By LOUIE KORAC
ST. LOUIS -- The Blues began the season at the bottom of the NHL in specialty teams, as both the power play and penalty killing units got off to inauspicious starts.
And while the power play unit continues to labor near the bottom, the penalty killing group continues to excel.
The Blues (22-12-5), going into tonight's home game against the Edmonton Oilers (16-20-3), have killed off 27 of their last 30 PK opportunities (90 percent) have vaulted themselves to 17th in the league after being 30th at one time.
"Penalty-killing has been huge," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said. "We've been very diligent in not giving up seem plays and not giving up bang-bang opportunities at the net.
"Our 5-on-5 play has kind of been consistent without giving up odd-man rushes, but I think our PK has really improved. Our PK has done a really good job limiting teams zone time and limiting teams' scoring chances. Even against some of the best teams in the league power play-wise, we've done a really good job in negating that. I think the goalies have been recipient of being good because of it, too."
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The Blues are making one lineup change tonight, with Chris Porter coming into the lineup and Evgeny Grachev coming out.
Porter has been a healthy scratch three straight games and Hitchcock wants to get him some minutes against a speedy and young Edmonton team that beat the Blues 4-2 on Oct. 30.
Porter adds, "speed and Ports has had a good week of practice," Hitchcock said. "I wanna keep everybody involved. He'll play with (Scott) Nichol and (B.J.) Crombeen."
Grachev, who has a goal and four points in 24 games, has been good, according to his coach.
"He's been fine," Hitchcock said. "He's going to end up being a good two-way player, but we want to keep everybody connected to the group. Porter's been working really hard in practice so we want to keep him involved and not get him discouraged, putting in all the hard work. Both guys have been good players when they've gone in the lineup. Porter gives us an element to play against Edmonton that's got more speed in it. All of us know we're going to need that in our game."
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Cade Fairchild, who returned to the lineup Tuesday and played 12 minutes 24 seconds, had limited ice time not because of his play but with the Blues being comfortable rotating the five guys that have more experience.
"He was a lot better getting a couple days under his belt," Hitchcock said of Fairchild. "He was very good at practice yesterday. He's a smart player. He plays a very similar game to Kris Russell. I think we're comfortable with him here.
"I think personality-wise, he fits very well here. He's one of those guys that looks like he's going to be a good pro because he's smart with the puck. He makes little plays that get you out of trouble. He just doesn't bang it up the boards and flip it somewhere else and make it somebody else's problem. He makes all the little plays that we're asking him to make."
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Jaroslav Halak gets another start in goal after stopping 34 shots in Tuesday's 4-1 win over Phoenix. Halak, who is 5-0-3 in his last eight starts with a 1.45 goals-against average and .932 save percentage in that period, hasn't lost a regulation game since a 3-2 setback on Nov. 22 against Los Angeles.
It's all about the mental game that Hitchcock said Halak has changed.
"He parks it now," Hitchcock said. "He doesn't bring it with him the next day. He's learned that it's over.
"There was a period of time where it wasn't successful, he'd carry it with him the next day at practice, and it wasn't healthy for him or healthy for us."
Hitchcock, who now looks at past success when determining his goalie, doesn't mind continuing the goalie rotation with Halak and Brian Elliott and feels like it's been a benefit.
"The team has (benefited). That's all I care about," Hitchcock said. "Like most goalies, I think they want to play all the time. Both guys probably in different situations, they deserve to play all the time, but what's best for our team is that I keep both guys going in my opinion. I guess my opinion counts because I'm the guy putting them on the ice.
"To me, if one guy's great, then we'll go with him. But both guys have been good, and I'm comfortable putting both guys in the net. ... As long as both guys keep playing at this level, they're both going to play."
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The two combatants in tonight's game play contrasting styles. The Blues forecheck and like to grind teams out while the Oilers use their youthful forwards and attack with speed.
Hitchcock said if the Blues try and play the Oilers' game, there's no chance of winning.
"We can't win playing the way Edmonton plays," Hitchcock insisted. "We can't win in that game. But we can win a different way. And if we get them to play the way we want them to play, then we think we can be successful, so this will be a battle to see who gets to control what aspect."
