Division title back in play for Blues — but first they need to protect home ice

David Backes and the Blues have new life in the race for the Central Division. 

Jasen Vinlove/Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

ST. LOUIS — A return to their usual form at home this week could move the Blues back to the top of the Central Division.

They haven’t been all alone in first place since Chicago moved to the top Dec. 14, though St. Louis briefly shared the lead with Nashville in early February. The Predators beat the New York Rangers 3-2 on Feb. 7 to start a six-game win streak, and they led the Blues by as many as nine points.

But thanks to Nashville’s six-game losing streak that ended Monday night with an unconvincing 2-1 overtime win at lowly Arizona, the Blues have new life in the race for the NHL’s best division. They’re just four points behind the Predators, who have played three more games and will close out the week by finishing a tough West Coast road trip at San Jose, Los Angeles and Anaheim.

"We want to continue climbing up the ladder," Blues forward Jaden Schwartz says. "There’s no secret what the standings are, but we’ve got to focus on our game, make sure we’re doing our job, and the rest will take care of itself."

That starts with getting back to what made them one of the NHL’s best home teams. After losing two of its first three to start the season, St. Louis went 20-2-2 and never lost by more than a goal.

But Tampa Bay looked like the far superior team before the Blues rallied late to win 2-1 in overtime Feb. 3, and Chicago finally ended a nine-game home points streak by knocking off St. Louis five days later. By the end of February, the Blues had lost four of their last six home games, all by two goals or more.

"I think we got too comfortable staying in town for such a long period of time," coach Ken Hitchcock says. "We got sloppy, so to me we’ve got to grow our game back where we’ve got to put details back in it."

It’s tempting to blame the struggles solely on the homestand coming at the wrong time, especially since it began immediately after Kevin Shattenkirk went down with an injury. But St. Louis still won its last four road games in February, including tough tests at Tampa Bay and Winnipeg, two teams in position to make the playoffs.

Defenseman Jay Bouwmeester says the Blues are feeling good after earning seven of 10 points on their five-game road trip, capped off by a dominant 6-1 win at Toronto last Saturday. They’ll look to carry that into Tuesday night’s game against Winnipeg, set for 7 p.m. on FOX Sports Midwest.

The Jets will bring a physical game, and St. Louis wants to do a better job of matching it from the start than it did in a 2-1 win at Winnipeg. The Blues survived a scoreless first period despite getting outshot 11-4 before recovering to earn a critical two points to snap a two-game losing streak.

Oddly, finding energy from the opening faceoff has been much tougher for St. Louis at home since the All-Star break. The Blues haven’t scored first in eight home games, and they scored their only first-period goal in a 2-1 win over Arizona.

On the road, St. Louis failed to take a 1-0 lead only once, and that resulted in a disastrous 6-1 loss at lowly Columbus. The Blues are 29-5-2 this season when they score first, and captain David Backes knows a fast start can be huge.

"You can really establish your game early, then it seems to have perpetual motion through the rest of the game," Backes says. "You start slow and it’s a lot tougher to grab it back."

The same goes for divisional races, but everyone in the St. Louis locker room knows Nashville has provided an unexpected opening at the top. The Blues will have their chances down the stretch, and they’ll need to play well at home with six of their last eight games at Scottrade.

Whether they follow Hitchcock’s advice and keep their focus limited to only one game or look at the big picture, how they finish will be most important.

You can follow Luke Thompson on Twitter at @FS_LukeT or email him at lukegthompson87@gmail.com.