By LOUIE KORAC
ST. LOUIS -- The long-awaited return to the lineup for Andy McDonald is over. The veteran forward will mark his return to the Blues' lineup when they host the San Jose Sharks tonight.
McDonald, 34, has not played since the third game of the season on Oct. 13, when he suffered a concussion at the end of the second period of a 3-2 loss to the Dallas Stars on a bit of a fluky play.
McDonald, who has two assists in three games, has missed the last 51 games but has been skating on a regular basis since Dec. 23 and has been deemed fit and ready to go.
"I'm excited. It's been kind of a tough recovery," McDonald said. "Obviously a long time, but I'm excited that this day is finally here. I'm looking forward to tonight.
"There were some levels I needed to pass. You do the neuro-psych, then you do the bike test and then you get on the ice and you skate on your own. Then you get into a practice with the team in a red jersey and get the red jersey off ... kind of all those steps along the way. Get bumped around a little bit in practice is probably the final stage. Getting hit for real tonight will probably be the last step."
McDonald will provide a huge boost to an offense that is averaging 2.5 goals per game, and according to Blues coach Ken Hitchcock, he's excited to see him in game action.
"I don't know him that well," Hitchcock said of McDonald. "I know him at practice, he looks like a helluva player. I don't know him that well from coaching against him. I knew how dynamic he was on the power play before.
"I'm curious because he looks so good at practice. Can you carry that over when you're playing against different sweaters right off the bat? He's been out a long time. I'm sure he's going to be excited to play. I know the players are real excited to have him back in. ... We're not having any reservations about how much he's playing or whatever. We'll just play him on a regular shift, play him on the power play and see how he looks.
The trade deadline isn't until Feb. 27, but the Blues feel like they got a jump on the rest of the league.
"It's like getting a free player," Hitchcock said. "This is like adding a free agent at the trading deadline. We're just hopeful that he has a good time and gets his feet wet pretty quickly here."
McDonald hopes so, too., He suffered a concussion last season and returned to tally 33 points (12 goals, 21 assists) in 33 games.
"Sitting on the bench is probably the worst thing," McDonald said. "Get in the game, play the game and not think. That'll be the key. Try and get out there and just use my instincts as usual. Sitting around thinking about it is probably the worst thing for me."
The difference this time around for McDonald is he's returning to a team that's 33-14-7 and right in the thick of the playoff race.
"It's really exciting," said McDonald, who will play on the power play with Patrik Berglund and Chris Stewart. "Everybody from the players to the management to the city ... everybody's excited about this team.
"That was the hard thing watching the team's having so much success and you want to be out there and be a part of it. Unfortunately, I missed a large chunk of the season, but hopefully we have a large part left to play. I look forward to being a part of it tonight."
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The Blues, who have allowed a power play goal in seven of the last eight games, are rightfully concerned with the Sharks (30-16-6), who come in with one of the better power plays in the game and a team currently on fire.
The Sharks, who the Blues have beaten in their two meetings this season, are 8-for-17 over the last five games and 10-for-22 in the last eight.
"We're not doing the three or four little things that you need to do to be effective killing penalties," said Hitchcock, whose team allowed a power play goal to Colorado Saturday night. "We're doing the wrong stuff under pressure. We're trying to hit the home run clearing the puck and it's getting cleared back to the point. We're not winning enough face-offs, we're losing the battle on the boards, we're allowing teams to make plays off the boards.
"We talked about that today. If we can clean up some of that, we're going to get a real test today. To be an oh-for today would be a major accomplishment. They're great on the power play right now."
Hitchcock continued: "When you play San Jose, they're huge, they're big on the back-end, they're big on the front end. They play a real strong team game and they wear teams down. You look at a lot of their games, they're close halfway through and then they wear you down.
