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January 17, 2019
Legace Leads Blues Against Jackets
by Michael Menser Dell, Editor-in-Chief
Reports of the Central Division's rebirth may have been somewhat exaggerated. Sure, the division has clawed its way back to respectability this season, but going into Tuesday night's games, four of the five Central clubs are sitting outside the playoffs.
St. Louis had been leading the Central renaissance, but even the Blues have fallen on hard times of late. After going 7-1-1 to close out November, the Blue Note is just 6-6-4 in its last 16 games. Their 45 points have them two behind Colorado for the final playoff spot. But considering the injuries in Denver, going .500 over the second half could be enough to sneak into the postseason.
Of course, the Columbus Blue Jackets may have something to say on the matter. Ken Hitchcock's boys are only one point back of the Blues. As incredible as it seems, when the two teams meet tonight in St. Louis, it will actually have playoff implications. Wow, an important game between the Blues and Blue Jackets. What will they think of next?
"You've got Nash, Fedorov, you got guys like that flying around all night long," said Manny Legace to a Columbus reporter during a media conference call on Monday. "That's what really prepares us for you guys, is how talented you are. The goaltending, Leclaire has just been playing phenomenal. It's going to be a good battle."
Legace hasn't been too shabby for the Blues, either. The diminutive netminder has 15 wins, a 2.09 goals-against average, and a sparkling .921 save percentage, giving St. Louis the kind of goaltending needed to compete for a playoff spot. Legace's at the top of his game, allowing just one goal in his last four starts. Not bad for a guy who will turn 35 in a couple weeks.
"Goaltending is more experience, learning the game, learning the situations," said Legace. "In the NHL, the travel, it's so tough, you know, you're going from coast-to-coast. Especially when you get down to playoffs, it's every other night. You've just got to learn how to control the game in your own best interest. As you get older, you just learn to forget things, let things go in the past. If you had a bad game, just let it go. If you have a good game, you let it go. You look on to the next day. I think just as the goalies, as they get older, they just get more experience. You start to figure out the game a little bit better."
Andy Murray has certainly helped Legace in his continuing education. Since taking over behind the bench midway through last season, Murray has instilled confidence in the entire club, helping rejuvenate a floundering franchise.
"Yeah, it obviously started when Andy got here last year, last December, I do believe," said Legace. "It was an instant turnaround. The structure got put into play. You know, just the accountability got taken to another level. He and his whole staff have just been doing a phenomenal job preparing us for every game. That's been the big turnaround. It's just carried over to this year. The end of last year, I thought we were one of the better teams in the league. We just unfortunately dug ourselves such big hole at the beginning of the year, we couldn't climb out of. We made a strong run to get back into it. But it's just carried over to this year. The work ethic has been there. The guys have just been doing a phenomenal job in front of me."
Between Legace's goaltending and a renewed commitment to defense, the Blues have reduced their team goals-against to 2.54, down from 3.10 last season.
"Yeah, it's the only reason I'm sitting here on this conference call is because of those guys in front of me," said Legace. "It's just been phenomenal. I'd like to see where we rank in blocked shots. Our penalty killing is up there. The dedication and hard work that we've had all season long, last year at the end of the season, just putting the work load in, you know, it's everybody coming back, forwards coming back, defensemen have been playing phenomenal. Knock on wood, we've been staying healthy, which is a big part of it. It's been a treat to be standing behind these guys all year long."
When everyone is healthy, the Blues have a very underrated group of defensemen. Their top six of Eric Brewer, Barret Jackman, Bryce Salvador, Christian Backman, Jay McKee, and Erik Johnson can stack up favorably with any six in the league. They've got a nice mix of mobility, toughness, and talent. While they lack a dominant No. 1 defender, Johnson certainly looks like he'll be ready to assume the role in the not too distant future.
"I think we played with our full defensive corps maybe three or four times last season," said Legace. "This year we've done it three or four times without one of them in the lineup. We have a great nucleus of guys on the blue line. It's been a huge, huge difference."
The Blues have needed all hands on deck to compete in the Central. The Detroit Red Wings have proven to be the best team in the league. Columbus has embraced Hitchcock's defensive system, making the Jackets a formidable foe. Thanks to rookies Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, Chicago has become one of the most exciting teams in hockey. And even though Nashville was decimated over the summer, Barry Trotz has his Predators right in the thick of things.
"Our whole division took a whole turnaround," said Legace. "We were probably the worst division. Detroit was the only team that was any good in our division. You look around our division now with Chicago, Columbus, Nashville, all those guys are still competitive every night. It's just been a great turnaround for our whole division. It has to do with our coaching, putting in structure, getting the guys to stay on the same page for a whole season. We struggled at the beginning of last year. Andy came in and put the work ethic that he does. It just shows the rest of our guys what we have to do to prepare every night."
Legace's preparation has had to involve taking care of an aching right knee. He recently said he'll need to have surgery following the season, which came as quite the surprise to Blues management.
"No, there has been no discussion," said Legace. "We've been pretty smart on practice days, taking time off, just getting prepared for the games. It's been like that all year. We knew what the knee was, going into the season. It's nothing new to our organization. You know, it's just not taking as much pounding after practices and working on skating drills instead, just getting prepared to play games."
Legace's best outing this season was probably in Detroit on December 31. Why was it his best? Because he made 31 saves to shut out those filthy Red Wings, 2-0. Since joining the Blues, Legace is 6-5-0 against his former team. That's right, Manny! Stick it to those creeps!
"To go into that building, where it's tough to win, period, it was really special," said Legace. "The people there, for the six years I was there, treated me unbelievable. We still have a home there. It was a really special game."
For you and me both, Manny. For you and me both.