Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Steen's quick return a big boost for Blues

McDonald, D'Agostini, Polak could return to lineup tonight

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- Having coached more than 1,000 NHL games throughout a very successful career, Blues coach Ken Hitchcock has seen a variety of players.

But when Hitchcock was able to reinsert Alex Steen into the lineup Sunday night at Phoenix, he dipped into his yesteryear descriptions when talking about the type of player the Blues got back:

That's old-school. Old pro, old school, throwback, whatever you want to call it," Hitchcock called Steen. "It's good stuff.

"I tell you, come playoff time, come big-game time, you need that type of player. You have about 10 or 12 of those, you're going to win a lot of championships."
(Getty Images)
Alex Steen (20) gives the Blues a solid two-way player as they head into
the playoffs. he missed 39 games with a concussion.

Getting a player like Steen for the stretch run and into the playoffs, the Blues (47-20-9) can rank this acquisition in the same breath as getting a player of the caliber of Andy McDonald back into the lineup.

Steen ranks as one of those invaluable commodities that a team can ill-afford to lose. He missed 39 games with the first concussion of his career but a five-week treatment process in California that included sessions with a concussion/spine specialist and treatments in a hyperbaric chamber.

"It was really good for me. I think I got a lot of answers to things that were going on with me," Steen said after Monday's practice at St. Louis Mills' Ice Zone. "It was hard ... it was really hard. It was a lonely time. I was out there for five weeks and didn't see the kids. It was tough, but I felt like it had to be done. I was progressing."

Initially, Steen, who has 24 points (13 goals) in 37 games, was not supposed to miss quite as much time. His last game came in Detroit on Dec. 27, a night after suffering his concussion against Dallas. But days turned into weeks and weeks eventually turned into months. A new approach needed to be taken.

"I felt like week by week, I was analyzing myself every hour of the day," Steen said of his condition.

"I kind of just focused on getting better. Hats off to a lot of people out there that really helped me out. It got to the point where I could start working out a little bit. I did that and didn't overdue it. I kept it pretty simple. I think the last week of treatment out there is when I could start really pushing myself in runs and stuff. I started jogging every day, took the leap to two practices on my own. I actually got help from Randy Carlyle's son (Craig), who's an old friend of mine who coaches a junior team out there (the San Diego Gulls of the Western States Hockey League). He came out and ran a few drills with me.

"This has been easily the hardest thing in my career. ... It was a tough time, but I'm glad I'm through it though."

So are the Blues, after Steen, who also took an inadvertent skate to the mouth in the third period from the Coyotes' Alexandre Bolduc, played 14 minutes 16 seconds in 20 shifts.

"Heavy, competitive and valuable," Hitchcock called Steen's game. "Very good. For a guy to miss that much time ... there's little things at the end of the night I think wear down the opposition. He protects the puck, he fights for space, he makes great plays under pressure, and I think for me, I was really surprised how well he played. I was really pleasantly surprised how competitive he was, how engaged he was. He hasn't done a lot of contact (but) from a cardio standpoint, he's way ahead of anybody else that's come in (from injury). But I was really surprised and excited by the way he played. He does a lot of things from a coaching perspective that you really embrace. It's good to see."

Said Steen: "You need to get your timing back and all that stuff. For me, I always felt like I'd be back this year. It was just a matter of getting those questions answered and finding the right solutions. I got frustrated a couple times, but for the most part, kept a good attitude. I was positive and kept reinforcing myself that I'm going to get through it and I'll be back.

"I actually wasn't expecting to play (Sunday). I got on the ice and actually did a little legwork out in the morning and then felt really good in the morning skate and felt that it was about time I got back in the lineup. Vacation was over."

And the Blues fully embraced Steen when he clocked in for work. It was a long time coming.

* NOTES -- The Blues' other injured players, such as Andy McDonald (shoulder), Matt D'Agostini (concussion) and Roman Polak (bruised knee) will all take part in today's morning skate prior to Tuesday night's game against Nashville. Hitchcock said all three are close to returning to the lineup as well. It could be as early as tonight.

"I'm feeling better ... day by day," said D'Agostini, who's been out since Feb. 7 and who placed his return tonight as 50/50 and better odds Thursday. "The legs and lungs are starting to come around. Hopefully this week I'll get in a game sometime.

"It's been frustrating obviously the first portion just waiting to feel better and getting the itch to get back on the ice. The second portion is getting on the ice and waiting for everything to start coming around. My hands and my overall hockey sense is somewhat lacking right now. The legs and lungs will come around sooner or later. It's a frustrating process that's for sure."

McDonald, who suffered a shoulder contusion at Carolina on March 15, also called his return close.
(Getty Images)
Andy McDonald hopes to come back from a shoulder
contusion tonight against Nashville.

"It's coming along," said McDonald, who had 18 points in 17 games after returning from a concussion. "Some things feel really good on the ice and other things are taking its time. It's progressing, but I still have a ways to go, I think.

"I'm close right now. The best part about this injury's that I've been able to work out and practice."

Polak has missed his first three games of the season with what the team is calling a bruised knee. His last action was March 17 at Tampa Bay, but with all prominent players' returns on the horizon, the Blues have been able to maintain their elite status with a deep lineup. Positive reinforcement is certainly on the way.

"You looked at our roster at the start of the year, and I think everyone was excited about it," McDonald said. "We have a lot of talent on this team. We've had a lot of injuries. It seems like we haven't had our whole team. But what a great time to be getting our whole team back. Certainly with Steener ... he was one of our best players when he went out. What a player to get back in your lineup going into the playoffs. It's exciting for everybody. The guys are really motivated and I'm sure it's exciting for the fans. Everyone is really looking forward to the playoffs."

... Hitchcock has named Brian Elliott his starter for tonight's game against Nashville. Elliott carries a shutout streak of 125:45 into tonight's matchup. He's coming off back-to-back shutouts over Phoenix and Los Angeles. Jaroslav Halak will get the start Thursday in Chicago.

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