opens three-game Western Canada swing
By LOUIE KORAC
HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- When the Blues signed Jason Arnott to a one-year deal, there were areas of their game they thought they could improve upon.
The Blues knew what they were getting from Arnott in the face-off dot, which includes a 53.4 percent clip so far this season -- tops on the team.
Arnott wasn't someone that had a penchant for scoring points at a point-per-game clip. His career-best was a 76-point season with the Dallas Stars in 2005-06, so when the Blues play at Vancouver today (9 p.m. on FSN, FRESH 102.5-FM), the oldest player on their roster at 37 years of age leads the team in scoring with seven points in eight games, which averages out at .88 points per game.
Jason Arnott (left) celebrates a goal with teammate Alex Steen in a recent
game. Arnott leads the Blues with seven points in eight games.
It's early, but Arnott's three goals and four assists so far could be more than what the team bargained for. So far, playing that third line -- with Jamie Langenbrunner and Alex Steen these days -- is paying off.
"He's just a smart player," said Langenbrunner, Arnott's teammate in New Jersey last season. "He puts himself in the right situations, the right positions. He's got the ability to capitalize on them. He's so easy to play with. He plays in the right spots and you know where he's going to be. He's got a great shot and he's a big, strong guy. He's also getting some opportunities. He's playing the power play, playing with Steener and has been playing pretty well."
Blues coach Davis Payne said it's all about Arnott using his wits.
"He's played a smart game," Payne said. "He's shot pucks when necessary. He's made intelligent plays. That line's going pretty good.
"Do you anticipate it carrying forward? I don't know if you ever look at numbers and projections. That's for you (media) guys to do and get all excited about."
* Lineup likely won't change -- With wins over Carolina and Philadelphia and riding a two-game winning streak, it's not likely the Blues will change anything going into tonight's game against the Canucks.
That includes in goal, where Brian Elliott won both games on back-to-back nights while No. 1 netminder Jaroslav Halak continues to find his game.
With the Blues and Canucks, they both face similar challenges with their top netminders. Halak is 1-4-0 with a 3.47 goals-against average and .835 save percentage. For the Canucks, Roberto Luongo, who makes $6.7 million this season, isn't faring much better either. He's 2-2-1 with a 3.17 GAA and .877 save percentage.
Both backups are stealing the spotlight, with Elliott being 3-0-0 and a 2.06 GAA and .935 save percentage, which ranks 13th and ninth, respectively, among the league leaders. For the Canucks, Cory Schneider is 2-1-0 with a 1.97 GAA and .929 save percentage.
"I haven't paid much attention to what they're trying to do there," Payne said of the Canucks. "... It doesn't matter the position. You need to have guys that can step in and perform when needed or necessary or when called upon. That philosophy exists in every position on the ice."
Halak may have had one of the better days of practice Tuesday than he's had thus far this season. He looked focused and most importantly, confident.
"He's a good goaltender," Payne said. "Sometimes, things need to get focused in on or repetitions. These guys are workers and they understand that creating that is the first step. He's going to be fine."
The Blues skated the same forward lines and same defensive pairings that played over the weekend at practice Tuesday before departing for British Columbia. They likely won't change either, and Payne likes what he sees.
"I'd like to see a little bit more consistent play out of the (Patrik) Berglund group," Payne said of the line that includes Matt D'Agostini and T.J. Oshie. "I thought they were decent in Philly, but the game before that (against Carolina), there's some improvement there.
"I think that the (David) Backes group (with Chris Stewart and Vladimir Sobotka) getting a chance to play a little longer together, practice together should have some benefits to it. The more consistency we can establish, the better for our team."
* Defense rounding into form -- Since the return of Carlo Colaiacovo (concussion) to the lineup two games ago, the Blues' defensive pairings seem to be set up the way the team likes.
Colaiacovo was geared to play with friend and previous partner Alex Pietrangelo heading into the season, but when Colaiacovo went down in the season-opener, Kent Huskins has stepped up and filled in nicely.
"Even with my time with Petro, everyone knows there's that chemistry there between me and him, but Husky's stepped in and has done a tremendous job," Colaiacovo said. "At the end of the day, the confidence in all six guys, seven guys and eight guys now with (Taylor) Chorney has to be there for each other.
"The biggest thing to success is having that level of communication when you're out there and helping each other out and doing the right things that make you successful."
Meanwhile, Colaiacovo and Roman Polak have paired up very well in the last two games, and Colaiacovo arguably had his two best all-around games since putting on a Blues uniform.
"He's a fun guy to play with," Colaiacovo said of Polak. "Obviously he's got a real funny humor off the ice that everyone enjoys being around. To me, I really haven't gotten to play with Roman a whole lot since I've been here. We played all training camp together and I thought we complimented each other really well."
Added Payne, "With Carlo being out, Husky's stepped in and done a great job. I like that pair right now. ... It's been good. It's not a cause for concern. We like those pairs. We're eight games into it. We're trying to establish a body of work that we can really make a good assessment on."
* Important trip -- The Blues' recent jaunts into Western Canada have brought them more positive results than in years past.
In the last two seasons, trips into Alberta and British Columbia have seen the Blues go 7-4-1. They're 4-3-1 overall against the Canucks in the previous two seasons, 3-4-1 against Calgary and 6-1-1 against Edmonton.
They take a 4-4 overall record there this week.
"The last trip that finished poorly, we were able to come home and kind of reestablish some things," Payne said of a 1-3 journey against Pacific Division teams. "We took our game to Philly and knowing there were a lot of good things but yet there are some things we can clean up going forward.
"Starting in a tough building in Vancouver, you know you've got to be on your game. You've got to be playing the game intelligently both ways. It'll be a good challenge for us. We're not going to (look) past that one, we're just going to get on the road, get to Vancouver and start with that one."
The team game, however, is getting there.
"You can see it starting to come into form," Langenbrunner said. "This is going to be a big trip for us to see if we can keep that consistent effort. It won't always translate into W's, but the way we play is going to be the important thing. We've done a pretty good job of it the last two games. We're going to have to do that continuing on."
One area that continues to get plenty of work is the power play, which continues to be last in the league at 7.4 percent (2-for-27).
"It's unfortunate that we are where we are because of it," Colaiacovo said. "It's not because we're not working at it or giving up on it. Guys in here believe in the group that we have. Obviously we know our power play needs to be better. We're going to keep working at it.
"We're heading on the road for three games. We need to be better. We want to carry that good feeling and that good momentum going into these next three games and continue playing our style of hockey. It's very evident when we play the way we're capable of how good of a team we can be. It's just a matter of sticking with it. Obviously our power play needs to be better and we're working at that."
* Practice pairings -- The Blues skated at St. Louis Mills on Tuesday before departing for Vancouver. These are the lines they used and what is a probable lineup for tonight against the Canucks:
Vladimir Sobotka-David Backes-Chris Stewart
Matt D'Agostini-Patrik Berglund-T.J. Oshie
Alex Steen-Jason Arnott-Jamie Langenbrunner
Evgeny Grachev-Scott Nichol-Chris Porter
Kent Huskins-Alex Pietrangelo
Barret Jackman-Kevin Shattenkirk
Carlo Colaiacovo-Roman Polak
Brian Elliott likely gets his third straight start in goal.
That means scratches will likely be Ryan Reaves, Nikita Nikitin and Taylor Chorney.