By LOUIE KORAC
CHICAGO -- With his play in recent games dictating what his ice time will be like moving forward, the Blues have elevated Chris Stewart back to a familiar role.
A scoring role.
Stewart, relegated to the third line and sometimes taking shifts on the fourth line, will move up and play on the Blues' top line with David Backes and T.J. Oshie against the Chicago Blackhawks tonight (7:30 on FSN, KMOX 1120-AM).
Although the offensive stats don't jump out at you looking at Stewart's game-by-game totals recently, he's become more noticeable and coach Ken Hitchcock said he's ready to go back where he belongs -- at least for now.
Hitchcock's really noticed Stewart.
"Yeah, a lot," he said. "We've worked hard on his conditioning, he's worked hard on his conditioning, he's quicker, he's quicker to pucks, he's more engaged, he's got his speed back. I think he went through a phase where he didn't have his speed, so he was kind of late going to the net, but he's got his speed back. He's a very attractive player now because of the way he's been playing. It's been good for us."
Stewart, who's averaged roughly 12-14 minutes a game in the last 16 games played (he only played 9:22 Sunday at Columbus because the Blues spent a lot of time killing penalties), he's become more aggressive and his play around the net is catching people's eye.
"You don't really read too much into that," Stewart said, when asked about his minutes. "You just have to accept your role. If I'm going to be on the third line that night, I'm going to play hard and if I'm going to be on the first line, I'm going to have to bring that offensive production and I'm going to try to contribute that way, too. That's the good thing about this team. We have guys who can fluctuate to those roles to win hockey games. We find a way.
"I've only been playing 13 minutes or so the last 5-10 games, but I've had some quality opportunities. I got on the power play the last game, too, and got some good looks. I feel good about my games right now."
Stewart played earlier in the season with both Backes and Oshie. Hitchcock used him there before with the thought of having two players like that who can get Stewart going.
"We're just going to be the line that pushes the tempo and the physical play," Stewart said. "When we're on our game, we're going to control the puck. We're going to get it down low, have strong cycles and really make it hard on guys like Keith and Seabrook, who are going to play their big minutes. We want to give them a lot to handle.
"When you play with guys like that (Backes), you don't want to over-think. You just want to simplify. That's what's going to come easy. We're not going to be a line out there that's going to try to make seam passes and tic-tac-toe plays. Not to say that we can't if an opportunity presents itself, but we're really going to grind down teams and make their big bodies play tough minutes."
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The Blues (45-18-7) will look to improve upon a season-best five-game winning streak tonight. But they'd rather not do it in the fashion where Jaroslav Halak basically stole two points for the team in a 33-save effort Sunday against the Blue Jackets.
The Blues went through a similar situation a couple weeks ago in Winnipeg, where they were flat and Halak stole a game, 3-2 in a shootout. They then went into Calgary two nights later and played one of their best road games of the season.
They're looking for similar magic tonight after the coaches gave the players a full day off Monday. Tonight will be the Blues' sixth game in 11 days.
"We've had a pretty hectic schedule here with travel and games compacted together," defenseman Carlo Colaiacovo said. "I think yesterday was a well off-day away from the rink to give a lot of guys a chance to refresh, clear their minds a bit. It's a grind at this time of year. Sometimes, you need those days off to refresh your whole state of mind and your whole body to get ready for a heated game like tonight.
"... The coaching staff gave us a well-deserved day off yesterday to catch our breath and get our rest and make sure we're full of energy tonight against a team that's going to want to take it to us after the last game we played against them. It's always a heated game when we play these guys."
Hitchcock said it was best for everyone to go their separate ways and to recharge.
"We were a little better today," Hitchcock said of the morning skate. "This has been a tough schedule for us, so we're a little bit better today. We've got more energy, more jump, a little more enthusiasm. I think getting away from the coach is really important, and I think the coach getting away from them is really important. They stayed away from me. I stayed away from them. That full day off was probably good energy-wise for both groups."
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Winger Jaden Schwartz, signed to an entry-level contract on Monday, will not make his Blues debut tonight in Chicago.
It wasn't expected that Schwartz, 19, would play. The coaching staff wants to get him acclimated to the NHL game and process all the information necessary before throwing Schwartz into the fire.
"I don't think it will take him long to get used to things," Hitchcock said of Schwartz. "At some point on this road trip, we're going to want to get him into the lineup and see how he looks and get him a good go. first of all, we just need to get him grounded a little bit.
"He's a pretty confident guy. I don't think nervousness ... I guess when it's his turn to play, he's going to be a little bit nervous. I think the one thing is he's comfortable around the guys. He knows the guys. It's not like he's walking in new here. He's been around the organization a little bit in various levels. He knows management, he knows some of the players. I think he's comfortable there."
Schwartz said on Monday: "I don't know what's going to happen, but I'll do whatever they ask of me. When they think I'm ready, I'll do what I can to contribute."
With the availability of both Alex Steen and Matt D'Agostini unknown because of concussions, Hitchcock said Schwartz can become an important element.
"You can't have enough good players at this time," he said. "I think with the style of game he has, being such a confident 200-foot player, you never know. You're going to be using these guys.
"If we don't get Steen and D'Agostini back, he's going to be a necessary add come playoff time."
Schwartz signed with the Blues after leaving following his second year at Colorado College, where he picked up 15 goals and 41 points in 30 games.
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Tonight's probable lineup against the Blackhawks:
T.J. Oshie-David Backes-Chris Stewart
Andy McDonald-Patrik Berglund-David Perron
Vladimir Sobotka-Jason Arnott-Jamie Langenbrunner
B.J. Crombeen-Scott Nichol-Ryan Reaves
Carlo Colaiacovo-Alex Pietrangelo
Barret Jackman-Kevin Shattenkirk
Ian Cole-Roman Polak
Jaroslav Halak will start in goal; Brian Elliott is the backup.
Halak is 8-0-0 with a 1.45 GAA and .945 SV% in his last eight starts. he'll try to improve on his personal-best winning streak.
Blues scratches include Schwartz, Chris Porter and defensemen Kent Huskins (bruised hand). Defenseman Kris Russell (concussion) and Steen (concussion) and D'Agostini (concussion) remain on injured reserve. Steen and D'Agostini are not on the trip. Russell did skate today for the first time with a gray jersey, shedding the red no-contact jersey.
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Chicago's probable lines against the Blues:
Andrew Brunette-Patrick Kane-Marian Hossa
Patrik Sharp-Marcus Kruger-Viktor Stalberg
Bryan Bickell-Dave Bolland-Andrew Shaw
Brandon Bollig-Jamal Mayers-Jimmy Hayes
Duncan Keith-Brent Seabrook
Johnny Oduya-Nick Leddy
Niklas HjalmarssonDylan Olsen
Ray Emery gets the start in goal; Corey Crawford is the backup.
Chicago scratches include D Sean O'Donnell, C Brendan Morrison and RW Michael Frolik. Chicago injuries include C Jonathan Toews, who will miss his 11th straight game with concussion-like symptoms, D Sami Lepisto (lower-body), D Steve Montador (upper-body) and LW Daniel Carcillo (lower-body).