ST. LOUIS — Last season on this date, the Blues were among a glutton of teams fighting to remain in the playoff race.
It was a feeling for survival each and every time they took to the ice, and the Blues were fighting for every point.
The Blues were able to ascend up the standings in large part to their ability to accrue points, and against those opponents ahead of them in the standings that were in a good position at the time.
There's a similar feeling a year later, only it's the Blues (32-15-8) that are in a rather solid position facing those desperate opponents.
They're still first in the Western Conference with 72 points, but the Blues have hit a speed bump here of late, going 2-5-1, including a 4-2 loss to Winnipeg on Thursday, a very winnable game.
And when they showed up to the rink Friday morning for practice, the players got a bit of a refresher of just how they need to approach these remaining 27 regular-season games, including Saturday night against the Dallas Stars, who are trying to chase down the Blues for first in the Central Division.
"Our mindset this time last year, it was a little different than I think it is now, I think," Blues coach Craig Berube said. "We've got to get that mindset back. I talked to the team about it this morning. We can't be chasing games. Since the break, we're chasing too many games. We've got to reverse that. It's on everybody, everybody that dresses.
"Last year, we were playing desperate hockey right now for sure, and this year right now, maybe we need to bring in a little more urgency to our game. I think on the defensive side more than on the offensive side, but at the same time, offensively, not playing such a cute game maybe at times, turnovers and things like that that cost us.
"I go back to the stats last year, we were the No. 1 team in the NHL for not turning the puck over. No. 1. So, we've got to get that back. We've got to get pucks deep, go to work, play that game, wear teams down."
When the Blues play that style, they're so effective, not only in wearing teams down, but it resonates to their structured, defensive game, and when called upon the goaltending is scintillating.
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There have been leaks in recent games in all facets, but that comes with the territory of an 82-game season, and teams now ramping it up for the stretch run.
"Everyone's still battling for playoff spots," defenseman Vince Dunn said. "Obviously we're in a pretty comfortable position, but we want to maintain that and give ourselves the best chance going into the first round. Right now is obviously the time to dial things in. The little things that were hurting us at the start of last season are sometimes creeping into our game right now and we just need to find a way to get those out of our game and stick to ours structure. Sometimes we're just making it a little too hard on ourselves in certain plays. When things go wrong, it can't always lead to a Grade A chance.
"We know how hungry everyone is and we know the mentality that these other teams have. Should be no different than the mentality that we have right now. We need to be hungry and we need to play just as desperate as every other team right now. ... It's just about focus and staying in the moment and not looking too far ahead and being too comfortable with where we are."
The sense of urgency can slip when you know you're in a comfort zone, and the Blues remain there. But the gap's closed here recently.
"Last year, we were at the bottom climbing to the top," goalie Jake Allen said. "Now we're at the top trying to stay at the top. Sometimes that urgency slips because you're sort of comfortable. Even though you're in first place and that type of thing. Last year every game was crucial for us and I think that's what he's trying to say is we need to have that same mindset. It doesn't matter what position we're in going forward. If we do that, we'll have a helluva hockey team and even last night, 90 percent of the game we played really well and we just need that little bit more urgency. If we have that urgency, it could be the difference in a lot of games. The other teams are all clawing for their spots. They're clawing and fighting to win. They are us last year, so we know that feeling. So we need to know that every single game is going to be tough, tight. If we get that urgency back, I think it'll just complete our game.
The Blues were on the right side of games earlier in the season when statistical data may have suggested that they shouldn't have. Lately, there have been games where they are on the right side of all the stats but on the wrong side of the score.
Things have, for better or worse, evened out.
"It's not like there's a ton of defensive breakdowns," Berube said. "That's not the situation or the case. We out-chanced that team by quite a margin last night, but at the same time, trading chances or playing that type of game's not our game. Our game is getting pucks deep, wearing teams down, staying with it, keeping it tight and being comfortable in close games. And that hockey this time of year is what you've got to play. You've got to be prepared.
"... A lot of good stuff's going on, but not the No. 1 thing: wins. That's what we care about. So as coaches and players, you've got to find ways to win games, so we're going to probably nitpick a little bit here and there about certain things. That's what we do. That's the way it goes."
And don't dare use fatigue as an excuse. The players aren't.
"Everyone's in the same boat," Allen said. "I know we played 'til June last year, but we had our rest and it's a hard season for everyone. There's no excuses there. We have a lot of gas left in the tank. We'll get a rest when we need it. Chief's smart about that. He knows when guys need a break or the team needs a break, even a mental refresher sometimes is almost just as good as a physical one.
"It's crazy how quick it flies by, but yeah, we need to get in that playoff mindset, that mentality that every game's crucial. We want to roll into the playoffs with that mindset. We don't want to have to turn it on in the playoffs. We want to have that mindset coming into the playoffs and just carry it over."
*NOTES -- Forward Mackenzie MacEachern will return to the lineup after playing just one of the past six games. He sustained a lower-body injury in a loss at Colorado Jan. 19 right before the All-Star break/bye week, returned to play at Winnipeg Feb. 1 but has been working his way back since.
"It was just kind of an awkward play," MacEachern said. "I was just trying to get out of the zone and made a play to Petro and just kind of a tangle and someone just kind of fell on me awkwardly. It was just kind of a weird play.
"I feel good. It's been a handful of weeks. I guess if you're going to get an injury at least, it happened going into the break, so I had eight or nine days there to recuperate, but I feel good, feel good going into the weekend."
MacEachern will replace Jordan Kyrou, who played just 6:11 Thursday.
"He's got to understand that this is the NHL and there's a certain way you play up here," Berube said. "That's as simple as I can put it."
As for MacEachern, Berube said, "His game was good. I thought he added an element to our team with his speed and forechecking and tenaciousness and physicality. It's unfortunate he got hurt and put him in Winnipeg, he was just OK so hopefully he's more ready tomorrow.
"I think that when he got injured, other people came in and that's how it goes. He was probably healthy and ready to go, but I didn't use him right away. That's just the way it goes sometimes."
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