Oilers coach Tom Renney feels the best plan of attack tonight is quick puck movement.
"We've got to, as best as we can, deliver the puck to our forwards quickly and allow our attack game from that point on to really go at the blue paint at the other end of the rink," Renney said. "That being said, I think our (defensemen) really have to support quickly from behind. In other words, gap up offensively so we show sort of a numerical advantage because Hitch's teams are going to try to come after us. They're going to try and forecheck hard, and if we can move the puck past the forecheck quickly and attack, maybe we've got that team that likes to play in the offensive zone play in their own end instead."
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Count Hitchcock as a fan of Oilers' center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who was this past summer's top overall pick.
Nugent-Hopkins, who has 13 goals and 35 points in 38 games, will not play tonight after injuring his shoulder Monday in Chicago. He was sent back to Edmonton for further evaluation and the team announced this afternoon he will miss 3-4 weeks.
Hitchcock, who's seen many players develop and come through junior hockey, feels there's a select few that can make the jump from junior to pro. Nugent-Hopkins is one of them.
"I just knew if there was a player ready to play pro, that was the player because his hockey intelligence and his smarts and his tenacity on the puck was just way ahead of everybody," Hitchcock said. "I watched him play against good teams and he was dominant.
"For me, when you watch a junior player play and he's dominant offensively and he's dominant defensively, that's a player for me that's ready to play."
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The Blues and Oilers are going through a rash of injuries, with each team missing key pieces from their lineup.
Edmonton has been hit recently with the losses of Nugent-Hopkins as well as defenseman Tom Gilbert, who injured his left knee after the violent collision with the end boards Monday that resulted in a seven-game suspension for Chicago's Dan Carcillo.
Gilbert did skate lighty here during the morning skate but will not play.
"It didn't go as well as we were hoping this morning," Renney said. "... I have limited information, but I'm telling you, it didn't go as well as I was hoping it would go."
Defenseman Theo Peckham said it's a chance for some more of the younger players and call-ups to put their stamp on the Oilers' team.
"With (Ryan Whitney) and (Gilbert) going down, gives a chance to (Colten Teubert) and (Jeff Petry) to come in and show what they can do," Peckham said.
"You play a game like this, you play 82 games, there's a reason why (injuries) occur. You're playing so many games a year, injuries are going to happen. A good way to look at it is you don't look at the guys out of the lineup, you look at the guys putting on the jersey every night."
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Tonight's Blues lineup:
David Perron-David Backes-Chris Stewart
Matt D'Agostini-Patrik Berglund-T.J. Oshie
Vladimir Sobotka-Jason Arnott-Jamie Langenbrunner
Chris Porter-Scott Nichol-B.J. Crombeen
Carlo Colaiacovo-Alex Pietrangelo
Barret Jackman-Kevin Shattenkirk
Cade Fairchild-Roman Polak
Halak gets the nod in goal. Elliott remains the backup.
Andy McDonald (concussion), Alex Steen (concussion-like symptoms), Kris Russell (groin), Kent Huskins (ankle), Ryan Reaves (hip) and Ian Cole, who is serving the second game of a three-game suspension. Grachev is tonight's healthy scratch.
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The Oilers could mix and match, according to Renney, but here is their probable lineup:
Taylor Hall-Sam Gagner-Ales Hemsky
Ryan Smyth-Shawn Horcoff-Jordan Eberle
Anton Lander-Josh Green-Teemu Hartikainen
Ryan Jones-Eric Belanger-Ben Eager
Ladislav Smid-Corey Potter
Andy Sutton-Jeff Petry
Theo Peckham-Colten Teubert
Devan Dubnyk, who is 0-4 with a 4.83 GAA and .819 save percentage career-wise against the Blues, gets the start in goal. Nikolai Khabibulin will be the backup.
Injuries include Nugent-Hopkins, who's out 3-4 weeks. Also on injured reserve include defensemen Ryan Whitney (ankle), Cam Barker (ankle), Gilbert and Alex Plante, who is also out with a concussion. Winger Darcy Hordichuk is a healthy scratch.