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Big test for Blues as Canucks come to town

by Louie Korac
HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- It would have been hard to predict in October what January would bring, but suffice it to say that nobody could have guessed that when the Blues and Vancouver Canucks clash on Thursday, the top slot in the Western Conference would be up for grabs.

Obviously there's still a long way to go, but when the Blues (25-12-5) play host to the Canucks (27-14-3) at 8 p.m. ET, it's a chance for the home team to grab the top spot in the conference with a regulation win -- and that's something no one could have expected not all that long ago.

For the Canucks, the defending Western Conference champions, battling for the top spot is no surprise. But for the Blues, who have just one playoff appearance since the NHL work stoppage in 2004-05, it's uncharted territory -- especially considering the fact that they were 6-7-0 and languishing in 14th place before changing coaches just over two months ago.

Now they have a chance to prove they belong against a team that is 9-3-1 in its last 13 games. The Canucks come to Scottrade Center with 57 points, two more than the Blues -- though St. Louis has played two fewer games.


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Blues coach Ken Hitchcock feels the game is a measuring stick for his team.

"From our standpoint, you play good teams, you want to be evaluated," said Hitchcock, whose team is 19-5-5 since he took over for Davis Payne on Nov. 6. "You want to see your own team play against good teams. Those big four in the West (Vancouver, Chicago, Detroit and San Jose), any time we play against them, we want to know how we measure up. What areas are we good at? What areas do we need to work at? So for me, for a team trying to climb up the ladder ... I don't look at the points where a team's at. I look where you want to be at the end of the day.

"Any of these teams that have had histories of long runs in the playoffs, they know how to win. So we want to measure ourselves and see where we are against them. That's what gets me excited. The players are the same way. Any time a Detroit or San Jose, Vancouver, any of those division leaders from before, Chicago ... you want to see how you play."

Against the "Big Four," as Hitchcock likes to dub them, the Blues are 7-3-0 -- including 2-0-0 against the Canucks; they won 3-0 in Vancouver on Oct. 26 and 3-2 in St. Louis on Nov. 4. Both games preceded the coaching change.

"It was 30 games ago, so it's hard to evaluate because the Canucks are really dialed in now," Hitchcock said. "They're a different team than they were after 15 games. They're playing like they did all last year.

"For me, they know how to play and it will be a good test for us. It'll be a good test from an individual compete standpoint. It'll also be a good test for the details of your game because Vancouver makes you pay if you don't have good details of your game."

The Canucks lost the Stanley Cup Final to Boston in seven games last spring and got off to a slow start this season. But like the Blues, they've revved up their game in the past several weeks.

"They've climbed the standings pretty quickly," defenseman Alex Pietrangelo said of the Canucks. "They're playing pretty good hockey right now -- another win last night (a 5-4 shootout victory at Tampa Bay on Tuesday). We know it's going to be a challenge, but we like to rise to those challenges."

Added forward T.J. Oshie: "I didn't even know we played them until I got to the rink today. So, obviously it's going to be a big challenge. We've had success against them in the past. I think if we get away from the way we played them before, they'll eat us up."

The Blues have had success against Vancouver in recent seasons by containing the Sedin twins, Henrik and Daniel. Henrik leads the NHL in scoring with 50 points and is tops with 39 assists, while Daniel is tied for fourth with 47 points, including 18 goals. But in four games against St. Louis last season, they managed just two points each. In addition, No. 2 center Ryan Kesler (41 goals in 2010-11; 12 goals and 19 assists this season) was held to one goal in four games.

"I think we just play them hard," said Pietrangelo, who has seven points in his last four games. "We've got Backs (David Backes) and that line is shutting down pretty much every team that we're playing right now. I think our D are doing a pretty good job. It's just one of those things where we play them hard and we're able to shut them down. That's what we're going to have to do tomorrow."

The Blues, winners of four straight, will take a 9-0-1 mark in their last 10 home games into the game against Vancouver. They own an NHL-best 17 wins (17-3-2) on home ice.

Many of the Blues also have memories of the four-game sweep at the hands of the Canucks, who routed St. Louis in the opening round in 2008-09.

"I think that's why it's going to be such a good matchup, because we've ramped it up a lot since we've played them as well," said Oshie, second on the Blues behind Backes  with 28 points. "It's always a battle. I think, for me, ever since that first year in the playoffs, when we went four and out, there's always been a little sense of rivalry, a little sense of payback. It doesn't really go away if it's the only playoff berth you've ever had. We're going to play them hard, but we've got to play them smart."

Brian Elliott (15-5-0, 1.62 goals-against average and .940 save percentage), who is coming off a 4-0 shutout win over Colorado on Saturday, will be in goal after Jaroslav Halak blanked Montreal 3-0 in his return to Bell Centre on Tuesday night. Elliott was in goal for the two previous meetings between the team this season and will look to add to the Blues' shutout streak of 146:06 dating back to the second period of last Thursday's game against Edmonton.
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