By LOUIE KORAC
ST. LOUIS -- The Blues, seeking their fifth straight win when they entertain the Phoenix Coyotes tonight at Scottrade Center, are displaying remnants of their franchise-best 9-1-2 start.
Yes, the Blues are missing some key pieces on offense (Andy McDonald, T.J. Oshie and David Perron), but the defensive unit is in tact again and the team has only allowed six goals during this four-game winning streak and nine in five games with the d-corps in tact. When the same unit was in tact for the first seven games of the season before injuries occurred, the Blues allowed 12 goals in those seven games.
"I think that the belief in what we're doing and how we need to do it is strong," Blues coach Davis Payne said. "I think the execution has gotten better. I think that the commitment to the defensive side of the game and limiting opportunities has gotten better, so I think that's something we established very well early. We got away from that, and we had to re-establish it. We've done a good job of that. It's paying off. We need to understand that this is our formula and we need to stick to that formula."
Not only are the Blues (19-12-5) locking down defensively and getting great goaltending from Jaroslav Halak and Ty Conklin, but Payne's mantra of a five-man return game has resurrected itself as well.
"I thought it was good against Chicago," Payne said. "I think it's continuing to be a part of our game that we need to take pride in and we need to make sure that we know that's how we're going to defend. I thought Chicago had some opportunities to gain some middle ice, so we were there but still allowed some things to happen. We've got to make sure we deny any of those opportunities. I think guys understand that there's a requirement there that is (not compromised)."
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For those that didn't know Oshie was rehabbing from a broken left ankle and saw him skate with the Blues this morning, you'd think he was in the lineup tonight.
Oshie, injured Nov. 10 in Columbus, had his reevaluation timeline bumped up to near the all-star break, could possibly return sooner than that if he continues to skate like he did Friday.
"Yeah, he looked good," Payne said of Oshie. "Another good step in the rehab process. Hands looked fine and skating looked pretty good. He's got lots of work left to do, but certainly another good step today.
"The timeline is a moving target. We've got late January. If he beats it, great. If we've got to wait a little bit longer, then we keep moving."
Oshie said, "I wish," when asked if he was in the lineup tonight.
Of course, that's not possible but one can imagine his energy.
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Some debate has surfaced on Matt D'Agostini's hit on Chicago's Jonathan Toews and whether it was a clean hit or not.
D'Agostini came from the side and caught Toews with a hit that knocked the Blackhawks captain into the boards. Toews suffered an apparent right shoulder injury and the Blackhawks have said he will miss at least two weeks.
"I didn't intend on driving him from the backside," D'Agostini said of Toews. "I think when he pulled up, it kind of made it seem more like it was from behind ... because he tried to get to the red line and stop. I just tried to get him from the side. He just went in badly."
D'Agostini also tumbled awkwardly himself but was fine as a result.
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No changes for the Blues again tonight:
Vladimir Sobotka-David Backes-Matt D'Agostini
Alex Steen-Patrik Berglund-B.J. Crombeen
Brad Winchester-Jay McClement-Brad Boyes
Chris Porter-Adam Cracknell-Cam Janssen
That also applies to the d-pairings:
Eric Brewer-Roman Polak
Barret Jackman-Alex Pietrangelo
Carlo Colaiacovo-Erik Johnson
Jaroslav Halak, who has a 1.50 goals-against average and .957 save percentage in his last two starts, will make his first career start against the Coyotes tonight.
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The Coyotes come in with a 10-7-3 road mark but have scored one goal in each of their last three road contests, going 1-2-0 in those games and being outscored 10-3.
"Our intent is to play our game. We don't expect anything less," Payne said. "... If we think anything that happened a couple nights ago is worth repeating, then that's a good message but making sure that we know that two nights ago doesn't get us tonight. Phoenix is going to come in, they're going to compete. They're coming off a big win themselves, it's a Western Conference matchup and we've got to make sure we're at our best."
The Coyotes were thought to be possibly getting some injured players back from injury, including forwards Radim Vrbata, Taylor Pyatt and Martin Hanzal. Unless those players return tonight, these are the lines the Coyotes are expected to roll out:
Scottie Upshall-Eric Belanger-Shane Doan
Ray Whitney-Lauri Korpikoski-Lee Stempniak
Brett MacLean-Kyle Turris-Mikkel Boedker
Wojtek Wolski-Vernon Fiddler-Paul Bissonnette
Derek Morris-Keith Yandle
Adrian Aucoin-Ed Jovanovski
Sami Lepisto-Oliver Ekman-Larsson
It's not known who will be in goal for Phoenix. Ilya Bryzgalov is 5-7-1 with a 2.93 GAA and .907 save percentage career-wise against the Blues but is coming off a back injury and would make a third start in four days. Jason LaBarbera could get the nod tonight.