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Back-to-back has challenges for both Blues, Jackets

by Louie Korac
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- They used to be quite common in the NHL years ago when teams would play home-and-home back-to-back games, especially division rivalries.

They're not quite as frequent these days, but for division rival St. Louis Blues and Columbus Blue Jackets, they'll go at it again Sunday night after locking up Saturday night in St. Louis.

The Blues (44-18-7) kept their NHL-best mark with a 4-1 victory, snapping the Blue Jackets' winning streak at four and winning their fourth straight. It'll be a successful weekend for the Blues if they can sweep, with this being the start if a seven-game trip.

"Only if you win them," said Blues coach Ken Hitchcock. "They become survival games.

"This is a tough go for both teams. This is a quick turnaround with (a) bad time change. You lose an hour (with daylight savings), then you lose another hour in the (eastern) time change. This is a tough go for both teams and then have an early start. This is a hard go for us."

There were fisticuffs throughout, and one would expect in these home-and-home series for some bad blood to carry over.

"I think they're cool," said Blues winger Chris Stewart, whose second-period goal snapped a 1-1 tie. "I think they build that playoff atmosphere. Any runs we can get in before the playoffs here and some high-intensity games here are going to be good for us."

Added Blues defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk: "It reminds me of the college schedule, at least back east, we used to do a lot of home-and-homes. It makes it interesting hockey and you get some bad blood brewing. I'm sure there's going to be some stuff carrying over into (tonight's) game. It's good for the league."

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Blues defenseman Ian Cole continues to learn and make strides towards that permanent spot on the Blues' roster.

The first step was when the team decided that even with more than enough healthy defensemen available, Cole would remain on the active roster here rather than go back to Peoria and become eligible to be on their playoff roster.

Cole has since played three games with Kent Huskins sidelined with a bruised hand, and Hitchcock has seen both sides of the ledger.

"He's had some really good stretches and then ... he's had some stretches where he's tried to overextend himself, defensively or whatever," Hitchcock said. "I think moving forward, if we're going to use him as a real player, we're going to have to work with him on the good things he's doing. He's got strength one-on-one and he moves the puck at times well. But defensively, we've got to get him to receive the rush more rather than attack people. He's taking some penalties attacking people."

Cole took a pair of penalties in the game Tuesday against Chicago, particularly one where he was whistled for interference that Hitchcock said is all about making the correct read and not rushing into judgment.

"That's just patience," Hitchcock said. "I think it's just getting him to be more patient in his game will make him a better player. The way he plays and his skill-set is, less is more. It's not so much more with the puck, it's without the puck. Over-exuberance at times.

"If we can get that calmed down at times, we're going to get a good player here."

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The Blues will try once again for a fifth straight win this season, an area they have failed to capitalize on six previous times.

The Blues have had six four-game winning streaks this season and have failed to win a fifth on each occasion.

They are tied with Detroit for the most wins in the league with 44, and Hitchcock feels like his team is finding ways to win and there's more to accomplish.

"I don't think it's clicking," he said. "I think it's more finding a way. For maybe six weeks, it was five-on-five play, PK was just OK and the power play wasn't very good, goaltending's kind of been the key thing all year. They've given us the big save, but we've really been good five-on-five. Now five-on-five's slipped a little bit and the special teams have come back up.

"I just think it's a combination of finding a way. ... We've got great team spirit. We don't overwhelm you with our skill level. We don't lead the league in anything scoring-wise, but we just find a way to chip it in and get that one-goal edge that you need to win."

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Columbus (22-39-7), which saw its season-best four-game winning streak snapped with Saturday's loss, is looking at the future rather than a playoff berth. It's been that way for some time with the horrendous start to their season.

Interim coach Todd Richards is looking at players the team has recalled from their AHL affiliate in Springfield (Mass.) and said they need to embrace an opportunity.

"As an American (Hockey) League player and as a young guy, these are the opportunities ... when the door opens up, you're looking forward to it," Richards said. "(St. Louis) is a big, heavy team, plays fast, obviously first in the league, so a challenge but an opportunity for players.

"It's a chance for us as a staff and organization to see some of these guys play in a difficult situation."

As for playing against the Blues, Richards mentioned before the teams' meeting here in Feb. 14 that for the Jackets to be successful and win, they need to be prepared to win a 2-1 type of game -- which is exactly what they won by.

"Still the same," Richards said regarding playing the Blues. "They play hard, a very disciplined team. I will use the word patient and what I mean by that is I think they're aggressive, and I know that's a contradiction in saying aggressive and patient. What I mean by that is they'll dump pucks, they'll continue to play a certain way. They're going to go after it, but they play a certain way and they wait for you to break or make a mistake and then capitalize and they tend to feed off the momentum that's usually created there.

"If the game is dumping and chasing, we have to do the same thing. We can't turn pucks over and (we have to) play along with the patience. We still want to be aggressive and match their puck management."
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