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St. Louis Blues need to make final push for first place

The NHL playoffs will be a brand-new experience for Alex Pietrangelo and the majority of the Blues. (Getty Images)

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The NHL playoffs will be a brand-new experience for Alex Pietrangelo and the majority of the Blues. (Getty Images)

By Nicholas J. Cotsonika

The NHL playoffs will be a brand-new experience for Alex Pietrangelo and the majority of the Blues.

The St. Louis Blues need to push for the Presidents' Trophy.

Not for the accomplishment of being the NHL's top regular-season team. Not to secure home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs. Not even to land the best first-round matchup in the competitive Western Conference.

None of that might matter. The last time the Blues won the Presidents' Trophy, in 1999-2000, they were upset in the first round by the San Jose Sharks. This time, they could end up with San Jose again, if the Sharks get their act together and finish eighth (more on them in a moment). It would be a total coincidence. It still wouldn't be much of a reward for the Blues, to face a team that has made it to the conference final the past two years.

What really matters is how the Blues are playing when they reach the playoffs, no matter whom they face in the first round, and their best chance of being at their best is staying out of cruise mode.

The Blues entered Thursday night's game at Los Angeles with 100 points, giving them a five-point cushion atop the West. But they had only a one-point lead on the New York Rangers in the overall league standings. That should be their focus. They've got to stay on the gas.

"We want to put our best game on the ice and see where we stack up," said general manager Doug Armstrong. "We're not surprised that we're in the position we're in, and we're not accepting that this is far enough. This isn't far enough."

There are good reasons to think the Blues could go farther.

They have a coach, Ken Hitchcock, who won a Stanley Cup with the Dallas Stars in 1999 and went back to the final the following year. They have a goaltender, Jaroslav Halak, who led the underdog Montreal Canadiens to the Eastern Conference final two years ago. They have veterans – Jason Arnott and Jamie Langenbrunner – who have plenty of playoff experience and have won three Cups between them.

This is a team than wins with a balanced offense and the best defense in the league. The Blues allow the fewest shots per game (26.2) and the fewest goals per game (1.88). Halak has outstanding numbers (1.90 goals-against average, .927 save percentage), and his partner Brian Elliott's are even better. Elliott leads the league in GAA (1.62) and save percentage (.937).

"Our team is built on a pack mentality – no superstar, no really lead dog," Armstrong said. "I think we're a difficult team to defend against because you're not really sure who the head of the snake is. So who do you stop? And then I think also we're very comfortable playing in low-scoring games, and we're very comfortable playing deep into games that are low-scoring. That's a benefit as you're playing into the playoffs."

The Blues showed what they could do during a six-game road trip stretching from late February to early March. From Nashville to Winnipeg to Calgary to Edmonton to Vancouver to San Jose, they went 5-1-0. Their only loss was 2-0 to the Canucks, and it was a 1-0 game with an empty-netter at the end. The game that most impressed Armstrong was a 3-2 victory over the Jets when the Blues didn't play well.

"To me, that's the sign of a good team," Armstrong said. "You expect to win when you play well, but the good teams win when they're not at 100 percent, and we found a way to do that. I think we gained a lot of confidence doing that on the road because we hadn't done that in the past."

But Wednesday night at Anaheim, the Blues blew three one-goal leads and lost to the Ducks, 4-3. They lost for the first time in regulation when scoring at least three goals. Hitchcock told reporters that some bad habits had been creeping into their game and had bitten them. It was only one game. It has to remain only one game, because this is how the Blues can unravel.

When the Blues are strong in their structure and strong on the puck, they can be the best team in the league despite an offense that ranks 19th and nobody among the NHL's top 65 scorers. Lose their edge, and they can be average. Lose it for too long, and they might struggle to find it again.

Despite Hitchcock and Halak and Arnott and Langenbrunner, this is not a veteran team that has been through the playoffs together before. This is not a team like the Detroit Red Wings or Vancouver Canucks, who can go through a lull, confident they can turn it on again when they need to.

The Blues have made the playoffs only once since the lockout, in 2008-09, when they were swept in the first round by the Canucks. Those four games represent the only playoff experience for four of their top six scorers – T.J. Oshie, David Backes, David Perron and Patrik Berglund. The other two – defensemen Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk – have never appeared in the playoffs.

