ST. LOUIS - Well past the halfway point of the season, the St. Louis Blues are in great shape. They return from the all-star break with a record that is close to the NHL's best.
The rest of the way, they can't let up a bit.
The Blues are 21-3-4 at home, leading the league in victories and points, and can build on that Friday night against the Los Angeles Kings. After that, they hit the road, where they're a far less impressive at 8-10-3. Only 13 of their 32 remaining games will be at the Scottrade Center.
Coach Ken Hitchcock, who's presided over the franchise's sudden rise to prominence, is far from satisfied. Especially entering the break off a loss at Detroit and a shootout setback at home to the Penguins.
"I think the last two games are eye-openers," Hitchcock said. "We're as good or better than 22 teams, but there's eight out there, they're big-time teams. Big-time teams and we get 'em, and we gets lots of them and we get them in their building."
The Blues have four games left with the Blackhawks, three of them in Chicago, plus two in Nashville and one each in Vancouver and San Jose.
Thus far, they've thrived on defence and stingy goaltending. Brian Elliott was an unexpected All-Star, and armed with a multiyear extension after signing a two-way contract before training camp.
"It's definitely something you don't picture," Elliott said. "It's an honour to be selected. It's not something you put as a goal, but when it happens, it's pretty cool."
Elliott stepped up when Jaroslav Halak slumped at the start of the year and has turned the position into a job share by using his 6-3 frame to advantage.
"Brian was a talented guy that kind of got off the rails and put himself back on the rails," Hitchcock said. "Anybody in hockey's proud of it."
More production from an anemic power play is needed to invigorate a lineup that gets major points for being relentless but has often lacked the finishing touch. Hitchcock believes if the Blues could have capitalized more with the man advantage, they could have knocked off both Detroit and Pittsburgh.
The Blues also have only one shootout victory.
"That's an area of the game where if we're a little better we're probably in first place with some room below us," captain David Backes said. "We've improved game to game, week to week all season long. We just have to make sure we don't have any drop-off."
Among the positive signs: Patrik Berglund snapped a seven-game point drought with two goals against Pittsburgh. Forward Andy McDonald is edging closer to returning from a concussion.
"We're young, we've got young players playing prime minutes," Hitchcock said. "But boy, we're going to really have to amp it up here when we get back. That's what we told the players: Take a good break but, man, when we come back we're going to really have the temperature turned up to get better."
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