McLellan sees pressure for Blues, too

ST. LOUIS -- San Jose Sharks coach Todd McLellan, who has been on the other side of 3-1 series leads with his team on multiple occasions, said there is not only pressure on his team to extend this series but also on the Blues to end it.

Why? Because once the team with its backs against the wall wins, there's some confidence that grows and they get to take the series back home with hopes of extending it to a winner-take-all game.

"When we're in Detroit [last season], we're in that series and we're in the LA series, we come home against LA, we're up 3-1, there's some pressure to win," McLellan said. "There really is some pressure to win.

"We didn't win that one and now you get into their building and they really believe and they've got the crowd going. The pressure builds to close the series out when you have the lead. That may sound strange because there can't be any more pressure than on our group tonight to actually win the game. But there is pressure on that close-out team."

St. Louis Blues coach Ken Hitchcock wasn't buying it.

"I don't know. To me, pressure leaves after one shift," Hitchcock said. "You just play. Both teams are playing well. At this time when you get into situations where the series is getting close to the end, you just narrow your focus. It actually becomes more fun for everybody. You're not worrying about anything but playing ice hockey and that's all that matters.

"Paying the bills waits, returning phone calls waits, even returning texts waits, but obviously tweeting doesn't. For me, it just narrows your focus. I know it's a crooked way of saying it, but I think it's a fun time. They know where they stand, we know where we stand."
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Posted On Saturday, 04.21.2012 / 3:12 PM

By Louie Korac -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - Blues vs. Sharks series blog

Colaiacovo bounces back after sitting out

Just like teammate B.J. Crombeen, Carlo Colaiacovo had to sit and watch the opening game of this series between the St. Louis Blues and the San Jose Sharks. And like Crombeen, Colaiacovo didn't like it but had the best interests of the team.

The Blues' roster is at 26 players. Somebody has to sit. But when Colaiacovo got the opportunity to get back in, he's made the most of it with arguably three of his best games of the season.

"Going back to Game 1 was something hard to swallow," said Colaiacovo, who has three assists in the series -- all in Game 3. "Obviously it's a learning experience for me. You battle all year with a group of guys and then when it's time to elevate your game and time to play during the best time of the year and you're not in there, it doesn't sit well with me, and it wouldn't sit well with anybody. At this time of year, you've got to be at your best. Your game has to be raised to another level. The emotions are higher and everything more's at stake. I think that brings the best out of you.

"When you get that chance to play, you want to be at your best and do whatever you can to help the team win. I feel I've been able to do that the last three games and I just want to continue to focus on the positives and continue to move forward and don't take anything for granted."

Colaiacovo may have struggled somewhat down the stretch but instead of using of sulking, he chose to get better from the experience. It's paid off.

"There's no time to waste energy to sit and pout," Colaiacovo said. "Hockey's a team game, it's not an individual game. You're a part of the team and as a team, you're trying to accomplish one goal. You obviously hope to be in there to do that, but in my case when I wasn't, it hurt, it stung, it didn't sit well. You're supposed to feel like that. But at the same sense, you've got to be there for your teammates. You can't cry out for "poor me.

"You've got to take the good with the bad and focus on the positives and wait for your turn to get back in there and try to contribute any way possible."
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Posted On Saturday, 04.21.2012 / 2:53 PM

By Louie Korac -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - Blues vs. Sharks series blog

St. Louis' second line producing primary offense

One of the many successes for St. Louis in this series has been the play of Patrik Berglund, Alex Steen and Andy McDonald on the Blues' second line.

While the Sharks have been able to somewhat neutralize the top unit of David Backes, T.J. Oshie and David Perron, the Berglund line has accounted for 16 points (seven goals, nine assists) in four games.
And to think, Blues coach Ken Hitchcock didn't throw this group together until the last game of the regular season in Dallas.

"I think pretty early," Steen said when asked when the chemistry came together. "We use the strength of the line very well. I think [MacDonald] and myself use our speed down low and [Berglund] kind of with his big body creates a lot of space for the two of us.

"We talk a lot about plays on and off the ice, on the bench as soon as we get a chance ... where we'd like each other to be in certain situations. We have triggers in our game now that we've played enough together enough times where we see if one guy does something, it triggers another guy to do something else. It kind of gets in sync that way. We're a hard-working line. We check well."

Both Steen and McDonald have shared the duties on both wings, with Steen most recently playing the right side.

"It's a little different for me, but I've done it before," Steen said. "It didn't take very long, and now I'm comfortable. I think if you watch the games, both [MacDonald] and myself read off each other pretty well. When one guy's on one side, we'll have a peek at each other and say alright, we'll just stay for now. ... We need to stay humble and keep working."

Hitchcock said it's all about each player playing to their respective strengths.

"I think we have the puck in the right people's hands," Hitchcock said. "I think [Berglund] has played great because he's deferred to the other two guys and he's played to his strengths. I think each guy's playing to his strengths right now, and it's allowed us to be a better line. I think [Berglund]'s figuring out as a center iceman that you don't have to have the puck all the time to be an effective center iceman in the NHL anymore. The new wave of NHL center icemen has that element now. ... He's learning that it's a give-and-go game. He's been much better because he's played with two guys that handle the puck well, have great patience and allows him to get into the right spots to shoot and score."

Hitchcock continued: "I really believe one of the reason's we're up in the series is [Backus and] Oshie killing penalties, negating top players has helped us out a lot. I can guarantee that this is the first time that San Jose hasn't started with the puck in a long time. Somebody told me [Joe] Pavelski's percentages are down 20, which is incredible for us. We thought if we were close to 45 percent, we'd be doing good, but to be in the 50s is terrific for us right now."
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