By LOUIE KORAC
ST. LOUIS -- After finding out Chris Stewart's fate by Brendan Shanahan on Wednesday, the Blues will move on and do without their bulky power forward for the next three games.
Beginning with today's 7 p.m. game at Scottrade Center against the Florida Panthers (FSN, KMOX 1120-AM), the Blues have accepted the ruling of the NHL's Senior Vice President of Player Safety and moved on.
Stewart was suspended for a hit Tuesday on Detroit's Niklas Kronwall in the first period. Kronwall left the game but returned for the second and third periods and suffered no injury.
Stewart reflected on the suspension for the first time after the morning skate today. He had a conversation with Shanahan and understands where the league is coming from.
"When in doubt, you probably shouldn't do it when you see his numbers to you," Stewart said. "There's definitely a gray area there.
"I was obviously hoping for no suspension, but I kind of expected it. I seen a couple replays. It looked pretty bad."
Added captain David Backes: "It's up to the rest of the guys now to fill that void and make sure that we're making up for his absence. When he comes back, he'll be more energized and more determined than ever."
Backes said the league is trying to crack down on any type of hit, whether done by accident or not, and the team accepts the consequences.
"It's those kinds of hits that he said as a league we're going to have taken out," he said. "Unfortunately, it's a guy on our team that's the recipient of a suspension. I think he's been relatively consistent throughout the season on hits that are into the boards or hits from the backside.
"Chris plays hard. He's a great part of our team. We wish he wasn't suspended, but the fact of the matter is when you play hard like he does, when you're in the trenches, when you're battling all the time, you're probably going to be suspended. Especially with the way things are right now."
Stewart, who has three goals and five points in 17 games, said he'll use caution but won't change his style.
"I've got to stick to my game here," he said. "I'm definitely more valuable to my team on the ice than in the press box.
"I'm probably going to think twice the next time I see a guy's numbers to me. As far as competing and going out there and playing with that edge, I'm still going to play with that edge for sure."
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With Stewart's absence for the next three games, it means Evgeny Grachev, who played top-six minutes in the preseason, jumps from the fourth line to the second line with Patrik Berglund and Matt D'Agostini.
Grachev has two assists in 14 games.
"It's a big opportunity for me, but I don't want it to get into my head. I just want to play my game, work hard and do what we are asked to do from coaches. But it's definitely a big opportunity for me and a good chance to play with those guys and probably more minutes.
"It's good when you know what's asked of you. You just go out and do that."
Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said it in fact is a big opportunity for Grachev and that the team would not recall anyone from Peoria.
"Nope. We’re good. Grachev has been good. We want to give him a go," Hitchcock said. "... He’s got two-step quickness that for a big guy, is impressive. I just think that when you’re on the fourth line, you’re on the line of ‘Don’t get scored on.’ And then when you’re on the second line, you’ve got to be productive. So this is a great opportunity for him.
"There’s a conservative base when you’re on the fourth line, just keep the puck in front of you and don’t let it in your hand. When you’re on the second-line role, it’s hang onto it and make a play. So it’s a different mindset."
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Despite leading the league in goals-against (1.43) and second in save percentage (.946), Brian Elliott will take a seat as Jaroslav Halak will get back in goal for the Blues.
Halak, who is 2-6-1 with a 2.78 GAA and .882 save percentage, hasn't played in a week when the Blues dropped a 3-2 decision to the Toronto Maple Leafs in a shootout.
"Obviously I'm looking forward to get in," Halak said. "I know it's not going to be easy. Florida has been playing really good hockey on the road this season. We need to be ready for that and for their tempo. We need to try and create our tempo and be ready."
Both goalies are now into form. Elliott's been solid all season, and Halak, after an inauspicious beginning, seems to be finding his game as well. Hitchcock seems to have a problem in goal ... a good problem.
"I'm happy with both guys," said Hitchcock, who's team is 9-7-1 overall and 3-0-1 since his arrival. "We get into these debates in here, I don't know what everybody's thinking. When both guys are playing well, it's pretty easy for me who goes.
"When they're both playing good, just play them."
The netminders seem to push each other on off-days, and it's creating that proverbial healthy competition, and the players are thriving off of it themselves.
"It is good for our team," Halak said. "Brian has been getting the wins for us. It's great every time you get a win. When you have competition, it makes it better for both of the goalies. They both want to play.
"You need to work hard every practice and every game you play. You need to give it the best you have and that's what it's all about."
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Kevin Shattenkirk's role has increased and he's appreciative.
The Blues' defenseman has been at 20 minutes-plus in 10 of the 17 games played this season. His role has increased since Hitchcock's arrival, and judging by the 24-plus minutes he's received the last two games, it's evident increased roles is in Shattenkirk's future.
"Shawsie (assistant coach Brad Shaw) has shown a little faith in me to play on the PK and play with Roman (Polak)," Shattenkirk said. "With (Kent) Huskins out, you definitely see him coming back into that role when he gets back, but it's something right now that I'm relishing and enjoying it.
"I love playing those extra minutes. It keeps you sharp, it keeps you not focusing maybe on a mistake you might have made the shift before. You really don't have time to think about it because you're just out there playing."
It takes a different approach to get those extra minutes, and Shattenkirk, who leads the Blues in scoring with 12 points, relishes it.
