By LOUIE KORAC
HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- When they step onto the ice tonight to face the Buffalo Sabres, the Blues will head into the most important stretch of games this season.
And they'll do so by having played the fewest amount games in the NHL this season. But a stretch of six games in eight days and seven in 10 will ultimately determine if the Blues (25-21-9) will indeed make another magical run of two seasons ago or if they'll be a wisp of smoke, like last season.
The Blues will play Game No. 56 tonight, which is only one fewer than their counterparts tonight, the Sabres (27-23-6), but they'll have played two, three, four, even five games fewer than some of the teams they are chasing in the Western Conference playoff race. They began the night nine points in back of a playoff berth with 59 points.
After tonight, the Blues return home to face Anaheim Saturday, then host Chicago and Colorado on back-to-back days Monday and Tuesday before heading on a Western Canada trip to play Vancouver, Edmonton and Calgary in a span of four days. The game with Colorado is a makeup from a weather-related cancellation on Feb. 1.
It all ultimately leads right into the Feb. 28 trade deadline.
To say the challenges that lie ahead will be tough are putting it mildly, but the Blues are ready to embrace all comers.
"Managing the rest and managing the elements that we have to teach upon and improve upon and the adjustments that we have to make," Blues coach Davis Payne said, referring to the challenges that face the team. "We have to be very, very sharp with our heads, in the meeting rooms with the video, with the teaching tools that we have available. The group has to be very diligent and pay attention to the things that we have to improve upon and adjust because we don't have a lot of time to get it out on the ice and replicate it physically. We've got to make sure we're kind of practicing our game mentally. That's really the biggest challenge."
The Blues have had busy stretches of games before. But this upcoming slate will be as compacted as any stretch they'll face this season.
"The schedule has been busy," Payne said. "All these guys have been through busy schedules before. It's (also) making sure our game looks a lot like it did against Vancouver (a 3-2 win Monday) and it's trusting that game, it's being committed to that game even more so than we were against Vancouver because we can improve and making sure we take that look and understand that we're going to line up every night and repeat that."
The Blues will undoubtedly revisit the strategy of using seven defensemen and 11 forwards, as they've done twice since the return of Carlo Colaiacovo to the lineup.
There's been a real solid commitment to utilizing defenseman Nikita Nikitin, particularly on power play. The Blues were 2-for-5 in that department Monday, with Nikitin picking up a power play assist.
Winger Cam Janssen has been the odd man out when the Blues do go 11/7, but according to Payne, they'll go according to matchups.
"It'll be game by game," he said. "You look at the Vancouver game, we had the stretch (of days) off after, so loading up on some minutes, flexing a guy into that role between (Matt) D'Agostini and (Brad) Winchester was to us ... especially against a team that was going to use their four lines, it was important for us to have that balance. Niki's given that power play a spark. We feel it's important to keep that there and available and use it.
"We'll look at it game by game knowing that the workload's going to get heavy and we have to be conscious of that."
That means guys like Andy McDonald, T.J. Oshie, Vladimir Sobotka and Jay McClement particularly will play a role in double-shifting and collecting gaining more minutes.
"It's based on what their prior shift looked like with the shift going forward," Payne said. "Those guys have the understanding to roll through quickly, make sure it's your first-change opportunity (and) come right back with the next group.
"The thing it does, too, it gives a guy a chance to ride a guy when he's got it going. It gives him a few extra minutes. We've used Sobotka in that role, we've used Oshie in that role, Andy Mac, Jay Mac's seen some time in that situation. We're talking about guys getting into the flow of the game, a few extra minutes when they've got good energy. We're trying to make sure it gets back on the ice."
* Halak to IR -- The Blues placed goaltender Jaroslav Halak on injured reserve Thursday, retroactive to after Monday's game against Vancouver with a right hand injury, and recalled goalie Ben Bishop from Peoria.
Halak, who missed two games because of what is believed to be the same injury, returned to action Feb. 8 against Florida and has played in four straight games. But he injured himself again in Wednesday's practice at the team's practice facility inside St. Louis Mills and immediately came off the ice with head athletic trainer Ray Barile.
Halak, who will be eligible to come off injured reserve Monday, is 19-17-6 on the season with a 2.63 GAA, .907 save percentage and four shutouts in 43 starts.
Bishop is 15-12-1 with a 2.52 GAA and .916 save percentage with a pair of shutouts with the Rivermen. Bishop played in six games with the Blues in 2008-09, going 1-1-1 with a 2.94 GAA and .893 save percentage.
Expect Ty Conklin to get the start tonight against the Sabres.