By LOUIE KORAC
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The uniqueness of Ken Hitchcock having such confidence in the Blues' fourth line is worth mentioning, considering that the unit consisting of Scott Nichol, B.J. Crombeen and Ryan Reaves is getting more quantity of minutes because of the quality of minutes they're playing.
The trio saw their minutes increased significantly in Friday's 1-0 win over the Los Angeles Kings, and it wasn't just playing against the Kings' fourth line unit. It came against scoring lines, namely the unit anchored by Mike Richards.
One normally doesn't see a fourth line go up against the top units, but Hitchcock believes he has a unique advantage with his guys.
"That's a big factor for us because we can roll them on the fly," Hitchcock said. "We don't have to wait to see what the opposition sends out. We don't have to wait for a stoppage. We can chase them.
"Last night, we chased them after (Anze) Kopitar's line and we got some really good shifts because Kopitar's line was tired from playing against (the David) Backes (line) and we caught them on some good shifts and maintained some good offensive zone time. I'm really comfortable playing the line against anybody. I don't care who's out there. Crombeen's up to speed and Reaves is an underrated defending player. For me, it's a really good situation."
That really good situation has certainly been visible with the players.
"If you can get that confidence in your coach and your teammates to put you out there in different situations, it's different on the road, too, but it's good," Nichol said. "That's all you can ask for.
"It's not quantity as a fourth-liner. It's the quality minutes, and if it's nine of the best minutes you've got, then that's what we want. That's what the fourth line is all about."
"It's never going to be 15-20 minutes for us," he said. "It's going to be high energy, 8-10 minutes and that's what we're getting. We're creating energy, getting scoring chances ... if I could just bury something in my life, it would be great. But we're making plays and having fun out there."
So when the Blues (30-13-7) play here at Bridgestone Arena tonight against the Nashville Predators (31-17-4) in a key Central Division matchup, don't be surprised if the Nichol unit goes up against a line anchored by David Legwand or even Mike Fisher.
"I think playing against the fourth line is always the hardest because they always want to prove themselves," Nichol said. "They don't play a whole lot. You kind of get into the mode of every shift you go 100 percent because you only play maybe eight or nine minutes.
"I'm not seeing guys play 20 minutes take shifts off, but they conserve their energy a lot more. I think with the fourth line, you see where 30-35 seconds long and it's all-out. Sometimes it's not pretty and sometimes it changes momentum and that's what we're trying to do."
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Blues center Jason Arnott, who arguably had four of his best seasons as a Nashville Predator during his career, will try once again to make his return to the Music City after a failed first attempt.
When the Blues visited Nashville earlier this season, Arnott missed his only game with the flu, but after injuring his left shoulder with just over eight minutes to play in Friday's win following a check by the Kings' Dustin Brown that sent him crashing hard into the corner boards, Arnott will be a gametime decision tonight.
If Arnott can't go tonight, Chris Porter will get back into the lineup.
"Questionable. He's close," Hitchcock said of Arnott. "... If not, Porter draws in and (Vladimir) Sobotka moves into the middle. But we'll see right now.
"I would have said last night he's probably out, but he's feeling a lot better this morning."
Arnott spent Saturday morning getting treatment.
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Considering how close the Blues-Predators rivalry has been, anything short of a one-goal game tonight would be out of the ordinary.
Of the last 24 meetings between the two teams, 16 of them have been decided by one goal, including a pair of games this season won by the Predators in a shootout.
"It's a classic case of division rivals. They know each other," Predators coach Barry Trotz said. "They respect what each other does. It's like when you go play an Eastern team, they're more generic and you don't really get a feel for what their DNA is until you get through abut half the game. Playing teams a lot of times, you get the feel.
"We're all stacked up within a couple points of each other (in the Central Division). It has a playoff feel to it all the time. ... Just like the Blues, we have the same aspirations. We want to catch Detroit and make them be a lower seed. They're good rivalries, it's parity, all the things."
The Red Wings lead the division with 71 points, four ahead of the Blues, five ahead of Nashville and six in front of Chicago.
"They're kind of kicking everybody's (tails) to be honest with you," Hitchcock said of the Predators. "They're an interesting mix because they get more points in the third period. I'd like to see the stat, but I think they get more points in the third period than just about anybody."
The Predators' most recent win at Minnesota Tuesday is proof-positive.
"I watched the game against Minnesota (Tuesday night, in which the Predators overcame a 4-1 third-period deficit to win 5-4 in regulation) and I'm thinking halfway through the game that they're just playing," Hitchcock said of the Predators. "They're just playing and then all of the sudden, they just keep playing and keep playing and you can see it turning.
"When it was 4-1, you could see it turning in the third period. They don't lose any focus. They keep playing the same way. In the end, I think they really trust that they can wear you down. I think between the quickness up front and the tenacity up front, I really think they think they can wear you down, and I think when you get points in the third period like they do and get all those victories, I think they just feel like 'we've done this before; we know how to do it.' There's no sense of panic because I'm watching the game and I'm thinking to myself, 'When are you going to start opening the game up?' They don't. They just keep playing, and then all of the sudden, they've got the puck all of the time and then it starts going to the net and then at the end of the game, you feel like obviously they've done this before."
Why wouldn't tonight be a one-goal game? Between the Blues' Jaroslav Halak and the Predators' Pekka Rinne, only nine goals have been surrendered in three games.
Halak is 0-1-2 with a 1.59 goals-against average and .928 save percentage against Nashville this season; Rinne is 3-0-0 with a 1.26 GAA and .963 save percentage against the Blues.
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The Blues' probable lineup tonight (with/without Jason Arnott):
Vladimir Sobotka-David Backes-T.J. Oshie
David Perron-Patrik Berglund-Chris Stewart
Jamie Langenbrunner-Jason Arnott-Matt D'Agostini
B.J. Crombeen-Scott Nichol-Ryan Reaves
David Perron-David Backes-T.J. Oshie
Matt D'Agostini-Patrik Berglund-Chris Stewart
Chris Porter-Vladimir Sobotka-Jamie Langenbrunner
B.J. Crombeen-Scott Nichol-Ryan Reaves
Carlo Colaiacovo-Alex Pietrangelo
Barret Jackman-Kevin Shattenkirk
Kris Russell-Roman Polak
Jaroslav Halak gets the nod after a 22-save shutout Friday night against Los Angeles. He's 12-1-3 with a 1.57 GAA and .937 save percentage in that stretch. Brian Elliott will be the backup and is scheduled to be the starter Tuesday in Ottawa.
Forwards Andy McDonald and Alex Steen were left back in St. Louis and will not be with the team for the three-game trip with concussions. Defenseman Kent Huskins (ankle) is on the trip and continues to progress.
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The Predators' tentative lineup:
Sergei Kostitsyn-Mike Fisher-Martin Erat
Colin Wilson-David Legwand-Patric Hornqvist
Gabriel Bourque-Nick Spaling-Jordin Tootoo
Brian McGrattan-Craig Smith-Matt Halischuk
Ryan Suter-Shea Weber
Roman Josi-Kevin Klein
Francis Bouillon-Ryan Ellis
Pekka Rinne gets the start; Anders Lindback is the backup.
Winger Brandon Yip, recently picked up on waivers from Colorado, is expected to be a healthy scratch. Trotz was non-committal as to whether he would play or not. If he plays, expect McGratton to be out. Also, Center Jerred Smithson will be scratched and defenseman Jack Hillen is a healthy scratch.