"I think we're going to respond very well," Armstrong said, "but we haven't been through it."

So the playoffs need to start now. All but one of the Blues' remaining opponents will be fighting for something – a playoff spot, or at least a better seed. Despite their lead in the West, the Blues need to fight for something, too.

"You want to win the Presidents' Trophy," Armstrong said. "It's important. To me, I don't know why we would play not wanting to win."

FIRST PERIOD

At the NHL general managers' meetings last week in Boca Raton, Fla., league disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan took the GMs through the degrees of certain infractions. What should be a minor penalty? What should be a major? What is worth a warning, a fine or a suspension?

Then he gave an abridged version of the same presentation to reporters, and it's interesting to look back at it now as we wait for his ruling on the Duncan Keith elbowing incident.

Shanahan just suspended the Phoenix Coyotes' Shane Doan three games for an elbow to the head Tuesday night. But that was different: One, Doan was a repeat offender, having been suspended three games last year for a head shot and fined last week for boarding. Two, the elbow came while Doan was trying to prevent an odd-man rush. Three, Shanahan ruled Doan was reckless but instinctive as he stuck out his elbow and clipped the Dallas Stars' Jamie Benn. Four, there was no apparent injury.

Keith has never been fined or suspended in his NHL career, and he told reporters he wasn't trying to hurt the Canucks' Daniel Sedin on Wednesday night. But he elbowed Sedin in the face, as the puck bounced off the boards into the air and Sedin turned up ice toward him. The incident came after Sedin hit Keith up high along the boards, and Sedin is reportedly out at least two weeks with a concussion.

Shanahan will look at the full context: Keith has a clean record. Sedin never touched the puck. Keith had time to react before putting his elbow in Sedin's face. The elbow came after a borderline hit by a generally docile player in a rivalry game. The Canucks have lost a former scoring champion to a concussion shortly before the playoffs.

At the GM meetings, Shanahan broke down two clipping incidents – one by the Ottawa Senators' Nick Foligno on the Toronto Maple Leafs' Dion Phaneuf, which drew a warning, and another by the Boston Bruins' Brad Marchand on the Canucks' Sami Salo, which drew a three-game suspension.

Listen to how Shanahan compared those two incidents to reporters:

Starting with the video of Foligno, Shanahan said: "We felt on this one that you look at the contact, Phaneuf just prior to contact is coming up a little bit. That being said, it's still at his hip. That being said, I warned him he is inches away here from being a Marchand situation. …

"And let's go to Marchand. Part of what happened on this play, this is lower. It's at a guy's knees. Unlike Phaneuf, Salo is not coming off his feet at all here, either. He is firmly planted on his skates. That is right at his knee."

And here's the key point as Marchand relates to Keith: "There was something that happened earlier in this shift that led to this, so I saw it as, not only was this clipping but it was predatorial. And it caused an injury."

Marchand claimed in his hearing that he was being defensive. Shanahan didn't buy it. As he deadpanned to reporters, Marchand "thought he was going to get hurt by the goon, Salo." Salo is no goon. Neither is Sedin.

Neither is Keith, really, but this appeared predatorial and caused an injury. Considering all the conflicting factors and the way Shanahan has ruled in the past, expect a multi-game suspension, but one that isn't stiff enough to satisfy Vancouver.

SECOND PERIOD

One of the reasons Shanahan went over things with the GMs was to get ahead of the playoffs – so everyone would be on the same page and gamesmanship might be less of a factor when emotions are at their most intense.

Shanahan made a couple of things clear: His standard of what is legal and illegal will remain consistent, as will his main goal in sentencing – to change player behavior, not to punish. He will shorten suspensions in the playoffs to reflect the added weight on each game, but he has no magic ratio.

"I think each one is going to be feel," Shanahan said. "I'm not going to say every single case will be the same, but for the most part, you're looking at things in, like, seven-game clumps. It's a seven-game season, each series. …

"I can attest to this as a player. If you asked me if I would rather have a four-game suspension in November or a one-game suspension in the playoffs, I would take the four-game suspension in November. So there is a greater importance when your season is seven games on each game."

