Blues gear up for challenging road ahead

Three days after the closing ceremonies in Sochi took place, the St. Louis Blues were back on the ice in what will surely be a daunting final stretch of the regular season.

The Blues were in Vancouver, British Columbia Wednesday night, pitted against a desperate Canucks club that had lost seven straight before posting a 1-0 win over the Blues at Rogers Arena.

As expected, the Blues weren’t sharp, missing the net 17 times and failing to generate consistent traffic in front of Canucks’ goalie Eddie Lack, who is now 3-0 against the Blues this season. It was a disappointing loss, for sure. Many expected the Blues to kickoff the final 25 games of the regular season in style with a win against an inferior opponent. However, the desperate Canucks dealt the Blues their first shutout of the season.

Despite the loss, there are a lot of positives to take away. Gold medal winners Alex Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester continued to look sharp on the backend, generating three shots and three blocked shots on the evening. The chemistry between the two defensemen continues to trend in the right direction. Blues’ coach Ken Hitchock must be pleased with the way they are playing.

Blues’ goalie Jaroslav Halak, who had an embarrassing outing in Sochi for Slovakia, was stellar against the Canucks. Halak kept the Blues in the game from the opening face-off, stopping 34 of 35 shots. Halak was especially brilliant in the first two periods when the Canucks outshot the Blues 28-17. Sure, Halak would’ve liked to have that lone goal he surrendered to Jannik Hansen back. It was a tough shot, one Halak probably should’ve stopped. However, the game could’ve been over well before Hansen lit the lamp with 8 minutes, 47 seconds left in the third period. The Canucks were all over the Blues in the first period, firing shots from every direction. But Halak stood his ground. He gave his team a chance to win, and that’s all you can ask for.

Halak’s performance is something to build off of from here on out. A big question mark for the Blues has been consistency between the pipes. But Halak proved why he’s the No. 1 guy with his outstanding performance against the Canucks. His confidence will continue to grow.

The Blues must forget about this loss and focus on what lies ahead. Two games remain on this three-game road swing, including tilts against Western Conference-leading Anaheim (87 points) and a hungry Phoenix (64 points) club. The Blues are a combined 1-2-1 against the Ducks and Coyotes this season, and are winless against the former. The Blues have their work cut out for them. They begin the final push with 11 of their first 15 games on the road, six of their first seven. Following the current trip, the Blues return home against Tampa Bay before facing Central Division rivals Nashville, Colorado and Minnesota – three teams looking to make a final push of their own. On a positive note, the Blues are a perfect 7-0-0 against the Predators, Avalanche and Wild on the season.

I’m not concerned with the Blues’ lack of offense against Vancouver. It was their first game back from a 17-day hiatus. Not to mention, nine players flew halfway around the world and are still recalibrating their body clocks. The Blues own the second-best goals per game mark in the league at 3.3. The offense will come. The defense will continue to gel and rediscover its rhythm. Yes, the power-play has been a concern lately, as the Blues have gone 0 for their last 23 on the man-advantage, a season-long mark. However, even with the power play in a funk, the Blues still boast the fifth-best power play unit in the league, scoring over 21 percent of the time.

Moreover, the Blues want it. They want to make an extended playoff run deep into the heat of summer.

“We have a group of guys that has that team-first mentality, Blues’ captain David Backes told Jeremy Rutherford of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “We had a lot of success the first part of the year and we’ll be looking for more in the second part, really gearing up for the playoffs … playing hockey when it’s 100 degrees in St. Louis.”

Pietrangelo said it best following Canada’s gold medal win over Sweden Sunday.

“I saw ‘Hitch’ on the ice after the game, and I said, ‘That’s one championship, one more to go this year,” he said. “It’s special to share that (gold medal) with them. We’ve obviously been through a lot together and now back to reality, to win here in St. Louis.”