By LOUIE KORAC
ST. LOUIS -- The old adage for teams coming off extended trips away from home is that first game back, teams tend to be flat.
In the case of the Blues, a 5-1 trip is something to be proud of since the road hadn't been all too kind to them this season.
So when the Blues (41-18-7) host the rival Chicago Blackhawks (36-24-7) tonight at Scottrade Center, the Blues will have to guard against that flat start.
Or do they?
"I think playing Chicago gets our attention," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said. "They've had our number the last couple games. It's kind of our turn to respond. They've outplayed us, they've outplayed us for more minutes than we've outplayed them. So it's our chance to respond.
"They beat us in this building (5-2 on Dec. 3) and then they took it to us in the second half in that game in Chicago (Feb. 19, a 3-1 result) and nipped us at the end. They got our attention off of that. We'll see where we're at."
The Blues don't feel like there will be an issue, considering the fact that they've not played since Saturday night.
"We had a tough trip and we were away for a while, but I think guys are excited to be here back at home," forward Andy McDonald said. "Travel's tough on the way back, but we've had a few days of rest. There shouldn't be any excuses. We should be ready to go. ... The extra day really helps so we should be ready."
Winger T.J. Oshie agreed.
"Coming out flat isn't really going to be an issue for us," Oshie said. "We've been playing good at home this year, so we want to protect that."
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Since coming back from a concussion that forced McDonald to miss 53 games, the veteran center/winger hasn't missed a beat being out of the lineup.
McDonald, 34, has nine points (six goals) in 12 games, including five points in five games. But there's always more adjusting to do.
"I'm still adjusting. There's some areas that I'd like to clean up in my own game," McDonald said. "I thought that I'd be in top shape by now, but there's some of the timing things that I'd still like to improve on. That's what I'm trying to do. Hopefully our line can (continue) to produce and generate offense every time we're out there but also be strong defensively."
Playing with Patrik Berglund and David Perron in recent games seems to have elevated the production from the line in general.
"He's a veteran player and he's been through it before," Hitchcock said of McDonald. "He knows how to pace himself. He knows what to work on. I don't think he pays much attention to it. I think he went through the initial phases where he was enthusiastic and careful and now he's playing hockey. He's a big part of our team right now. He's a very effective player. We don't have a lot of those rush attack chances, but when he's on the ice, we do. I think that's a threat that makes other teams nervous."
If McDonald has another gear, there will be plenty more points on the table.
"I just remember him and (Brad) Boyes playing catch on the power play," Hitchcock said of McDonald, remembering when he used to coach against the Blues w ith Columbus. "That's all I remember was bing-bing-bing and in the net. Our sticks were turned over half the time when they had it on the power play. That's what I remember about him from here.
"I think he's a lot stronger than people think he is. I think he surprises people because he can strip you of pucks, he's strong on the puck and he's got great courage to score. He's a great help for us right now."
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Defenseman Ian Cole will return to the lineup tonight, replacing Kent Huskins (bruised hand).
Cole, who has one goal and four assists in 18 games this season, has not dressed in five games since his recall from Peoria on Feb. 24.
"I've been practicing for two weeks, but today, I was actually nervous during pre-game skate," Cole said. "I was like, 'Oh man! I've got to be good. I don't know what I'm going to do.' But I'm obviously very excited to get back into the lineup. It's a nervous energy. Just real excited to be back in there.
"I don't think you'd be a real hockey player if you were OK with not playing. Not that I'm getting mad about it, but there's definitely that little bit of disappointment every time you come off the ice, take your gear off and all the boys are getting ready to play and I'm the one going to get dressed to watch the game."
Hitchcock said Cole deserves more time.
"This gives us a chance to look at Cole for a couple games here before we put (Huskins) back in," Hitchcock said. "Ian's worked hard. He brings a real good element to our team."
Cole has always had the element of the unknown regarding his tenure with the Blues in the past. This time, he was placed on the active roster for the remainder of the season and it's been comforting.