Shanahan said Lightning star Vincent Lecavalier asked him about his playoff standard the last time he visited Tampa Bay. He said Lecavalier remembered a player receiving a one-game suspension in the Stanley Cup final for an infraction that would have been worth four or five games in the regular season.

"I said, 'If you think about it like that, one game in the finals is the equivalent then of, like, a 12-game suspension,' " Shanahan said. "And he seemed satisfied with that answer, and he understood how it was much more punitive and much more attention-getting.

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"That's what we're trying to do with the players. I don't feel that we are in the punishment business. I feel we are in the changing-player-behavior business. And you do that by getting someone's attention.

"Some players, that's a one-game suspension in the regular season. With others, it's a 12-game suspension in the regular season. And that's what we're trying to do in the playoffs as well. It's just get your attention and change your behavior."

THIRD PERIOD

In the preseason, I picked the Sharks to win the Stanley Cup, knowing full well their history of choking in the playoffs. I figured they had found the formula after adding Martin Havlat and Brent Burns, and they would take the next step after back-to-back trips to the Western Conference final.

Throughout the season, I have stuck with the Sharks, thinking they are too talented to keep playing this poorly. I figured Havlat would give them a boost when he returned from a hamstring injury, and if they ended up with a low seed, they would be an awful draw for somebody in the first round.

I'm not giving up now, but I'm running out of time. The Sharks have made a lot of writers look dumb for picking them over the years, but they might make me look like the dumbest yet. It's one thing to choke in the playoffs. It's another not to make the playoffs at all.

The Sharks looked like they had finally figured it out last week. They went 3-0-1, with victories over the Nashville Predators and Red Wings. Coach Todd McLellan had struck gold with a line of Joe Thornton, Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski. Havlat had returned and scored two goals against Detroit.

But this week the Sharks blew a chance to take the Pacific Division lead and the third seed in the West, and they did it spectacularly. Although Havlat had a goal and an assist in each game – giving him six points in three games – the Sharks lost to Anaheim, 5-3, and at L.A., 5-2. They entered Thursday night's action 10th in the West.

There is still time. The Sharks could still win the Pacific or at least make the playoffs. They're only three points behind the Stars. They're only two points behind the eighth-place Kings and ninth-place Coyotes, and they have a game in hand on Phoenix.

At this point, with 29 victories in regulation or overtime, they don't hold the tiebreaker over any of those teams. But of their final nine games, six are against those teams. They face each of them twice. They also face the Colorado Avalanche, which is seventh in the West, one point ahead of the Kings.

If the Sharks play up to their potential, they can make the playoffs, make it with momentum and make some noise. If they don't, it might be time to make major changes. I wasn't the only one with high expectations.

POWER RANKINGS

Now that the regular season is headed down the stretch, we're shaking up the format for NHL Power Rankings. No more top six, bottom six. It's time for the top 10.

Pittsburgh1. Pittsburgh Penguins: Sidney Crosby has nine assists in four games in his latest comeback, giving him 21 points in 12 games this season. Evgeni Malkin has 93 points, giving him a nine-point lead in the NHL scoring race. James Neal has 35 goals, eight more than he has ever scored before. When the Penguins at full strength, who can match up with them?

St. Louis2. St. Louis Blues: Jaden Schwartz is 19. He is listed at 5-foot-9, 179 pounds. He played for Colorado College this season, then signed with the Blues and scored on his first two shots in the NHL. He leapt into the glass like a little kid after scoring Wednesday night at Anaheim. Jaden makes it hard to be jaded.

New York Rangers3. New York Rangers: Ryan Callahan showed why he's the captain of the blue-collar Blueshirts on Wednesday night. He scrambled halfway across the ice and blocked a point shot – leading with his shin pads, with a glove over his face. Then he gave the Rangers a 2-1 victory over the Red Wings with a wicked wrist shot from the slot 2:42 into overtime.

Nashville4. Nashville Predators: Here's why the Preds had to go all in – and why adding Hal Gill, Andrei Kostitsyn, Paul Gaustad and Alexander Radulov still might not add up to a Cup. The West is brutal. The Preds are good enough to go four rounds, but some teams good enough to go four rounds will last only one round – or less. The Sharks, who made the conference final each of the past two years, might not even make the playoffs.