"When it first happened, I'm not going to lie, I was pretty gassed," he said. "It's definitely a huge adjustment. You learn how to pace yourself a little more and pick your spots. I think I'm in decent enough shape where I'm able to come back to the bench and recover for a little bit."
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Defenseman Ian Cole will be a healthy scratch for the third straight game. Hitchcock said with Huskins (ankle surgery) going down for eight weeks, it's a good chance for Cole to embrace a role.
However, there will come a time to make a decision, according to Hitchcock, whether Cole stays here and just practices or goes to Peoria to play games.
"I think there's going to come a period of time where we don't want to let the guy get too far away, so we either put him in here or get him games there," Hitchcock said. "I think what makes you nervous is when you're at seven (defensemen) and you put him down there and he gets hurt. That makes you nervous but you've got to live with that for the development of the player.
"We're kind of on a game-by-game evaluation. I think for a certain period of time, (having Cole) up here helps a lot ... pace, the technical part of the game. But at the end of the day, you're a young player, you've got to play. We're going to come to a point where it's either play him now or play him now down there. Either way, we're going to have to figure out a way to do it."
Cole, who's played two games, appreciates the pace of the NHL.
"When I look at the board and I'm not playing, it's definitely disappointing," Cole said. "But the intensity that you get from practice up here, it's unparalleled. Every time I step on the ice, I need to be dialed in. I'm trying to get into the lineup.
"I love being up here, I love being in the NHL, that's the goal. If you're not playing, my philosophy is you're the only person that can change what's happening. I need to keep battling, whether that's an optional skate or a pregame skate, I need to show them that I can play."
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The Panthers (9-5-3), who come in with the most wins on the road this season (they're 7-3-0), are getting tremendous amounts of respect from around the league. And their top line of Tomas Fleischmann, Kris Versteeg and Stephen Weiss is lighting the scoreboard up.
The three have combined for 52 points in the season, including eight in Wednesday night's 6-0 thumping of Dallas.
"We all want to play the best for this team and win hockey games," said Fleischmann, who has seven goals and 17 points. "We're working hard out there and that's what we're trying to do. It's been working so far.
"Everybody's just contributing to winning hockey games. We don't have all those superstars out there. Everybody's doing their job."
Versteeg leads the team with 20 points and Weiss has 15, and the Backes line (along with T.J. Oshie and Alex Steen) will get the task of shutting the trio down.
"I played against Stephen Weiss maybe three or four times in my career," Backes said. "It's not guys like in Chicago or Vancouver where you pretty much know the style of play, how they're going to play every single night.
"Fleischmann's the same way. He was in Colorado for a little while, hurt for a lot of it. Versteeg was in (Chicago). He's a little bit more of a known name, but they've been playing really well together. They've thrown up a ton of points. They've done a good job of gelling and having a lot of success so far early in the season."
Added Shattenkirk: "They're obviously fast. I know Fleischmann pretty well from Colorado. I've always had the highest things to say about him. He's a smart player, and when you put him with a guy like Weiss, who can obviously play and Versteeg who's been a good player here. It's going to be tough for us. I think we expect the challenge. Hopefully we can shut them down and go from there."
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Speaking of Fleischmann, it's a great story considering the winger missed half the season a year ago with a disorder known as pulmonary embolism, which is a blockage of the main artery of the lung or one of its branches by a substance that has travelled from elsewhere in the body through the bloodstream, likely a blood clot.
There was talk of whether Fleischmann, who was in Colorado last season, would ever play the game again but the Panthers took a chance and inked him to a four-year, $18-million contract. So far, so good.
"The health is the most important and I had to take care of that," Fleischmann said. "Everything seems good right now. I feel normal. Everything feels really good."
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The Blues, who will play the first of three games without Stewart, will roll out the following lineup:
Alex Steen-David Backes-T.J. Oshie
Evgeny Grachev-Patrik Berglund-Matt D'Agostini
Vladimir Sobotka-Jason Arnott-Jamie Langenbrunner
Chris Porter-Scott Nichol-Ryan Reaves
Carlo Colaiacovo-Alex Pietrangelo
Barret Jackman-Kevin Shattenkirk
Kris Russell-Roman Polak
Jaroslav Halak will start in goal; Brian Elliott is the backup.
Huskins (left ankle surgery), winger Andy McDonald (concussion), winger David Perron (post-concussion syndrome) and winger B.J. Crombeen (shoulder) are on injured reserve. Cole will be a healthy scratch.
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The Panthers, who lead the NHL in road victories with seven, will play with the following lineup:
Tomas Fleischmann-Stephen Weiss-Kris Versteeg
Evgenii Dadonov-Mike Santorelli-Tomas Kopecky
Marco Sturm-Marcel Goc-Jack Skille
Shawn Matthias-Tim Kennedy-Sean Bergenheim
Ed Jovanovski-Keaton Ellerby
Jason Garrison-Brian Campbell
Dmitry Kulikov-Mike Weaver
Jose Theodore will get the start in goal; Scott Clemmensen is the backup.
The Panthers are without injured Mikael Samuelsson (hip), Scottie Upshall (hip) and Matt Bradley (upper-body). Defenseman Erik Gudbranson is a healthy scratch.