By LOUIE KORAC
ST. LOUIS -- As the Blues play out the final string of games in the 2010-11 regular season, reality has set in that there won't be any more hockey beyond Game No. 82 -- again.
For the fifth time in six seasons since the 2004-05 lockout, the Blues will be on the outside looking in. They haven't been mathematically eliminated from the playoff chase yet (they enter tonight 12 points in back of eighth-place Anaheim) with nine games remaining but it's evident reality has finally taken over perception.
"It's tough to swallow," center T.J. Oshie said. "That date is getting closer and closer, which makes it tough. But we're still playing hockey, trying to get better and having fun."
The Blues (32-32-9), who host the Edmonton Oilers (23-40-10) at 7 p.m. today (FSN, KMOX 1120-AM), will try to avoid falling below the .500 mark for the first time this season.
"We've been dealing with some of these realities for some time," Blues coach Davis Payne said. "Our motive is to continue to play with that kind of effort, to continue to play with the kind of detail and execution levels that are going to drive success.
"Right now, we're moving forward in the future. It's not going to be a switch that we're going to turn on around here."
The Blues are coming off a 1-3 trip in which there was a fine line between going 3-1 or 4-0.
But in the process, they're getting an extensive look at players (Ian Cole, Adam Cracknell, Ryan Reaves, T.J. Hensick, Chris Porter and Philip McRae) that under normal circumstances would not have spent such extensive time here and played in Peoria.
"That evaluation process has been going on," Payne said regarding the younger players. "Obviously with new guys in the lineup, young guys up and playing ... it's important for us to be looking at defining success. It's through effort, first and second efforts, it's through the habits and the details that we show through paying attention to structure. Ultimately, finding ways to create success."
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The Blues were in Anaheim last week when they found out that chairman Dave Checketts has placed the franchise for sale. But instead of fretting and pondering what the future of the franchise will be like, say, this summer, it's been business as usual for the coaches and players.
"We can't worry about stuff that's two floors up and well beyond any decision-making that we'll have," Payne said. "That would be the easy option for us. If we're answering that question down at this level, which is ice level -- coaches and players, that obviously would be the easy answer. But for us, our job is to play, our job is to coach and prepare."
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When Oshie played at the University of North Dakota, he had extensive time playing down the middle.
Oshie, drafted in the first round by the Blues in 2005 and who's spent the majority of his career as a winger in the NHL, has spent the last eight games playing center.
Whether it's out of necessity with all the injuries the Blues have suffered or the team is looking at Oshie as a permanent fixture there, Oshie said it's all the same for him.
"Honestly, I feel the same amount of comfort ability there and on the wing," said Oshie, who's scored three goals in the eight games. "There's a little more responsibility there in my end, most of the things I had to get used to again. Certain reads from a winger's perspective, you just kind of back up and retake your ice. A centerman, if you get on the wrong side of the ice, he's going on net and getting an opportunity.
"A couple video sessions that brought my mindset a little differently how to defend people has really helped out. I can't just go in there 100 miles an hour. I'm getting comfortable with it."
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The NCAA West Regional will take place here at Scottrade Center on Friday and Saturday, with Blues prospect and last summer's first-round pick Jaden Schwartz in town with his Colorado College team. But one certain Blues player will have his mind -- and heart -- set in Green Bay and the Midwest Regional, where the Fighting Sioux of North Dakota will be playing on Saturday against Rensselaer.
"I've been keeping tabs on them all year. I always do," Oshie said of his alma mater. "This senior group that's there right now were the freshmen that I tried to take under my wing when I was there my last year. It's exciting to watch them play, it's exciting to watch the (Matt) Frattin, (Evan) Trupp and (Brad) Malone line. Those three guys are some of my really close buddies."
North Dakota will take a 12-0-1 record into their matchup Saturday and has been tabbed as one of the favorites to win the national championship this season.
"They're definitely at the top of my list, even though I'm a little bit of a homer," Oshie said. "You watch games that they play and there's some guys on that team that just dominate."
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The Blues' Vladimir Sobotka, who's missed the last 11 games after suffering a cracked bone in his left foot Feb. 27 in Calgary, skated this morning and is close to a return from the lineup.
"Getting closer. No timeline in mind yet," Payne said. "Obviously there's a timeline there with the foot. Close but not all the way."
Sobotka, who has 18 assists and 24 points in 58 games, said things are progressing well and a return is within days.
"I'm working out and doing everything I can to be 100 percent," Sobotka said. "The foot feels good. We're on schedule. I would say a little bit ahead, but we'll see how it goes."
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The Blues will be without Patrik Berglund (lower-body) tonight after the center stepped on the puck and was injured in the third period of Tuesday's 2-1 loss in Phoenix. The team recalled Hensick under emergency conditions to fill in for Berglund, who has 18 goals and 45 points in 73 games this season.
That means only David Backes and Matt D'Agostini remain as the only players who will have played in every game this season. Defenseman Carlo Colaiacovo (illness) returns after missing Tuesday night.
Here is the Blues' lineup for tonight:
Andy McDonald-David Backes-Matt D'Agostini
Philip McRae-T.J. Oshie-Chris Stewart
Chris Porter-Adam Cracknell-B.J. Crombeen
Cam Janssen-T.J. Hensick-Ryan Reaves
Carlo Colaiacovo-Alex Pietrangelo
Ian Cole-Kevin Shattenkirk
Nikita Nikitin-Roman Polak
Jaroslav Halak will make his eighth consecutive start. Halak has a 1-0-1 lifetime mark against Edmonton with a 2.88 goals-against average and .882 save percentage.
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The Oilers have also been hit with the injury bug to key players in recent weeks. Defenseman Ryan Whitney (ankle), left winger Taylor Hall (ankle), right winger Ales Hemsky (shoulder), center Sam Gagner (hand), center Shawn Horcoff (ankle), right winger Gilbert Brule (concussion) and defenseman Kurtis Foster (neck) are all out.
Winger J-F Jacques and center Colin Fraser, who both were dealing with foot injuries, return to the lineup tonight:
Ryan Jones-Andrew Cogliano-Jordan Eberle
Magnus Paajarvi-Ryan O'Marra-Linus Omark
Teemu Hartikainen-Chris VandeVelde-Liam Reddox
J-F Jacques-Colin Fraser-Steve MacIntyre
Ladislav Smid-Tom Gilbert
Jim Vandermeer-Jeff Petry
Jason Strudwick-Theo Peckham
Nikolai Khabibulin gets the start for the Oilers in goal tonight. Khabibulin (10-28-3 this season), is 20-14-4 with a 2.78 GAA and .909 save percentage in 42 career games against the Blues. Khabibulin was in net when the Oilers beat the Blues 2-1 in overtime on Dec. 4. Devan Dubnyk is 0-2 against the Blues this season.