"I think the biggest fear for us is when you've got a power play that's 47 percent (8 for 17) in the last five games, you want to keep them off the power play. The game that we won here, we were on a slippery slope because we gave them six or seven minors. We killed them off, but I don't think we'll kill that many minors again. We've got to keep the game 5-on-5 and hopefully we've got still quite a bit of energy to play from last night."
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With the Sharks already in town Saturday night, a large contingency of them took in the Blues game with the Colorado Avalanche, including coach Todd McLellan. He offered the following perspective from the press box view:
"Now I know how easy it is from up there," McLellan joked. "If we could fit all of you guys under the salary cap, you guys would be great players from up there.
"It's so damn slow. I caught myself going, 'Why is he doing that? Why is he doing this?' It's different when you're up there. You get another dimension to the game. When you're at ice level, of course it's much faster, but everything is at eye level, too. You've got to look through the trees and look through the forest. When you're up there, you're looking down on the forest, so it's way easier to play from up there than it is down here.
"We have confirmation of how (the Blues) play. I don't think a lot of teams change a whole lot. It just confirms and gives you a chance to see it much slower ... you see more away from the puck. You can see plays develop more. On TV, you get close to that flat dimension."
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The Blues own two wins over San Jose (4-2 on Oct. 15 in San Jose and 1-0 here in St. Louis on Dec. 10). The Sharks are fully aware of the Blues' 23-3-4 home record but San Jose's 12-7-4 mark away from HP Pavilion gives them confidence to play away from home.
"They're a strong team. They play hard," winger Joe Pavelski said of the Blues. "That's what we come to expect when we play them now. You see their game last night, they're a strong fore-checking team, they do a lot of good things well and they're playing really well right now.
"You have to check as well. You have to be patient, you have to know chances are going to be limited. You have to make sure you play them physical as well and try to wear them down."
McLellan said the Blues are a tough matchup because of, "Their team commitment to defense. They give up very very little. We talk about our number being three; their number can be two and they can still win. I heard Hitch talk about checking for chances. That's where most of their opportunities come from. The power play last night looked dangerous ... they've got it going. They're a team right now that believes they can win. When you have that in your locker room, it's a powerful thing.
"They play a style night after night that allows them to win. We saw it again last night."
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The Blues' lineup will be a gametime decision based on the flu bug going around the team:
David Perron-David Backes-T.J. Oshie
Andy McDonald-Patrik Berglund-Jamie Langenbrunner
Chris Porter-Vladimir Sobotka-Chris Stewart
B.J. Crombeen-Scott Nichol-Ryan Reaves
Carlo Colaiacovo-Alex Pietrangelo
Barret Jackman-Kevin Shattenkirk
Kris Russell-Roman Polak
Jaroslav Halak will start. He owns seven in a row at home and is 12-2-3 in his last 18 starts with a 1.69 goals-against average and .935 save percentage. Brian Elliott, who stopped 17 shots in Saturday's 3-2 win over the Avalanche, will be the backup.
Winger Evgeni Grachev and defenseman Ian Cole are healthy scratches. Russell missed Saturday's game against Colorado with the flu. Wingers Alex Steen and Matt D'Agostini (concussion symptoms) are out, as are defenseman Kent Huskins (ankle) and center Jason Arnott (shoulder). All are on injured reserve. The Blues put D'Agostini on IR Sunday morning.
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The Sharks' probable lineup:
Ryane Clowe-Logan Couture-Benn Ferriero
Patrick Marleau-Joe Thornton-Joe Pavelski
Jamie McGinn-Michal Handzus-Torrey Mitchell
Brad Winchester-Andrew Desjardins-Jim Vandermeer
Marc-Edouard Vlasic-Dan Boyle
Douglas Murray-Brent Burns
Colin White-Justin Braun
Antti Niemi gets the start in goal; Thomas Greiss is the backup.
Winger John McCarthy is expected to be the healthy scratch. Winger Martin Havlat (lower-body) winger Tommy Wingels (upper-body) and defenseman Jason Demers (lower-body) are on injured reserve.