By LOUIE KORAC
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Maybe the hockey gods didn't have it scripted for Jason Arnott to make his return to Nashville in a visiting uniform for the first time since being traded in 2010. But upon the Blues' third and final visit to Music City in the regular season, it looks like a third time's going to be a charm.
Arnott will make his belated return tonight when the Blues and Nashville Predators square off in a key Central Division showdown here at Bridgestone Arena.
The 37-year-old missed out on his first opportunity when the Blues were first here on Dec. 17 because of the flu. He also missed the last visit here 19 days ago after injuring his left shoulder the previous night in a home game against the Los Angeles Kings.
Playing against Boston at home Wednesday night, it was easy to wonder what might happen next to Arnott just so he'd miss this game. No such hexes were administered.
"It's always a little weird, but you always have great memories being here," said Arnott, who spent four seasons from 2006-10 with the Predators, three of them as captain. "I loved playing here, great city to be in. The game's changed so much in the past year with all the new faces over there, I don't know half of them. It's crazy how things change."
Arnott, who had 229 points in 275 career games with the Predators, went into general manager David Poile's office in the summer of 2010 and had asked for a contract extension. He was moving into the final year of a five-year, $22.5 million contract and wanted to know what the team's plans were moving forward.
The Predators chose to move in a different direction and dealt Arnott to the New Jersey Devils for Matt Halischuk and a 2011 second round pick.
"It was a mutual thing," Arnott said. "... They couldn't give me an answer. They were kind of leaning going towards a little younger (lineup). It was time for me to move on at that time, and if they were willing to move me, then I would have been moved.
"I had a no-move and no-trade (clause). We just parted ways on good terms and that was it."
Arnott was part of a tumultuous season with the Devils before being traded to Washington at the deadline last season before signing a one-year contract with the Blues this past summer. He has 13 goals and 26 points in 53 games playing a third-line role and has fit in nicely in St. Louis.
"He's having fun playing for us right now," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said of Arnott. "He's been a good player for us. He's helped us a lot. He's scored big goals.
"When we're coming with those three big centers right now, it's a big 1-2-3 punch for us right now."
Arnott recalls his memories with the Predators and time in the city with fondness.
"I enjoyed it. It was a lot of fun," he said. "I experienced a lot of great things, made the playoffs three out of the four years that I was here and did some good things for a small-market team.
"I got to experience being more of a leader, being more of a top guy and being the captain. I had a lot of fun doing that and learned a lot."
Added Predators coach Barry Trotz, who was Arnott's coach here in Nashville: "He was a big part of our team for a number of years."
Players may never admit it publicly, but there's always that itch and eagerness to stick it to the team that once fed you. In Arnott's case, a game-winner night fit the bill tonight.
"That would be great," he said. "It would put us on the winning track again."
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Hitchcock needs to remind himself that he's won in this building before, but it's been a long time coming.
Heading into tonight's matchup with the Predators, Hitchcock, owner of 563 wins in his NHL career, doesn't have many of them here at Bridgestone Arena. In fact, the Blues' coach last won here four teams ago -- as coach of the Dallas Stars
Hitchcock comes into tonight's game 0-11-6-1 in his last 18 visits to Nashville, spanning games coached with Dallas, Philadelphia, Columbus and now the Blues.
His last win here was on Feb. 13, 2001. So what's the key to winning here tonight and hurling that gorilla off Hitchcock's back?
"We've got to understand that the best player on their team is their goalie," Hitchcock said of Pekka Rinne, who is 12-5-2 lifetime against the Blues, including 4-0-0 this season. "It starts with out-working him. And you've got to plow through adversity.
"You're going to get adversity because they've got players who know how to win, they've got players who know how to play, they've got good structure, a good system. You're just plowing through a lot adversity and you've just got to stay determined like that. Nashville wins a lot of games by frustrating the opposition. ... They wear you down mentally and I think you've just got to be able to stay with it."
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Whether they like it or not, the Blues (36-17-7) will get acclimated with one another, and they'll do it away from home where the road record is not as good as they'd like it to be.
Of the next 16 games, 13 of them will be spent away from Scottrade Center, and after losing two in a row for the first time in regulation for the first time since Oct. 28-30, they'll get the opportunity to deal with some adversity for the start of a six-game trip.
"Good or not, it's coming," captain David Backes said. "We're going to play some tough teams on the road. We need to find a way to get points. We haven't had this streak of losses very often this year. The quicker we turn around, the better off we're going to be."
