By LOUIE KORAC
HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- Ryan Reaves walked into the Blues' locker room on Monday and had to think for a second.
Was Reaves really in St. Louis or did he and a couple handful of teammates somehow make their way back to Peoria for the Rivermen's practice?
"We were saying this was the St. Louis Rivermen," Reaves joked.
If one didn't know much about the Blues or their roster, they may not have felt like it was a joke.
Monday's optional skate included all but two (B.J. Crombeen and Cam Janssen) Blues regulars throughout the season. Throw in Nikita Nikitin, Chris Porter, Ian Cole, Philip McRae, Adam Cracknell and T.J. Hensick and the Rivermen were represented very well at St. Louis Mills.
"My girlfriend sent me a text the other day when we beat Columbus in Columbus, and she was like, 'Oh, another win for the Rivermen dressed up as Blues ... congrats!'" Cole joked. "It was pretty funny, but it's true.
"It's unbelievable. Usually, we'll have the rookie skate and there's like one or two guys on the ice. We have a full skate with 10 guys out there. It's pretty crazy, but it's nice, too, at the same time."
As crazy as it may seem, what the situation presents is an opportunity for these players to not only help the Blues (31-29-9) play well down the stretch but also audition themselves for next season.
Injuries have obviously plagued the Blues throughout the season, and the shuttle from Peoria to St. Louis has blazed a hot trail. But instead of taking it with a deer-in-the-headlights approach, these Peoria recalls have quite the opportunity to embrace the challenge.
"This is the best opportunity most of us are going to have to become an NHL player full time," Porter said. "I treat every game like it's the last one I'm going to play for them. Hopefully, I can show them by the end of the year that I'm a full-time player.
"It's almost comforting to look around and you've got the same faces that you've seen down there. It's nice to see guys getting an opportunity."
According to Cole, Blues assistant coach Ray Bennett recently delivered a message to the players regarding their situation. Needless to say, these guys will use the final 13 games as if they were playing for their playing lives.
"Ray Bennett said at one point, 'If someone told you when you were five years old, you could have a 20-game tryout to show that you can play in the NHL, would you take it,'" Cole said. "It's not even a question. Of course. Anyone would.
"I was looking at the (NHL's) stat pack the other day, and (it showed) player by player for the whole year. Actually looking at the whole season down the paper in a row, I'd only played a chunk of six games, two games, five games. It hasn't been much. A chunk of games is actually a lot compared to what I've been. Even though I've been up for two weeks, it's only been five games at a time. It's nice to be able to come in and play 20 games and get into a rhythm rather than get sent back any day. At this point, you're like, 'I know I'm going to be here for at least another couple weeks.' Just relax and make it happen."
"I don't know if you could ask for a better situation getting called up," Reaves said. "Being here for the rest of the season is just a huge opportunity. I don't think you can ask for more. ... I'm fighting for a new contract, just like a lot of guys are here.
"Yeah, it's been crazy with the injuries in this organization this year. As bad as it's been for guys going down, there's great opportunities for a lot of guys. Me, Cracknell, Hensick, Porter ... we're all just getting great opportunities up here to bid for a spot."
Of course they are, because one never knows who's watching.
"It's always an opportunity every time you play," McRae said. "There's always someone watching, especially up here. But whether it's up here or in Peoria or in junior or whatever, there's always people watching. ... It's probably a little bit of an audition, for sure."
* NOTES -- McRae and Nikitin were both on the ice Monday and appear close to returning to action.
Nikitin left Saturday's 5-3 loss against Detroit early in the first period after getting hit on the hand, while McRae has not played since injuring a knee Feb. 24 at Vancouver. McRae has missed the past nine games.
"I've skated for a couple days now and it's starting to feel better each time I'm out there," McRae said. "I'm starting to get back into it."
McRae hopes to practice today and if all goes well, there's a possibility he could play in Anaheim Wednesday.
"Hopefully tomorrow, if there's a full team practice, I'll feel good enough to do that and see how it feels," McRae said.
* NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman unveiled a five-point plan on Monday at the GM Meetings on concussion prevention.
It's no shock that concussions/head injuries were the hot topic of discussion in Florida. Here is what Bettman has in mind:
- -- Brendan Shanahan has been directed to focus on equipment, in conjunction with the Players' Association, in an effort to reduce the size of the equipment without reducing its protectiveness but also without compromising the safety of an opponent who is contacted by that equipment.
- -- The NHL Protocol for Concussion Evaluation and Management has been revised in three areas: 1) Mandatory removal from play if a player reports any listed symptoms or shows any listed signs (loss of consciousness ... Motor incoordination/balance problems ... Slow to get up following a hit to the head ... blank or vacant look ... Disorientation (unsure where he is) ... Clutching the head after a hit ... Visible facial injury in coombination with any of the above). 2) Examination by the team physician (as opposed to the athletic trainer) in a quiet place free from distraction. 3) Team physician is to use 'an acute evaluation tool' such as the NHL SCAT 2 [SCAT stands for Sports Concussion Assessment Tool] as opposed to a quick rinkside assessment.
- -- The Board will be approached to elevate the standard in which a Club and its Coach can be held accountable if it has a number of 'repeat offenders' with regard to Supplementary Discipline.
- -- In the continuing pursuit of the ultimate in player safety with regard to the rink environment, a safety engineering firm will be used to evaluate all 30 arenas and determine what changes, if any, can and should be made to to enhance the safety of the environment. For the 2011-12 season, the teams that have seamless glass behind the nets, on the sides, or surrounding the entire rink will be directed to change to plexiglass.
- -- A 'blue-ribbon' committee of Shanahan, Rob Blake, Steve Yzerman and Joe Nieuwendyk -- all players who competed under the standard of rules enforcement that has been in place since 2005 -- to examine topics relevant to the issue.