"There's that mindset that there's going to be some consistency for the next two months, which is nice," Cole said. "Obviously there's not that guaranteed consistency as far as hockey-wise, as far as playing time-wise. I'm making the most of it when I get the chance."
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It will be a homecoming tonight for Blackhawks enforcer Brandon Bollig, whose recall last week came just in time.
Bollig, who was recalled from Rockford last week, was born and raised in nearby St. Charles and is a product of Francis Howell North High School. He'll be making his NHL debut in his hometown.
"Not only am I living a dream playing with the Hawks right now and getting my first crack in the NHL, but I'm lucky enough to come here to St. Louis and playing in front of my hometown crowd," said Bollig, who has seven penalty minutes in three games. "I'm pretty excited. I've got a lot of people coming and I can't wait to get going."
Growing up, Bollig began skating in nearby Creve Coeur before the St. Peters Rec Plex got a program of its own. He tried out for the Triple-A Junior Blues, then went on to play Junior-A and onto Rockford before getting his chance with the Blackhawks after they dealt away popular John Scott at the trade deadline.
"I think I was more nervous when I thought about playing in front of my home crowd, but now that it's actually time to do it, I'm sure once game time comes around, I'll be a little bit nervous," Bollig said. "Hopefully I just look at it as another game and kind of take it as that."
Bollig said there will be 50-plus people in attendance tonight but he didn't have to purchase the entire ticket count. He'll make everyone happy by dropping the gloves tonight.
"That's part of my game and if it happens, I'm willing to do that and it would obviously be fun to do it in front of my home crowd," Bollig said.
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The streaky Blackhawks, who have won three, lost nine, won four, lost three and now won three since Jan. 15, have made the necessary adjustments without captain Jonathan Toews (upper-body) in the lineup.
Toews will miss his eighth consecutive game tonight but Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville likes how his team has come together, particularly Patrick Kane, who has four goals and four assists in 10 games.
"You miss a lot without Johnny in the lineup," Quenneville said. "We talk about Kaner, he's absorbed a lot of that responsibility here recently. We're coming off two of our better games in sequence all year being on the road. Playing that solid team game gives us a good chance without Johnny around. It's the way we have to play to be successful.
"There's some positive things in our game recently that we like. We keep rooting for Johnny to get back here, but in his absence, Kaner has really stepped up."
Chicago is on the last of a three-game trip that has seen them win a pair of 2-1 games.
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Tonight's probable Blues lineup:
Vladimir Sobotka-David Backes-T.J. Oshie
Andy McDonald-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
Ian Cole-Roman Polak
Jaroslav Halak, who went 5-0-0 on the trip with a 1.55 goals-against average and .939 save percentage, will get the nod for the sixth time in seven games; Brian Elliott will serve as the backup.
Alex Steen (concussion), Matt D'Agostini (concussion), Jamie Langenbrunner (broken foot), and Kris Russell (concussion symptoms) are all on injured reserve. Huskins has a bruised is day-to-day. Center T.J. Hensick is a healthy scratch.
Langenbrunner did skate this morning with the team.
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The Blackhawks' probable lineup:
Andrew Brunette-Patrick Kane-Marian Hossa
Patrick Sharp-Marcus Kruger-Viktor Stalberg
Bryan Bickell-Dave Bolland-Andrew Shaw
Jimmy Hayes-Jamal Mayers-Brandon Bollig
Duncan Keith-Brent Seabrook
Nick Leddy-Johnny Oduya
Dylan Olsen-Sami Lepisto
Ray Emery gets the start in goal; Corey Crawford is the backup.
Toews (upper-body), defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson (upper-body) and defenseman Steve Montador (upper-body) are out with injuries. Winger Daniel Carcillo (lower-body) is on long-term injured reserve. Healthy scratches include defenseman Sean O'Donnell, center Brendan Morrison and winger Michael Frolik.