Steen, Russell appear ready to return; lineup changes unclear
By LOUIE KORAC
HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- Alex Steen and Kris Russell needed a full day of practice with their teammates to see how their respective injuries would react to a full-bore workout.
And the judgment is?
"Both guys came through practice fine," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said after Wednesday's practice. "We'll take them through the skate tomorrow morning. If they feel the same way tomorrow morning as they do right now, then both guys will be ready to play providing that there's no repercussions."
And it appears the Blues (27-12-6), who will host the Edmonton Oilers (17-24-4) Thursday night, are getting healthy.
Both Steen (concussion symptoms) and Russell (groin) have missed nine games. Neither has played since Dec. 27 at Detroit, but after consecutive days of workouts and no ill effects from pushing the button, both are likely to resume their respective seasons.
"I'm really close. I've got to talk to the medical staff and see what they say, but yeah, I'm close," said Steen, who has 24 points in 36 games this season. "I haven't really had a chance to practice with the boys. The schedule's been hard on the guys, so they've had a lot of optionals. This is my first real test. I thought it went well.
"When it's an optional, there's only seven, eight guys out there. You don't get the bumps. When you're doing battle drills, there's only two guys to keep track of. Five-on-five, it's a little more busy, you get a sense for a little more game action."
Russell, acquired from Columbus on Nov. 11, has also been pushing the envelope with his groin injury. But a full practice Wednesday showed he's also ready for game action.
"You can skate all you want, but it's the little plays like pushing off guys, quick transition, battling for pucks and stuff," said Russell, who has five points in 21 games with the Blues and eight points in 33 games overall. "That's when you feel it. It was good. It's been tough to have (full practices) because guys have been playing so much that there's been a few optionals. I've been taking those, but it's not the pace and the full practice going and guys are intense and it's the day before a game. It was a good test."
Added Hitchcock: "This is the first real heavy go for both guys. They've been doing it isolated-wise, but this is the first full go and both guys came through fine, no issues. This is now four, five days in a row for Steener with a high workload and no problems. That's a good sign. Same thing with Russ. We'll just see how they feel in the morning after going through this. If they feel good, they'll be available.
"(Steen) looked quick, he looked energized-quick, he's sharp mentally, he's in tune, he makes a huge difference on the power play now playing with Berglund on the power play on that second unit. ... He's a 20-minute player that can come back and play. We realize he's going to hit the wall physically when you miss (nine) games but it gives us a big jump here."
* Lineup changes -- With the anticipated returns of Steen and Russell, the Blues' roster is suddenly becoming crowded.
One defenseman and one forward will instantly become healthy scratches, leaving the Blues with a full roster limit of 23.
Chris Porter has been a healthy scratch the last five games but will have some company.
Ian Cole will return to the role of being the seventh defenseman when Russell returns, but the forward that comes out is still up in the air.
"I haven't really thought about it," Hitchcock said. "One of the things you get in when you get into this business is you have to decide if you're a team of 23 or a team of 20-plus three. I think our players recognize we're a team of 23.
"We're going to end up with 23 people and there's going to be some rotation. Some guys are going to play, some guys aren't some days, depends on the opposition. I know one thing, every time you think you're good to go, you pick up two injuries and then you're back scrambling again. ... If I ever get into a situation where I've got healthy scratches, where I can sit out multiple people, then I'll make a decision based on our performance first and then based on the opposition will be looked at, too, depending on what type of game I think is coming our way."
One thing is for certain: Steen will return to a top six role, and play with David Backes ... and Chris Stewart.
"He's going right back with Backes. There's no question," Hitchcock said of Steen. "... To me, Backes and Steen were a great pair and they're going back to play together again.
Asked if Stewart, who has struggled staying consistent in the scoring department this season, could move, Hitchcock said: "He's starting to really amp it up here, so we're not changing that."
So with Steen returning to a top six role, what repercussions are there to the lineup? It appears Matt D'Agostini will drop out of the top six.
"There is and there isn't," Hitchcock said. "In a healthy situation, the guy that probably loses is D'Agostini, but he was not in a top six role in healthy situations anyway. He was in a third-line role there. He's probably the only guy that has to make an adjustment."
Could D'Agostini, who has just one goal and one assist in his last nine games, be a guy who sits a game? He might be among a group that has B.J. Crombeen and Ryan Reaves in it.
* Russell's difference -- Hitchcock said that adding Russell to the lineup gives the Blues a transition element that lacks when he's off the ice. It'll be a welcomed addition.
"Any time you can transition the puck without having to pass it, it's a huge asset," Hitchcock said. "Some guys can do it with patience like (Detroit's Nicklas) Lidstrom, strength and patience like (Detroit's Niklas) Kronwall. Russell evades the first forechecker as good as anybody in the league. He's learned to play as a small defenseman in the league and he evades that first forechecker and then skates it out of the zone for us. It puts us in a great position transitionally-wise.
"We're really dangerous because we don't need to make any extra plays. He can make it by himself. He can get the puck out of your own zone, and we miss that. We miss that faster transition. When he's in the lineup, we are a very quick transition team because he's able to skate it out of trouble for us. At least 6-8 times a game, he evades that first guy, beats him up the ice and now we're on our toes and the other team has to play on their heels."
* Cole's role -- Cole has been the one that benefited from Russell's absence, getting the ice time with Roman Polak on the third defensive pairing, aside from the three-game suspension he had to serve.
Cole has five points in 17 games this season.
"Better, more engaged, more defined, getting better and better," Hitchcock said when asked to define Cole's play. "He's a 50-game player, so to be able to play in the league in a responsible position after 40-50 games is pretty impressive. But to me, it's all about improvement for Ian. We know there's going to be mistakes, but as long as he brings physicality and as long as he brings awareness on the ice and gets better every day at practice, he's a good asset to have.
"Is he our top six guy if Russell's healthy? No, but he's certainly helped us win hockey games since Russell's been out so we're not afraid to play him at all."
* Oilers return -- The last time the Oilers were in town was two weeks ago, when the Blues rallied from 3-1 second-period deficit and pulled out a 4-3 win.
The Blues put themselves in penalty trouble in the second period and the Oilers erased a 1-0 first-period deficit with a three-goal second period. The Oilers, who own the league's second best power play at 21.5 percent, scored two power play goals.
"For us, if we haven't learned our lesson against taking penalties against Edmonton, we're never going to learn it," Hitchcock said. "Their power play's really good. If (Jordan) Eberle and (Taylor) Hall play, it makes it even scarier. ... They work on the power play, they retrieve pucks, they hang onto it, they're strong, they won the faceoffs. They win the puck more than I would say 95 percent of the teams in the league on the power play. That's why they got so many shots against us, we couldn't clear it, we couldn't win the faceoff, we lost the front-of-the-net battles and we just took too many penalties. ... Our strength and our depth is going to be the difference in these two games if we play the right way. But we've got to keep it 5-on-5."