ST. LOUIS --
Ken Hitchcock warned after a 4-3 shootout loss Thursday at Chicago that maybe the St. Louis Blues
needed a good, hard practice Friday.
True to his word, that's exactly what they got.
But instead of fretting over what was to come at St. Louis Mills' Ice Zone on Friday afternoon, the Blues embraced a good old-fashioned refresher course on what has made them successful and why they have been able to maintain that edge.
If they're able to follow through on it, the Blues (48-20-10) will clinch the Central Division for the first time since 2000.
"We deserved what we got [Thursday] night and I think we deserved what we got this morning," defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk
said. "It was good for everyone to get out there and get whipped around a little bit. Personally, I know I needed a little bit of it, especially with a big game tomorrow and getting a couple days off in between games. I think it's going to be good for us."
And what was it that the team needed to be reminded of?
"I think just the sharpness and crispness of everything," winger Alex Steen
said. "Yesterday was a slower, mediocre team performance by us. Today was just getting back to that quicker step, a little quicker decisions and crisper passes and all that good stuff.
"We play 82 games, we practice, what, 170 times a year? It's good to just get a little reminder. Last night we got away from what had made us successful. [Friday] we got a little quick reminder and we're back on track."
Added defenseman Kris Russell
: "It's human nature to kind of get a little soft in some cases. That's where as a team, we've got to be better and recognize that sooner in games.
"It was a good day [Friday]. I thought we did a lot of good things. We worked hard as a team, we were competing hard against each other. If we bring that speed and work ethic in the games, we're going to be successful."
Hitchcock, who conducted a 48-minute practice, hopes so, because what he saw from his 48-20-10 team was out of the ordinary.
"We were rotten. There's no other way to describe it. We were flat-rotten," Hitchcock said of the game against the Blackhawks. "We played the whole game with our eyes. It was just an absolute shock for us. For a coaching staff, it was like, 'Whoa!' To go as well as we played and skated against Nashville [a 3-0 win Tuesday] to come in and play like that [against Chicago], it was like we were playing the friendly games and they didn't want anything to do with it. They hit us, they knocked us around, they were tough on us. We tried everything we could, but we couldn't seem to get a response from our own group. Our own group couldn't get a response from each other. I don't know what it was.
"It's a young team and when you don't practice, you don't play well, and that's where we're at. When we don't practice, it just comes back and bites us every time and it has all year. I think veteran teams can do it and get away with it. You can talk things through, but when we don't get tempo at practice or we don't get everybody on the ice or we get to this playing every second day ... the only time we were good in a pregame skate was when we gassed it and had a hockey practice before the Nashville game. But that's hard to do every time. [Friday] was good. [It] hopefully gets out tempo back where it was before."
When the Blues implement that familiar tempo again against the Columbus Blue Jackets
on Saturday in hopes of clinching the Central Division title for the first time since 2000, they will do it with a full and healthy lineup for the first time in 160 games.
Hitchcock said Thursday that Andy McDonald
(shoulder) would play against the Blue Jackets. Matt D'Agostini
(concussion) was activated from injured reserve Thursday and Roman Polak
, out the last five games with a bruised knee, is also back in the lineup.
So in practice Friday, there were 16 forwards, eight defensemen and two goalies.
"It's a team we put together in the off-season, the team that's been practicing and working all year as a group," Steen said. "To finally have everybody healthy is a great feeling. Just knowing that guys have their health is the big thing. Everybody in here is friends. We're like family together. You never want to see a teammate get hurt.
"The coaches have a lot of decisions to make for the lineups and stuff like that. It's a good thing to have. There will be a lot of competitiveness. Guys want to play and play a lot."
It means that six players will sit the remaining games as long as the lineup's in tact the way it is. That will make competition for the 20 roster spots tough to sift through.
"It's always good when you have a healthy team, but shows how deep our team is," Russell said. "We were having success when guys were out, but it's been key guys that have been out. [Polak's] a big part of our defense. He's a shutdown guy, plays heavy minutes, five-on-five and four-on-four. You get guys like [Steen] and [McDonald] back, they help run the ship with the forwards. It's good to have those guys back and the leadership they bring.
"No matter how much money you're making, you've got to be competing, you've got to be earning a spot on that ice. That's the good thing about our team. There's competition. You've got to be at your best and if you're not, there's going to be someone breathing down your neck looking for that chance to get in. We work hard as a team and we help each other out. I think that's why we've been so strong."
The Blues usually bounce back strong after these types of competitive skates, and they typically bounce back strong off a loss.
Nothing less is expected once again.
"We're a team that feels uneasy when we don't play our best and we haven't really poured it all in," Shattenkirk said. "I think once that happens, you almost feel guilty and play harder.
"We owe it to ourselves to put the best product out there every night. Some guys won't have it some nights, but if the effort's there, usually we end up on the right side of things."