By LOUIE KORAC
ST. LOUIS -- Of the 30 teams in the NHL, 29 have already began their post all-star schedule. Only the Blues have yet to unlatch the starting gate.
The Blues will finally get their schedule back on track tonight, when they play host to the Los Angeles Kings at Scottrade Center.
The Blues haven't played since Jan. 24, a span of 10 days. They have had three of the last four days practicing on the ice but are eager to get back to playing games.
"We're pretty well-prepared now though," winger T.J. Oshie said. "With the success we've had in the first half, especially towards the middle and end of the first half, we're excited to get back out there.
"Obviously the first period we've got to keep it simple, but other than that, I think we're ready."
Keeping it simple will be the point of emphasis for the Blues (29-13-7), who understand that a lengthy in-season layoff can throw off certain nuances to the game.
"What takes your energy away is getting bogged down," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said. "For us, we're going to just try and play as straight lines as we can. Basically, not try to do anything cute or fancy, just try to play as fast as we can towards their net and see where it takes us.
"I think sometimes you come into this thing, when you're practicing, you're trying to make plays and when you've got time off, you get into that summer hockey mode a little bit. But I like the way we practiced the three times we did it. We went really hard. We shortened it up. We started with an 80-minute practice and worked it down to a 50-minute practice in the third session. We went with almost the same drills all the time and went really hard and in a game-like situation. Mentally, we're there. Whether we're there physically or not, it's going to take some time to get going. We just need to hang in there for the first half of the game."
Now that the Blues are back in full gear, they'll compress their final 33 games into 64 days, which doesn't allow much down time.
"It's totally hockey here from now on. It's 110 percent," power forward Chris Stewart said. "Not to say it wasn't before, but we're going to be playing every other day, we're going to be on the road for a long time (20 games). It's going to be a good time for the boys to go on the road and we'll get close with each other. It's a good thing you're playing every other day because you're not dwelling on any bad losses. You've got another chance to redeem yourself the night after."
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The Blues and Kings (25-16-10) are two teams that are perfect examples of how in-season coaching changes can work out for a franchise.
The Blues have gone 23-6-7 since Hitchcock took over for Davis Payne, and the Kings are 10-2-6 under Darryl Sutter, who replaced the fired Terry Murray.
"This is the same way that Calgary played. They play hard," Hitchcock said of the Kings. "They play on their toes, they get after you, they play a simple, fast game and it's just the same way ever since I've seen Darryl coach ... from Chicago to Calgary to here. It's the same thing, and he gets the team engaged.
"I think it looks like he's having fun, even though he's got some funny faces on the bench. I think he's a very underrated communicator. He's really good at getting the most out of players. He squeezes every ounce out of every guy. I don't think there's many players that play for Darryl that have off-years. He knows the buttons to push."
When coaching changes occur, it's the cliche of players needing to look at themselves in the mirror. Both of these teams have done that and reacted accordingly.
"For us, realizing that we weren't playing as good as a team as we should have been," Oshie said. "We were getting pretty individualistic, pretty down on ourselves when we made mistakes. It was a fresh start for everyone to clear their mind of all the mistakes and the bad hockey and mistakes we were playing. And we started well (with Hitchcock) and I think that just kept building confidence."
Added Stewart: "Everyone was a little shocked with Davis being fired. I think we came together as a team."
"Everyone's systems are close, but he definitely added some twists to his that definitely helped us out: funneling pucks to the net, the back-checking, things like that," Oshie said of Hitchcock. "He definitely played a big part in our change. When you're seeing good clips on the video, instead of him yelling at us or telling us what to do, he coached us into what to do. He showed us why we were doing stuff instead of just telling us to do it. It worked well and we've been building confidence ever since."
Kings captain Dustin Brown said Sutter's brought in fresh energy that has helped this team refocus.
"The one thing that comes to mind when you have a coaching change like that is the type of team you have," Brown said. "We knew we had a good team in here. For whatever reason, we weren't playing under our potential under Terry and a change was made, but at the same time, all the players in here are the same players we had in here under Terry. It's just a matter of refocusing after that. Darryl's also brought attention to getting emotionally attached to the game, which was something this team needed.
"When Darryl came in, I think it brought some renewed energy to the team. I think it's showed in our play."
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The Blues continue to wait for the returns of forwards Andy McDonald (concussion and Alex Steen (concussion symptoms) to the active roster but will have to wait a little longer.
Hitchcock said after Friday's morning skate that both will not play tonight and they will not accompany the team on a three-game trip that takes them to Nashville Saturday, Ottawa Tuesday and New Jersey Thursday.
"They're fifth-line guys and fifth-line doesn't play," Hitchcock said. "Maybe in the NFL it does, but not here. They're not ready and they're not making the trip so we'll see next week.
"They're getting closer every day, but they're not part of the team right now, so we're not going to take pre-game skates with them and stuff like that. They've got their own agendas and own schedules."
McDonald has missed all but three games this season. Steen has not played since Dec. 27.
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The Kings and Blues not only have coaching changes in common, but both teams will also play the majority of their respective remaining schedules on the road.
With the Blues going 20 of 33 away from Scottrade Center, where they're 21-3-4 on the season and 13-0-3 in their last 16, the Kings will also play 20 of their final 31 games away from Staples Center.
But unlike the Blues, who are 8-10-3 on the road, the Kings seem to thrive away from home. They are 10-5-6, one of the best records in the NHL.
"This is just a gut feeling for this team, but over the last couple seasons, I think we've been a better road team than a home team," Brown said. "I'm not sure statistically if that's true, but that's the way it feels.
"Maybe it's people want to try and play a different game at home that makes it more exciting. I would have to believe that we're a pretty frustrating team to play against the way we play D. It kind of suits that road mentality very well."
The Kings begin a six-game trip here tonight that also takes them to Carolina Saturday, then Tampa Bay, Florida, New York Islanders and Dallas.
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Tonight's Blues lineup:
Vladimir Sobotka-David Backes-T.J. Oshie
David Perron-Patrik Berglund-Chris Stewart
Matt D'Agostini-Jason Arnott-Jamie Langenbrunner
B.J. Crombeen-Scott Nichol-Ryan Reaves
Carlo Colaiacovo-Alex Pietrangelo
Barret Jackman-Kevin Shattenkirk
Kris Russell-Roman Polak
Jaroslav Halak will start in goal. He is 11-1-3 in his last 15 starts with a 1.63 goals-against average and .936 save percentage. Brian Elliott will be the backup.
The Blues are without McDonald, Steen and defenseman Kent Huskins (ankle). Huskins will travel with the team for the upcoming three-game trip but McDonald and Steen will stay back. Chris Porter is the line healthy scratch.
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The Kings' probable lineup:
Dustin Brown-Anze Kopitar-Justin Williams
Dustin Penner-Mike Richards-Jarret Stoll
Trevor Lewis-Brad Richardson-Trent Hunter
Kyle Clifford-Colin Fraser-Kevin Westgarth
Rob Scuderi-Drew Doughty
Willie Mitchell-Slava Voynov
Jack Johnson-Matt Greene
Jonathan Quick gets the start in goal. Jonathan Bernier is the backup.
Defensemen Davis Drewiske and Alec Martinez along with center Andrei Loktionov are expected to be healthy scratches. Winger Simon Gagne (concussion) and winger Scott Parse (hip) are on injured reserve.