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Blues in strong position coming out of Olympics break

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ST. LOUIS - The secret is out on T.J. Oshie, who showed the world at the Sochi Olympics he's perfected the art of the shootout.

He's among nine Olympians who've rejoined a top contender that doesn't overly rely on razzle-dazzle.

The St. Louis Blues are in prime position for the NHL stretch drive. They lack star power, with no one among the top 25 scorers, but are second overall in the Western Conference and atop the Central Division entering the re-start Wednesday at Vancouver.

"We've played awfully well. We've been really resilient all year, we've responded to challenges all year," coach Ken Hitchcock said before the break. "But it's going to really get dialed up when we get back and our players recognize that.

"I think some guys are really looking forward to it."

So far, they've done the franchise proud.

The next few months, they'll be working on solidifying their position and proving they belong against other powers in the conference. They're 3-0 against the defending Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks, but 1-2 against the Kings, 0-3 against the Sharks and 0-2 against the Ducks. The Sharks have outscored them 16-7, the Ducks 8-4.

"I told the players when we come back in March and April, it's for them," Hitchcock said. "They have to really grab it coming back."

The blueprint for success is a defence that's allowed the second-fewest goals. Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott have combined for seven shutouts aided by strong support and willing shot blockers throughout the defensive rotation.

Oshie and Alexander Steen are tied for the team scoring lead at 46 points, Steen's total coming in 46 games due to a lengthy concussion-related absence. There's plenty of depth with six players scoring at least 14 goals and Alex Pietrangelo is the first defenceman in franchise history and first in the NHL since Dion Phaneuf (2005-08) to record 40 or more points in each of his first three seasons.

They've been dominant without much of a power play lately, entering the break in an 0-for-20 skid that included numerous failures with the two-man advantage.

The Blues must regain their stride quickly after the break with 12 games in 22 days and never more than one day of rest. They've played the fewest games in the Western Conference and have three games in hand on the Ducks, first overall, and Blackhawks, who like St. Louis have 84 points.

"It's really going to be like coming out of the lockout where everybody is full-tilt and every point means something down the stretch," defenceman Barret Jackman said. "It's going to be about the mental focus coming back and being the team that doesn't crack in those one-goal games."

The Blues got a taste of the pressure going to overtime the last four games prior to the Olympics. They won three of them, with Oshie providing a preview of his Sochi show with four shootout goals to drive the United States past Russia in a preliminary round game.

Stateside, Oshie scored in overtime to beat the Bruins, scored in the shootout to help beat the Jets and had a goal and assist against the Senators and then scored again in the shootout in a 5-4 loss.

"We came through some injuries, sickness, like a lot of teams have gone through," Jackman said. "But we're still one of the top teams in the league and that's a pretty good feeling."

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