By LOUIE KORAC
ST. LOUIS -- It's not often that a team adds a prominent free agent in mid-season. But that's what the St. Louis Blues are doing tonight.
Blues general manager Doug Armstrong said on Friday that when the team gets David Perron back from his year-long concussion, "... it's probably our best free-agent signing this year was getting a healthy David Perron."
After missing 97 games with a concussion dating back to last season, Perron makes his return tonight against the Chicago Blackhawks.
The Blues, coming off a 3-2 shootout loss at Colorado Friday, left Perron behind to get rest and a good night's sleep, considering the team didn't arrive in St. Louis until around 2:30 a.m. local time.
Perron, who picked up his parents from the airport after flying in from Quebec to see their son make his return, was one of a handful of players on the ice for the Blues Saturday morning.
He said the nerves will kick in eventually.
"I think it was worse yesterday," Perron said. "Hopefully, it's going to stay like that, but I get the feeling towards gametime it's going to get more intense.
"I was so exhausted from the day (Friday) and all the nerves. I fell asleep pretty good actually. That was the good part."
Perron will play left wing on a line with Patrik Berglund and Matt D'Agostini and is prepared for that first contact.
"That's the nervous side of it. That's the last step of the process and it's the biggest one," Perron said of getting hit. "I've done as good a job to get myself ready.
"... I've taken some hits, taken some bumps already. We'll see how it goes. Just like anyone, if you get an extreme big hit like I got, it's going to be another concussion just like it would be for anyone. But I've got to go in there and just try to play a normal game and not think too much about that. I'm pretty sure I'll be a little more careful to start with. ... After 10, 15, 20 games, that'll all go away but I'm ready to turn the page tonight."
Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said Perron, who had five goals and seven points in 10 games a season ago, is as ready as he can be and expects a loud and raucous building tonight.
"Well, I think anybody that's missed this type of time, it's pretty exciting for the hockey community in general," Hitchcock said. "For me, he's been around so long practicing with us, he just feels like a normal player. The game is going to be good for him, good for the fans, but I think it's good for the game to see good players come back in and play. He's an exciting player, he's a dynamic player. He was really coming before he got hurt. So I think from a game standpoint it's exciting.
"I think it bring notoriety to the organization. A lot of people are going to be watching to see how David does. The NHL is happy for him. I think (San Jose's) Joe Thornton is happy for him. And I think from our standpoint, we're happy to get him going. It's unrealistic to think that he's just going to come in and be the player he once was. He's just going to have to get his feet wet."
- - -
The Blues (14-8-3) and Blackhawks (15-8-3) will renew their rivalry tonight and it will be the second matchup of the season. The Blues won 3-0 on Nov. 8 here in St. Louis, Hitchcock's first game behind the Blues' bench.
The 59-year-old coach said that the Blues, who are 8-1-3 since Hitchcock's arrival, won't be catching teams by surprise anymore.
"We're going to find out here in the next six or seven games," Hitchcock said. "We're going to get a push. ... You can surprise a team, now we're playing the second wave. When we start playing the Chicago's and Detroit's again, now we'll have a look. They'll be ready for us. They're not going to be surprised by our game anymore."
- - -
The Blues have scored two goals in regulation in seven straight games and rank 22nd in the league at 2.44 goals-per-game. But Hitchcock isn't overly concerned.
"It'll come," he said. "I don't think we're on the same page offensively yet. That's a little bit my fault. (Thursday) was the very first day in practice where we started to put something of a definitive plan in without overwhelming them. We decided that we'd start on the competitive level and then from a continuity standpoint offensively, we felt that there was enough fabric here to just keep going. But some of the little things that allow you to score, we're starting to put in place now ... zone play and something like that."
- - -
A 2-0-1 road trip is nothing to be ashamed of, and the Blues have now taken points in five straight road games, going 3-0-2, after Friday's shootout loss.
"You get five of six points on the road, you've got to be happy," Hitchcock said. "But we had this one ... we were really going in this game, going well and then we gave (the Avalanche) that little breath of life there in the third period."
- - -
Blues defenseman Carlo Colaiacovo was one of four skaters (with Perron, B.J. Crombeen and Evgeny Grachev) to skate Saturday morning. Colaiacovo will miss his eighth straight game tonight after injuring a hamstring on Nov. 17 against Florida.
Hitchcock said he's "hopeful Colaiacovo can play next week," and judging by today's skate, the Blues' defenseman looks to be on course.
"It's been a frustrating last two weeks, but the thing that's been keeping me going is that I'll be back quick," Colaiacovo said. "I've just got to keep working through it. The team is playing really well and that's really exciting to watch. It's motivating me to even be more part of it. I miss being out there. It's not fun watching, but in the same sense, I'm working as hard as I can to be back out there.
