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Up-down-up Blues find themselves in tweener land

by | CBSSports.com Staff Writer
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They're starting to get key players back in the lineup, which is an important first step since the ice seemed to melt under the St. Louis Blues when serious injuries set in earlier this season.

And they're going home with points in three consecutive road games, two of them wins. That might not seem like a big deal to anyone except a team that has the NHL's fewest road victories this season.

Alex Pietrangelo helps David Backes (right) celebrate a goal in a win at Florida on Tuesday. (AP)  
Alex Pietrangelo helps David Backes (right) celebrate a goal in a win at Florida on Tuesday. (AP)  
"We've been putting together better efforts since the break and getting rewarded," said David Backes, the Blues' leading scorer and their lone representative at the All-Star Game. "I think we're seeing a lot of positives lately."

No doubt it helps to be wearing rose-colored glasses, because the Blues have still only won four times in their past 15 starts.

But the good news on the health front in the past few days has at least given the Blues something to hold on to, a good thing now that they are into desperation mode while aiming at a postseason spot in the Western Conference. And the truth is they need any help they can get because the playoffs, which seemed a given for the Blues a month into the season, are now a long shot.

"I'd say the last couple of games are more indicative of the game we're capable of," said coach Davis Payne. "But we have our work cut out for us, that's for sure."

That's not the way it was supposed to be for this mostly homegrown collection of up-and-coming young talent that many around the league felt was ready to take a major step forward this season. St. Louis had a strong finish last season after Payne took over as coach in January, falling a little short of the playoffs but creating a sense of optimism that spiked when the Blues acquired goaltender Jaroslav Halak a few months later.

Halak had been a playoff star for Montreal, stealing consecutive rounds against heavily favored Washington and Pittsburgh, and he helped the Blues kick off with a 9-1-2 mark this season. But his play tailed off along with everyone else, and with less than 30 games remaining, and with less than three weeks until the trade deadline, the Blues find themselves with the unenviable task of attempting to climb over four teams to make the playoffs.

Mind you, that's one less team than it was a few hours before the Blues ended their five-game road trip by pulling out a 2-1 victory in the third period against the Florida Panthers. St. Louis spotted the hosts an early lead on a two-man power play, but quickly turned a Panthers mistake into a late second-period goal before making the most of another opportunity in the third to cash in the winner.

And to keep their faint playoff hopes alive.

"It's not to say it's very likely to do, but it takes effort and you saw that tonight and you've seen it before from this team," said Backes. "We were in a much worse position two years ago."

Yes they were. Back in 2009, St. Louis sat last in the West in mid-February, but made the playoffs with the league's best record over the final weeks, so there is a precedent. Problem is there was no real progress last season, and this season, with key players T.J. Oshie, David Perron, Andy McDonald and Roman Polak all missing significant time with injuries, it has been a challenge for the organization to get a handle on where this group really is.

Oshie and McDonald have returned, but for general manager Doug Armstrong, figuring out whether to be a buyer or seller as the Feb. 28 trade deadline approaches isn't easy.

"The players know the situation we're in and how we play over the next couple of weeks will dictate what direction we'll take," Armstrong said. "We've been playing better lately, but we'll just have to wait and see.

"Obviously we'll be in the queue like everyone else, making lots of calls, receiving calls and seeing what's out there."

For Armstrong, the attempts to make changes may be a little more complicated than for most because principal owner Dave Checketts is in the process of seeking out investors. In the meantime, the Blues are operating with a payroll budget of about $46 million, which is well under the cap, but apparently as far as the team can go.

Armstrong insisted his hands weren't tied, although he has had to be a little more creative this season when it came to plugging holes. One way was to sign free agents Kyle Wellwood and Marek Svatos away from their Russian teams, but even those efforts proved fruitless because the players had to clear waivers and were claimed by other teams.

"Unfortunately those didn't work out but that doesn't mean we can't do something if it makes sense and is worthwhile," Armstrong said. "Ownership issues aren't a concern for us.

"All we're focused on right now is winning games. The rest will take care of itself."

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