Attention, NHL: The Blues are ready, and happy to have targets on their backs
ST. LOUIS — Ken Hitchcock wants the Blues to send a message to any opponent who takes the ice at Scottrade Center over the final two and a half weeks of the regular season.
"Now that we’re at home, I want us to really get energized and really send a message to teams coming in here that this is not going to be fun," Hitchcock said following the team’s morning skate Thursday.
The Minnesota Wild got that message Thursday night at 14th and Clark as T.J. Oshie recorded his first hat trick and St. Louis rolled to a dominating 5-1 victory in front of a standing-room only crowd.
The Blues returned to Scottrade for a five-game homestand leading the NHL with 105 points despite playing just four of their 11 games since the Olympic break on their home ice.
With Thursday’s win, St. Louis improved to 50-16-7 — just the second time in franchise history reaching the 50-win mark — with 107 points in 73 games. The Blues are now 26-5-4 at home with six of their nine remaining regular-season games at Scottrade Center.
Yes, the Blues are certainly happy to be home. Saturday’s game against the Stars will mark the first time since the Olympic break they’ve played consecutive games at Scottrade Center.
They’ve overcome a tough stretch after the Olympic break, with a team that sent nine players to Russia for the Games, and they’ve still managed to come out of it leading the race for the Presidents’ Trophy, which would assure them home-ice advantage for the duration of the playoffs.
That sets up well for a team trying to make a run at another trophy.
"We’ve had a really tough schedule here since the Olympic break and now we’re at home," Hitchcock said. "We get to have a few quality hockey practices along with some great competition in the games. I want us to take advantage of this. We’ve earned the right to have this great finish to the schedule with all these home games, but I want us to take advantage of it by playing really, really well. I think it’s also about sending a message. I think whoever comes in here, especially from the West, we want to send them a message that we’re playing in a tough building."
That message was sent, loud and clear, against the Wild, a likely playoff team.
Oshie scored twice in the first period, his 19th and career-high 20th of the season, with the latter coming on a nifty short-handed goal off a turnover at center ice.
Jaden Schwartz scored a power-play goal in the second period, his 23rd, giving the Blues goals on the advantage in back-to-back games for the first time since Feb. 1. The St. Louis power-play attack was the best in the NHL months ago but seemed to be on life support in recent weeks.
Schwartz’s goal was just the sixth power-play tally in 19 games.
After Oshie’s 21st goal of the season in the third period, which gave him his first career hat trick and stopped the game briefly as hats started raining down from the crowd, Brenden Morrow added a power-play goal.
"What was impressive tonight, what went for us really well, was special teams," Hitchcock said. "We scored two on the power play. We killed off a number of penalties today. That’s a big step for us. We played back with the edge that we needed killing penalties. We were hard on people when they were on the power play. I think that’s setting the tone that we need to be at."
Minnesota followed Morrow’s goal a couple seconds later with a tally from Zach Parise, which prevented goalie Ryan Miller from recording his first shutout with the Blues. But even that couldn’t dampen the mood much. The rout was on and the Blues were well on their way to another W.
"Desperate teams, we know we’re going to get a lot of their best," Morrow said. "I think we dominated Toronto, the first two periods there, so we’ve dictated the game five of the last six periods, and that’s something we want to keep going."
Thursday’s win was a convincing statement and a good sign, following impressive road wins in Pittsburgh and Toronto, that St. Louis is back to playing the kind of hockey they want to be playing down the stretch.
"We wanted to make a statement to the league that we deserve to be where we’re at," Oshie said. "We want that target on our backs."
Hitchcock was told of Oshie’s comment a few minutes later.
"We’re not going to run and hide from being a good team," the coach said. "We’re not going to be overwhelmed because we’re the favorites in a playoff series or we’re expected to win a playoff series. We’re not going to run and hide from that. We’re going to embrace it. I look at this, what’s coming up and the opportunity in the next nine games, I don’t want us getting too far ahead of ourselves, but I look at the next nine games as strong prep and getting ready for the postseason. But I also look at the opportunity in front of us right now.
"It’s a great opportunity, and I think the players want to embrace that. I think they look at this as heck, why not us? Why not us giving ourselves a chance? Everybody talks about our experience at getting further in the playoffs, but those other teams had to start out somewhere, too, you know, to get to the finals and stuff like that. Why not us? Why not us getting a chance to see how far we can go? They’re not running and hiding from any responsibility."
This was the kind of statement the Blues wanted to make, and they definitely don’t look like they’re done making them.
You can follow Nate Latsch on Twitter (@natelatsch) or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.