Chicago5. Chicago Blackhawks: Told you that Patrick Kane could play center. He has six goals and 10 points since moving to the middle 11 games ago, reaching 20 goals and 60 points in a down year for him, and the 'Hawks have gone 9-1-1 over that span without captain Jonathan Toews. They're 13-4-1 since their nine-game losing streak.

Vancouver 6. Vancouver Canucks: The playoffs can't come fast enough. The Canucks have been cruising along with no one pushing them in the Northwest, and they haven't been playing up to their potential as a result. That's fine, as long as they pick it up when they need to – and Daniel Sedin isn't out for long.

Detroit7. Detroit Red Wings: Nicklas Lidstrom has missed 11 straight games with a bruised ankle – the longest injured stretch of his 20-year career. He also missed a game with the flu earlier this season. The Wings are 3-7-2 without him. But he could be back as soon as Saturday night against the Carolina Hurricanes, and the Wings' other injured players are on the mend, too.

Philadelphia8. Philadelphia Flyers: Here are some alarming statistics as the Flyers prepare for the playoffs: They have allowed the first goal in 14 of their last 19 games. They have allowed the first two goals three games in a row.

Boston9. Boston Bruins: Tim Thomas needs a break. He has played 13 straight games, starting 12 of them, and the Bruins are about to play three games in four nights in California. Can Marty Turco get them through one?

New Jersey10. New Jersey Devils: Travis Zajac is close to playing after missing the whole season with an Achilles injury. He has only eight games to get up to speed before the playoffs, but whatever the Devils can get out of him ought to give them a boost.

PLUS/MINUS

PLUS: Ryan Miller has six shutouts, a career high. The Sabres are on an 11-2-4 run and tied in points with the eighth-place Washington Capitals, who have a game in hand and own the tiebreakers. Who saw that coming?

MINUS: No shame in losing to the Penguins, even by Tuesday night's 8-4 score. But the Winnipeg Jets have a chance to make the playoffs in their renaissance season, and they haven't been able to put together a Buffalo-like run to put them over the hump. Huge game Friday night at Washington. The Jets are four points behind the Caps and Sabres, with a game in hand on Buffalo.

PLUS: Four goals and five points in the past two games for Eric Staal, and four straight victories for the Hurricanes. That should bolster GM Jim Rutherford's opinion that the poor first half was an aberration and the 'Canes will be better next season, especially if they acquire a top player to skate with Staal.

MINUS: The Devils' Zach Parise has no points and is minus-4 in his past five games. He has one goal in his past 10 outings. All of which should effect his value as an unrestricted free agent July 1 … not at all.

PLUS: Could Thursday night's Predators-Penguins game really be a Stanley Cup final preview?

MINUS: NHL officials keep saying they haven't explored Plan B when it comes to the Coyotes, but TSN reports that could change next week. It has to change soon. You'd like to think that deadline pressure and the threat of relocation would get a deal done with one of these supposedly interested ownership groups, but it obviously hasn't so far.

@COTSONIKA TWEET

"Boos at the ACC, for good reason. How long before the 'Fire Burke' chants?"

Wasn't long. Minutes later – maybe seconds later – some faint "Fire Burke" chants floated through the Air Canada Centre on Tuesday night as the Maple Leafs lost to the New York Islanders, 5-2.

As Puck Daddy pointed out, Leafs GM Brian Burke created this monster. He said the fans' chants played a role in his firing of coach Ron Wilson. Now that Wilson is gone, Burke is the one left to blame for Toronto's stunning freefall.

The Leafs are about to miss the playoffs for the seventh straight season, and if the Florida Panthers make it, the Centre of the Hockey Universe™ will own the league's longest active playoff drought.

The fans feel influential, and the reporters have rabbit ears. The more the Leafs lose, the more the fans will chant, the more the media will repeat the chants, and the bigger the snowball will grow. The Leafs haven't won at home since Feb. 6. Their next home game is on "Hockey Night in Canada" on Saturday against the Rangers, the top team in the East. This could get uglier.


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