"Another good skate today. It's been getting better every day, but obviously not as fast as I would like. But you've got to be careful with these things here. I don't want to rush and set myself back a bit. So it's been slow steps, but the focus is to make progression every day and do whatever it takes to get back out there."
- - -
After falling for the third time in as many shootouts this season, the Blues are now 1-for-9 in attempts this season and 2-for-12 dating back to last season.
"I can tell mentally in the shootout that we're a little down right now," Hitchcock said. "We've got to figure out a different game plan. I'm not sure what it is yet. I think we've got to have a different rotation or a different game plan because it seems we're not as confident as we should be because I've seen us score in practice on this stuff. I think it's the rotation. I think sometimes we've been stuck on a certain formula and I think we've got to get a different formula now."
Asked if tonight goes to a shootout, would Hitchcock use Perron?
"Oh for sure," Hitchcock said without hesitation, although Perron is 4-for-16 career-wise in shootouts. "He scores every time. Nothing against our goalies, but he just scores.
"I think the thing with (T.J.) Oshie is Oshie's always second. He makes good plays. Goalies make good plays on Osh. I think we're better off putting him at the front of it now and just letting him go and letting him go rather than wait."
- - -
The Blues had an abbreviated practice in Denver Friday, but not for the reasons one might think.
Seems the ice at Pepsi Center was not to the team's liking, so Hitchcock put a stop to practice. It wasn't much better for the game either last night.
"It was bad in the shootout, too," Hitchcock said. "The thing that concerned me in the morning skate was the safety for the players. That's why we shut the practice down. It was not good. It was like throwing water over deep cracks.
"When you skate players that hard and then just throw water over it, the next team out, it's very dangerous. We shut it down in 13 minutes ... pucks were bouncing everywhere. You can't run a hockey practice. We were better off just from a safety standpoint just cutting it there."
- - -
Hitchcock likes D'Agostini's game so much that he will leave him up, dropping Chris Stewart to the third line for the time being.
"I like the way D'Agostini's playing. He's playing with some speed, he's playing with some tempo," Hitchcock said. "For me, (Jason) Arnott's line gets more scoring chances in zone than probably any line. We need to finish those chances. You're talking six scoring chances a game, it'd be nice to see if we could finish those scoring chances. This gives us an opportunity to take a look at something.
"Langs can move anywhere and everywhere. He's a very versatile player. He can play left or right, he can play on the power play, he can kill penalties, he can do everything. He's going to be a versatile guy, and I think by playing it this way on back-to-back games, this allows us to play four lines and hopefully not wear guys out."
Asked about Stewart, Hitchcock said: "Stewy's just got to help Stewy. Stewy's got to continue to get better. I think right now for us from the red line in, I'm really impressed with what Stewy's doing. From the red line back, we've got teaching moments that we're going to have to work with. I think just understanding how to play fast defensively is going to have to be an adjustment for Chris. That's what we're teaching him and Bergy and even D'Agostini to play faster defensively."
- - -
The return of Perron has thrown a bit of a monkey wrench into the lineup, as a few alterations have been made for tonight's game against the Blackhawks:
Alex Steen-David Backes-T.J. Oshie
David Perron-Patrik Berglund-Matt D'Agostini
Vladimir Sobotka-Jason Arnott-Chris Stewart
Ryan Reaves-Scott Nichol-Jamie Langenbrunner
Ian Cole-Alex Pietrangelo
Barret Jackman-Kevin Shattenkirk
Kris Russell-Roman Polak
Brian Elliott, who at 10-1 with a league-leading 1.34 goals-against average and .951 save percentage, gets the nod in goal. Jaroslav Halak is the backup after stopping 33 shots in Friday's 3-2 shootout loss at Colorado.
The Blues' scratch for tonight is winger Chris Porter. The team assigned winger Brett Sterling as well as defenseman Cade Fairchild to Peoria. Winger Andy McDonald (concussion), Crombeen (shoulder), Grachev (eye), Colaiacovo (hamstring) and Kent Huskins (ankle) all remain on injured reserve.
- - -
The Blackhawks had an optional skate as well, with only three skaters and two goalies on the ice. They are expected to go with the same lineupthey used last night:
Viktor Stalberg-Jonathan Toews-Patrick Kane
Patrick Sharp-Marcus Kruger-Marian Hossa
Ben Smith-Dave Bolland-Michael Frolik
Daniel Carcillo-Jamal Mayers-Andrew Brunette
Duncan Keith-Brent Seabrook
Nick Leddy-Niklas Hjalmarsson
Steve Montador-Sean O'Donnell
Ray Emery is the likely starter in goal after being first off the ice; Corey Crawford, who played in Friday's 5-4 shootout win over the New York Islanders, would be the backup.
Defenseman John Scott and Sami Lepisto and winger Bryan Bickell were extra skaters today and would be the healthy scratches.