Added defenseman Barret Jackman: "It's definitely a big test for us coming up heading on the road for 10 days. It's going to test our team, but we're definitely ready for the challenge."
The Blues have not lost three in a row in regulation all season long. A loss here tonight would make that all come to fruition, but it's something they'd like to avoid heading down the home stretch.
"The year that I won the Cup (in New Jersey), we went on an eight-game losing streak before the end of the year and fired our coach," Arnott said. "We thought all heck was going to break loose and we ended up going out, coming together and winning.
"You just never know, but you don't want to go through those things. You want to go through the last stretch on a high and playing well together. Obviously things aren't going to go your way the whole time, but if you can narrow the gap down and play more of a solid game than just half, you're going to be better off."
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The Blues and Predators (35-19-6) meet for the fifth time of six meetings this season, and the Blues are looking for their first win.
They are 0-2-2 against the Preds this season, falling 3-1 here just 19 days ago.
Despite the four losses, each game has been decided by one goal, with the Predators winning twice by two because of empty-netters.
"When we play our game, we beat the team we're playing," winger David Perron said. "There's a few mistakes we made last night that ended up in our net. I made one of them. That's exactly what we're talking about when we say playing our game. If we do that, we'll be fine.
"For us, it's just to play our game tonight. I think we were right there in some of the games in this building. We just didn't finish them or if there were some chances to put it in, we didn't put it in. It's going to be up to us."
Added Hitchcock: "Winning here is the 60 minutes. They're a team that probably feels like it's a little easier when you're down a goal or two to play against because they get into a defensive posture and keep you to the outside."
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The Blues have suddenly gone south with their play in the third period, an area that has been rock-solid for this team in winning 36 games.
They've given up four goals to Chicago (three of them) and Boston in third periods over the last two games. Prior to that, the Blues allowed a total of four third-period goals in 22 games, including a stretch in which they had 10 in a row without allowing anything.
"The last couple games for us, we've really liked our first 40 minutes. We've not liked our third period," Hitchcock said. "In order to beat a team like Nashville, it's a lot like beating us. You've got to trust your work. I think that knowing Nashville, both teams have been able to come back in games. It's because the other team's maybe let up a little bit. For me, tonight's a game about trusting our work, trusting our work for 60 minutes."
What's happened in the last couple third periods? Hitchcock said it's all about the team believing in what they do.
"We've got to trust our work a little bit more," Hitchcock said. "We're kind of pulling back a little bit and kind of allowing the other team to maybe even out the dictating part of the game. That's not how we're built, that's not how we're structured, that's not how we play.
"We're a very good team when we're in attack mode and staying in attack mode. You saw that in the last 10 minutes of the first period yesterday and the whole second period, we're a really good team when we play that way. That's the way we have to play is stay in attack mode. I thought we came off it again in the third. It's been two games in a row we've done that. We don't want to see that."
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The Blues won't make any lineup changes tonight except in goal. Lines could be altered because the Blues' skate this morning was optional, but here is a projected lineup for tonight (I will update closer to game time):
Andy McDonald-David Backes-T.J. Oshie
Vladimir Sobotka-Patrik Berglund-David Perron
Chris Porter-Jason Arnott-Chris Stewart
B.J. Crombeen-Scott Nichol-Ryan Reaves
Carlo Colaiacovo-Alex Pietrangelo
Barret Jackman-Kevin Shattenkirk
Kris Russell-Roman Polak
Jaroslav Halak will get his first start in goal in nine days after battling the flu over the weekend; Brian Elliott, who started the last four games, will back up tonight.
With no lineup changes, that means the Blues will scratch forward T.J. Hensick and defenseman Kent Huskins. Wingers Alex Steen and Matt D'Agostini (each out with concussions) continue to sit out as does winger Jamie Langenbrunner, who was placed on injured reserve Tuesday with a broken left foot.
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The Predators' projected lineup:
Martin Erat-Mike Fisher-Sergei Kostitsyn
Craig Smith-David Legwand-Gabriel Bourque
Colin Wilson-Nick Spaling-Jordin Tootoo
Brandon Yip-Jerred Smithson-Matt Halischuk
Ryan Suter-Shea Weber
Francis Bouillon-Kevin Klein
Hal Gill-Roman Josi
Pekka Rinne gets the start in goal; Anders Lindback is the backup.
The Predators are missing wingers Patric Hornqvist and Brian McGrattan, both out with upper-body injuries. Hornqvist is believed to be a concussion. Healthy scratches include defensemen Jack Hillen and Ryan Ellis.